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Portugal shares the Iberian Peninsula with Spain, although it is only about one-sixth as large as its neighbor. Including the Azores (Açores in Portuguese) and Madeira, the country has a total area of 92,080 square kilometers. Portugal lies on the westernmost promontory of continental Europe. The rugged Pyrenees Mountains separate Iberia from the heart of the European continent, and Portugal is even further distant across the vastness of Spain. Distance and isolation have created in Portugal a sense that it is a part of Europe geographically but apart from it culturally, socially, economically, politically, and even psychologically. Even in the early 1990s, Lisbon (Lisboa in Portuguese) was a two-to-three-day drive from Paris.
Portugal is bounded on the west and south by the Atlantic Ocean and on the north and east by Spain. The country's shape is roughly that of a rectangle, with its short sides on the north and south and its long sides on the east and west. Portugal's Atlantic coastline is 837 kilometers long; its northern and eastern frontiers with Spain are 336 and 839 kilometers long, respectively.
Historically, Portugal emerged as a separate country during centuries of struggle with the Spanish provinces of León and Castile. Even hundreds of years after breaking away from Spain for the last time in 1640, fears remained in Portugal that it might one day be swallowed up by larger and more powerful Spain, perhaps not militarily, but culturally and economically. That sentiment is expressed by the Portuguese proverb that "neither a good wind nor a good marriage ever come from Spain." Meanwhile, Portugal's long coast has given it an "Atlantic vocation" and propelled its historic ventures of global exploration and colonization.
Portugal is not a homogeneous country geographically. The physical environment varies enormously, creating several distinct geographic regions that, in turn, have shaped the culture of the people and their economy and society. Northern Portugal is a mountainous, rainy region, characterized by many small farms and vineyards. The Portuguese nation began in this region, fending off León and Castile while simultaneously driving the Moors south and eventually out of the peninsula. It is a desolate area of rocky hillsides where smallholders have eked out a meager existence for hundreds of years. This region is also said to be the origin of the strongest Portuguese national values of hard work, thrift, traditionalism, Roman Catholicism, and practicality. It is also an area, however, that has lost many of its inhabitants through emigration.
Central Portugal, between the Rio Douro in the north and the Rio Tejo (Tagus River in English), including the capital city of Lisbon and its environs, is less homogeneous. The central coastal region consists of dunes and pine forests, and many residents of the area earn their livelihood from fishing. The central eastern areas, known as the Beira, consist of mainly small and medium-sized farms, with some mining and light industry. The greater Lisbon area, including both the city and its suburbs, accounts for most of the nation's commerce and much of its industry.
Southern Portugal, known as the Alentejo (literally, "beyond the Tejo") is an area of gently rolling hills and plains dominated by extensive estates with large-scale agriculture and grazing. It was traditionally also a land of often embittered tenant farmers and peasants. In contrast to the conservative north, the Alentejo was an area of radical political movements; for a long time, the Portuguese Communist Party (Partido Comunista Português--PCP) was the strongest party in the region.
The extreme south of Portugal is known as the Algarve. It is a dry region of smallholdings, grazing, and fishing, and coastal towns. This is the area of Portugal most strongly influenced by the Moors; even today the Moorish influence is present in the region's dialect and architecture. With its warm climate and Mediterranean sky, the Algarve has also become a center for tourism and a home to many foreign retirees.
Historically, Portugal was divided administratively into six provinces that corresponded closely to these natural geographic divisions. The north consisted of two provinces, the coastal Minho and the interior Trás-os-Montes. The center was made up of Beira and Estremadura, and the south consisted of the Alentejo and the Algarve. Later these historical provinces were further subdivided for administrative purposes, but the historical names have been retained in popular usage.
