The Iberian Peninsula is composed of two of the oldest countries in Europe: Portugal and Spain. Both countries have been inhabited since thousands of years ago and their History intertwines in more ways and more often than any of them wanted all through these millennia. Although the two nations were born separately and in different periods of History and kept more or less independent from each other for centuries, they do share a lot of similarities. Both have an incredible variety of landscape in a same territory; both have gone through alternate periods of war and peace that lead to important social movements that changed the course of events even for the whole of Europe at times; and finally, both display an incredible array of well-preserved sites and heritage that seem to jump directly out of a History book or a movie screen.
Designing an itinerary to see so many beautiful and interesting sites may be a challenge for someone doing it for the first time. Where to start? Where to go? What are the hidden gems and must-go spots? We at Portugal Trails/Spain Trails have heard all these and other questions many times in the past and are thrilled to help in all the stages of the preparation for the fantastic adventure that awaits you in the Iberian Peninsula.
We have selected a few towns that even though are less touristy or more off the beaten path are places well worth spend time exploring! These sites will all tell you in their own unique way about the History and the Culture of the region around them and even of the entire country. Make sure to keep these on your radar as you will surely learn a lot from these locations while at the same time will also get some of the most breathtaking sceneries of your trip. As if they were right out of a movie!
When in Spain...
Fantastic Spain has a variety of places that could be included in this category but we limited our choice to five cities or towns which we consider both unmissable and unforgettable. We will let you discover your own secret spots at your pace as you go along. These five places are definitely worthy of a movie screen!
This is a centuries old city located on a hill above the plains of the region of Castilla-La Mancha in central Spain and about 75Km (or 46 miles). Toledo was a capital city under the Romans, the Visigoths, the Moors and the Christians and much of its heritage dating back to these different periods is still very well kept within the walls of the fortified city.
Toledo was also the home to the mannerist painter El Greco in the 17th century and there is a Museum in town celebrating his work. Make sure you go through the Moorish-style Porta de Bisagra and the Mudejar-style Porta del Sol that lead into the old quarter, where you will find the Plaza de Zocodover, a bustling square with a variety of fantastic restaurants to choose from and a fantastic spot to end a day, wine glass in hand enjoying a taste of the Spanish movida.
Carmona is a municipality located in the region of Andalusia roughly 34Km (or 21 miles) from Seville and it is considered one of the oldest towns in Europe. It is also a great base to explore the nearby cities of Granada, Cordoba and Marbella. Carmona has been inhabited since very since early times by Phoenicians, Romans and Arabs. Due to its incredible views over the River Guadalquivir’s plains, all those settlers used the city as a strategic lookout and defensive point in different eras. The city does bear an ancient feel to it with a portion of the former walls and the Alcázar del Rey Don Pedro, an Arab fortress built at the town’s highest point, still standing. The highest point is also where you will find the Parador de Carmona. A relaxed stroll through the historical center is a great way to get to know the city and its people: enjoy the views of whitewashed houses dotting the cobbled streets; of the palace like homes of former nobility siding with beautiful churches such as Iglesia de Santa Maria de la Asunción and the Monasterio de las Clarisas Franciscanas. If you feel like venturing out of the city walls for the day, visit the Conjunto Arqueológico de Carmona, which consist of the remains of authentic Roman city and its necropolis.
Located in inner Andalusia about 2h30 driving either from Seville or from Málaga. The excellence of its olives has granted Jaén a reputation as “The World’s Capital of Olive Oil”. Once in town go up to the top of the hill to the former Moorish fortress for some stunning views over the olive groves around. The town’s tapas and its taverns are definitely one of the reasons to visit it but make sure you explore the quaint streets flanked by old manor houses and Renaissance palaces, one of them actually built over some Arab Baths from the 11th century, and the absolutely incredible Cathedral erected between the 16th and the 17th century. From everywhere you look, the old town of Jaén with a landscape of olive groves around, will look just like an impressionist painting or a snapshot from a scene out of a romantic movie.
Murcia is both a city and the name of the region around. Murcia, the city is located just a little over 2 hours from Valencia. The history of the site dates back to thousands of years ago and the city thrived under the Arab rule in the 9th century but its most prosperous period was actually the 18th century when there were great developments taking place in both the city's economy and architecture due to improvements in agriculture and a boost in silk production. Murcia became wealthier and more cultural. Universities were established and students started flocking to the city since then turning the region’s capital into an extremely lively meeting point with plenty an offer on restaurants, bars and nightclubs. Of course, there is much more to the city than those and a visit to Murcia is only complete after you see the catholic Cathedral of Murcia in Renaissance and Baroque style; the beautiful and exotic 19th century Floridablanca Gardens and the 13th century Lorca castle perched on the highest hill of the city, house to an exhibition on the region’s history. Should you be interested in even more stunning views take a drive to one of the beaches on the surrounding Costa Cálida (Warm Coast) and enjoy the sight of bright blue ocean waves curling up on the sandy shores.
