Glimpses of rural northern Portugal

By Philip Wagenaar

(Second of two parts, click here for part 1)

Sitting in a small café in May 2006, my bica (espresso) in front of me, I put the finishing touch on the second installment of my Portugal travelogue. The results appear below.

The Alto Douro wine region

Beautiful vistas of the Douro River, of small picturesque villages, of quintas (wine-producing farm complexes, frequently offering accommodation), of chapels, of winding roads and of terraced vineyards greeted us on our afternoon drive through the Alto Douro (high Douro) wine-growing area southeast of Vila Real.

The scenic vineyards occupy tall, almost vertical slopes, with work roads rising up at dizzying angles.

Having outstanding universal value, the whole area was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2001 because, according to UNESCO’s document of Justification for Inscription, “Wine has been produced by traditional landholders in the Alto Douro region for some 2,000 years. Since the 18th century, its main product, port wine, has been world famous for its quality. This long tradition of viticulture has produced a cultural landscape of outstanding beauty that reflects its technological, social and economic evolution.”

Be sure to visit this stunning area. If you have your own car, take the N222 along the Douro from Peso da Régua to petite Pinhão and the N322 to Alijó. Afterward, let your eyes be your guide. When we visited, there was hardly any traffic.

In the absence of a vehicle, join a leisurely voyage on a Douro riverboat. (For schedules, see the end of this article.)

In other regions of Portugal, grapes frequently are grown on trellises. Interestingly, in one vineyard, farmers used the windowless skeleton of an abandoned truck as a framework for the grapes.

Parque Natural da Serra da Estrela (near Mangualde)

To reach Mangualde, our next destination, we wandered the back roads from Vila Real. After taking the IP4 toward Bragança, we followed the N322 to Pinhão, the N323 and N226 to Trancoso, the N102 to Celorico da Beira, the N17 in the direction of Coimbra and finally the N232 to Mangualde.

Senhora do Costelo, our hilltop hotel, with its balconied rooms, afforded a wonderful panorama of the surrounding countryside. As a Portuguese senior group was staying at the inn, we were party to a magnificent folkloric show in the evening.

Nearby beautiful Parque Natural da Serra da Estrela was easily reached by traveling from Mangualde to Gouveia, where signs on the N232, the main paved highway through the park, point to Manteigas, as well as to the Serra da Estrela.

As the road climbs, the scenery changes from dense pine forests to brilliant glacial lakes and to meadows full of giant boulders, often one on top of the other — a sight to behold.

To complete the loop back to Gouveia, after reaching Manteigas, follow the signs to Caldas de Manteigas (spa of Manteigas). From there, stupendous views greet you — if you dare take your eyes off this precariously narrow 1½-lane road — as you pursue the beautiful Vale Glaciário do Zêzere (the glacial valley of the Zêzere River).

Upon reaching the N339, turn in the direction of Seia. You will pass the turnoff to Torre, which, at 1993 meters, is Portugal’s highest point. This dismal, rough, unpaved area, which has a 7-meter tower (torre) erected by Dom João VI, also features a sad shopping mall that many tourists visit. To us, the only redeemable feature of Torre was the presence of a toilet inside the mall.

A number of hiking trails cross the park. For trail details, inquire at park offices in the nearby towns. You also can obtain good information by scrutinizing “The Rough Guide to Portugal,” third edition (March 2005), and the booklet “Discovering the Region of the Serra da Estrela.” To procure the latter, go to

As a pack of wild dogs had attacked Dutch friends of ours on one of their walks there a few years ago, we decided to forgo the park’s exploration on foot.

Parque Natural das Serras de Aire e Candeeiros (near Peniche)

When my wife, Flory, mentioned that she had seen enough mountains, we decided to drive to Peniche, at the coast, approximately 80 kilometers north of Lisbon.

This picturesque, walled fishing port is located on a small peninsula with a lighthouse and stunning cliffs.

Today, the municipality is renowned for its fish restaurants and its lace. Go inside the lace-making school — next to the Turismo (tourist office) — and watch the women create the most wonderful-looking, delicate bobbin lace.

After enjoying a walk on the quiet beach opposite our hotel in the morning, we visited the Parque Natural das Serras de Aire e Candeeiros in the afternoon.

As the Portuguese expressways, or A roads (some are toll roads; others are free), are masterfully engineered and are a pleasure to drive, we took the A8 and A15, almost to Santarem. After exiting the expressway, road directions become confusing. To reach the beautiful N362, which runs through the rolling hills of the park to Porto de Mós, follow the signs to Torras Vedras, Romeira and Alcanede.

While in the north of the park, you will delight in the numerous charming olive groves, which, separated by low walls of loose stones, dot the enchanting, undulating countryside. In the eastern part, you can go spelunking in one of three huge underground caves, the Mira de Aire (the largest and most spectacular), the Alvados and the Santo António.

Parque Natural da Serra de São Mamede (near Castelo de Vide)

The next day we drove from Peniche via the stunning A8 and A23 expressways to Castelo de Vide, situated in the Parque Natural da Serra de São Mamede, whose tree-clad mountains soar abruptly from the flat surrounding countryside of eastern Portugal. The park has a number of striking villages and three towns: Portalegre, Marvão and Castelo de Vide. The latter two deserve a visit.

Upon entering the old part of Castelo de Vide, you arrive at a picturesque fountain, where many people sample the delicious mineral water for which the town is famous.

Park your car here and reconnoiter the town on foot. The Turismo and the São Mamede park office are less than five minutes away. Ascend the steep, cobbled streets — the use of a hiking stick will help you in keeping your balance — to visit the castelo (castle), the Fonte da Vila (the old town fountain) and the judiaria, the former Jewish quarter, with its small white cottages, many with Gothic doorways. On the corner of one of these streets still stands a 13th-century synagogue.

From Castelo de Vide, drive to Marvão. Imbibing the stunning beauty of this isolated small town, perched high on the hills and standing in the middle of nowhere, is an unforgettable experience. Take in the brilliance of its whitewashed houses and view the breathtaking panorama of the surrounding countryside from the ramparts of its castle’s 17th-century walls.

From Marvão, follow the alluring megalith trail through the quiet, spectacular countryside between Santo António das Areias and Beirã. The leaflet “Paisagens Megalíticas Norte Alentejana,” available from tourist offices in the region, offers various approaches. Small, easy-to-miss, wooden signs saying “Antas” point the way.

Regrettably, our vacation had come to an end.

You too may wish to roam through this wonderful, inexpensive country with its friendly people, its delectable food and, last but not least, its tiny cafés serving cups of heavenly bicas.


1. All Multibancos (ATMs) in Portugal provided cash without charge.
2. Many hotels offer an ementa turística (tourist menu).
3. The easiest way to find the tourist office in each town is to ask for the “Turismo.” (Practice its pronunciation beforehand and ascertain its opening hours, which may be different from those listed in the guidebooks.)
4. The following websites provide additional information: Look for various discount offers, such as the 40% off for seniors.
5. For schedules of the Douro River tours, go to In addition, check the following pages in the Lonely Planet guide “Portugal,” fifth edition (2005): page 380 (under “Peso da Régua,” see “Train Trips and River Cruises”), page 381 (under “Pinhão,” see “Train Trips”) and page 357 (under “Porto,” see “Tours”).
6. The following hiking books are available at bookstores or on the Web at
• “Sunflower Landscapes of Northern Portugal: A Countryside Guide (Landscapes)” by Paul Burton and Denise Butron (Hunter Publishing, Inc.). The book also describes car tours.
• “Walking in Portugal,” second edition (2000), by Bethan Davies and Ben Cole.