Travel Report Mountain Villages of Portugal
For most foreigners Portugal just consists of Lisbon, Porto and the beautiful beaches of Algarve. Nevertheless, this is just part of the story! There is an unknown hidden side with beautiful enchanted mountain villages bringing you back in time. Breathtaking mountain streets lead through stunning landscapes up to winter paradises and ski slopes. We wanted to see this side of Portugal with our own eyes, booked a rental car and started on a 3-day road trip from Lisbon to the country’s “secret” center. This was our itinerary to the villages of Portugal.
Day 1: Mafra, Óbidos, Caldas da Rainha, Fátima
We left our home in Lisbon at 08:30, picked up the rental car and were already on the road by 09:30. Coffees taken and finally awake, we were super excited to known what was ahead of us.
- Mafra: Just about an hour away from Lisbon and part of the capital’s district, Mafra was our first stop. The beautiful Mafra National Palace with its astonishing baroque style is the jewel of the city. The highlight of the palace, apart from magnificent rooms, the nursery or even the abbey and gardens, is its library. The 88m long room is considered one of the most beautiful ones in the world. It was even used as a film set for Gulliver’s Travels. If traveling with more time we would definitely advise you to visit Tapada de Mafra as well.
- Óbidos: Ahhhh Óbidos… We were super anxious to get there as it had been on our list for ages. It is most famous for its Ginjinha, a Portuguese cherry liquor served in a chocolate cup. Moreover, this tiny village taken out from a book of fairy tales seems to have stopped in time! The whole structure is located within the ancient castle walls and still looks untouched. Óbidos is characterized by its whitewashed houses, framed windows and doors in blue and yellow. There’s no reason to not fall in love for this medieval gem.
- Caldas da Rainha: This small sized city is good for staying the night while commuting or for a spa treatment. Referring to its name “Queen’s Hot Springs”, Caldas da Rainha is famous for the hot springs and its fruit market. However, as we did not have time for a spa treatment and the market had already closed after midday, we would have cut this from our itinerary. Although, we still found some very nice places for a stroll around such as Parque Dom Carlos I or the city center.
- Fátima: This place is considered to be the Vatican of Portugal. With a calm and peaceful atmosphere in the air, Fátima is a place where you feel “something”, whether you’re a believer or not. The Shrine of Fátima is a beautiful piece of architecture. Famous for the 20th century legend of the Three Secrets of Fátima, all the town revolves and has been living around this religious theme. Moreover, if you have time definitely take a detour and visit the National Park of Mira de Aire and its Gruta das Moedas.
After leaving Fátima we headed to Castelo Branco and staid in some friends house for the night. It was good to have a fresh shower and a table ready of delishous food.
Day 2: Belmonte, Sortelha, Serra da Estrela, Piodão
It was a relaxing night with a typical king breakfast from the north of the country, full of local cheeses, farmed jams and home made bread. We were now ready to get back on the road and explore 3 of the many historical mountain villages of Portugal: Belmonte, Sortelha and Piodão. We had high expectations after we had seen many pictures gathered some good advice from locals. So here we were, ready to go!
- Belmote: The remains of the castle overlooking gorgeous landscape and its mini chapels in front are worth the visit. The houses of the small city center are more than charming. However, it in the aftermath it was our least favorite of the mountain villages. Not for not being beautiful but because this is probably the most commercial and explored one. It isn’t very remote and the surrounding architecture and business make the ancient buildings less present.
- Sortelha: The next village, and even the way going there, didn’t disappoint us at all. Sortelha sits on top of a mountain and the streets going there consist of curves, curves and more curves. It’s almost impossible not to feel like on a roller coaster. Once getting to the top, you can feel the magic. We parked our car at the north entrance of the village in order to explore the surroundings by foot. It was a short climb in between the houses to get to the top of the bell tower. The view could inspire any painter to create a new stunning image with an innovative touch of renewable technologies. Wind farms can be found everywhere around Portugal’s mountain area. Carrying on, we reached the ancient village inside the former castle walls. The well-kept stone houses are beautiful with details and unique cuts. Anyways, the a feeling of being in a ghost town was omnipresent. There wasn’t almost anybody except of some tourists in the only cafe! Surely, Sortelha is still a secret jewel.