Tarragona lies a little over 1 hour South of Barcelona and is the home for Catalonia’s second largest port and to an amazing Roman related History. The city was an important Roman center called Tarraco with a numerous population and a number of infrastructures built in and around the city of which only the Roman amphitheater gives witness nowadays. Tarragona is an ideal spot for dining out as the cuisine is superb here with fish and seafood as stars of the table! Make sure you find the time for a walk at sunset through the ancient fishing neighborhood of El Serrallo or the Rambla Nova as the light lays its golden reflections on the buildings. As you take in the views, we are sure that you will end up feeling like a movie star with just the perfect background for a scenario.
When in Portugal…
Portugal does look like a small country at first glance but the fact of the matter is that it is so diverse and beautiful all over that it may prove hard to choose the best places for the best pictures or to go for the most authentic sites. For that reason we will leave you with a short list of 5 suggestions of places to visit that you might like to add to your bucket list. We will await to see your own pictures of these cinematic places after you visit.
Just 1 hour North of Lisbon lies the charming walled town of Óbidos with its flowery balconies and medieval cobbled streets. To walk the ramparts in Óbidos is to breathe in all the History of the region that dates back to even before the Roman times when the fortress was called Oppidum by the Lusitanian people living here. The Christian crusader knights took the castle in the 12th century but the structure remained roughly the same. The city was also part of the queens’ dowries and it was one of their favorites. Therefore, many perks were given to the town throughout the centuries. The thankful people of Óbidos kept the town thriving and created their own type of liquor to honor their queens. This drink is called Ginjinha and it is still one of the trademarks of Óbidos. Nowadays you drink it from a chocolate cup which you proceed either to refill or to eat afterwards. You will be surprised to see that there are still people living in the ancient whitewashed houses inside the castle living a community life not much different from the one of their ancestors.
Amarante is a small town in northern Portugal less than 1 hour from Porto. This spotless town has rows of centuries old mansions with wooden balconies overlooking the River Tâmega and casting their reflections into its quiet waters. Many people travel to Amarante specially in the first weekend of June when the festivities take place, to go and pay tribute to St. Gonçalo with offerings of phallic-shaped cakes as the holy man is often associated with fertility or help in finding a romantic match. An evening walk by the river after a hearty dinner of incredibly tasty food and exquisite wine is definitely a moment to remember and to add to your collection of cinematic sites.
Pinhão is a village located in the North of Portugal about 1h30 driving from Porto and within the region of the Douro Valley. It is known for its dramatic landscapes of successive slopes dotted with vineyards cascading over the valley where the River Douro meets the River Pinhão. The region has some of the most incredible wines in Portugal and wineries are widely available for tastings everywhere. While you are at it, put down your glass for a second and turn your video camera on: you will want to record the peaceful bird chirping and the sound of river water running through the vines in this place so that you can grab this moment forever.
This is a town in the Alentejo region, to the South of Portugal and roughly 1h30 driving from Évora. While the Alentejo is known by its Tuscany-like plains specked with olive trees and cork oaks this is a town that rises high on a hill and is surrounded by ramparts circling its whitewashed medieval historic center. From the very top you can actually see both countries, Portugal and Spain as the views are so clear all around. Given its privileged geographic position it is easy to understand why this was a much-disputed location by Arabs and Christians alike hundreds of years ago. When you are in town go for a lamb stew or Iberian Pork lunch meal finished off with a delicious tasting of Medronho spirit drink. Here's a tip: unless you are staying overnight, leave the car outside the city walls in the parking lot to ascend slowly through the cobbled streets until you find the castle top and enjoy the incredible views. You can thank us later!
Silves is a town in the far South region of the Algarve less than 1h driving from Faro. A former Arabic stronghold the red stone castle of Silves bears witness to the long lasting Moorish rule in the South of the country. It is considered the most beautiful and well-preserved Muslim military monument. The place was once considered a blessed location for its perfect geographic position on top of a hill on the Monchique mountain range, near the River Arade and a short distance from the ocean. The intense plantation of orange groves, carob and almond trees along the centuries created an interesting landscape around the fortress and also a unique gastronomy in the region. Walking into Silves is as close as you can get of walking into a live set of a historical movie!
Creating memories and framing moments is what a trip to Spain and Portugal are truly about. So, when you are driving along the scenic roads or taking a train ride with the most stunning views in the Iberian Peninsula you might want to keep your camera and your journal at hand as inspiration can pop in suddenly. Who knows? Now that you have the perfect setting you might even feel the urge to create your own perfect movie!