We take a Mazda CX-5 down Portugal’s Estrada Nacional 2, a journey that starts just ten kilometres from the Spanish border in the north and ends in the far south of the country
Story Charlotte Briggs / Photography Ben Roberts
There are many classic road trips on the bucket list of explorers throughout the world, but few come close to Portugal’s N2. Known as Europe’s ‘Route 66’, it is the longest continuous road in the country – 739 kilometres – crossing four mountain ranges, 11 rivers and through 29 municipalities. The route itself is more than 70 years old and is steeped in history. Built in 1945 with the objective of connecting Chaves in the north to Faro in the south, the road cuts through the middle of the country. With a diverse landscape, delicious food and drink, and outstanding sites to visit both en route and off the beaten track, we collect our Mazda CX-5 and head off...
0KM: CHAVES, THE START OF THE TRIP
Our journey begins in Chaves – a city of cobbled streets located just 10 kilometres south of the Spanish border. Home to natural thermal springs, it dates back to Roman times, and the Ponte Trajano, a stone bridge bearing a Latin inscription from the second century, still proudly stands there. Soon enough we find the N2’s first way marker, symbolising the beginning of the road and the unknown that awaits. As soon as we leave the city, we pass giant aloe vera, shepherds tending their flocks and olive groves that tower over us. It’s time to turn up our carefully curated playlist – our adventure has begun.
90KM: DOURO VALLEY, THE WINE REGION
The winding roads of the Douro valley are not for the faint-hearted (and those who suffer from motion sickness). But they’re worth exploring for the stunning panoramic views of terracotta villas, sun-splattered hillsides and vineyards as far as the eye can see. Pink roses, citrus trees and blossom are scattered among the dense greenery that hugs the roadside. It’s pretty easy to take a wrong turn, and we soon find ourselves losing the N2 and instead driving along one of the hillside paths. Our mistake pays off though, as we pull over to a vantage point where we admire the incredible view of the region.
A DETOUR TO THE N222, THE WORLD’S BEST ROAD
We decide to take a detour off the N2 and head east along the N222. The 27km road that stretches from Peso de Régua to Pinhão was voted the World’s Best Road in 2015 by car rental company Avis. The route crosses through the heart of the Douro valley, taking us along the southern bank of the River Douro and past countless regional winegrowers. The journey includes multiple heart-stopping bends and, as you would expect of a UNESCO World Heritage site, some rather spectacular scenery.
118KM: PINHÃO, THE PICTURE PERFECT TOWN
The N222 leads us to Pinhão – a small town perched on a stretch of the Douro river. It is springtime here and the streets are lined with plane trees and white picket fences. The railway station is decorated in azulejos (hand-painted tiles), depicting the traditional grape harvest that dominates the surrounding hillsides. The pace of life here is slow, as men and women read their morning papers on balconies overlooking the traditional rabelo boats sitting in the harbour.
“THE AZULEJOS, PORTUGAL’S FAMOUS HAND-PAINTED TILES, DEPICT THE TRADITIONAL GRAPE HARVEST THAT DOMINATES THE SURROUNDING HILLSIDES”
198KM: PORTO, A MAJOR DETOUR
From Pinhão we head westbound on the N222 on another detour to Porto – one of the oldest cities in Europe. The historic heart of Portugal, it is vibrant with tourists and locals alike. We soon find ourselves wandering through the narrow alleys of the Ribeira district to the riverbank, watching the boats sail past as the sun sets over the water. Later that evening, we enjoy some of the country’s famous port over a traditional dinner of bacalhau (a national cod dish) and a typically meaty risotto, as is the Portuguese penchant.
“BOATS SAIL PAST AS THE SUN SETS OVER THE WATER IN PORTO, ONE OF THE OLDEST CITIES IN EUROPE AND PORTUGAL’S HISTORIC HEART”
402KM: ALBERGUE DO BONJARDIM, A TRADITIONAL VINEYARD
One of the most eagerly anticipated destinations of our trip is a visit to one of the many world-renowned vineyards in Portugal. We head off the beaten track to Albergue do Bonjardim, a working vineyard which is hidden away in the quiet village of Nesperal. The site dates back to 1756, and produces a range of award-winning organic red, white and rosé wines, including the ‘Bonjardim Reserva’, a full-bodied wine that takes between 10 and 20 years to mature fully.
“THE VINEYARD IS HIDDEN AWAY IN THE QUIET VILLAGE OF NESPERAL, AND PRODUCES AWARD-WINNING, ORGANIC RED, WHITE AND ROSE WINES”
454KM: MOINHO DA FADAGOSA, A NIGHT OFF THE BEATEN TRACK
No road trip would be complete without a night spent off the beaten track, so we visit Moinho da Fadagosa, an old windmill transformed into a chic guesthouse. It’s set in peaceful countryside, and British owners Simon and Fiona show us around the charming, cosy interior, explaining that the water used in the windmill is sourced from a nearby river, where they’ve also just purchased a ruin to rebuild into a new home. The windmill’s sails have clay vases attached that create sounds when they catch the wind. This traditional technique was used to alert the miller to a change in weather.
543KM: THE CORKLANDS, HOME OF THE CORK FORESTS
Just over halfway through our journey we find ourselves driving through the corklands, a region that is home to Portugal’s cork forests (and one which produces more than 60 per cent of the world’s cork). We spend the morning in a privately-owned forest spanning over one million acres, where manager Paulo Henrique explains that cork trees can live for up to 500 years. The bark is harvested every nine years during the summer months and once a cork tree dies it is sold as firewood, making the industry highly sustainable. Coincidentally, Mazda’s roots lie within the cork industry. The company started as a cork manufacturer in 1920, trading under the name Toyo Cork Kogyo Co.
582KM: CORUCHE, THE CORK CAPITAL
Surrounded by a vast landscape of forests and fertile fields is the pretty town of Coruche, situated on the alluvial plain alongside the River Sorraia. Known as the capital of cork, the town dates back more than 7,500 years and is home to the award-winning Cork and Cork Oak Observatory, a unique national monument that teaches visitors the ecological value of the nearby forests. The building itself is hugely impressive. Designed by renowned architect Manuel Couceiro, both the exterior and the interior of the auditorium are covered in cork as a tribute to the region’s world-famous export.
649KM: THE SOUTH, NEAR THE FINISH LINE
The southern stretch of the N2 seems much more vast and open compared to its origins in the north. As we drive past fields of livestock and under the canopies of trees that line both sides of the roads, we occasionally catch a glimpse of life in this part of the country. Brotas, Ciborro and Torrao are just some of the towns we encounter and eventually we stop in Ameixial, a village in the Serra do Caldeirão mountains that’s filled with white-washed buildings and locals who have never left.
739KM: FARO, OUR FINAL DESTINATION
After six days of travelling the length of Portugal in our Mazda CX-5 we reach Faro – the capital of the Algarve that sits on the Atlantic Ocean. We triumphantly celebrate with a glass of champagne before exploring the ‘Cidade Velha’, the historic old town, the following day. Encircled by ancient city walls, it’s a maze of 18th century Portuguese architecture and Moorish remains dating back to the eighth century (the Moors would go on to occupy Faro for the following 500 years). Many of the buildings here showcase a mix of traditional ceramic tiles and decorative splashes of colour. It’s the perfect end to a wonderful adventure on the N2. The memories that we have from driving Europe’s Route 66 will last a lifetime.