LISBON, Portugal — Portugal, one of the eurozone's poorest nations, is immersed in debt, barely has a functioning government and is widely expected to receive a Greek-style bailout by June. But travelers willing to jump aboard this economic roller coaster could find bargains in a country small enough to tour in a week's time.
While periodic strikes have disrupted train and subway transportation over the last year as Portugal's financial problems deepened, the work stoppages have always been announced with plenty of advance notice on when they will start and end. And almost no one is expecting strikes during August because the Portuguese themselves will be on vacation.
One week in Portugal is plenty to sample Lisbon's historic wonders, then travel by train to Porto, another Atlantic Ocean port city, and squeeze in a visit to a winery. Within that period you could do sun and sea at the beaches in southern Algarve province.
Arranging it all is fairly easy online because most websites have English sections, and the Portuguese themselves usually speak decent English — unlike many of their neighbors in Spain. It's part of the legacy from Portugal's historic links with Britain going back centuries, and the fact that all movies and TV programs originally made in English are subtitled and not dubbed.
"Portugal has long been the ideal destination for the U.S. travelers," said British travel writer Simon Calder. "It's the wild western fringe of Europe, with a scattering of Atlantic islands, a fascinating history and superb landscapes. The cuisine is world-class, the climate benign, the welcome warm. And it's the ideal location for any American seeking a European bargain this summer."
Palatial comfort is readily available in a chain of historic buildings called pousadas — country houses and castles converted to luxury hotels where online booking features offers for as little as $108 (75 euros) a night with a 15 percent discount for those 55 or older. Regular hotels charge less.
For hearty Portuguese meals featuring dishes such as feijoada (bean stew) and cabrito (goat), basic local restaurants called tascas offer up the best lunch bargain across the nation. The menus always feature traditional Portuguese food with plenty of fresh fish out of the Atlantic as well as dried, salted cod (bacalhau) — a Portuguese staple.
Menus posted outside the tascas featuring meals of the day are in Portuguese, but there will usually be a waiter or fellow diner who can help out with a translation. If not, get adventurous and just pick a few choices. Lunch starting at about 1 p.m. goes for about $10 (7 euros) for two courses plus dessert, includes a glass of wine, a beer or bottled water.
Lisbon itself is an architectural jewel, with ancient St. George's castle (Castelo de Sao Jorge) and a medieval fortified cathedral overlooking the magnificent estuary of the Tagus, one of Europe's mightiest rivers. Christian soldiers took the castle from its long-standing North African Arab occupiers in the 12th century.
The cathedral is a rare survivor of one of the deadliest earthquakes in history — a massive 1755 temblor and subsequent fire that wrecked the city. As in Japan, a vast tsunami rushed back to engulf the riverside buildings, killing tens of thousands of people and obliterating much of what was then one of Europe's wealthiest cities.
During a recent tour of the castle, Briton Laura Millward, 30, said as far as she's concerned, Portugal and Lisbon deserve to be better known, given their cultural attractions and great food. "Compared to places like Italy, it's not really expensive at all. Even the tourist places aren't that pricey," she said.
The rebuilt lower quarter of the city, Baixa Pombalina, has an untypical but easy to navigate grid pattern of streets, with decent hotels starting at about $54 a night (38 euros) a night, making it an ideal base to explore the capital of a country the Romans once referred to as Lusitania.
From Lisbon, the 318-kilometer (198-mile) train ride to Porto goes for about $30 (21 euros), and you end up in Portugal's second largest city — declared a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1996. The highlights are its churches, a 14th-century Romanesque wall around the old city and its bridges over the Douro River's estuary.
There is Port aplenty in Porto, but wine-lovers should consider heading to the actual wine growing region upriver centered in the city of Pinhao.
Trains go direct from Lisbon to Pinhao, but a relaxing and scenic route is by taking the Porto to Pinhao boat ride on the winding river passing by the steep, broken slate slopes where the purple-black grapes used for Port flourish.
The ferry leaves every Saturday at 7:45 a.m., and breakfast, port wine and lunch are served aboard during the voyage that delivers you to the Pinhao quay at 7 p.m. The price is about $151 (105 euros) per person. Children travel free until age 2 and get 50 percent off from ages 3-11.
Pinhao includes the luxurious Vintage House Hotel in an exquisitely restored 18th-century mansion, which offers special deals of about $125 (86.50 euros) a night. Cheaper accommodation in Pinhao is available for about $74 (51 euros) per night, including breakfast.
A stunning example of the historic buildings to be found is the Mosteiro da Batalha monastery about 150 kilometers (93 miles) north of Lisbon, another UNESCO World Heritage Site. Trains and buses head there from Lisbon, and entrance is free for the easy day trip.
In Lisbon, travelers with children, and especially girls, should head to the famed Doll Hospital in Figueira Square, which has been "treating" dolls since 1830. Visitors can see damaged dolls put inside a small elevator that takes them down to a workshop for basic repairs costing about $6 (4 euros). The dolls later emerge fully restored on the elevator. Repairs of antique dolls are also offered.
After taking in so much of Portugal's history, it's time to head to the beach — a spot staked out mainly by British tourists in recent decades. The southern coast of the Algarve is the most popular, where there are plenty of hotels and also basic hostels starting at about $36 (25 euros) a night. Villa rentals abound, and tepees are even available for those who want greater contact with nature.
Getting from Lisbon to the Algarve costs about $24 (16.50 euros) by train.
Harold Heckle reported from Madrid.
IF You Go...
PORTUGAL TOURISM: Official website: http://bit.ly/gzS7EI
LISBON: http://bit.ly/hghkJHComment on this story
POUSADAS: Country houses and castles converted to hotels: http://bit.ly/i9ttIq
RAIL NETWORK: http://www.cp.pt