Heritage Travel in Portugal
By Barbara Radcliffe Rogers
Heritage tourism is hot, and Portugal is sizzling on the front burner. This little country between Spain and the Atlantic Ocean has another appeal for your clients right now – it’s remained one of Europe’s best values despite the declining dollar. The savings are especially good in the luxury hotel market; Lisbon’s most luxurious hotels in the best locations begin at about $400 a night.
Clients can plan trips around several themes – the surprising story of Portugal’s “Hidden Jews”, Knights Templar castles, the long occupation by Islamic caliphs, the great age of exploration, or more modern times at Estoril and Cascais, where deposed royalty waited out World War II.
The influence of the centuries of Islamic rule shows most heavily in the whitewashed towns of the Algarve, Portugal’s southern coast. The region’s distinctive carved chimneys and the abundant tile work that covers buildings and church interiors are part of that legacy, giving that region an exotic air. Suggest a visit to the castle at Silves, their last stronghold before they were driven out by the crusading Knights of Temlpar.
A trip along the western border reveals a string of castles built close together so they could signal with bonfires to warn of approaching invaders. The castle in Belmonte rises above the old Judaria, the Jewish quarter, and the city celebrates its heritage as the place where Portugal’s “Hidden Jews” were discovered in the 20th century. Forced underground by the Inquisition, their ancestors continued to practice their religion and cultural traditions in secret, gradually melding in with the local Catholic traditions so that subsequent generations didn’t even know they were Jewish. An excellent new museum traces this history. In nearby Guarda, the tourist office has a free booklet mapping a tour of the old Jewish Quarter where there are still Mezuzots carved in the doorways.
Caravels began their journeys into the unknown seas by sailing down the Tagus from Belem, a section of Lisbon that bears reminders of the Golden Age of discoveries – the Tower of Belem with its foundations washed by the river, the Discoveries Monument shaped like a ship’s prow, the maritime museum and the UNESCO World Heritage site of the great Jeronimos monastery, where explorer Vasco da Gama is buried.
Two historic trails intersect at Tomar, a small city rich in sites recalling both the Jewish heritage and the powerful influence of the band of crusaders known as the Knights Templar. The fortress-palace of this military order stands high above the narrow streets where a Jewish community thrived in the 14th and 15th centuries. Their synagogue remains and is now a museum.
Pousadas began as government-owned lodgings in historic buildings, royal castles, former monasteries and created out of rows of small historic homes in villages. Pousadas de Portugal commissions (10% to travel agents, 15% to tour operators) the best room rate available, even the Sunday -Thursday 40% discounted rates for travelers over age 55. Make reservations at www.pousadas.pt.
Historic wine routes in Douro valley, where next year’s vintage of Port wine is ripening in the sun, can include lodgings in distinguished wine estates – called solares. Book clients in some of Portugal’s most memorable lodgings, with Solares de Portugal. They will be welcomed by the owner in person – that’s part of the hospitality expected by this group founded by the Count of Calheiros, whose own ancestral palace in historic Ponte de Lima is the association’s flagship property.Booked through the website, agents earn 15% commission. www.solaresdeportugal.com
Lisbon also has plenty of state-of-the-art modern hotels. Bold lines of 21st-century design hotels will welcome them to Euro-sleek surroundings – the eye-catching new Jeronimos 8 is within a three-minute walk of the UNESCO World Heritage monastery in Belem – and commissionable. Call 351-291-724-263 or book at www.jeronimos8hotel.com
Tip: Advise clients staying here to get their history fix around the corner on Rua de Belem at Antigua Confeitaria de Belem, ordering Pasteis de Belém (custard tarts) made with the same recipe since the café opened in 1837. Rooms at the Hotel Bairro Alto, overlooking the square at the center of Lisbon’s most atmospheric neighborhoods, are luxurious, although not large. Breakfast is served overlooking the Taugus River. Call +351-213-408-288; or book online www.bairroaltohotel.com
Azores Express connects from Oakland, CA, Boston and Providence, RI to the Azores with onward flights to Lisbon and Porto and pays agents a 6% commission.
For more information, contact the Portuguese Tourism Office, 800-767-8842; E-mail email@example.com; or visit www.visitportugal.com.