Idyllic lands dotted with quaint hamlets and lovely seaside and riverside cities seem like they should be oh-so-far from bustling capitals and big-draw beach resorts.
But the Alentejo, Portugal’s largest region, and the Basque Country in the north of Spain, both chock full of treasures sure to delight history buffs, art aficionados and nature lovers alike, are just a short drive or plane trip away.
The Romans knew how to choose a vacation spot when they picked the Alentejo as a favorite. A mere hour from Lisbon finds this portal to the past, where medieval art and architecture abound.
Along twisty roads, fortified villages perch on hilltops in a landscape sprinkled with gnarled cork oak trees, lush olive groves and well-tended vineyards. In one of these, Castelo de Vide, narrow streets bordered by colorful flower boxes wind to a 13th-century synagogue, the oldest in the country.
In another hamlet, Monsaraz, the Sacred Art Museum, with a lovely 14th-century fresco, stands on one of the schist-lined streets flanked by centuries-old stone cottages. More medieval frescoes are to be found on the columns in the Matriz Church with its Renaissance altar and Baroque side altars. The fortified castle provides spectacular views of the countryside from the 13th-century keep.
Cobbled streets course through the historic district in the walled city of Evora, recognized as a World Heritage Site by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization.
Numerous artifacts from the Roman era remain, including a granite-columned temple. But probably the most talked-about site is the Capela dos Ossos, a macabre chapel constructed from floor to ceiling of human bones. Nearby, in the Gothic- and Romanesque-styled Cathedral of Santa Maria, the interior is dominated by a 16th-century pipe organ, said to be the oldest such working organ in Portugal.
A three-hour drive away, the picturesque village of Vila Nova de Milfontes is situated where the placid River Mira meets the turbulent Atlantic.
Standing sentinel in this land dotted with swaths of sandy beaches is the ivy-covered Castelo de Milfontes, once a fort that saw many a battle, including some with pirates from North Africa. The river, with otters and abundant bird life, exerts a seductive pull, especially with Zodiac-type boat tours offered by DUCA Nautical Recreational Activities.
Not far away, Sesimbra, a coastal town fronted by sandy beaches, makes a perfect base for hiking the surrounding wooded wilderness of Arrabida Natural Park, which is defined by its limestone peaks.
An easy trek along windswept Cape Espichel, a narrow path lined with all manner of shrubs – aromatic rosemary, wild olive and the berry-bearing Kermes oak – parallels sheer cliff tops. Competing with breathtaking ocean views are some surprises: ancient dinosaur footprints and the Sanctuary of Our Lady of the Cape, where pilgrims once flocked.
Lush, misty valleys and hills coated with thick foliage typify Basque Country. One hour by plane from Madrid, San Sebastian sweeps around a shell-shaped bay bordered by the golden sands of Ondarreta and La Concha beaches.
The wide promenade, landscaped with tamarind trees and other colorful plants, runs from the foot of Mount Urgull to Mount Igueldo. Near the base of Mount Igueldo, waves crash against hulky rock outcrops that serve as the rustic setting for Eduardo Chillida’s three-pronged iron sculpture, Comb of the Wind.
The ruins of a 12th-century castle perch at the summit of Mount Urgull, while at the bottom huddles a former 16th-century monastery, now home to the San Telmo Museo. Thousands of mostly Basque artifacts are on display, including a fascinating collection of ancient 7th-century weapons.
Amidst the many museums, San Sebastian is speckled with so many verdant spaces that the city’s boulevards and beaches harmoniously blend together. The largest park, Cristina Enea, is planted with fragrant cedar, sequoia and ginkgo trees along a tangle of trails. Located on one of the city’s many hills, Aiete Park is a wonderland of old stone walls, ponds and a damp grotto with a waterfall curtain.
It’s hard to miss Frank Gehry’s iconic Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, a mere 60-minute drive away. This titanium-clad structure graces the broad walkway that fronts the Nervion River and displays steel, bronze and concrete sculptures by artists such as Eduardo Chillida.
And, though the Guggenheim may define Bilbao, it’s by no means the city’s only museum. The Museo de Bellas Artes is said to have one of Spain’s best art collections, with such Spanish greats as Goya and El Greco. A short distance away, the Basque Museum, housed in a 17th-century cloistered building, exhibits artifacts from just about every aspect of Basque life, history and archeology, including spinning wheels and Civil War cannons.
Twenty minutes from Bilbao, grand palaces and manor houses with elaborate stone coats of arms grace the streets of Elorrio, a tiny hamlet surrounded by soaring limestone peaks. Tiles and marble, as well as ornate ironwork, accent the exterior of many of these 17th-and 18th-century buildings.
Despite the town’s charm, it’s hard to resist visiting Urkiola Natural Park with its mighty peaks, vast birch forests and Sanctuary of St. Anthony that sits on ground said to be sacred since the Middle Ages. Hiking trails gently ascend the vast grassy slopes, where cows graze while griffin vultures glide overhead. Panoramic views are the rule here, especially those of the surrounding mountains, such as Anbota, the highest in the park, rising more than 4,300 feet.