With its Mediterranean climate and enviable annual sunshine hours, you can happily lace up the walking boots and stride out into Portugal’s landscape in all but the hottest (July and August) months. Once the heat of summer has subsided, autumn rain brings new shoots to parched hills. In the depths of winter, mild days contrast with cool nights when a glass of Port by an open fire makes a fitting end to a day in the hills, and by spring, the landscape erupts into floral splendour to begin the cycle anew. And each season brings its own rewards; here are just seven to look out for:
In spring, Portugal’s landscape explodes into a riot of poppies, lavender, purple viper’s bugloss, geraniums, lupins, iris, rockrose and orchids as well as some rare and beautiful specimens such as the Iberian peony, the Peneda-Gerês iris and the delightful alpine miniature daffodil.
Where: When it comes to floral splendour, unsurprisingly Madeira and the Azores take pole position, but you’ll also find yourself coming over all Julie Andrews in the hills of the Algarve and Arrábida, the valleys of the Minho and the northern mountains of Peneda-Gerês.
When: Spring comes as early as February to the south whereas the mountains of the north will still be awash in spring flowers right through to late May/early June.
At our home in Setúbal, every winter our landlady gave us oranges from the farm orchards by the bucketful accompanied by a sage ‘contra a gripe’ (to ward off flu). The Algarve’s long sunshine hours and soil rich in phosphorous and potassium, produce some of the best oranges to be found anywhere – smooth-skinned, intense orange colour and flowing with juice.
Where: In the Algarve you can literally trip over these deliciously sweet delights as they fall from trees onto paths and tracks but you will also find them on every greengrocer’s shelf in the country.
When: In October, orange blossom perfumes the air, and the fruit appears from November to March.
White storks can be seen nesting all over Portugal on telegraph poles by the roadside, in chimney stacks on old buildings and on sea stacks on the Algarve’s coast. As storks have no song, listen out instead for the distinctive clacking of beaks as they raise their heads to the sky to issue a warning or in mating ritual.
Where: Most prevalent across central and southern regions.
When: Although traditionally migratory, they are increasingly over-wintering in Portugal.
Largely migratory, the flamingo has never nested in Portugal…until this year. A colony of some 3000 birds has successfully nested in the Algarve with around 550 chicks born. Further nests are now also present in the Sado Estuary in Arrábida. So now, I think we can confidently declare that Portugal has a flamboyance of flamingos – quite possibly my favourite collective noun.
Where: Best seen in the Algarve and the Sado Estuary but can also be seen in the Tagus Estuary, clearly visible from the road as you cross the Vasco da Gama bridge from Lisbon.
When: Most prevalent October to November.
Perhaps the most famous product of these red beauties is ginjinha, a thick liqueur consisting of aguardente spirit (like a white brandy) infused with cherries and sold in straight shots in stalls around the country, most famously at the A Ginjinha bar in Lisbon which has been getting shoppers and city workers tipsy since 1840.
Where: Most of the country’s cherry trees reside in central Portugal, around the towns of Fundão, Alcongosta and Serra da Gardunha but in season, you’ll find cherries on sale in every supermarket and on roadside stalls right across the country.
When: Cherry blossom lights up hillsides in spring and the fruit follows in May/June.
MEDRONHOS OR WILD STRAWBERRIES
The fruit of this tree looks very similar to our traditional strawberries but is smaller and has yellow flesh. The berries are used to make a strong liquor known as Aguardente de medronho. Berries left on the tree begin to ferment and it’s said that animals eating them get drunk; if you’ve ever tried the Aguardente de medronho, this will come as no surprise.
Where: Medronho trees grace hillsides in Monchique, Peneda-Gerês and Arrábida.
When: Late summer into autumn sees their crimson berries burst into colour.
Portugal has been producing wine ever since the Romans strolled between vines in their sandals but today its wine production is seeing something of a renaissance with more and more Portuguese wines appearing on UK shelves. Running the gamut from light, fruity vinho verde, through classic rosés to full-bodied reds, not to mention Port, Madeira and Moscatel, there’s a Portuguese wine to suit every palate.
Where: There are 14 wine growing regions in Portugal covering the country from north to south.
When: The vindimia or grape harvest, is in September.