PORTUGAL

Harnessing History

Take a trip back in time to visit the horse of kings.

WORDS KIRSTIE BEDFORD

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In 1667, the Duke of Newcastle Henry Cavendish wrote that the Lusitano horse is “the noblest horse in the world, the most beautiful that can be”. Today, that’s still how this elegant, agile horse is viewed by the Portuguese. The breed is as deep-rooted in the country’s history as its architecture dating back to Roman times.

The Lusitano horse is said to be the most noble horse in the world

You needn’t look far to get close to one of these powerful steeds. In Lisbon, at The Portuguese School of Equestrian Art (EPAE) - a replica of the 18th-century equestrian riding school, Portuguese Royal Court - you can watch a classical dressage performance where riders wear original maroon velvet costumes and tricorn hats, and horses have the same saddle and bridle as bygone years.

Roughly 75 miles to the north, in the Santarém District, you’ll find the Golega National Horse Fair, held annually in November. Dating back to the 18th-century, it's a celebration of the Lusitano horse and transforms the quiet town of Golega into a bustle of horses, carriages, and festivities for the hordes who come specifically for the ten-day event.

The incredibly powerful Lusitano horses at the 18th-century Alter Stud Farm

From the Horse's Mouth

In the Alentejo region, in Portugal's south, you can not only have a close encounter with a Lusitano horse, but you can also stay at Vila Gale Collection Alter Real, on the site of the Alter Stud Farm founded in 1748 by King D. João V. The property sprawls across 2,000 acres of countryside and offers riding lessons and carriage tours.

Not to be missed is the daily show of the release of the herd of mares and their foals out to the countryside and their return later in the day.

There’s also a museum where you can learn everything there is to know about how these horses are bred. Tip: don’t miss the Coach House, with its collection of objects related to horse breeding.

Alter Stud Farm is dedicated to the preservation and education about the historic Lusitano horse

Image: fredericducoutphotography

The Lusitano horse was used as a war horse before it became the horse of kings

A few hours’ drive further south is Monte Negro stud farm, another of Portugal’s oldest stud farms breeding Lusitano horses. On a visit here you can meet the ancestors of the 18th-century property, Vera Vieira de Almeida, and her husband Tiago.

The couple has spent more than a decade restoring the property to its former glory.

“We kept everything that was original. We did make improvements, but the aim was not losing the true essence of a historic Portuguese house,” Vera says. “We gathered all the historical documents that existed in the homestead and relied on literature about its past. We have tried to preserve the memory of those who built it and the personal history of the ancestors.”

Traditionally, the only people hosted here were those who were invited, but five years ago the couple opened the farm to tourists. Vera says there’s an energy about the property that guests often comment on and she believes it’s because it’s a family business, not a commercially focused one.

Vera Vieira de Almeida with one of her much-loved Lusitano horses

MEET VERA AND TIAGO


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Roads Less Traveled

The lesser-known places you need to see in Europe's oldest country.

WORDS BRIAN JOHNSTON

The pretty streets you'll find in Évora, Alentejo's capital

Alentejo landscape

Image: Rui Cunha Turismo Alentejo

Alentejo

Alentejo is Portugal’s largest region, yet somehow this south-central heartland retains a sleepy, old-fashioned vibe for those seeking the slow lane. Olive trees shimmer like satin on hillsides, wheat fields ripple and, in springtime, wildflowers erupt like confetti. Expect hilltop villages topped with castles, fortified towns such as Serpa (settled since Roman times), and the historical ‘white city’ of Estremoz, with its clusters of white houses surrounded by plains of golden farmland. The region's capital, the World Heritage-listed Évora, blends Roman ruins, Moorish architecture and startling bursts of rococo prettiness. Even Alentejo’s sumptuous coastline is overlooked except by the Portuguese themselves – despite its glorious beaches and charming whitewashed villages such as Zambujeira do Mar.

The Paços dos Duques de Bragança in Guimaraes is a national monument of the 15th-century

Minho

A visit to Guimarães could have you thinking you’ve stepped onto a medieval film set. The historical old town centre is a World Heritage site, and you only need to take in the graceful iron verandas, granite balconies and towers to see why. Located in the very heart of the city is Guimarães Castle, a must-see ancient fortress. Built in the 10th-century, it’s one of the most impressive castles in all the country, and it was here the first king of Portugal, Afonso Henriques, was born in 1111. And don’t miss the Paço dos Duques de Bragança, a former palace that now houses a wealth of tapestries, weapons and artworks.

A little further from the city center, the cascading gardens at the Vila Flor Palace and Cultural Centre are well worth a visit, as is the Igreja de Nossa Senhora da Consolação e Santos Passos - one of Portugal’s prettiest baroque churches, at the far end of Largo da República do Brasil. Twenty minutes drive from Guimaraes is Braga, the capital of the Minho region, and the most agreeable ‘unknown’ city in Portugal, despite being just 30 miles from the much-visited Porto. Its attractions? Gnarled churches everywhere, but plenty of laid-back bars and chic boutiques as well. Be sure to also check out Bom Jesus do Monte and Sameiro sanctuaries outside the town for baroque excess and spectacular views.

Steps of the Five Senses, Bom Jesus do Monte, Sanctuary of Braga

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The stunning nature reserve, Parkque Natural da Arrabida

Image: Paulo Ribeiro

Setubal

Traditionally overlooked by tourists, the center of Portugal’s fishing industry, Setubal, is now growing in popularity because of its proximity to some of the most picturesque towns and sparkling beaches in the region. It’s also one of few areas in Europe where a pod of bottlenose dolphins are routinely seen splashing around in the wetlands of the Reserva Natural do Estuario do Sado in the south. Stroll through the natural reserve Parque Natural da Arrabida for clifftop views of gleaming beaches, then head down to the nearby town of Sesimbra, a quaint fishing village. For the gourmand, a visit to Azeitão is a must. The area is renowned for its handcrafted, soft-centered cheese that you can wash down with local wines at the Bacalhôa wine estate. Tip: make sure you try the Moscatel Roxo (it's just like a sweet sherry).

The enchanting walled village of Marvão

Image: Joao Paulo

Castelo Branco

Castelo Branco might be a secondary city, but the region still packs a big punch with history and nature.

Grab some good walking boots and head to Portugal’s ‘star mountain’ Serra da Estrela. This is not only the highest mountain range in mainland Portugal, but it’s also a region in its own right, divided into six municipalities of nearly 250,000 acres. Meander around the 12 historic villages including the steep, narrow streets of Monsanto, a medieval settlement that was dubbed the ‘most Portuguese town in Portugal’ in 1938. Here you'll also find the 15th-century Torre de Lucano, an ancient bell tower topped with a silver rooster.

In Castelo Branco, head to the newly opened Barrocal Park. Its striking contemporary walkways and observation platforms lead through 310-million-year-old landscapes of huge granite blocks. One hour south of here is the stunning village of Castelo de Vide, where whitewashed houses dot the hillside, while less than twenty minutes drive is the equally lovely town of Marvão. Visit in November when the annual Chestnut Festival is on, as the whole village comes to life to celebrate the local culture and cuisine.

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