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EUROPE’S FORGOTTEN EDEN

By James Lawrence

When the Romans first came to central Portugal they wondered whether they had stumbled upon the fabled Garden of Eden.

After his long, weary march across flat, featureless Spain, enlivened only by the odd spat with wild-eyed hostile Spaniards, the footsore legionnaire would have been relieved to find himself in lush green pastures amongst warm, hospitable people.

The Romans liked it so much they built a city, called Conimbriga, which was later moved to the banks of the River Mondego and called Coimbra (pronounced ‘Queenborough’). Over one thousand years later this became the capital of the nascent Portugal. Now, as the country’s third city, it is home to one of Europe’s most ancient universities.

So why, with this glowing testimonial, and with western Europe having been thoroughly picked over by modern tourism, is central Portugal still labelled on the map of the collective conscientiousness with ‘Here be Dragons’, a great terrifying void north of Lisbon?

Well, it’s partly because the Portuguese have not been at all good at promoting their country – or perhaps because they (and the Brits already living here) simply prefer to keep some secrets.

On top of that, many a tourist presumes that the flat, arid scrub he sees in much of Spain and southern Portugal continues on ad infinitum. Nothing could be further from the truth: two millennia after the Romans, the region is still a veritable Eden, and the people still astonishingly helpful and welcoming to foreigners.

A thirty-minute drive south-east along the N17 from the regional capital, Coimbra, steadily climbing a beautiful gorge through which tumbles the clear River Ceira, brings you slack-jawed to the Serra da Lousã, an arm of the Serra da Estrela, one of the few officially designated National Parks. You will find yourself in a green wonderland of deep gorges, vertiginous crags, exotic flowers and butterflies, verdant mountain slopes, cascades, rivers, lakes, romantic ruins, lost villages and empty roads.

“This reminds me of Scotland!” some will exclaim. Others, seeing the palms and eucalypts, will affirm it is much more like parts of Australia.

“I could be in Tuscany!” avow others, until they round a bend and then they are in the Auvergne region of southern France.

Yorkshiremen will grudgingly admit it’s almost as fine as the Yorkshire Dales.

And this is the real treasure hidden here in the heart of this remarkable country: it’s at least half-a-dozen different countries rolled into one.

Drive east from the town of Lousã (at the foot of the Serra) and you will find the ‘Torre’, at two thousand metres the highest point in mainland Portugal. Here you can ski in the morning, then drive down for lunch in the valley below to sip cocktails under palm trees, maybe in temperatures of 27ºc or more.

Drive north past paddy fields to the coastal strip and you could be in Florida. It’s quite flat, with straight roads, palm trees, large villas, great expanses of golden beaches, lagoons and wetlands.

Drive west and suddenly you are in a quite different, Mediterranean landscape of olive groves, limestone rocks and toiling, leathery-faced peasants tending their goats. If led their blindfolded, you’d swear you were in Greece or southern Italy.

Drive south, across the magnificent Serra itself, and you descend into a rolling green landscape, not unlike much of England, but certainly without the hustle and bustle.

For sheer variety there can be few places anywhere in the world to match it. It’s totally unique and grossly under-rated.

If that were not enough, there are also many historic monuments, and interesting towns to visit. Coimbra enjoys one of the loveliest riverside settings of any city in Portugal. Its skyline is dominated by the university, but down in the Baixa is where all the action is. It’s a labyrinth of shopping streets, squares and narrow alleys with amazingly cheap restaurants and cafés, and of course replete with churches, museums and street traders. It buzzes with life yet manages to remain laid-back and easy-going.

Not far from Coimbra is the grand old Imperial Palace of Buçaco, an extravagant fantasy edifice with obvious Moorish influence, now an up-market hotel with one of the classiest restaurants in Portugal. It stands in acres of ‘enchanted forest’ on a hill, from which you can snatch some lovely views over surrounding countryside. It was here that British and Portuguese troops triumphed over numerically superior French forces during the Napoleonic Wars. Wellington is still a hero in Portugal, and the joyous event is commemorated in a small museum.

An easy drive to the north of Coimbra brings you to the very pleasant town of Aveiro, rather cheekily dubbed ‘Portugal’s Venice’ on account of the one canal which runs through it. It has good shopping, and is surrounded by wetlands which are as flat as a billiard table and a valued refuge for wildfowl. A few kilometres to the south are some great beaches and the little seaside town of Costa Nova, celebrated for its candy-stripe houses.