Even though it is a small country, Portugal has a wide variety of landforms, climatic conditions, and soils. The major difference is between the mountainous regions of the north and, across the Rio Tejo, the great rolling plains of the south. Within these two major regions are further subdivisions that reflect the country's vast differences. The Minho and Trás-os-Montes are both mountainous, but whereas the former is green with abundant rainfall, the latter is dry and parched. The Beira Litoral and Estremadura are younger geologically and contain sandstone, limestone, and volcanic rock. Beira Alta (Upper Beira) is mountainous and forms a barrier across the center of Portugal, but Beira Baixa (Lower Beira) is dry and windswept, an extension of the Spanish plateau. The Alentejo consists of gentle hills and plains. Because it is one of the driest areas in the country, it is not suitable for intensive agriculture. The area does support cattle raising, as well as cork oak and some grains. It is separated from the Algarve by two mountain ranges, the Serra de Monchique and the Serra do Caldeirao.
Geography and topography are also reflected in the climate. The mountainous regions of the north are considerably colder than the south. Winter snows in the Serra da Estrêla (which contains Portugal's highest peak at 1,986 meters) and the Serra do Gerês near the northern Spanish border may block roads for a time. The weather along the northern coasts and in the center of the country is milder; Lisbon has an average high temperature of 14C in January and 27C in August. Southern Portugal is warmer. The ocean moderates coastal temperatures, but the interior of the Alentejo can be quite warm, with temperatures sometimes above 40C during the summer months. Because of its Mediterranean climate, most of Portugal's rainfall occurs in the winter, the north receiving much more rain than the south.
Portugal has ten major rivers, five of which have their origins in Spain. The Rio Minho begins in Spanish Galicia and for a distance of seventy-four kilometers forms the northern Portuguese frontier with Spain. The Rio Douro is of great importance to the commerce of northern Portugal. It also originates in Spain and flows the entire width of Portugal before emptying into the Atlantic at Porto, the country's second largest city. The Rio Douro is navigable by small craft for its full distance of 198 kilometers in Portugal; historically the river was used to transport casks of port wine to Porto. Its steep banks are terraced with vineyards, and the valley of the Rio Douro is one of the most picturesque in all Portugal.
The Rio Tejo is the country's longest river, has the largest drainage basin, and is the most important economically. It is navigable only eighty kilometers upstream, but that includes the vast estuary on which Lisbon is located. The Tejo estuary is the best natural port on the European continent and able to handle large ocean-going vessels. It also contains the Cacilhas drydocks, the largest in the world.
The most important river in the south is the Rio Guadiana which, flowing north to south, forms part of the border with Spain. Other important rivers in Portugal include the Rio Lima and the Rio Tâmega in the north, the Rio Mondego in the center, and the Rio Sado and Rio Chança in the south.
The soil systems of Portugal are usually sandy, arid, and acid, reflecting the soils of the Iberian Peninsula generally. Soil in the north can be rocky. Northern Portugal is better suited for agriculture than the south because of abundant rainfall, but with proper irrigation the south could support more intensive agriculture.
About one-fourth of Portugal is covered by forests (mainly pine and deciduous oak); if such cultivated tree crops as olives, cork oak, almonds, chestnuts, and citrus are counted, about one- third of the country's area is tree covered. In the northern mountains, pine, oak, poplar, and elm trees are prevalent. Vegetation is more varied in the central region and includes citrus trees and cork oak. The warm, dry south contains many areas of rough pasture, as well as abundant cork oak.
In addition to continental Portugal, the country's territory also includes the Azores and Madeira islands. The Azores consist of nine inhabited islands and several uninhabited rock outcroppings 1,280 kilometers west of the mainland in the Atlantic Ocean. The archipelago has an area of 2,278 square kilometers and a population of about 250,000. The Azores produce sufficient foodstuffs for internal consumption and some exports, but they remain even poorer than the mainland. The Madeira archipelago, located about 560 kilometers miles west of Northern Africa, consists of two inhabited and several uninhabited islands. With a total area of 788 square kilometers and a population of about 270,000 people, the archipelago is severely overpopulated.
SOURCES: Library of Congress Country Studies/Area Handbook