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Plan Your Porto and the North Vacation

Spectacularly situated on the steep banks of the River Douro, Porto is the undisputed capital of Portugal's northern industrial heartland. A center for finance and fashion, it is experiencing something of a tourist boom. The coast north of Porto is lined with pine forests; inland, the Minho region is equally verdant, and harbors Portugal's only national park, Peneda-Gerês. Upriver from Porto, grapes used in Portugal's top export, port wine, are grown in gorgeous vineyards in the Douro valley. This is the start of Trás-os-Montes (Beyond the Mountains), a province with harsh but striking landscapes, which harbor fascinating folk traditions.

Lining the river that made it a trading center ever since pre-Roman times, vibrant and cosmopolitan Porto centers itself some 5 km (3 miles) inland from the Atlantic Ocean. Porto's architecture is more baroque than in Lisbon. Its grandiose granite buildings were financed by the trade that made the city wealthy: wine from the upper valley of the Rio Douro (Douro River, or River of Gold) was transported to Porto, from where it was then exported. You can follow that trail today by boat or on the beautiful Douro rail line. There are now many wine quintas (estates) in the valley, some where you can stay overnight.

The remote north can be beautiful, as it is in the valley of the Rio Douro and the deep, rural heartland of the Minho, a coastal province north of Porto. The Minho coast, a sweeping stretch of beaches and fishing villages, has lush, green landscapes. Some locations have been appropriated by resorts, but there are still plenty of places where you can find solitary dunes or splash in the brisk Atlantic away from crowds. Inland you can lose yourself in villages with country markets and fairs that have hardly changed for hundreds of years. It's worth planning ahead to make sure your visit coincides with a weekly market day, or one of the many summer festivals that draw expats back home.

To the northeast there's adventure at hand, in the winding mountain roads and remote towns and villages of the Trás-os-Montes (Beyond the Mountains) region. The imposing castle towers and fortress walls of this frontier region are a great attraction, but—unusual in such a small country—it's often the journey itself that's the greatest prize: traveling past voluminous man-made lakes, through forested valleys rich in wildlife, across bare crags and moorlands, and finally down to coarse, stone villages where TV aerials sit oddly in almost medieval surroundings.

The rugged uplands of the northern Trás-os-Montes are called the Terra Fria (Cold Land), where you may spot some unusual forms: Iron Age sculptures of boars with phallic attributes. It's believed these were worshipped as fertility symbols. There are traces of even more ancient civilizations, in the form of what is believed to be the world's largest open-air museum of paleolithic rock art.

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