The highest mountains in Portugal, the peaks of the Serra da Estrela rise dramatically to the southwest of Guarda. The range is basically a high alpine plateau cut by valleys, from within which emanate two of the country’s greatest rivers, the Mondego and the Zêzere – the only rivers to begin and end in Portugal rather than crossing the border from Spain. The mountains – snowcapped in winter – soon impose themselves upon any approach, while the lower flanks on either side of the range reveal a patchwork of small villages that retain much charm. Some Portuguese come to the serra to ski in winter; many more clog the narrow roads in summer looking for picnic space. A network of hiking trails covers the peaks and valleys, though relatively few people take to the paths to explore the region.
Around 1000 square kilometres of the mountain range is protected as the Parque Natural da Serra da Estrela, which stretches for around 55km from north to south and around 25km east–west at its widest point. From the west, access is from the N17, through the small service towns of Seia or Gouveia and then on over the high mountain roads, deep into the park; the smaller western-flank villages of Linhares, Folgosinho and Loriga offer a prettier introduction to the mountain landscape. The valley town and spa of Manteigas, pretty much in the centre of the park, is the single best base for hiking and touring, while the ski industry – such as it is – centres on the road between Torre, at 1993m, the country’s highest peak, and Covilhã, south of Manteigas. Covilhã lies just outside the park proper, and is the only town of any size in the region.Read More
Just outside the eastern park boundary, and 44km south of Guarda, the prosperous town of COVILHÃ lies immediately below the highest peaks. It’s busiest on winter weekends, when it’s used as a base for trips to the ski slopes, but it has a life independent of the mountains, which makes it an agreeable place to visit at any time. Virtually every thoroughfare looks out across the plain below or up to the mountain crags – the café in the pretty town gardens has the best view, serenaded by practice sessions in the music conservatory opposite.
A market town since the Middle Ages, Covilhã developed a textile industry in the seventeenth century using wool from the local sheep, which also provide the milk for the renowned queijo da serra. Later, the woollen industry harnessed water-power from the mountain streams; factories today, down on the plain below town, are powered by hydroelectricity. You can view the enormous vats used in the traditional wool-dyeing processes in the Museo de Lanifícios, located in the former Real Fábrica de Panos (Royal Textile Factory), a short walk downhill from the centre.
Hiking in the Parque Natural
Hiking in the Parque Natural
In theory, various hiking trails cut across the Parque Natural da Serra da Estrela, though it’s much harder to walk in the serras than it should be. The park information offices tend not to have English-speaking staff, and it’s rare for the personnel to have any first-hand experience of the trails – often, you’ll simply be pointed to dated or unreliable hiking guides and maps. Moreover, the waymarking (red-and-yellow paint marks) in the park is unreliable: maintenance doesn’t appear to be a priority and signposting at village trailheads is woeful or non-existent. Well-prepared walkers will need to be self-sufficient if you want to complete the longer trails (some of which are detailed on the park website). The best time to walk is from May to October. For the day-hiker, who just wants a taste of the mountains, try the easy circular route from Manteigas to the Poço do Inferno waterfall. Alternatively, you could tackle a short stretch of the lower-level T2 – Linhares to Gouveia, via Folgoshinho, is a good full day’s walk, with facilities in each place – though you’ll need to take a taxi back to your starting point.