The peaks of the Serra da Estrela – the highest mountains in Portugal – rise 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, or wind in convoy up the mountain highway between Seia and Covilhã to park right on top of Torre, at 1993m, the country’s highest peak. A network of hiking trails covers the peaks and valleys, though relatively few people take to the paths to explore the region.
Over the last few decades life in the mountains has changed markedly. Farmers have moved from stone mountain houses to more modern dwellings on the valley floor while many of the former intensively cultivated Zêzere valley terraces have been abandoned in favour of spreading pine plantation. Meanwhile local village production is often now directed towards the tourist traffic – widely available are queijo da serra, an unctuous mountain cheese, and blankets from the wool of the grazing upland sheep, as well as rye bread, fruit preserves and honey from the fertile valleys.
The encompassing Parque Natural da Serra da Estrela (wwww.rt-serradaestrela.pt) covers around 1000 square kilometres, and 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 peak and Covilhã, south of Manteigas. Covilhã lies just outside the park proper, and is the only town of any size in the region.
If there’s one town in the serra with a true mountain air it’s MANTEIGAS, 700m up, whose whitewashed houses run along the contour above the Rio Zêzere. The approach from any direction is dramatic: from Sabugeiro and the west the road winds down in convoluted switchbacks; from Belmonte and the east the river scenery is at its most bucolic; while from the south there is the breathtaking descent down the glacial valley of the Rio Zêzere. The latter route brings you into town past the therapeutic spa of Caldas de Manteigas and to the fertile valley bottom of the Zêzere, with Manteigas itself spreading across the steep slope opposite.
There’s no public transport further into the park from town, but with a car you can use Manteigas as a base to visit Torre, the glacial valley and ski fields, and the nearby villages. The town is on two of the official walking trails, but local routes are on the tough side since – south and west at least – you have to climb steep and far to get anywhere. There’s one easy circular walk to the Poço do Inferno waterfall. Most other routes are point-to-point, requiring a taxi ride out or back, though this is easily arranged.
That leaves Ski Parque (t275 980 090, wwww.skiparque.net) as the only other local diversion, an artificial winter-sports slope and adventure park 8km east of Manteigas down the N232 Belmonte road. It’s open all year round for dry-slope skiing and snowboarding, plus everything else from mountain-biking to hang-gliding.
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. 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. Virtually every thoroughfare looks out across the plain below or up to the mountain crags – the café in the pretty Jardim Público has the best view in town, serenaded by practice sessions in the music conservatory opposite.
Covilhã’s favourite son is Pêro de Covilhã, who set out in 1487 to search for Prester John (legendary Christian priest and king) in what is now Ethiopia. He never found Prester John and never returned to Portugal, though Vasco da Gama found his report about India useful when he made his own celebrated voyage there in 1498. In front of the town hall on Praça do Municipio there’s a huge, polished granite slab depicting Pêro de Covilhã’s voyages and a decidedly queasy-looking statue of the man himself.
Hiking in the Parque Natural
Hiking in the Parque Natural
Three major hiking trails cut across the Parque Natural da Serra da Estrela from north to south. T1 (87km) runs from Guarda to Vide and takes in Torre, the highest mountain in Portugal; T2 (83km) and T3 (85km) trace the western and eastern flanks of the range respectively. You can walk an entire trail in three to four days, or break them down into day- or half-day segments, and in addition there are half a dozen linked shorter trails allowing detours to other settlements and points of interest. The routes are all described in an English-language hiking guide, Discovering the Region of the Serra da Estrela, and marked on the 1:50,000-scale Carta Turística Serra da Estrela map, while there are also four park information offices.
That’s the theory. In practice, 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 the hiking guide and map. However, both map and guide were published in 1992 (and have not been updated since); moreover, the map scale (1:50,000) makes it unsuitable for route-finding, though there’s nothing better on the market. 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.
None of this should put off experienced, well-prepared walkers, though you’ll need to be self-sufficient, and be prepared to camp, if you want to complete the longer trails. The best time to walk is from May to October. For the day-hiker, who just wants a taste of the mountains, the best advice is to try the easy circular route from Manteigas to the Poço do Inferno waterfall. You could also 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.