- Serra da Estrela: Torre is the peak of Portugal at 2000 meters of altitude. Even though it wasn’t on our initial itinerary once we were with a good timing. The views in this altitude are breathtaking and something you would not imagine to find in Portugal. The top is most interesting for it’s panorama, bits of snow even during spring and the commercial center selling typical local products! Surely, it cannot meet the experience of discovering Sierra Nevada or the Alps but it has its own charm. In winter fans of winter sports can come here to ski (check on Ski Serra da Estrela). Very often you can hear a Portuguese person saying: “We have everything in terms of landscape and outdoors activities: from beach to mountain, from water sports to winter sports”. It is a fact that the variety of this tiny country is astonishing.
- Piodão: Wow! Words aren’t enough to explain the magic atmosphere of this place. If Sortelha was charming, Piodão was magical and astonishing! Not gonna lie, the way was hard but worth every curve, hill edge, scary moment with cars driving towards you! Some parts of the roads are extremely narrow, literally meaning that only one car can pass at the same time. There are no side rails protecting vehicles from falling several hundred meters down the mountains. It was indeed a frightening experience to get to Piodão with an average experience of 30 km/h. But we were could say to be lucky to get there at all: the street was only built in 1972 and the village in earlier days isolated from the rest of the world.
Once there, we experienced heaven! From the top, you might get the first impression to watch a heavenly image of a real nativity set. The little houses are all tucked in together like a Lego. Made out of shale, all black, with traditional blue doors and window frames, it is impossible to not fall in love. In some corners we admired the tiny open canals that channel fresh water coming from the mountains down the hill. There is a whitewashed church at the entrance of the village that stands out of all that black scenery around. What made Piodão really magical to us is the fact that you see real quite some people living there. Inhabitants go on their daily lives: shopping, talking to neighbors, going to the church and making this a lively village. Definitely this won’t be the last time we go there but maybe next by helicopter.
- Missing – Monsanto: This was the only place we had to cut out from our initial itinerary due the time left for the journey. Monsanto is a tiny village set on a hill where the houses are built underneath and in between massive boulders. It is considered one of the most beautiful villages of Portugal. For us this means: let’s come back!
Day 3: Coimbra, Nazaré
- Coimbra: “Portugal’s Oxford” is a town that has its heart beating because of its universities and pupils. We had a pleasant time enjoying the atmosphere. In the center there isn’t much more to see than the beautiful old town cobble streets, the old cathedral and the Botanical Garden. However, if you have kids there is a place called Portugal dos Pequenitos (Portugal of the Littles), which is nothing less then a park with miniatures of traditional Portuguese architecture. Also, located at the opposite riverbench there is a beautiful complex of gardens and a palace named Quinta das Lágrimas (Farmyard of Tears). Here the most touching, and yet, tragic Portuguese love story of Pedro I and Inês de Castro happened.
- Nazaré: Our last stop before returning to Lisbon has defined newspapers headlines by having the biggest waves in the world for bravest surfers to adventure themselves. In the land of fresh fish, fishermen, fishmongers and fishwives, you can breathe ocean life in every corner. From the downtown area and the beachfront, where women are drying the fish with their equipment, to the top of the hill with the church of Nossa Senhora da Nazaré or the Forte Sao Miguel Arcanjo, everything here is ocean and sea.
We were absolutely knackered after completing 1000 kilometers in only 3 days. It was an exhausting journey but so well worthy. We have seen a side of Portugal that is still far beyond typical tourist paths. If you want to know more about the Portuguese historical villages, hamlets and their routes, check Historical Villages of Portugal.
Other “secret” locations to visit
Peneda Gerês National Park in the North (Braga/Viana do Castelo): Located at the boarder between Portugal and Spain, the only National Park in Portugal is a wonder for nature lovers.
Convento de Cristo (Christ Covent) in Tomar: One of the most beautiful convents in Portugal that was once the headquarters to the Templar and the Knights of the Order of Christ.
Évora in Alentejo: A small picturesque town in the interior of the country with several temples dating from the prehistoric period until recent days.
Bom Jesus do Monte (Good Jesus of the Mount) in Braga: In our opinion the most beautiful “Via Sacra” setting in the world, with a majestic church “sitting” on the top.