David Whitley strays from the tourist trail and explores the country’s most unusual attractions
These are Madeira’s intriguing way of getting water from the wetter north to the drier south: a series of channels that redistribute rainwater by sending it gently trickling downhill. There are walking tracks alongside them, or you can take the ‘toboggan’ back down from the Monte hill to the capital, Funchal. This is a wood and wicker sled, pushed by drivers dressed smartly in white, wearing straw boaters.
Alentejo: The cork trail
The sparsely populated Alentejo region produces almost half of all Portugal’s wine, and it’s beginning to get a reputation as a global hotspot for foodies. The tourist board website has a handy map showing top places to eat, as well as local cheese, honey and sausage producers to visit along the way. But the region’s contribution to the wine industry extends far beyond what’s poured into a glass. As you’ll soon discover at any souvenir shop, Alentejo is the world’s largest producer of cork, and cork trees are ubiquitous along its hilly roads. If you want to watch it being processed, the Corticarte factory in Azaruja offers guided tours. visitalentejo.pt
The North: World of Discovery
Porto has a nice line in unusual museums — for example, the Portuguese Centre of Photography hosts temporary exhibitions inside an 18th-century building which served as a prison until 1974. The most bizarre of all is arguably World of Discoveries, which shines a light on the 15th- and 16th-century Portuguese explorers who changed the world with their expeditions to Africa, Asia and South America. From the outside, it looks like a terraced house, but the inside unveils a ludicrous theme park-esque boat ride that goes through mocked-up versions of Brazil, Timor, China, Japan et al. They’ve topped it off by having live birds fluttering around inside, so it’s also something of a mini-aviary. cpf.pt worldofdiscoveries.com
The Azores: Geothermal adventures
The largest island in the Azores, Sao Miguel, is brimming with opportunities to get close to our tempestuous planet, with spa town Furnas blessed with numerous thermally heated pools in which to soak. There are also craters of boiling water that make for good stop-offs on walks, or, if you’re local, cooking sacks of sweetcorn. You’ll also spot fissures with steam oozing out. Other highlights include the crater lake of the Agua de Pau volcano, a natural hot waterfall at Caldeira Velha, the lava tunnel at Gruta do Carvao and the mud geysers at Caldeira do Caldeira do Volcao Furnas. It’s not just a novelty for tourists, though — geothermal energy is used for heating water and providing electricity to towns and villages.
Central: Unusual university
The University of Coimbra is host to a number of curious museums, including a science museum. But the star of the campus is Joanine Library, a baroque masterpiece with towering wooden shelves and lavish ceiling paintings celebrating the wonders of human knowledge. Watch out for the bats that live there, eating the insects that would otherwise munch on the books. museudaciencia.org uc.pt
Lisbon: Doll Hospital
It started by accident in 1830, when an old lady would sit at the door of her herb shop, making and repairing rag dolls for local children. The shop slowly transformed into a workshop dedicated to this public service. Today, the Doll Hospital is still part repair shop — you can bring along your battered and bruised mini companion for a bit of TLC — and part museum. The latter also exhibits historic games and toys, but it’s mainly shelf after shelf of old dolls, many of which are more than a little disturbing. hospitaldebonecas.com
The Algarve: Snorkelling with seahorses
The Ria Formosa estuary is one of the Algarve’s natural wonders — a prime place for bird-watching boat trips and lazing on island beaches, but it’s also home to a large community of seahorses, which can be observed while snorkelling. The short-snouted and long-snouted varieties both like the lack of strong currents and an abundance of seagrass near the Tavira Island, which acts as a barrier to the Atlantic Ocean. Passeios Ria Formosa offers an Amazing Seahorse Observation Excursion — and look out for the storks building nests on the way. passeios-ria-formosa.com