Castelo Branco to Castelo da Lousa – Driving Through the Serra da Estrela Mountains

Yesterday, from the tower of Castelo e Muralhas Castelo Branco we saw a distant line of snowcapped mountains glistening under a brilliant Spring sun. Tonight, we’d rest our heads in Coimbra, noted for its historic university and preserved medieval old town.  Though only one and half hours from Castelo Branco by highway, it would take us all day as we decided to take the back roads through the Serra da Estrela mountains to Castelo da Lousa and Talasnal, one of the abandoned Schist villages.  Schist is a shiny, earth-toned local stone that is very durable and was used extensively in the region for building.

Below Torre, mainland Portugal’s highest peak at 1,993m (6,539 ft), the headwaters of three rivers, the Zezere, the Mondego and the Alva, emerge from the range and flow to the Atlantic coast. IMG_9293 We crisscrossed these serpentine estuaries multiple times during the day as we drove through verdant pine forests along roads that hugged the curves of the land.  Isolated, whitewashed villages dotted the mountainside.

Heads turned in Foz Giraldo, Oleiros, Alvaro, Maria Gomes, Alvares and Lousa when we parked to wander around.  Early birds, we were way ahead of the summer crowds that rush to these mountains to escape the heat of the city and urban life.

Foresters, shepherds and cheesemakers squeeze a livelihood from the land in this sparsely inhabited region. Queijo Serra da Estrela is Portugal’s most unique cheese. It’s a strong flavored, soft, raw sheep’s milk cheese still made by hand from a 2,000-year-old traditional recipe.  Firm on the outside, the wheels of cheese are lusciously creamy on the inside when young; as the cheese matures the center firms to a sliceable semi-soft texture.

We arrived at Castelo da Lousa around noon, hoping to explore the castle and nearby chapels after lunch at a restaurant adjacent to it.  Midweek and off-season, unfortunately both were closed, but we enjoyed our time walking around the base of the castle.  This small castle, dwarfed by surrounding mountains, was once a strategic stronghold along the Mondego line, a series of defensive fortresses along Portugal’s 11th century border south of Coimbra after it was captured from the Moors, deterring them from retaking that city.  The knights Templar are credited with constructing its Keep and Glacis, a ramped lower wall, along the base of the castle, designed to impede scaling ladders and ramming.  By the early fourteenth century, as the Portuguese border expanded south, the castle lost its importance and was forgotten.IMG_9452As Donna was waiting for me at the foot of the castle while I went to get the car, she was approached by two weary trekkers, without water, who had just hiked down from a mountain hamlet above the castle and were expecting to lunch and relax at the closed restaurant before hiking back up the steep trail.  As crows fly, the distance from the village to the castle wasn’t far, but the return hike looked daunting without water or food.  We quickly agreed to give them a lift back when they asked if we could help them.  Our compact rental car was packed pretty full, but we pulled the seats forward and piled some bags on Donna’s lap to make room for Catia, Alain and his large backpack. ( Always wildy speculating, I wondered if they found the lost treasure of a local legend: King Arounce, who fled ancient Coimbra with his daughter and hid his riches in the mountains above the castle.) A Portuguese/ French couple, they were on a weekend getaway from Lisbon and his backpack was full of photography gear.

As it turned out they were staying where we were headed, in Talasnal, one of the three Schist villages above the castle. The four of us spent the rest of the afternoon at Ti Lena chatting away; their English was much better than our non-existent Portuguese.  This rustic tavern served wonderful, traditional Portuguese cuisine typical of the region, and good local wine.  This delightful, serendipitous encounter was one of the highlights of our road trip.IMG_9560Along with Catarredor and Casal Novo, Talasnal was slowly abandoned over the years as younger generations moved away to find work.  With the rise of ecotourism these rustic villages, with their beautiful stonework, have been rediscovered by folks who want to reconnect with nature and a simpler pastoral life, if even for short periods of time.IMG_9535With the help of government grants, many of the near-collapsing structures are in the process of being updated and authentically restored, using traditional building materials and techniques, into restaurants, small inns, workshops, galleries and private homes to support a growing tourist infrastructure and revitalize the area.  Across the mountainous central region of Portugal there are twenty-seven Aldeias do Xisto (Schist Villages) that can be explored.

Till nex time,

Craig & Donna

 

Back Roads – Castelo Branco – Jewel of the Portuguese Frontier

The long, curved road to the top of Colina da Cardosa in Castelo Branco was lined with olive trees.  In this small city of 56,000 it seemed that every available piece of land that didn’t have a building on it was planted with olive trees – even in the median strip!  Being olive aficionados, we were impressed with this urban landscaping that was both functional and edible.  We parked adjacent to Igreja de Santa Maria do Castelo and the ruins of the old castle that dominate the hilltop.  A pathway led us to benches that overlooked the prosperous expanse of the modern city.  The golden hour lit the trees around us with warmth.  As the sky deepened, city lights slowly filled the void. Behind us, on the slope below the castle, the old historic district was already cloaked in night.   Tomorrow we’d spend the day wandering its ancient alleys. 

