As I ate my lunch at a window table in Porto's fashionable neighborhood of the Foz and sipped a glass of port while watching the Atlantic caress the shore across the street, I realized that almost everything I knew of Portugal was there at hand. Before me was the vast ocean, which carried seafarers like da Gama and Magellan to the Americas and beyond, allowing Portugal to spawn colonies from Brazil to Goa and, briefly, gain world dominance. Beside me was the dessert wine that is the nation's most esteemed export.
Before leaving on my drive through the Minho, Douro, and Trás-os-Montes regions of Portugal's north, I'd searched the aisles of my local mega-bookstore for a Portuguese author. But I'd found none, not even Camões, whose Os Lusíadas is the epic work in the language. I had little entrée to the country's history, knew none of its composers, architects, or painters; thinking hard, I could recall only the 20th-century dictator Salazar, a few soccer players, and a week I once spent dodging British package tourists in the heat of the Algarve.
Striking, vivid Spain, where I have lived and to which I return annually, was my Iberian point of reference. I didn't yet understand that Spain's neighbor turns her back on the Continent to face the sea and has a nature closer to the Celtic than to the Spanish. Portuguese charms, I was to learn, are subtle and muted, a sonata in a minor key. "The most important difference between Spain and Portugal," wine maker Cristiano van Zeller told me, "is that they kill the bull, and we don't. You might say that makes our society less passionate, but it also means our character is smoother, not as harsh. That may not attract you at first, but spend time here, and it will." I had budgeted several hundred miles and four days.
I was starting in Porto, a city that gave both the wine and the country its name. It was once Portus Cale; Cale, the settlement across the Douro River, is now called Vila Nova de Gaia. From there, the port wine distributors flash their neon signs over the water. After a dinner of mint soup and grilled squid and a night in Porto's Hotel Infante de Sagres, which combines the efficiency of a city business hotel with architectural appeal and personalized service, I awoke ready to immerse myself in Portugal. I would start with the House of Bragança, which ruled the country longer than any other -- from 1640 to 1910 -- so I set out for the town of Bragança. It's tucked in the far northeastern corner of the country in the little-traveled Trás-os-Montes, whose name means "behind the mountains": a literal back of beyond.
Mid-morning, I pulled off the highway for a look at the Solar de Mateus, the Baroque palace pictured on every bottle of the popular rosé wine. The gardens would have been restful had it not been for the road noise, but the palace's chestnut ceilings, jacaranda furniture, and 1817 edition of Os Lusíadas were worth the stop.
For lunch I ate codfish, white-bean stew, and country bread at Maria Rita in Romeu, a working village of slate houses owned by a single family. By then, the road had started to climb out of the valley and into the hills. I reached Bragança in mid-afternoon and checked into the government-run Pousada de São Bartolomeu on a bluff outside town. As soon as I caught sight of the walls of the medieval city, I jumped back into the car for a closer look.
Standing inside the battlements, I began to sense the sweep of Portuguese history. A shop at the small museum in the castle tower was selling decade-old medallions commemorating Afonso Henriques, the first Portuguese king. When a clerk saw me fingering one, he related how Afonso overthrew his own Spanish-born mother to take the throne.
That night, over pheasant with chestnuts at the elegant Solar Bragançano, I filled in the gaps with my tour books. The next morning I awoke early to drive to historic Guimarães. I worked westward over a rutted, crumbling back road, through vales of fog and patches of bright sun, past gnarled oaks and cliffs that dropped into a verdant valley. The Pousada de Santa Marinha in Guimarães was an Augustinian monastery founded in the 12th century by Teresa, Dom Afonso's deposed mother, and it shines like an apparition on a hill. I was given a top-floor monk's cell with a wooden window seat for quiet contemplation, but I had too many plans for that.
I headed for the Holy Hill and the 11th-century fortress where Afonso was born. Its crenellated walls and stone towers made it resemble a fairy-tale castle, but one with a garnish of Communist graffiti. Inside the roofless walls, birds were chirping and there was a whiff of eucalyptus. I climbed a turret and looked down on the single-room church where Afonso was christened, and the 15th-century Palace of the Dukes, served by 39 chimneys. The palace was once the official residence of the House of Bragança. These days it's a museum full of furniture and tapestries, with an apartment reserved for the Portuguese president.
As the sun gave way to a purple-black sky, I wandered through the town. The shops looked enticing, and plazas hummed with activity. Like Aix-en-Provence and Salzburg, Guimarães has the sophisticated air, bordering on smugness, of a place where life is well lived, unhurried, and intelligent -- outside the mainstream, perhaps, but all the better for it. That night, I drove to nearby Braga and rooted for the local soccer team against Lisbon's Benfica, the larger and richer side from the capital. The 11 result seemed wonderfully Portuguese in its ambiguity.
Portugal doesn't seem obsessed with soccer to the degree that Spain and Italy are, or quite so immersed in Catholicism. The exception to the latter is Braga, a city of churches, where holy men once outnumbered the lay population two to one. Right nearby is a national shrine, the Bom Jesus, reachable by 381 feet of Baroque staircase, which pilgrims ascend on their knees. I chose to take the road to the top. There I found a complex of restaurants, souvenir shops, and two hotels. Somehow the juxtaposition of the commercial and the sacred didn't strike me as vulgar, but as practical, even appropriate.
An hour later, at lunch, the count of Calheiros nodded when I described my impression. "Portugal is a soft country," he explained. "Everything is in proportion." We were in the glass-enclosed dining room of the Ponte de Lima golf club, which he founded. More important, perhaps, the count is a leading proponent of manor-house tourism, in which vast but decrepit mansions of the Minho and beyond have been spruced up for overnight guests. "They're not hotels but private houses," he said. "You eat at the dining-room table with the family." He showed off his own estate, with nine well-appointed bedrooms in the main house, six apartments, a pool, tennis courts, and a view that stretched the 15 miles to the Atlantic. I wished I could settle in for a week with racket and swimming trunks.
Instead I was off to the coast, to Viana do Castelo and another pousada high on a hill. The city is human-scale, with pocket-size churches and buildings of three and four stories. I had chosen Viana for a culinary reason: lamprey, the eel-like fish that is a local specialty. At the Cozinha das Malheiras, where a serving cost $55, I ate it the traditional way -- broiled in its own blood. It tasted powerfully bittersweet, almost rancid, yet oddly appealing. I finished everything on my plate.
My last morning, I tacked inland, southwest to Barcelos. It's a town known for palaces, museums, and a symbolic black rooster that, legend holds, saved a condemned man by crowing his innocence when he was about to be hanged. Stopping at the Centro Artesanato, an arts cooperative, I bought several ceramic roosters, for salvation. Then I returned to the coast and Vila do Conde's 18th-century Convent of St. Clare. I parked my car and looked out at the spread of the town as it stretched to meet the Atlantic. I was thinking of the adventurers who had boarded a boat and left this deceptively simple region behind, headed for rugged new worlds. They grew in my esteem, now that I could appreciate the splendor of the country they left behind.
Bruce Schoenfeld is the author of The Last Serious Thing: A Season at the Bullfights (Simon & Schuster).