Sunday, May 31, 1998

Portugal: Ox-drawn ploughs or golf-course buggies - the choice is yours

Portugal: Ox-drawn ploughs or golf-course buggies - the choice is yours

Beaches, hilltop villages and some serious wilderness in between - Jeremy Atiyah finds something for everybody in Portugal's seven provinces
Jeremy Atiyah 
Sunday, 31 May 1998
This is the far north-western corner of the country, hard up against the coast and the Spanish province of Galicia. One feature of the area is a countryside which is one of the poorest in Western Europe: farmers still rely on ox-drawn carts and ploughs. A great way to explore the region is by staying in Turismo Habitacao accommodation, otherwise known as Turihab, which is particularly plentiful in this area - grand old manor houses or farmhouses right off the beaten track (call the Portuguese tourist board on 0171-494 1441 for a brochure). The two urban centres in the region, neither of which are large, are Braga - packed with historic churches - and the finely preserved mediaeval city of Guimaraes, which incidentally has two of the country's finest pousadas (Portugal's de luxe, government- run hotels).
If anything, this province is even poorer than , and wolves are said to roam the mountain villages. It is a harsh landscape, freezing in winter and broiling in summer, but its two national parks offer some serious wilderness for hiking in. The top end of the Douro River valley runs through the southern part of the province, including the most important port-producing area.
The Beiras
This is actually three provinces: the litoral (coastal), alta (upper) and baixa (lower). As a whole, the region includes the country's highest mountain - the Serra da Estrela - as well as its longest river, the Rio Mondego. The highlands were the heartland of the Lusitani, a fierce indigenous people whose leader, Viriato, is a national hero for his stubborn resistance to Roman invaders 2,000 years ago. The highlight of the area is the ancient and hilly university city of Coimbra, perched above the Rio Mondego.
Curiously, Estremadura is not adjacent to the Spanish province of Extremadura, but squeezed up against the coast above Lisbon. Apart from Lisbon and Sintra, the main attractions are a few seaside resorts such as Ericeira, full of Lisbonites enjoying themselves at weekends in summer. In the north of the province are a couple of architectural masterpieces: a 12th-century Cistercian monastery in Alcobaca and the Gothic-Manueline monastery in Batalha.
There is not much to shout about in this thin little province to the east of Lisbon, except for a couple of historic little towns, Santarem and Tomar, the latter being the one-time headquarters of the Knights Templar.
The Alentejo
The alto (high) and baixo (low) Alentejo between them make up most of the lower half of Portugal. In summer, the rolling plains are monumentally hot and empty - the land is divided into vast agricultural estates still based on the old latifundia, the original country estates established by the Romans two millennia ago. The place to aim for is the fantastically historic city of Evora. Fortified hilltop villages surrounded by miles of cork and olive are also a feature; Monsaraz is the best known.
This is Euro-holidayland par excellence. Parts of the coast, especially between Faro and Lagos, have been predictably over developed and Albufeira probably takes the biscuit as the local Torremolinos, with its crowded pubs and restaurants catering exclusively to German and English holidaymakers. That's the bad news. The good news is that the sun shines warmly almost all year round, the beaches are excellent and, in recent years, luxury villa resorts and golf courses have been added to what is generally a low-cost market.
Leading specialist tour operators featuring Portugal include Destination Portugal (01993 773269), Portugala Holidays (0181-444 1857), Caravela Tours (0171-630 9223) and Latitude 40 (0171- 229 3164).

Sunday, May 24, 1998

Sun, sea, sights - and Colonel Gaddafi

Sun, sea, sights - and Colonel Gaddafi

Discovered by the Phoenicians, developed by the Romans, adored by the Greeks - Libya is a sensation you may never see. By Jeremy Atiyah

DON'T blame Colonel Gaddafi for seeking attention. Stranded half- way between classy Tunis and monumental Cairo, who wouldn't feel insecure? Libya has a population less than a tenth that of Egypt, scattered over an area nearly twice as large. If any country in North Africa was going to end up with a rock star for president, it had to be this one.
But apart from Gaddafi, is there anything to Libya? It calls itself the Great Socialist People's Libyan Arab Jumahiriya, which does not sound very charming. It has joined Saudi Arabia and Iran in banning alcohol. It operates a highly restrictive visa regime. And yet, with its Mediterranean beaches, sunny climate and fabulous antiquities, it seems to offer unlimited tourism.

