Say what you like about Portuguese debt, but some of the money has been well spent. The towns and cities of the Douro valley, where I spent a few days last week, are sparkling.

Thirty years ago, Portugal struggled to live up to the splendours of past centuries. Grime obscured glory. Now, the little town of Lamego is typical: a roundabout that disrupted the central avenida has been removed and granite setts laid. As I climbed the great Baroque staircase (686 steps) to the church of Our Lady of Remedies, resisting the temptation to drink a glass of Murganheira wine en route, I couldn’t help noticing what wasn’t there-litter. Not a speck of it.

Washing lines are still a national forte, but the only graffito I saw in Porto was a charming tribute to the Primavera: Eve, rather than Venus, beset on each side by snakes. Apart from a Felliniesque moment when my ears exploded in a small and noisy tunnel at the lower level of the city, this is a paradise for pedestrians (as long as they have good legs-some streets are steep).

No doubt, the EU has dipped pretty heavily into its coffers over the years to help work Portugal’s urban miracle. My taxes helped pay for it? Sceptic though I am, I couldn’t help feeling a little proud.

* Subscribe to Country Life and save 

* Follow Country Life magazine on Twitter