We take a Mazda CX-5 down Portugal’s Estrada Nacional 2, a journey that starts just six miles 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 legendary road trips throughout the world on the bucket list of avid explorers, but few come close to Portugal’s N2. Known as Europe’s “Route 66,” it is the longest continuous road in the country—460 miles—crossing four mountain ranges, 11 rivers, and 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. Preparing ourselves for 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 for our journey’s start...

 

 

0 MILES: CHAVES, THE START OF THE TRIP

Our journey begins in Chaves, a city of cobbled streets located just six miles south of the Spanish border. Home to natural thermal springs, Chaves dates back to Roman times, and the Ponte Trajano, a stone bridge bearing Latin inscription from the second century, still proudly stands there. Soon enough we find the N2’s first way marker, symbolizing the beginning of the road and the unknown that awaits us. 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.   

56 miles: DOuRO VALLEY, THE WINE REGION

The winding roads of the Douro Valley are not for the fainthearted (and those who suffer from motion sickness). However, 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 blossoms 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 many 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 17-mile stretch of road that connects Peso da Régua to Pinhão was voted the World’s Best Road in 2015 by the 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 many regional wine and port growers. The journey includes multiple heart-stopping bends and, as you would expect of a UNESCO World Heritage site, some rather spectacular scenery.
 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

75 miles: 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, and the streets are lined with plane trees and white picket fences. The train 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 newspapers on balconies overlooking the traditional rabelo boats moored in the harbor.

“THE AZULEJOS, PORTUGAL’S FAMOUS HAND-PAINTED TILES, DEPICT THE TRADITIONAL GRAPE HARVEST THAT DOMINATES THE SURROUNDING HILLSIDES.”

125 miles: PORTO, A MAJOR detour

From Pinhão we head west 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 after 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.”

250 miles: 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 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 red wine that takes between ten and 20 years to mature fully.

“THE VINEYARD IS HIDDEN AWAY IN THE quiet VILLAGE of NESPERAL, and produces AWARD-WINNING organic WINES.”

283 MILES: MOINHO Da FADAGOSA, A NIGHT off the beaten track 

No road trip would be complete without a night spent away from the main route, so we decide to visit Moinho da Fadagosa, an old windmill that has been transformed into a chic guesthouse. It’s set in peaceful countryside, and British owners Simon and Fiona show us around the charming, cozy interior, explaining that the water used in the windmill is sourced from a nearby river. 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.

338 miles: 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. The country produces more than 60 percent of the world’s cork. We spend the morning in a privately owned forest spanning over one million acres. Manager Paulo Henrique explains that cork trees can live for up to 500 years and the bark from each tree is harvested every nine years during the summer months. 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. Ltd.

362 miles: 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 Oak Observatory, a unique national monument that teaches visitors the ecological value of the nearby forests. The building itself is impressive. Designed by architect Manuel Couceiro, the building’s exterior and the auditorium inside are covered in cork as a tribute to the region’s famous export. 

403 miles: the south, nearing 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 road, we catch glimpses of life in this part of the country. Brotas, Ciborro, Torrão, Ervidel, and Almodôvar are just some of the towns we encounter and eventually we stop in Ameixial, a tiny village in the Serra do Caldeirão mountains that’s filled with whitewashed buildings and friendly local people.

460 miles: Faro, OUR FINAL DESTINATION

After six days of comfortably traveling the length of Portugal in our Mazda CX-5 we arrive in Faro, the capital of the Algarve, which sits on the Atlantic Ocean. We triumphantly celebrate with a glass of champagne. The next day we explore Cidade Velha, Faro’s historic old town. 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 ruled Faro for 500 years). Many of the buildings showcase a mix of traditional ceramic tiles and decorative splashes of color. It’s the perfect end to a wonderful adventure on the N2. Our memories from driving Europe’s Route 66 will last a lifetime.

“FARO’S OLD TOWN IS A MAZE OF MOORISH REMAINS AND PORTUGUESE ARCHITECTURE DATING BACK TO THE 18th CENTURY.”