Portugal’s €49 monthly national rail pass (Passe Ferroviário Nacional) is too cost-effective an offer to miss.
The scheme was launched by Comboios de Portugal, with the first passes coming into use on 1 August. It offers unlimited rail travel on regional routes. Using the pass, a month’s worth of rail travel works out at less than €1.60 – or £1.40 – a day, on 31-day calendar months.
Portugal’s pass is the same price as Germany‘s Deutschlandticket, which started in April and offers unlimited travel using the country’s bus, tram and rail routes.
Comboios de Portugal confirmed to i last week that the offer is open to international visitors. Foreign passports or national identity cards from other countries are accepted as a form of identification, as well as Portugal’s citizen card. As such, UK travellers who can plan for a few weeks away from home will be able to make the most of the offer.
The rail passes are loaded onto CP cards, which are on sale from the 21st of each month before the month of use. Some routes are not included in the scheme, including the Régua-Pocinho (Douro Line), Coimbra-Figueira da Foz (suburban Coimbra), Pinhal Novo-Évora and Pinhal Novo-Vila Nova da Baronia (Alentejo Line), and Pinhal Novo-Tunes (Southern Line)
There are still plenty of journeys on which you can use the pass, however. Plus, it is possible to reach Portugal by rail and bus from the UK (The Man in Seat 61 offers a detailed guide), if you wish to commit to low-carbon transport, beginning with the Eurostar from London St Pancras International.
Here are seven distinctive stops, all accessible by rail, using the pass, from the Atlantic Ocean through Portugal’s low density population interior to the Spanish border.
A Vinho Verde pilgrimage
What better place to start than on the Spanish border, in Portugal’s northern Minho region. Surrounded by impressive fortifications, the narrow streets of the pocket-sized city of Valença have a distinctly Galician flavour (Galicia is an autonomous community in northern Spain). Pilgrims walking the Camino Portugues to Santiago de Compostela have been visiting for generations, and cross the Valença-Tui, Eifell-inspired, bridge into Spain. In Valença, you are close to the Penada-Geres National Park with some of the best hiking in the Iberian Peninsula. The Minho is also known for producing Portugal’s Vinho Verde. Why not buy a bottle of this light quaffing wine, to stash in your backpack?
Viana do Castelo
A view of globalisation
In Portugal, you’re never far from a eye-catching church. Standing outside the Santuario de Santa Luzia, high above Viana do Castelo, for a view over the town out to sea. One of Portugal’s gateways to the world, for centuries Viana was a thriving centre of commerce with a busy port. From here, wines were shipped to England and beyond. Today the sea is still speckled with cargo ships. Meanwhile, works by Portugal’s best architects, such as Alvaro Siza Vieira, give a contemporary perspective – he designed the riverside library. After a morning of sightseeing, plunge into the sea at Praia do Cabadelo, a dreamy expanse of sand.
Port wine and British merchants
A two-hour rail journey south of Viana do Castelo, Porto is one of Europe’s most spectacular medieval cities. Lose yourself in narrow alleys where ancient buildings spill down the hillside to the River Douro. Between the Atlantic Ocean and the magnificent vineyards of the Douro, the district of Port wine “lodges”, such as Cockburn’s and Taylor’s, tease the senses with their aromas. Every bit a city of today, Porto is an emerging gourmet destination and Fundação Serralves places it on the international art map.
Breathing in the ocean
Thirty minutes south of Porto by train, the casino town of Espinho is built as a grid, much like New York. Among its must-visit attractions is Piscina Municipal, a Modernist salt water swimming pool. Leaving Espinho behind you, stroll, jog or cycle the boardwalk through sea grasslands and across dunes scented by wild flowers, following the Atlantic Ocean. An hour’s walk from Espinho, the fishing village of Aguda has plenty of options for lunch. In stormy weather you can watch breakers crashing over the pier while enjoying a fish soup in one of the local cafés.
A hike in the hills
Let’s travel inland. Once known as the “Portuguese Manchester” because of its wool production, Covilhã is the departure point for a wild area: the Serra da Estrela, the highest mountain range in continental Portugal (note that the natural park has been affected by wildfires; research the local area before booking and before travel). Take a mountain bike or set off on foot and climb into an immense landscape of forest and remote villages. Mountain birds soar high above, perhaps eyeing the sheep from whose milk the deliciously gooey queijo Serra da Estrela cheese is made.
Plums and fortifications
In the 18th century, ever aware of the threat of invasion from their neighbour, Spain, the Portuguese built the star-shaped Nossa Senhora da Graça fort (now a Unesco World Heritage Site) at Elvas. The surrounding Alentejo countryside, dotted with Roman monuments, is celebrated for its cork forests, traditional crafts and conventual sweets. Relatively few British tourists visit the area, which is also know for its Elvas plums.
A medieval bridge to the sea
There’s much more to the Algarve than white box condos. The prettiest town in the eastern Algarve, not far from the Spanish border, Tavira is the perfect place to end a rail journey through Portugal. Delve into the area’s Islamic heritage and visit the whitewashed fishing port. In the 18th century, Tavira thrived with the trade of salt, dried fish and wine and local merchants built fine town houses among the many churches.
The wines of the Algarve are making their mark – be ahead of the curve and try a tasting.
Take a ferry along the canal to swim at the beaches on Tavira Island, in the extensive Ria Fermosa nature reserve and watch the sun set from the medieval bridge, Ponte Romana.