Continue down the coast and you will soon be in Figueira da Foz, the region’s largest tourist resort. The beach here is BIG; it hosts the football World Cup every year – beach football, that is.

A little inland are the ruins of the ancient Roman capital, Conimbriga, with some of the best preserved mosaics in Europe. Heading south again, Tomar is one of Portugal’s prettiest and most historic towns. Hovering over it is a famous convent and a castle full of treasures. Not far from there is Batalha, a magnificent Gothic abbey, which is truly awesome, especially when lit up at night. And of course there is Fátima, Portugal’s answer to Lourdes. The shrine is a colossus, a testament to the faith of its builders.

The region is perhaps the fastest developing within Portugal, with Coimbra being the real driving force behind this. In just ten years its population almost doubled, from 85,000 to 160,000. It is not, and never has been, an industrial city; the university and associated teaching hospital dominate, earning it the sobriquet of ‘City of Doctors’. This explains its rather genteel nature – the people are very quiet and conservative, and the streets safe. At the same time, 13,000 students ensure it always has a lively, cosmopolitan atmosphere.

This stampede into the cities is happening all over Portugal – it is undergoing its Industrial Revolution now. The countryside is being abandoned in favour of city-centre flats, in a kind of mass rejection of the rural past. Flats are seen as smart, modern and sophisticated. “We are peasants no longer,” the Portuguese seem to be declaring. Ironically, many of the northern Europeans whom they are trying to emulate come here to escape cities that have become hell-holes.

I’ve noticed changes even in the eleven years since I arrived. New roads have appeared, and old ones resurfaced; whichever way you turn there are new buildings going up. Each year there are more tourists in evidence. More and more northern Europeans are buying and settling. There are now maybe a few thousand Brits dotted about, but it was the Dutch more than anyone who first got their teeth into this region.

I travelled all over Portugal before making my decision to settle. I have travelled all over the country since, and I still have no regrets. I chose this area because of the glorious and wonderfully varied scenery, but also because it strikes a nice balance. It is not as hot and arid as the south, but neither is it as cold and wet as the north; it is not as developed and busy as the regions of Lisbon, Porto and the Algarve, but neither is it primitive and remote like some parts. Unlike the south, it stays green all-year-round, thanks to the mountains. And being central, I can be in most of the rest of Portugal within two or three hours.

This centrality is also a key in the development of the property market: the wealthy of Lisbon and Porto are buying up cottages in the Serra da Lousã as weekend homes – with the motorway and excellent and refreshingly cheap rail links, it is not much more than two hours from Lisbon and an hour-and-a-half from Porto. They and the northern Europeans are helping to keep the market buoyant. Prices of apartments are starting to tumble, but there is still a shortage of good housing stock. Nevertheless, this region remains considerably cheaper than the Algarve or Minho, and there are many bargains to be had.

The traditional building style of the region is stone under a slate roof, but, like the region itself, there is an eclectic mixture, with Portuguese immigrants borrowing ideas from the many countries from which they are returning. However, many houses are sadly being left to rot, often due to insane inheritance laws which result in multi-ownership. A few enterprising people have been buying them up cheaply, renovating and selling on for a good profit. Costs are way under those in Britain: a builder works for around eight euros per hour, and materials are usually (though not always) significantly cheaper.

Many prospective British buyers are conditioned by rip-off Britain. They come here saying they want a place to renovate, but wrinkle their noses at the first patch of flaking paint. They are missing great opportunities. I put my own money where my mouth is: I bought a cluster of ruined houses in a stunning location and converted two for myself to live in, and the other two to let to tourists and house-hunters.

The Portuguese don’t observe English practices when it comes to buying and selling property, especially in regard to surveys, which are unheard of here. They may also be discomfited by the speed and simplicity of the process, and the relaxed Portuguese attitude to paying taxes. I remind them that the Portuguese don’t have a word for ‘gazumping’, nor with the furniture van outside do they receive phone calls to demand a lower price or the deal is off.

Those that have bought are generally very pleased they did. Even those who don’t buy return home marvelling at the beauty they have seen and asking why the region isn’t better known.

But that anonymity is changing fast. National and local government are committed to putting the central region on the map and have invested heavily in infrastructure.

We could well have a United States of Europe before too long. Portugal is set to become Europe’s California. The unspoiled region of the Serra da Lousã would seem to present an outstanding ground floor opportunity for property investment.

Two thousand years after the Romans came, new invaders, this time from northern Europe, are rediscovering Europe’s forgotten Eden.


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