For administrative purposes metropolitan Portugal is divided into districts (distritos). For several hundred years after becoming an independent state the country was divided into six provinces for administration. In 1833 the provinces were abolished as such, and the country was divided into districts patterned after the French departmental system. The new districts were named after their capital cities, but the old province names -- Minho, Trás-os-Montes, Beira, Estremadura, Alentejo, and Algarve -- remained in common use as regional designations. One hundred years later the 1933 Constitution reintroduced the province as an administrative subdivision, superimposing eleven provinces over the existing eighteen districts.
There was almost immediate dissatisfaction with the new administrative breakdown but, because the system had been incorporated into the constitution, it remained in force for several years. Meanwhile the district continued as the major administrative subdivision, and in 1959 the province classification was again abolished. In early 1976 there were twenty-two administrative districts -- eighteen in the Iberian homeland, three in the Azores, and one consisting of the Madeira archipelago. Province names, usually of the six old provinces but often of the eleven later provinces, continue in use as regional designations.
Portugal's twenty-two districts are divided into municipalities, which in turn are subdivided into parishes. In Lisbon and Porto there is an intermediate level, known as the ward (bairro), between the municipality and the parish. In mainland Portugal there are more than 300 municipalities and almost 4,000 parishes. The three districts of the Azores are divided into nineteen municipalities and 189 parishes; Funchal District ( Madeira) is divided into eleven municipalities and fifty-three parishes.
Portugal's boundaries are the Atlantic Ocean, along which it has a coastline of 523 miles, and Spain, with which it shares a northern frontier of about 210 miles and an eastern frontier of about 540 miles. The Spanish-Portuguese frontier is easily traversed overland, and rivers form the boundary in many places. The boundaries of modern Portugal were fixed by treaties in 1864 and 1906, and in early 1976 there were no disputes, nor were there serious Portuguese claims to Olivenqa and Juromenha, two Alentejo towns seized by Spain in 1801 and not returned despite an agreement in 1815.
In the north the border follows the Rio Minho from its mouth on the Atlantic coast for forty-six miles to the point where the Minho divides Portugal from Spain. The deep valley formed by the river creates a natural frontier between the Spanish region of Galicia and the Minho region of Portugal. From the Rio Minho the border traverses a series of rugged mountain ranges, crossing several tributaries of the Rio Douro before reaching the point where that river enters Portugal.
The eastern boundary with Spain runs in a generally north-south direction, occasionally changing to an east-west direction for relatively short distances before ending at the mouth of the Rio Guadiana on the Gulf of Cadiz. For seventy-four miles the boundary follows the Rio Douro which, like the Rio Minho, forms a deep gorge, making it another natural dividing line. At Barca d' Alva, the upper navigation limit for small craft on the Douro, the river turns west, but the border continues southward through the thinly populated Serra das Mesas. Continuing in a southwestern direction, the boundary reaches the Rio Tejo valley and follows the Tejo for thirty miles west before turning sharply to the southeast. In this region there is more population than along the northern frontier. The boundary follows small rivers until it reaches the Rio Guadiana, whose course it follows through the ElvasBadajoz area, a rolling countryside that has no natural obstacles and through which Portugal was often invaded in earlier eras.
The boundary leaves the Guadiana and juts eastward for about seventy miles to the Rio Chança, which it follows westward through a sparsely populated area before returning to the Guadiana. The boundary is formed by the Guadiana until it reaches the ocean at Vila Real de Santo António. As there are no bridges across the river, the only connection with Spain on the lower Guadiana is by ferry.