July 6, 2018 by Ellis Dixon
Driving through Portugal: See it All in 50 Stops (Part 2)
Continued from part one of the three-part series.
In this installment, we take you from Ponte da Lima in the north to Évora in the Alentejo via the eastern side of the country. Buckle up, because this journey is a real treat.
FROM PONTE DA LIMA TO ÉVORA VIA SERRA DA ESTRELA: Ponte da Lima – Caldas do Gerés – Chaves – Bragança – Mirandela – Caramulo – Covilhã – Piódão – Castelo Branco – Tomar – Fatima – Golegá – Portalegre – Elvas – Arraiolos – Montemor-o-Novo – Évora
Ponte da Lima: Named after the Roman bridge dating back to 1AD that passes over the Rio Lima, this town is comprised of pretty plazas, old churches, cobbled walkways, and a spectacular botanical garden. Every second Monday, it holds one of the largest country markets in Portugal. If you’re feeling adventurous, try lampreia, (river snake) with a glass of vinho verde for which the region is known and check out the nearby camping, biking, or hiking options in the Serra D’Arga.
Caldas do Gerés: Drive through the magical wonderland of the Peneda-Gerês National Park toward the healing thermal springs of Caldas do Girés where you can have a thermal bath. Along the way, stop and walk through the ancient streets of Campo do Gerês, (a.k.a. São João do Campo), with its granite houses, granaries, and mills, and visit the Ethnographic Museum of Vilarinho das Furnas, which is a reminder of the village submerged as a result of the dam with the same name, built in 1972. Keep your eyes open for wild horses along the way.
Chaves: If you had to skip the thermal baths of Caldas, no worries. You can take your medicinal water bath in Chaves like they’ve been doing since Roman times, when the town was called Aquae Flaviae. Recommended by the European Natural Soaking Society, the Chaves Termas & Spa uses Europe’s hottest natural bicarbonate waters at 73 °C (163 °F) and has the facilities to treat over 15,000 patients. Wait til after your dip to try a meat dish — any meat dish — and save room for dessert. This region is known for its beef and its folhadas (puffed pastries).
Bragança: This is the second largest city in Alto Trás-os-Montes region after Chaves. The main attraction here is the Museu Ibérico da Máscara e do Traje inside the Bragança castle. This is where you can learn about the different costumes traditionally worn during Portuguese Carnival: from the red, gold, and green looped yarn suits and the traditional red metal masks from Podençe, to the more earthy woodland-inspired Lazarim careto ensembles featuring artistic hand-carved wooden masks. Buy an artisanal knife (really!), a bag of chestnuts, and stop at the O Careto Restaurant for a grilled lamb dish, and you’ll have done it right.
Mirandela: Are you a sausage person or are you more into poultry? Have the best of both worlds in this small town known for its traditional sausages called alheira. These foul-stuffed sausages were invented by Portuguese Jews, who in 1497 were given the choice of either being expelled from the country or converting to Christianity. Instead, they hung these sausages from their doors indicating their conversion, as at that time all sausages were (supposedly) made with pork. Here, you can sample some of the best alheira in the country, including alheira stuffed with game meat, and take some with you back home.
Caramulo: Opt for national roads instead of the IP2 interstate south and keep your eyes peeled along the way for adegas (wine cooperatives) where you can stock up on some stellar bottles for cheap. Make a pit stop at the Parque Arqueológico do Vale do Côa for a quick look at prehistoric graffiti (gravuras), and continue on to Viseu, known for its cabrito, or young goat. Stock up on supplies here (this is the capital of the Centro Region, after all) before continuing to the nearby town of Molelos to pick up some beautiful black pottery that is only made here. It’s worth it. Start heading up into the mountainous region of the Serra do Caramulo where you can find a super-nice climbing area and one of the most amazing vintage car collections you’ll likely ever see, at the Caramulo Museum.
Covilhã: Head east toward the Serra da Estrela mountain range, home to the highest point in Portugal at 1,993 m in elevation and the only place that gets snow every winter. There is even a ski resort here (yes, skiing in Portugal!), but don’t get your hopes up if you’re a pro: the runs top out at low-intermediate. Pass through Seia and Manteigas and pick up some cheese, some pork sausages, some slippers, and even a dog if you’re in the market— these towns are known for them. The town of Covilhâ is a quaint one at the base of the Serra. The proximity of the mountains offers dramatic scenery and a great environment for those fond of hiking, camping, climbing, bouldering, and skiing. For dinner, order anything from Taberna a Laranjinha and you’ll be glad you stayed.
