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Portugal is around the size of Scotland with twice the population and has tremendous variety both geographically and in its ways of life and traditions. Along the coast around Lisbon, and on the well-developed Algarve in the south, there are highly sophisticated resorts, while the vibrant capital Lisbon has enough going on to please most city devotees. But in its rural areas this is still a conspicuously underdeveloped country, and there are plenty of opportunities to experience smaller towns and countryside regions that have changed little in the past century.

In terms of population, and of customs, differences between the north and south are particularly striking. Above a line more or less corresponding with the course of the River Tagus, the people are of predominantly Celtic and Germanic stock. It was here, at Guimarães, that the "Lusitanian" nation was born, in the wake of the Christian reconquest from the North African Moors. South of the Tagus, where the Moorish and Roman civilizations were most established, people tend to be darker-skinned and maintain more of a "Mediterranean" lifestyle. More recent events are woven into the pattern. The 1974 revolution came from the south - an area of vast estates, rich landowners and a dependent workforce - while the conservative backlash of the 1980s came from the north, with its powerful religious authorities and individual smallholders wary of change. More profoundly even than the revolution, emigration has altered people's attitudes and the appearance of the countryside. After Lisbon, the largest Portuguese community is in Paris, and there are migrant workers spread throughout France and Germany. Returning to Portugal, these emigrants have brought in modern ideas and challenged many traditional rural values.

The greatest of all Portuguese influences, however, is the sea . The Portuguese are very conscious of themselves as a seafaring race; mariners like Vasco da Gama led the way in the exploration of Africa and the Americas, and until less than thirty years ago Portugal remained a colonial power. The colonies brought African and South American strands to the country's culture: in the distinctive music of fado , sentimental songs heard in Lisbon and Coimbra, for example, or in the Moorish-influenced and Manueline architecture that abounds in coastal towns like Belém and Viana do Castelo.

Since Portugal is so compact, it's easy to take in something of each of its elements. Scenically, the most interesting parts of the country are in the north: the Minho , green, damp, and often startling in its rural customs; and the sensational gorge and valley of the Douro , followed along its course by the railway, off which antiquated branch lines edge into remote Trás-os-Montes . For contemporary interest, spend some time in both Lisbon and Porto , the only two cities of real size. And if it's monuments you're after, the centre of the country - above all, Coimbra and Évora - retain a faded grandeur. The coast is virtually continuous beach, and apart from the Algarve and a few pockets around Lisbon and Porto, resorts remain low-key and thoroughly Portuguese, with great stretches of deserted sands between them. Perhaps the loveliest are along the northern Costa Verde , around Viana do Castelo, or, for isolation, the wild beaches of southern Alentejo .