While Portugal may look like a small country, they pack a lot of culture and history into their borders. One of the best ways to explore the cultural and natural achievements of a country is to tour their UNESCO World Heritage sites and Portugal has them in plenty. The real problem is they may have too many within their borders. At fifteen UNESCO World Heritage sites, even the traveller with the freest schedule will be hard pressed to visit them all. So instead of visiting the bulk on that next trip to Portugal, visit the four most incredible UNESCO sites that Portugal has to offer.
Tower of Belem and the Monastery of the Hieronymites
While the Tower of Belem and the Monastery of the Hieronymites are two separate UNESCO sites, they are located quite close to each other and have similar history so this is one of the rare times where visitors to Lisbon can visit two UNESCO sites without traveling more than a few kilometers. Both of these sites in Lisbon were built to commemorate Vasco de Gama's voyage to India in 1498. Work on the Monastery of the Hieronymites was started in 1502 and took 70 years to complete. The result was a vast limestone beauty built in the Gothic-Manueline style. The nearby Tower of Belem was built later in the 16th century as a fortress overlooking the sea. It was built in honor of Vasco de Gama's voyage but also to honor the other brave Portugal explorations of the world and sea around it as well. Those who get close enough can see the magnificent finely carved shields and Templar crosses engraved into the stonework.
The nearby Tower of Belem was built later in the 16th century as a fortress overlooking the sea. It was built in honor of Vasco de Gama's voyage but also to honor the other brave Portugal explorations of the world and sea around it as well. Those who get close enough can see the magnificent finely carved shields and Templar crosses engraved into the stonework.
Laurisilva Forest of Madeira
Out of the fifteen UNESCO sites littered throughout Portugal, there is only one natural one - the Laurisilva Forest of Madeira. Madeira translates to "wood," but the island hardly lives up to that name today. However, the Laurisilva forest that sits perched above the area in the northern hills used to cover the entire island as well as a good portion of Europe. The Laurisilva forest is comprised of lush laurel-leaved, evergreen hardwoods that support much of the islands rich plant and animal diversity including bryophytes, ferns, and the endemic Madeiran long-toed pigeon. This forest is especially important in modern times as much of the island's natural splendor has been leveled for the sake of development and resorts. However, the Laurisilva forest is now eternally protected so visitors to Portugal can enjoy both the splendor of nature and the luxuries of technology while visiting.
Convent of Christ in Tomar
Tomar was the headquarters of the Knights Templar in Portugal and the Convent of Christ was the original Templar church built in the city. Its construction began in 1162 where it was modeled after the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem. The church is set in the beautiful wooded hills that now overlook Tomar and consists of seven cloisters; however, only four are open to the public. Inside, visitors will be dazzled by not only the extravagant religious murals and relics but the maze of ornate staircases and passages as well.
Nearby the Convent of Christ is the chapterhouse that was built later in the 16th century. This Manueline masterpiece was dedicated, like many of Portugal's landmarks, to Portugal's nautical Age of Discovery. Very few visitors to Portugal make their way out to Tomar, but the quaint little town combined with this wonderful Knights Templar relic is well worth the trip. It represents a bloody and often condemned portion of history, but a piece of history unlike any other.
Prehistoric Rock Art Sites in the Coa Valley
The Coa Valley in northern Portugal is a beautiful, albeit desolate, area that would be worth visiting in and of itself for any nature lover. However, there are relics from a bygone age hidden among the stones here. While walking through the valley, visitors will near immediately see what makes it so protected. There are thousands of rock engravings here. While only discovered in 1992 near the sleepy little town of Vila Nova de Foz Coa, these carvings are thought to date back to the Upper Palaeolithic Period (22,000 - 10,000 BCE). The images on the stone depict animals such as ibex, cattles and horse as well as some human shapes. The engravings in the valley have been lauded as some of the most outstanding examples of early human artistic activity in the world, only rivaled by the cave paintings in Lascaux and Chauvet caves in France. It was actually a miracle these carvings were discovered when they were. They were uncovered while doing a survey to build a dam that would have flooded this now protected area. The dam was never built, but instead Portugal and the world learned a little bit more about its primal and artistic history.
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