On my visit a fortnight ago, I found no issue which excited the Libyans more.
"Oh yes," they kept telling me. "We are going to be a very big tourist country. But of course ... you must allow for the customs of our people ..." In other words, I understood, no beer and no bonking.

Luckily I was there just for a tour of antiquities. This was what Libya meant to me: it was an Arab land, built on Phoenician and Greek roots, sitting on a vast area of desert. And, since Lockerbie, you had to beat a UN air embargo to get there, which meant driving across the border from the nearest Tunisian airport.

"May your day accrue more benefit!" shouted the immigration police. The first thing that struck me on the Libyan side of the border were the high school girls in white socks and trainers, walking with their boyfriends. A hard-line Islamic state? Hardly. Anyway the scenery was far too benign for that, with golden wheat fields dotted by endless rows of olives.

This was no dour, desert environment. In the restaurants and hotels of Tripoli, I found everybody drinking espressos and switching unflappably back and forth between English, French, Arabic and Italian. But Tripoli did not feel like a capital city. Palm trees stuck their heads above flat, dusty roofs. The centre of town was overlooked by the cliff-like walls of the Crusader Castle. Container ships stood mistily off-shore. And there was the new city: an Italian-built, white-washed zone of balconies and green shutters, colonnaded walkways and sleepy cafes, serving excellent coffee. But no grappa.

Never mind. I escaped into the old city. A gentleman with a purple beret wobbled past on a bicycle; a youth in a gelabiyah held a mobile phone to his ear. The heart of Tripoli's commercial life? The boys manning stalls in the souk looked like stylish Inter Milan supporters. This had the air of a souk-in-waiting: waiting for the end of the embargo, waiting for tourists, waiting for history.

To be honest, some people looked as if they had landed here unintentionally. And so in a way they had. Tripoli was originally founded by Phoenician sailors 2,700 years ago as a staging post, somewhere to re-equip their boats on the way to Spain.

A mistake? Of course not. In Roman times this part of north Africa was destined to become one of the wealthiest in the world. Along with sister cities Sabratha to the west and Leptis Magna to the east, modern Tripoli became the centre of a province which the Romans would call Tripolitania: the Land of Three Cities.

Mussolini, when he barged into Libya 70 years ago, loved his Roman ruins. The Libyans, equally naturally, were not so sure. They preferred the Phoenician connection: Tripolitania may have been developed by Romans but it was a Semitic people, the Phoenicians, who got there first.

I arrived at Sabratha in a sand-storm, under a sky black with dust. The wind blew hot, and raindrops fell with the consistency of quicksand. Who cared? I saw a schoolgirl in a Leonardo Di Caprio T-shirt dancing beside a ghetto-blaster. Children laughed together under the pine trees. The Phoenician goddess Tanit (in whose temple ritualised orgies once took place) would not have been entirely displeased.

The first building I saw in Sabratha was a profoundly un-Roman looking mausoleum, a tall spire decorated by seated lions; but that was the extent of the Phoenician remains. I turned away and saw suntanned rocks, towering arches and tiers of columns filling half the sky. Like it or not, the Romans had left their mark.

Clearly this part of north Africa had not always been a backwater. Only the world's wealthiest cities could have afforded such theatres or temples, or decorated (say) their public latrines with statues of naked goddesses.

And the best was yet to come. The next day I was taken along a quiet road beside avenues of eucalyptus (Libya's main highway) to Leptis Magna. I stepped out to the smell of pine resin, the song of crickets and a warm wind in the grass. Sixteen hundred years ago this had been a city to rival Rome.

