It's Small, Diverse - and, Yes, Somewhat Less Expensive

'Why did you choose Portugal?'' When we recounted our vacation to others, everyone seemed to ask that question. I suppose of all the countries in Europe, Portugal seemed more off the beaten path.

That's one reason we decided to make it our destination. We also thought it might be more of a travel bargain than places such as Italy, France, or Spain.

That may have been true a few years ago, but Portugal, while still less expensive than its neighbors, is quickly catching up. In 1986, it joined the European Community, and prices have risen as the country moves to modernize its services. The weakening United States dollar has lost some of its value against the escudo as well. We found hotel and food prices comparable to many US cities, with prices ranging from cheap to very expensive.

Tourism is also growing swiftly as the government spends more money to promote its country and as more people discover it.

Portugal is surprisingly diverse geographically. Fishing villages and resort towns are scattered along the miles of sandy and rocky coastline. Tall, rugged mountains carve up the northeastern section; parts of the interior are dry and Mediterranean; others are lush and green. At 350 miles long and 138 miles across at its widest point, Portugal is fairly small, and one can cover a lot of territory in a short time. Roads are improving, though driving can be an adventure not for the timid, especially in the cities.

Everywhere you go, you'll see azulejos (painted ceramic tiles) introduced by the Moors. Churches, walls, fountains, and private residences are decorated with the colorful tiles, the patterns of which range from geometrical designs to religious and ocean motifs. The best time to head to Portugal is during the spring or fall. Tourist season is high summer, and reservations to the country's pousadas need to made well in advance.

For more information about pousadas, contact Marketing Ahead, 433 Fifth Ave., New York, NY 10016; (212) 686-9213 or 800-223-1356.

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