THE townspeople know where you are going. From darkened doorways and half-open sashes they smile and point toward whichever street leads upward. Up cobbled alleys so narrow your car's side mirrors threaten the potted plants and napping cats perched on every windowsill. Up through the old town, so starkly white beneath the chrome noon sun that you can barely open your eyes. Up through the towering castle ramparts that defended this ancient village from Castile and the Moors.
From the vantage point of the town's highest elevation, a statue of Rainha Santa Isabel looks out upon a full horizon of terraced slopes, eucalyptus-lined country roads, and tawny hills.
Travel-weary, wary of having made a wrong turn, we approach an obscure doorway amid a concatenation of goat bells and barking dogs, flitting swallows, a man leaning on a cane.
And then, as if in a fantasy, glass doors open. Red carpeting leads down high-ceilinged corridors chock-full of antique furniture and paintings like El Greco's ``Deposition of Christ.'' A perfectly attired valet whisks your bags up a vast winding stairway, along candelabra-lined halls, past marble archways.
Welcome to Pousada Rainha Santa Isabel.
Welcome, too, to the best tourist buy in Europe. This kingly setting is only one of 29 countrywide, government-owned-and-run accommodations known as pousadas. Very similar to the Spanish network of paradores, pousadas (meaning ``resting places'') are historic buildings, castles, and traditional country inns usually dating from the 12th to the 17th centuries, and now maintained and run with exquisite taste and decorum. For sheer history, Old World ambiance, and traditional cuisine, they would be a highlight of any European tour at any price. Yet budget prices help put pousada-hopping into nearly every European bargain guide: no more than $37.50 per night, double occupancy. Most charge less than $27. Large meals cost between $6 and $9.50 at any of them; breakfasts are included in the room rate, as are service and taxes.
Here in this 13th-century castle, the $37.50 price included a wrought-iron, canopied, four-poster bed fit for a king, an all-marble bathroom, ornate heraldry over the doorways, baroque gilded mirrors, and carpeting over beautifully tiled floors. Brocade, velvet, and voile are everywhere. A tray of fruit with bottled water, and finger bowls garnished with slices of lemon, also greet the visitor. The scene from the window is an incredible slice of Portugal at its best: low-hanging cumulus clouds, a fairy-tale village, and the sun-drenched fields. The air is redolent with and grapes.
Rainha Santa Isabel was our first encounter with pousadas, but the above-mentioned pousada-hunt was a scenario we would repeat in many locations, notably in the nearby towns of Palmela and Setubal. As you drive into many a small town, your only guide is the generic sign of a house with the word ``Pousada'' written in capital letters, and an arrow. You can also obtain a guidebook, of course.
As my wife and I made our rounds, we noticed other couples doing the same, many stopping in just for lunch or dinner, others for one night at a time, still others for weeks at a time, using one pousada as a base for touring an entire Portuguese province.
The tour can be rationalized for the food alone. At Santa Isabel we sat in high velvet chairs in a cavernous room with vaulted ceilings. Suggested delicacies were sopa de grao (chickpea soup), ensopado de borrego (baby lamb stew), and sopa dourada (cinnamon-spiked egg-yolk custard, topped with croutons). There were 8 kinds of fish, 11 kinds of meat (including venison and wild boar), 7 delicate appetizers, 6 desserts, and 4 kinds of coffee. Rack of lamb for two cost about $12.
If all this weren't enough, stacks of brochures in the lobby lead tourists to a number of points of local interest. In Estremoz, that means the rural art museum, with one of the most complete collections of Portuguese popular art in Europe.
Every pousada has a story, too. As we approached the nearby Pousada de Sao Filipe, stopping only for lunch, we read of Spain's King Philip, who wanted this fortress built precariously at cliff's edge to keep an eye on the British, then patrolling Portuguese waters. Now the cannons of this 16th-century fort still aim seaward across the battlements.
Inside is a stunning chapel tiled entirely in blue and white, a crafts shop, and underground passageways. Public areas are floored in terra cotta and the white walls wainscoted in tiles of blue, white, and yellow. Rooms (no two are alike) look down at the sleepy port town. And the view from the castle ramparts offers 360 degrees of maritime wonder.
It is a good idea to contact the Portuguese National Tourist Office (548 Fifth Avenue, New York, N.Y. 10036, tel. (212) 354-4403) for a brochure listing and picturing each pousada before setting an itinerary. Most are far off the beaten track, above or beyond the tourist fray of towns. Puzzlingly, some small towns we passed through had signs reading ``Pousada'' that led merely to local hotels. Travelers will want to ask if the particular pousada is part of the government-sponsored network.
Also, some are better than others. Two we stayed in, one at Elvas and the other in Serpa, struck me as nice local inns, but neither as historic or regal as the others. Some guidebooks list about 10 of the 29 pousadas as ``specially recommended.'' Of these, we found at least one that didn't seem to belong on the list. In any case, all are meticulously well kept, have friendly personnel, and reflect the authentic flavor of the province in which they are situated.
The government sets the rates each year for each pousada, and they are administered by the National Tourist Company. You can sign up for either long or short tours, including stops for food and lodging, and visits to local points of interest. Ask lots of questions of your travel agent.
Besides ``a place to rest,'' a pousada promises to provide the natural bounty of its region; the riches and curiosities of its regional cookery; the lowest tariffs for like quality that can be found anywhere in the Western world.
It is a tall order filled, for the most part, extraordinarily well.