The entrance to Leptis is still marked by a monumental arch of Septimius Severus where winged goddesses high above the trees thrust out their breasts in victory, and colossal cornices top florid vine tendrils carved in stone. Open-jawed with amazement, I continued along the smooth paved street into town.

Back in the third century AD Leptis had the luck to produce a baby called Septimius Severus. Years later, as Roman Emperor, Severus would channel prodigious wealth back to his native land. From today's perspective, giganticism seems to be the theme: the public baths alone comprise dozens of 10-metre-high archways, with superhuman door lintels and walls as wide as elephants.

But even now I had not quite seen it all. Nearby, through a small back entrance down a sandy lane, I would step into the apocalypse itself.
Walking through the vast, dead square of the Severan Forum, littered with upended columns, I found myself surrounded by monumental gateways and loping arches. Staring faces of Medusa heads lay about amid the desolation. Meanwhile, in the Severan Basilica next door, gigantic roof entablatures had crashed to the ground, carrying their inscriptions with them, still awesomely legible after 2,000 years. There were no tourists; the only sound was of crashing waves on the beach outside.

Time for deep thoughts about the passage of time? Time for a visit to the harbour. This had once been a perfect circular bay, surrounded by breakwaters. Over the centuries the bay had silted up, until it became first unusable, and then unrecognisable. Today, it is covered not by ships but by long grass and rustling bamboo. Its entrance is a sandy beach.

After Leptis, it was hard to get up in the morning, let alone continue with the tour. The strange thing was that I had still only seen half of the country. The next stage was to drive across the great Gulf of Sirte, that hole in the map where the coastal landscape deteriorates into sheer desert and camels nibble by the roadside.

Not that the gulf was as empty as it used to be. This is now a big area for petro-chemical complexes and for Gaddafi's Great Man-made River, which passes through colossal pipes under the sand. One day, I was told, this land would be green again. The historic desertification of north Africa, no less, would be reversed.

East of here began that other Libya, the old Greek colony of Cyrene. A wet, fertile upland, its scenery is identical to Mediterranean Europe: a day later, I was driving in verdant hillsides interspersed by vineyards and rich golden fields of wheat. The wind blew fresh off the sea.

No wonder the Greeks liked it. The wonder is that more Libyans have not discovered it. The land seems largely empty except for scattered ancient cities, guarded by devoted old local archeologists who love their sea and sandstone. The sites are miraculously picturesque, like dreams of Provencale farmhouse gardens, with geraniums perched on Corinthian Capitols and silver columns tumbling into blue waters.

In Cyrenaica, the old stones have never been covered over by sand or forgotten. In fact, they have been picked over by bemused Arab shepherds and their flocks for centuries. At Tolmeitha for example - the ancient Ptolemis - I saw herds of goats under eucalyptus trees nibbling on dry grass sprouting from the ancient theatre.
As for Cyrene itself, on a high plateau overlooking the Cretan Sea, the great wonder is the fresh water spring pouring out of the mountainside. The Greeks built their temple of Apollo here; two-and-a-half thousand years on, it is still flowing strongly, providing yet another reason for the Libyans to feel good about themselves.

libya fact file
Getting there
The author's trip was arranged through the British Museum Traveller (46 Bloomsbury St, London WC1B 3QQ, tel: 0171 323 8895/1234). Its next 10- day group tour of Libya runs from 4 to 13 October and it will run more trips next year. The price of pounds 1,840 per person includes scheduled Tunis Air flights to Djerba, all transport, full-board accommodation plus the constant attendance of a tour lecturer. This autumn's tour will be with Susan Walker, deputy keeper in the Department of Greek and Roman Antiquities of the British Museum.

