Our plan: to drive the length of Portugal, from Chaves on the northern border with Spain to Faro on the Atlantic coast. My father and I had given ourselves five days for the trip. Our progress: slow.

Towards the end of day three, as we pulled into the castle-crowned city of Sertã, our trusty guidebook put our mileage at 327km. It felt much further. All those twists and turns, all those little towns and tiny villages.

Away from the better-known attract­ions of the coast, the Estrada Nacional 2, or “EN2”, runs for 729km. A pet project of the autocratic leader António Salazar, it was created under the 1945 National Highway Plan as the country’s longest road but the glory years were shortlived. Far from major cities, it never attracted large traffic volumes and, as the motorway network grew, it became increasingly overlooked.

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Today, however, the single-lane highway is enjoying something of a renaissance. Late in 2016, the 11 provincial districts through which the highway passes clubbed together to promote its touristic virtues, launching a website detailing highlights of the route, and gradually local tourism boards and businesses started to rebrand it as “Portugal’s Route 66”.

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Our mode of transport — a VW T6 camper van — was perfectly suited to the task: not given to speed but bringing a sense of freedom to the experience. You see an attraction signposted and you follow the arrow; you grow hungry and you pull in at the next eatery; you feel tired and you park up and sleep. Siesta Campers delivered the van to Porto and, after a brief induction, we set off in lashing rain along the motorway to Chaves. It was the last central reserv­ation we would see for a week.

A few hours out of Chaves, terraced vineyards announced our arrival in the Douro Valley, Portugal’s famed wine region. A short detour east from Peso da Régua brought us to the gates of the splendidly isolated Quinta do Panascal winery. By a roaring fire, we sat down to a lunch of pumpkin soup and marinated goat, capped off by the sweetest of crème caramels and the very finest of tawny ports. After a brief tour of the winemaking facilities (the grapes here are still pressed by foot), we were treated to a brief port tasting, which, with his designated driver’s hat on, my dad gracefully put me forward for.

Over the coming days, van life took on a relaxing rhythm, with Dad at the wheel and me in the navigator’s seat. Armed with Foge Comigo’s 500-page EN2 guide (in Portuguese, but English translation pending), we found ourselves faced with a surprising plethora of museums and churches, restaurants and ruins. History and gastronomy coalesced into the defining themes of the trip, and five days began to feel like no time at all.

Portugese road trip credit Oliver Balch ( pictured - his Dad Douglas )
Douglas Balch and the camper van at Km 432, just north of Ponte de Sor, Alentejo © Oliver Balch

With a pair of fold-down beds, a mini-kitchen, and a pop-up roof, the camper van proved surprisingly commodious. On the first night, we stopped in a hilltop car park overlooking the cathedral town of Lamego. A less-glamorous roadside spot the following evening persuaded us to book a warm hotel bed for our third night, in a beautifully restored former convent in Sertã.

An unexpected historical highlight came in the shape of Viseu, a one-time stronghold of the Lusitanians (Portugal’s Indo-European forebears). Pitched as Portugal’s “garden city” on account of its multiple parks, it is home to a gorgeous cobbled old town set behind a defensive stone wall and a 12th-century cathedral. To guide our steps, we sought out the guidance of Carlos Alves, a doctoral historian at the erudite Neverending tour agency.

KXFFWA Vineyards and olive trees in the Douro Valley near Lamego, Portugal Europe
Vineyards and olive trees in the Douro Valley near Lamego

Another highlight, the Unesco heritage site of the University of Coimbra, has acted as a seat of learning without a break since 1290. After a stroll through the city’s ornate botanical gardens, we made a beeline for the university’s pièce de résistance: the Joanina library, whose book-shelved walls glitter bright with gold leaf and scholastic endeavour.

Our gastronomic adventures included a meal at A Ribeira in Montemor-o-Novo, where owner Carlos Carriço sang us the entire menu’s contents in an upbeat rap, then presented the bill in melodious fado.

GDMJC7 Biblioteca Joanina, historic University Library, University of Coimbra, Coimbra, Coimbra District, Portugal, Europe Travel,
The Joanina library at the University of Coimbra

In the mountain hamlet of Casal do São Simão — one of a network of historic Aldeias do Xisto (Slate Villages) — we happened on the family-run restaurant Varanda do Casal. With glorious views out across a forested valley, we feasted on Maria Antunes’s lamb stew, cooked in a wood-fired stone oven.

One insight that crossing Portugal from top to bottom has granted me is that more or less every town and village has a speciality baked good of which it is jealously proud. Carnache do Bonjardim has its almond cartuchos (shells), Castro Daire, its bolo podre; Chaves, its meat-filled pastel. In Abrantes, it’s the sugary, egg-flavoured palha (straw) that makes local chests swell with pride.

Siesta Camper credit Tom Kahler. Pr provided
One of Siesta Campers' fleet

After Abrantes, we crossed the River Tejo and the landscape transformed, with cork forests and orange fields whizzing past the windows, until we both began to sense the sea. We reached it mid-afternoon on day five, pulling up in our dust-coated camper van at Anantara, a luxury resort hotel in Vilamoura, just west of Faro.

The following day, after taking in the sights of Faro’s old town, we would relinquish our four-wheeled home and head to the airport. But for now, after scrubbing off the grime of our week on the road, we took a seat on our hotel balcony and watched the sun sink into the sea, breathing in the salty air as we come to terms with finally having run out of road.

For details of the route, see rotan2.pt Oliver Balch was a guest of Siesta Campers; vans from €100 per day, the Convento da Sertã Hotel in Sertã; double rooms from €100 and the Anantara Vilamoura Algarve in Faro; doubles from €115

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