In search of a more authentic Portuguese experience, Olivia Rawes escaped the Algarve to discover Centro: a quiet, charming region at the heart of Portugal.
Baking hot sun, packed beaches, busy restaurants and beautifully manicured golf courses – for myself, and for the millions of holidaymakers who flock to the Algarve each summer, this was Portugal. It was fun, it was comfortable and sunshine was guaranteed. But it was also expensive, crowded and didn’t feel very authentic. In search of a different side to the country, I went to explore the heart of Portugal, the Centro region.
Geographically in the centre of the country, roughly between Porto and Lisbon, the Centro stretches out from a wild, windswept coastline of near-empty beaches and challenging surf breaks to a lush interior, marked by the magnificent Serra de Estrela mountain range. Underestimated and little known, the area combines rugged natural beauty with a rich history and inventive yet traditional cuisine. Its mountainous middle begs to be explored, whether by hiking, mountain biking, aquatic walking, canoeing or relaxing on one of the region’s 24 lovely river beaches. And while it may be relatively untouched, it is far from inaccessible; the cities of Viseu and Coimbra provide great bases for exploring the nearby countryside, while hotels in converted eighteenth century manor houses dot the mountains and valleys.
In fact, after only half an hour's drive from Coimbra, we were canoeing down the Mondego River without another soul in sight. The river twists through the valley here between steep mountain slopes, wide and flat mirror-like phases interspersed with gentle rapids. As we paddled in silence, eagles and hawks occasionally flew overhead, as if to confirm that we really were in the great outdoors.
The Centro region is also at the core of Portuguese culture. Coimbra was Portugal's capital from 1129 to 1255 and today lures visitors with a charming old town of steep cobbled streets framed by medieval arches, pastel-coloured buildings and waterfront bars lining the banks of the Mondego.
The city is known as the tragic setting for the tale of star-crossed lovers Pedro and Inês – Portugal’s greatest love story and deeply rooted in the country’s culture. Towards the end of Coimbra's period as capital, Inês, the posthumously-recognized wife of King Peter I of Portugal, was murdered in what are now the gardens of Quinta das Lagrimas – it is said a coronation was held for her corpse years after her death.
What draws many people here is Portugal's most prestigious university, which dates back to 1290, and is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The most striking building is the magnificent Baroque library. Dating back to 1717 this is an unthinkably grand space: intricately carved bookshelves embellished with Brazilian gold leaf and piled with beautifully bound books stretch up past ornate balconies to the trompe l'oeil paintings that grace its high ceilings. Gazing around you would be forgiven for thinking you were in an elaborate cathedral rather than a place of study; how anyone could focus on their work here is completely beyond me.
As well as outstanding architecture, Coimbra's university was also the birthplace of the city's fado, a variant of the popular Portuguese music that grew from the serenades of the city's male students. Fado is always a poem, full of emotion, often dealing with love, loss or suffering, yet what sets Coimbra fado apart – aside from it being sung exclusively by men – is that those who perform here aren't professionals, but men with regular jobs. They choose to sing because they love it; a passion that comes across when you watch a performance.
Image by Olivia Rawes
One of the Centro's other cultural highlights is Aveiro, a lovely town just inland from the coastline, separated from the ocean by rolling dunes and a wide lagoon. Colourfully painted traditional moliceiro boats ferry tourists up and down the canals that twist through the town, and Art Nouveau buildings, with their gloriously dilapidated facades, line the waterfront.
It struck me how closely the architecture reflected the town's own setting; almost every cobbled street was a charming mosaic playing on the ocean theme with patterns of anchors, fish, sea horses and eels from the sea and canals that Aveiro historically relied upon. In the old fishing quarter, simple one-door-one-window houses were completely covered in beautifully patterned tiles, which acted as a guard against the corrosive sea air.
This strong sense of place was reflected in the restaurants we ate in. Here local ingredients and traditional recipes appeared under new, creative guises. At Salpoente in Aveiro, a restaurant in an old salt house, we ate the regional speciality of codfish, given a modern twist and served as a salty ceviche paired with a sweet pepper sauce and presented in a tin – a nod to the importance of the canning industry in the area. The dessert incorporated ovos moles, a local sweet made in the convents where communion wafer, shaped rather like a flying saucer sweet, encases a gooey sweet centre made from egg yolk stirred with a frightening amount of sugar. Here it had a stylish makeover: served in a Kilner jar, the smooth egg mixture was topped with a sharp raspberry sorbet that cut through its sugary thickness. Back at Quinta das Lagrimas in Coimbra, an everyday staple of corn bread was also given the gourmet treatment, dyed with squid ink and sprinkled over a medley of curried fish accompanied by celery purée.
The region also produces wines that are beginning to rival those of its better known neighbour, the Alentejo. At Paço dos Cunhas de Santar, a wine estate set in the heart of the Dao, we enjoyed a number of local wines that perfectly complemented each course of our meal. The menu was fantastic, the wine even better, but what really struck me was how much the people working here loved what they did, something I realised had become a recurring theme of my trip.
The Centro has so much to offer, beautiful countryside, grand architecture and a refreshing dose of peace and quiet, but what really stood out was the warmth of the people. Unsullied by mass tourism there was genuine passion here, whether it was the fado singer who excitedly rushed from his job as a lawyer to play for us, the irrepressibly enthusiastic woman describing the smell of the streets of Santar during wine harvest, or the always laughing Trans Serrano canoe instructors who insisted I squashed into the back of their 4X4 so I could get a feel for "the best job in the world". You may come for the peace and quiet, the untamed nature or the rich culture, but it is the warm welcome into the heart of Portugal that will stay with you long after your visit.
Portugal specialist Sunvil Discovery (020 8758 4722) offers a three-night, multi-centre itinerary in Centro from £423 pp (two sharing). The price includes return flights (departing Gatwick with TAP Portugal), accommodation with breakfast (one night at Hotel Moliceiro, Aveiro; one night at Casa da Se, Viseu; one night Quinta das Lagrimas, Coimbra) and car hire. All activities are payable locally. For further information on the region, visit www.centerofportugal.com. Explore more of Portugal with the Rough Guide to Portugal. Book hostels for your trip, and don't forget to purchase travel insurance before you go.