Piódão: This 14th-century town of charming slate houses with blue doors is not to be missed, especially if you’ve been itching to try out your new camera, or your new walking shoes for that matter. There is a 4km loop hike from Piódão to Foz d’Egua that takes about two hours to do, and will certainly fill up your camera roll along the way with lovely snaps of abandoned shepherd huts, a plethora of olive groves, and stunning views of the valley. Fill up your belly on regional wine and chanfana (goat stew) upon your return at Piódão XXI.
Castelo Branco: Home to some of the more delicious cheeses and Iberian ham you can find in the country, this town is worth a drive through mostly because the Templar Knights built the walls and the castle there in around 1215. If you’re into greenery, don’t miss a walk in the Jardim Episcopal de Castelo Branco, an ornate 18th-century baroque-style park next to the bishop’s palace— the city is quite proud to promote it as a hidden gem that they work hard to maintain. Their efforts demand a peek at least.
Tomar: Speaking of the Knights Templar, Tomar was built by the fourth grand master of the order in the late 12th century in some of the most fertile land in the entire country: the Ribatejo. With its long (and fascinating) history, it’s no wonder tourists in the know flock to visit the Castle and Convent of the Order of Christ, the Aqueduct of Pegões, and the Museu dos Fosforos (which houses the largest private matchbox collection in Europe). We recommend them all, but most importantly, you must go to Chico Elias Restaurant and have their daily special. Whatever it is. This local spot served us the best meal we have eaten yet in Portugal.
Fatima: Either you’re a believer or a lookey-loo, it really doesn’t matter in Fátima. Go and debate the veracity of the miracles of the Catholic Church, light a candle at the Basilica of the Holy Trinity, watch the pilgrims arrive (on their knees or by bus— there will likely be both), and pay your respects to the tombs of Francisco and Jacinta Marto and Sister Lúcia dos Santos: the three children who Our Lady appeared to all those years ago. Pick up some holy water and a rosary at one of the many souvenir shops if you want to thrill dear old Aunt Pat.
Golegá: Golegã is a small village in the Santarém District that is considered the capital of the horse (Capital do Cavalo). Ever since the 18th century, breeders and horse enthusiasts alike have deemed this tiny town their Mecca in November when it hosts The Feira Nacional do Cavalo. Swing through and see what’s going on in town and pick up some riding crops or something.
Portalegre: Welcome to the northernmost region of the Alentejo! This area is well known for its wines, which were given Denominação de Origem Controlada (DOC) status in 2003, so you should get to know them if you don’t already. If you need a recommendation of a bottle to bring home, review our guide here. Parking is generally cheap (and free on weekends according to the Camara Municipal), the town is cute, the people are friendly, and the food is tasty. What’s there not to like?
Elvas: This charming hilltop town is known for its olives, plums, and its aerial views. The Nossa Senhora da Graça Fort‘s star-shaped walls, the expansive arms of the four-story Amoreira Aqueduct, and the intricate fortifications of the city itself are every drone-flyer’s dream, so getting up ontop of hills here for a view is a must. Don’t miss the Adega Regional Restaurant for spectacular traditional food at a very fair price. We were delighted with the cozy hidden courtyard, the wine (of course!), the food, and the service.
Arraiolos: Get in, check out the city center, buy a traditional needlework carpet, and get out. The town is admittedly unremarkable, but the craftsmanship of the rugs (if you’re into that sort of thing) is nothing short of fine art. See them here for yourself so you don’t choke when they tell you how much they’re going for.
Monte Mor-o-Novo: This municipality boasts a whopping 12 prehistoric monuments like the Escoural cave paintings and the dolman chapel of São Brissos (converted from a doleman to a chapel in the 17th century), but the most stunning site in the area, in our opinion, is the haunting ruin of the 13th-century medieval Castle of Montemor-o-Novo. If it’s the summer, slap on high SPF lotion and go wander around the hilltop. If it’s the winter, pack a picnic.
Évora: As the capital city of the Alentejo, Évora is home to the impressive Roman ruins of a temple, a spine-tingling bone church, and a very cool clock museum among other things. Our recommendation is to get out and just walk around the old town. It’s small enough to really see the city, and large enough to find plenty of sidewalk cafés to rest and reboot with a glass of vinho and some regional cheese. (Are you sensing a pattern here?)
Stay tuned for Part 3, coming soon.