British Museum Tours makes its arrangements through a Libyan tour operator, Wings Travel and Tours (Tripoli, PO Box 1736, Libya, Tel:             00 218 21 3331855      , fax: 00 218 21 3330881). It can authorise visas for you on the basis of tour bookings. It arranges tailor-made trips to any part of the country, including the desert, with pick-ups from Djerba or, if you prefer, Cairo in Egypt.

If booking with British Museum Tours, it can arrange your visa (pounds 20 + pounds 15 procurement fee). Otherwise contact the Libyan Interests Section (0171 486 8387, or 486 8250 in the Saudi Arabian embassy). Note that you will need authorisation from Libya (obtainable through, for example, Wings Travel) before a visa can be granted. Visas for Tunisia are not required.

Further information
The author's flight to Djerba was arranged through Tunis Air (0171 7347644), which flies direct from Heathrow once a week on Thursdays, and via Tunis on any other day. Price from pounds 263 + tax, or pounds 283 for the direct flights.
There is also useful material, especially on how to get into the country, on the Sahara Travel Information website:

Sunday, May 3, 1998



pounds 113
per person you can take a Mediterranean cruise in the North Sea. Confused? Scandinavian Seaways is offering themed two-night cruises, which include Mediterranean meals, drinks and entertainment. Cruises begin and end at Harwich, and include two nights aboard ship as well as a shore excursion of a few hours at a continental port. Call 0990 333111.

pounds 189
per person, you can visit the Turin Shroud, currently on one of its periodic displays. This package includes return flights to Turin from London Heathrow (out on Saturday, back on Sunday) as well as one night's accommodation in a hotel located 600 metres from the Cathedral. Valid until June 14. Contact Italiatour on 0171 605 7500.

pounds 259
you can spend your late May bank holiday in Marmaris, Turkey. This price includes not only glorious weather but also seven nights in a two-star hotel with return flights from London Stansted, departing on May 25. Call Accommodation Overseas on 0181 977 2984.

pounds 268
you can spend a three-night break in Madrid during the month-long Fiesta de San Isidro. Lively even in the most sluggish of seasons, Madrid during fiestas should provide enough entertainment to keep anyone awake. Price includes flights, and central B&B accommodation. Call Kirker Holidays on 0171 231 3333.

pounds 473
you can fly to the Australian cities of Melbourne, Cairns, Adelaide or Darwin on Singapore Airlines (stopovers in Singapore permitted). You must depart between now and June 30, though can return any time. Very cheap accommodation in Singapore is also available. Call Travelmood on 0171 258 0280 or             01382 322713      (Scotland) for details.

pounds 699
you can take a three-centre "lakes and castles" holiday combining three nights in the Danish Lake District with three nights in a 16th-century castle on Funen island - as well as one night in Copenhagen. Price is based on a fly/drive package, including most evening meals. Call Scandinavian Travel Service on 0171 559 6666.

pounds 830
you can go white-water rafting for a week up the Coruh river in northern Turkey, travelling past the Kackar mountains, unspoilt villages and Byzantine castles. The trip lasts a week and cost includes flights, equipment and accommodation in tents. Breaks departing on 23 May are still available. Call Adrift on 0181 874 4969.

pounds 1158
you can enjoy 12 nights in the island of Praslin in the "real" Seychelles. Guests receive B&B accommodation in the Indian Ocean Lodge on the beach at Grand Anse. Praslin, the second-largest of the Seychelles, has both white-sand beaches and jungle-like vegetation. Call Elite Vacations on 0181 864 9818.

pounds 2,850
you can join the first ever British trek to the north-eastern Indian state of Arunachal Pradesh. This state has been largely closed to travellers owing to "tribal" unrest but now the tour operator Himalayan Kingdoms is pioneering tours there. Depart on November 2 for a 17-day holiday that includes trekking and rafting. Call 0117 923 7163.

pounds 2,999
you can fly round the world in business class with unlimited stops (including three in Australia) using Singapore Airlines, Ansett and Air New Zealand. The ticket is valid for one year and can be booked any time. For more pleasurable long-haul flights, call Bridge the World on 0171 734 7447.