Eight kilometres south of Batalha lies the small riverside town of Porto de Mós, with its distinctive castle. Further south and east extends the Parque Natural das Serras de Aire e Candeeiros, a mix of rugged limestone hills, crags and upland farmland divided by ancient stone walls. There are walking trails in both the Aire and Candeeiros ranges, but the parque natural is better known for its fabulous underground caves, which all lie in a rough triangle between Porto de Mós and Fátima, on the west side of the A1 motorway. Meanwhile, across the motorway on the east side of the Serra de Aire, Portugal has its own Jurassic Park where you can walk with dinosaurs at the Pegadas dos Dinossáurios.
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There are three sets of caves open to the public in the natural park (and a fourth, Moeda, off the N356 road between Batalha and Fátima), but unless you are a real fan, a visit to one will probably suffice. As it happens, the largest and most spectacular, at Mira de Aira, is the only one directly accessible by bus.
Grutas de Mira de Aire
It’s a fabulous thirteen-kilometre drive out into the hills along the N243 from Porto de Mós to the Grutas de Mira de Aire, Portugal’s largest show caves. There’s parking right outside, or it’s a signposted one-kilometre walk from the town bus stop. The 45-minute guided tour ends up at a natural lake filled with fountains 110m below the surface, taking in a galaxy of stalactites, stalagmites and oddly shaped rock formations with curious names – “Octopus Gallery”, the “Organ”, the “Conch” – en route. To exit, you take the lift up and emerge beside the Parque Aquático water park (summer only), which is a great place to cool off – there are half-day and full-day tickets available for this, and you can visit independently of the caves. Outside on the road, several cafés and restaurants cater for the crowds.
Pegadas dos Dinossáurios
Pegadas dos Dinossáurios
In a quarry around 10km south of Fátima, paleontologists made an extraordinary discovery in 1994 – namely the oldest and longest set of preserved sauropod tracks found anywhere in the world. The tracks date back 175 million years, and were made as the large herbivores plodded through a shallow lagoon, later preserved as limestone. They are now on display in situ at the excellent Monumental Natural das Pegadas dos Dinossáurios, where a gravel walkway circles the site on high before dropping down to the quarry floor. You can clearly see the footprints (pegadas) – hundreds of them, exceptionally well preserved – and follow their route across the stone. By the spacing, paleontologists reckon that some of the sauropods were up to 30m long. There’s an explanatory film (in Portuguese) shown at the ticket office, though it’s hard to resist the temptation to make straight for the tracks.
Pass the salt
Pass the salt
Of all the things uncovered in the Aire e Candeeiros natural park over the years (stalactites, Roman cobblestones, dinosaur footprints), the oddest is surely salt – mined here since ancient times. It’s still produced near the town of Rio Maior, at the foot of the Serra dos Candeeiros, where a wide bed of concrete-lined salt pans (marinhas do sal) exploits the bed of rock salt under the local mountains. Workers at the cooperatively owned Salinas Naturais de Rio Maior pump salty water from a well and then subject it to various concentration and evaporation techniques in the tanks and pans on view. It’s a process that has been going on, in some shape or form, since the twelfth century. There’s most activity between June and September, but you can see something at most times of the year since many of the old wooden salt sheds have been turned into craft stores, salt shops and rustic taverns, and there are even a couple of restaurants where you’ll get a good grill-lunch with the salt workers. The sheds themselves are curious works, with weathered boards, gnarled olive-wood posts and ancient wooden locks. The salt pans lie 3km north of Rio Maior (off the IC2/N1), but signposting is patchy. Coming into the town centre, follow scant signs for “Marinhas do Sal” and “Salinas” (on the Alcobertas road); you’re there when you see the Wild West-style wooden buildings overlooking the salt-beds.