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.