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.