By James G. Wills

There was a time when Portugal was at the forefront of adventure and discovery. Portuguese sailors explored the coastline of West Africa in the 15th century and pioneered a sea route to India shortly after Columbus discovered America. They gave Brazil its language and ruled Macao for nearly 400 years.

Phyllis and I had been to Lisbon but not to the Algarve, the place where Prince Henry the Navigator launched expeditions that began the Age of Discovery. Neither had we explored the northern cities where Portugal’s history as a nation began in the 12th century. This July we set out from France to find the Portugal of those early adventurers.

Driving into Portugal from southern Spain, we stayed in the town of Vilamoura at the Four Seasons Vilamoura, a lovely resort hotel with manicured grounds, three swimming pools and a good restaurant. Vilamoura has the biggest marina in Portugal and a lively harbor of restaurants, bars and shops. A little further along the coast at Lagos and Sagres, Prince Henry the Navigator once sent caravels ‑ small, maneuverable ships with triangular sails called lateens ‑ on voyages of exploration.

A short drive from Vilamoura is Faro. An was an important city since the age of the Romans, its medieval walls and twisty cobbled streets provide glimpses into the Algarve’s rich history. The Arco da Reposa exposes thick walls built by the Moors in the 12th or 13th century. Moorish strongholds in this region were the last areas of Portugal to fall to the Christians after centuries of intermittent warfare.

After a week in the Vilamoura area we drove north to Guimaraes, where Portugal’s first king, Afonso Henriques, was born and thus said to be the city where Portugal began.

We stayed at the Pousada de Guimaraes, Santa Marinha, a restored 12th century monastery. Pousadas de Portugal is a group of luxury hotels developed by the Portuguese government in the 1940s to preserve and use former palaces, castles and other historical monuments like this one. The chain has been privately owned and run since 2003.

Our room overlooked the old city, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. We spent an enjoyable day walking the old streets, visiting the ruins of a castle where the first kings of Portugal had their official residence and the Palace of the Dukes of Braganza where members of the royal family once lived. In more recent times this palace has been a residence of Portugal’s president. We lunched at a restaurant appropriately named Historico.

Our next stay was at the Bussaco Palace Hotel not far from Coimbra. This stunning hotel was built between 1888 and 1907 in the exuberant Manuelin style that flourished in Portugal during the Age of Discovery. It was built for the last king of Portugal and we felt like royalty staying there.

The hotel is located in the Bussaco National Forest, a 260-acre park once cared for by monks at the Monastery of Santa Cruz. The forest has magnificent trees, many brought from distant lands. On September 27, 1810, the Duke of Wellington led a British-Portuguese army to victory over the French in this forest. Wellington spent the night after the battle at the convent and a small military museum commemorates the victory. The Iron Duke’s victory at Bussaco is indicative of the close ties between Britain and Portugal, whose alliance going back to the Treaty of Windsor in 1386 is the oldest still in force.

During our two days at the Bussaco Palace we visited Coimbra, one of the highlights of our trip. Coimbra was Portugal’s capital between 1131 and 1255 and after that became a cultural and educational center. The University of Coimbra dates from 1290 and is one of the oldest in the world. It is also a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The day of our visit fundraising students were reviving an old tradition of wearing black cloaks. As we toured the old university center, they came and went in flocks, looking as if they were about to take flight like specters in a Chagall fantasy.

The university’s Joanine Library, named for King Joao V and built in the 18th century, is among the world’s most famous. Located in the historic center of campus, it is open to the public in limited numbers. The wait is rewarded with a beautiful display of books dating back to the 15th century. Chinese motifs decorating the bookshelves took more than three years to complete. The painted ceilings rival those of a cathedral.

Thick walls and shelves of hard oak resist insect infestation, making the library, in essence, a vault built to preserve its collections. In the interest of thorough security, the library employs a small army of insect-eaters, as bats are allowed to fly about at night to keep the books safe.

There are several levels to this historic old city. There is an upper one where the university is, a lower one for the commercial center and steep streets in between. We wound our way down to the lower city, reaching the Monastery of Santa Cruz, designated a National Pantheon as the burial place of the first two kings of Portugal.

When we turned the car toward Spain for the return to France, it was with pleasant memories of all we’d seen and done and the satisfaction of knowing we had enriched our lives for coming.

Jim Wills is a retired corporate and international lawyer living on Kiawah who has e-published three books in Amazon’s Kindle program. They are available through Jim’s blog,

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