The timeless beauty of central Portugal

Fiona Maclean discovers a wealth of wildlife, hilltop medieval villages with castles and signs of prehistoric man in this beautiful but little known part of the Iberian peninsula
Faia Brava Butterfly

Faia Brava Butterfly

Faia Brava Pigeon House

Faia Brava Pigeon House

Foz Coa Engravings

Foz Coa Engravings

Foz Coa Engravings 2

Foz Coa Engravings

Herdade da Poupa - Deer

Herdade da Poupa - Deer

Landscape herdade da poupa

Landscape herdade da poupa

Landscape herdade da poupa 2

Landscape herdade da poupa

Monsanto boulder house

Monsanto boulder house

Monsanto boulder Restaurant Terrace

Monsanto boulder Restaurant Terrace

Monsanto castle ramparts

Monsanto castle ramparts

Monsanto roofs

Monsanto roofs

Rose quartz rock - serra d'estrela

Rose quartz rock - serra d'estrela

Serra d'estrela

Serra d'estrela

Serra d'estrela house

Serra d'estrela house

Serra d'estrela shepherd's hide

Serra d'estrela shepherd's hide

Serra d'estrela view

Serra d'estrela view

From across the valley, through binoculars, we could just make out a ball of fluff apparently resting on one of the ledges of the cliff.  Almost straddling it, a strange bird, almost prehistoric in appearance, is proudly guarding her chick.  An Egyptian Vulture and her offspring happily nesting in one of Central Portugal’s hidden Natural Parks, Faia Brava 

The night before we’d hiked a short distance down the river valley by torchlight in search of prehistoric rock carvings.  Foz Côa archaeological park is a Unesco listed site, with engravings dating back to 22,000BC lining the sides of the valley.  Aurochs, horses, deer, ibex and fish all clearly visible and open to the elements.  We’d gone at night to get the best possible view without the distraction of bright sunlight on the rock face.  The engravings overlap as if prehistoric man was worried about running out of space.  Some of the Aurochs have multiple heads looking in different directions – apparently a way of conveying movement.  It was a magical evening, looking at a few of the 5,000 or more carvings that line the valley and trying to imagine why they were put there in the first place. 

Faia Brava Nature Reserve, where we watched kites, vultures and eagles in free flight over the valley, is actually a privately owned reserve, but one that you can visit.  Hike over the hilltops, stop for a while to watch the birds of prey in flight over the valley and peer into the pretty pigeon house that turn out to be a method of collecting the natural ‘fertiliser’ that the pigeons produce.  If you ask nicely, the staff will let you use the hide to the side of the vulture feeding platform…and may even indulge you by providing a feast for the birds so that if you wait an hour or so, you’ll see them descend in a tornado of feathers to devour up to 400kg of raw flesh in a matter of minutes.

You’ll find a slightly more refined offering at Herdade de Poupa.  There’s a real wealth of wildlife in the 4000 hectare estate including Bonelli’s eagle (5 nesting pairs), golden eagles, short toed eagles, griffon vultures, nightjars and of course, the hoopoe or poupa birds from which the estate takes its name.  Herdade da Poupa is in the process of building luxury bird watching hides with full sanitation and beds so that those who really want to catch more than a glimpse of some of the rare birds can do so in style.  But, if you happen to be more interested in rest and relaxation, well there’s a splendid open air pool looking out over the vast expanse of the estate. Rooms are well fitted with comfy beds, luxurious bathrooms, and small balconies perfect to sit and read, listening to the chattering birdsong and nothing else.

We were less than prepared for our greeting there from Poupa, the young tame stag deer. Found orphaned in the grounds of the estate, the staff rescued him and found him a stepmother to wet nurse him in the form of a goat.  He now follows her around dutifully.  When she suggests saying hello, he follows.  But, of course he’s still only in his early teens and will grow to be twice his current size.  And no one knows quite when or if he’ll realise that he’s really NOT a goat.

The area is scattered with hilltop medieval villages with castles built to protect the borders from the Spanish. We visited Monsanto, one of the most famous villages in Portugal for its unique rocky architecture.  The houses are quite literally built into the boulders of the hillside, so that they appear disfigured at first glance, until you realise that the wall is actually a boulder and the chimney has been pushed aside by a slightly inconveniently placed rock.  Apart from the village itself, there’s a half ruined castle with a history still celebrated today.  In this case, an attempted roman invasion was thwarted by the residents who had taken refuge in the castle.  As they gradually ran out of food, defeat seemed inevitable.  But, as a last resort they flung the one remaining goat over the walls of the castle – and somehow managed to convince the offensive that they clearly had food in plenty.  Now, every year on the festival of the Holy Cross in early May the local women process to the castle ramparts tothrow flowers and rag dolls (marafonas) over the ramparts in memory of their miraculous success.

Any visit to Central Portugal should include a trip to the Serra da Estrela.  The highest range of mountains in Portugal, you can ski in winter, hike in summer, mountain bike or just relax at a luxury spa hotel like Casa das Penhas Douradas.  A hundred years or so ago the area was best known as a cure centre for tuberculosis sufferers.  Some of the hotels and holiday homes are renovated rest homes, still sporting large covered balconies where the sick would sit for their constitutional.  But, it has another more sinister role in history, as the main meeting place for the politicians plotting the republican revolution that lead to the exile of King Manuel II in 1910.  Far away from society, it is thought that the republican agitators picked Serra da Estrela as their base for privacy.  Though it might just have been for the fresh air and stunning views too.

I’ve visited Lisbon and even some of inland Portugal before, but over the last ten years the road network has been improved immeasurably and there has been significant investment in high quality hotels. You can stay in luxury for around 80 euros a night per double room with breakfast.  The countryside is unspoilt and the sleepy villages populated by gentle, friendly people.  In part of course, it is the exodus of the young to cities that has left this area so tranquil.  And, until it is rediscovered by the world, there’s a chance to step back in time and explore at your leisure.

Fact Box
Herdade da Poupa offers double rooms including breakfast from €110
Casa dos Poços offers double rooms including breakfast from €88
Casa das Penhas Douradas  offers double rooms including breakfast from €88
TAP Portugal (0845 601 0932, www.flytap.com) flies from London Gatwick to Porto from £126 return including all taxes and charges
For more information on Centro de Portugal visit: www.visitcentro.com/en/
For more information on Portugal visit: www.visitportugal.com
 
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