Located just a short walk from the crest of the hill TRYP Colina Do Castelo Hotel, with its free parking, turned out to be the perfect place to base our wandering of the historic district from.  Better for us to walk downhill than uphill.  From our balcony the next morning, we watched a brilliant sunrise.IMG_8704Fortifying the high ground was the rule centuries ago and the last remnant of Castelo e Muralhas Castelo Branco, the white castle, still commands the skyline above the old historic district of the town.  Much isn’t known of the history of Castelo Branco before 1182, when it is first mentioned in a royal document decreeing land to who else, but those prolific castle builders the Knights Templar.  Only 18km (11 miles) from the Spanish border, the fortified village quickly grew into an important center of commerce and line of defense to protect the Portuguese frontier.  Today only two towers and a wide section of the ramparts are all that remained to remind us of this once mighty fortress and walled city.  Igreja de Santa Maria do Castelo is thought to be the first church built in the village, when it was constructed within the castle walls on the foundations of a ruined Roman temple.  The church had a turbulent history: destroyed in 1640 during the Portuguese Castile war, burnt down in 1704 and then used by the French as a stable when they invaded. It was left in ruins until it was rebuilt in the 19th century. It now sits peacefully in the park, atop the hill, with a view of the surrounding countryside.

From the castle towers we plotted our walk down through the ancient quarter to Jardim do Paço, the Bishop’s Palace Garden, then ending our day at Sé Catedral de Castelo Branco.  From the hilltop we descended a long flight of shaded stairs to the Miradouro de São Gens.  This is a lovely, quiet spot with a water garden and benches.  During its construction in 1940s evidence of earlier civilizations living on the hill were unearthed and placards describing the finds are featured along the pathway.

We exited the park onto Rua do Mercado, the old merchant street that runs flatly across the midsection of the hill.  Unlike Alfama in Lisbon, there are no boutique shops or galleries along the lane; the area is strictly residential now.  The names of the narrow, cobbled lanes reflect the shops that once lined them: Rua dos Oleiros (potters,) Rua dos Peleteiros (pelters,) and Rua dos Lagares (wineries,) and they run steeply down the slope from Rua do Mercado to flatter ground around the Bishop’s Palace Garden and the newer 17th century part of town.  Wonderful examples of 15th century homes with carved stone door and window frames can be found in this area. But like Alfama, Albicastrenses still gather to talk to their neighbors in the streets and hang laundry from their windows.

Fine examples of Portuguese Calcada, mosaic stone sidewalks, can be seen in front of the Bishop’s Palace, now the Museu Francisco Tavares Proença Jr., which is famous for its collection of highly embroidered, ornate colcha, bedspreads, from the Castelo Branco area.  This traditional art has been unique to the region for over three-hundred years.  It is thought that the inspiration for these was brought back from the orient by Portuguese traders and that the local women self-taught themselves the technique. Needing to rest, we headed into a municipal park across from the Bishop’s Garden, where there was a small café that served good coffee and tasty sandwiches.

The Bishop’s Palace Garden is the crown jewel of Castelo Branco and even in mid-March when we visited was green and spectacular. Commissioned in the early 1700s by the Bishop of Guarda, D. João de Mendonça, it is one of Portugal’s best examples of baroque formal gardens.  The garden is divided into four distinct sections containing fragrant orange trees, azulejos tile murals, boxwood hedges, staircases, statuary, pools, and fountains all inter-connected via pathways. Of particular interest were the staircase of the Kings of Portugal that depicted in miniature the hated Monarchs of Spain, who for short periods ruled Portugal, and the delicate sprinkler fountains found in the pools that were unique to Portuguese formal gardens at the time.

Continuing our walk to the Sé Catedral de Castelo Branco we passed a tall, richly carved, stone road marker.  The Cross of Sao Joao, its fine Manueline details now heavily eroded by time, was sculpted in the 1500s to mark that there was a chapel devoted to Sao Joao nearby. Further along we passed an old defense tower that was renovated centuries earlier to become the town’s clock tower, Torre do Relógio, with its signature finely, pointed conical roof.

Just off the old square, Praça do Camões, we passed through an archway that was once one of the gates to the walled lower part of the town.  Above it was the first residence of the Guarda Bishops before their luxurious palace was built. Those versatile Templars, fortress and cathedral builders extrordinaire, are also credited with the construction the of Sé Catedral de Castelo Branco in the early 13th century.  The cathedral’s original footprint has been lost under centuries of expansion.  Today its simple exterior belies a richly decorated interior that features a gold-leaf altar and a beautiful baptismal font.

Exhausted after a long day of discovery, we took a taxi back uphill to our hotel for the evening. 

When we visited in early Spring, we had the town mostly to ourselves. There were only a handful of other tourists wandering the alleys and gardens with us.  As inexpensive as Lisbon was, meals are even more budget friendly in the countryside.  We highly recommend touring through the small villages and towns along the Portuguese frontier with Spain as a reprieve from the big cities of Lisbon, Coimbra and Porto. You’ll be pleasantly surprised.

Till next time,

Craig & Donna