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N2 – A road the size of the country

Portugal has a myriad of roads from where we can appreciate the sheer beauty and diversity of the country, but one particular road stands above the rest. The National Road number 2 or simply the N2 as it’s known, has a total length of 739.260 Kms  (459.355 miles) in its current version, making it the country’s longest road and the third longest in the world.

The EN2 literally crosses the entire country through the middle almost like a backbone, connecting the cities of Chaves in the north close to border with Galicia, to the coastal city of Faro (Ossonoba in Roman times), in the south edge of the Algarve, just a few hundred meters away from the Atlantic ocean.

The road was formally established on May,11th 1945 by an official decree from the government, which settled the criteria for the classification of roads under the then new National Road Plan. At the time, a big part of its route corresponded to many smaller and older roads, some going as far back as medieval and even roman times, and a few were still made of rocks or macadame (gravel roads invented by Scotish engineer John Loudon MacAdam). Over the years the road has suffered several adjustments in terms of the layout but in its current format, it crosses no less than 11 districts, 35 counties and 11 cities, not to mention some of the country’s most important rivers, railways and mountain ranges.

Driving along the EN2 on the northern half of the country, it’s impossible not to appreciate some of Portugal’s most imponent mountain ranges, where the road reaches a maximum altitude of over 1000 mts, offering breathtaking vistas as far as the eye can see.

Then comes the Douro Valley, the world’s oldest demarcated wine region and a real feast for the senses. Not only the road has some amazing sections in terms of driving pleasure, but the landscape and the perfectly aligned terraces where vines are grown also offer a unique and memorable setting for this part of the journey. No wonder we’re in a UNESCO world heritage site…

One of the less known parts of the trip crosses the center of the country, where the road touches some of the villages forming the Slate Villages network. Real hidden gems located in places of amazing natural beauty where clocks seem to have stopped a long time ago.

On the second half of the trip, south of the Tagus river, the landscape and the character of the land is a world apart, with vast, undulating plains and endless fields of cork and olive trees. The architecture, the cuisine and the traditions of the south of Portugal are still marked by the influences left by the Arabs during their stay in the Iberian Peninsula between the 8th and the 13th centuries. The Alentejo is like a dormant giant and one immediately feels the slower pace of life when crossing the tiny villages, where locals take the shade on their doorsteps during the summer months when temperatures rise above the 40ºC mark.

After crossing the border between the Alentejo and the Algarve, the road has one of the most winding sections across the mountains of the Serra do Caldeirão (big pot in english) mountain range. We’re now in the inner Algarve, a dramatically different setting from the postcards and the holiday resorts most people have seen or heard about this part of Portugal.

At the top of the mountain range and after nearly 700 kms of driving, it is time for a quick stop and reflect on the many different experiences we had along the way. The little promenade offers a breathtaking view over the south side of the mountain and the sun-bathed seashore of the Algarve, is finally within sight.

As we leave the hills behind and approach the coast, the Mediterranean heritage can be felt again, both at the table as well as when talking to the local people or by simply admiring the whitewashed houses, a reminiscence of the centuries-old traditions that some people insist on preserving.

The end of the road is at a roundabout in the center of Faro that has been recently redecorated to mark the end of the route. We didn’t have a fanfare waiting for us to celebrate the feat, just an inner sense of achievement. After all, it’s not everyday that we cross a country the size of Portugal just by driving one single road.

To really appreciate the experience of driving the N2, we’ve allowed ourselves five days to give us enough time to dive into the local culture, savour the cuisine, visit the most important places of interest, and most importantly interact with the locals along the way. To know the country from a different angle, the next adventure will be to follow the N2 on both directions, at different times of the year, but as much off-tarmac as we possibly and legally can. We can’t wait to admire the changes in the landscapes and the colours of nature and how this will impact the travelling experience, but we are pretty sure they will confirm how wonderful, diverse and unique this country is.