Forget what you know about Portugal. Beyond the shimmering sands of the Algarve or the bustling capital Lisbon, a series of villages sprawled across the Serra da Estrela mountain range is home to the country’s heart and a new kind of tourism.
Portugal’s rural revival, guided by the principles of nature, community, and creativity, is taking place in the picturesque Center of Portugal which sprawls across endless Atlantic-facing beaches, several national parks and reserves, and 42 mountain villages in nine municipalities.
An experience in the villages is unlike anything else you’ve experienced in the country.
It would be unfair to say that the region is undergoing a facelift: there is endless beauty amidst the craggy mountainside, the fluvial beaches, and charming communities. Rather, this regeneration project is paying much overdue attention to a rare, precious way of life and rethinking the traditional tourist experience.
The signs of mass-production slowly disappear as you wind the steep bluffs of the Serra da Estrela.
There are no shopping centres, but single grocery stores run by women, and the only tour guides you’ll find are the locals (save for tailor-made experiences provided by Madomis Tours).
Language barriers are common but scenic pathways and utter relaxation transcend tongues.
Why not sign up to work at one of the region’s many newly opened co-working spaces to focus on professional development surrounded by history and natural beauty?
From a simple walk to a cultural event, Portugal’s rural revival, in spite of its late entrance into the tourism industry, witnesses a host of draws that has the power to attract January through December.
Three hours by car (essential for the region) from Lisbon Airport, setting off towards Lapa dos Dinheiros, one of the villages, one can feel a pervasive sense of ease slowly sinking in as one approaches the serene Casas da Lapas, beset in stone and neutral tones, overlooking the cavernous valleys.
Checking into the relaxing mountainside hotel owned by husband-and-wife duo Nuno Bravo & Maria Manuel Silva, one is not only met with spectacular vistas but a refreshing escape from the humdrum of daily life.
Those in search of quiet will have all their requirements fulfilled in the confines of luxury accommodation, from delicious meals to spa and aromatherapy treatments, and a choice between three pools (two outdoor, one indoor).
The delectable breakfast from precocious chef Tiago Gonçalves will make you a morning person but it’s the sumptuous elegance of the evening meals that are the real draw. Based on five ‘moments’, one can lavish in homely dishes inspired by traditional Portuguese cuisine with a distinctly farm-to-table attitude. Silky chickpea hummus is dappled with sticky tapenade on fresh homemade bread while cod soup topped with a shredded egg is the delicate dish you didn’t know you needed in your life. A choice of mains based on meat or fish is the trickiest decision one has to make but don’t miss the duck magret with potato and apple gratin, onion jus and sweet potato puree, or the finest dessert: an orange tart with salted caramel and cream ice cream.
When touring the nearby villages, go in search of local speciality corn and rye bread puckered with chorizo and pork belly, freshly made in many of the towns’ communal ovens where tourists are invited to participate in baking.
Lapa dos Dinheiros is the perfect launchpad for visits to the still waters at Loriga’s fluvial beaches (an area of rugged relief and great natural beauty with cafes operating during the summer); the narrow, cobbled streets in Alvoco da Serra; the sienna-adorned rooftops in hilly Manteigas.
There is something unique about each village landscape.
In the remote Quinta da Taberna, a veritable ghost town, there are 14 dilapidated properties that will be sold and converted into luxury accommodation to bolster the region’s offering.
Fradigas, with 15 residents, might seem like a village in decline with a small shop and cafe-cum-bar but the regeneration project will restore a primary school in order for it to become a museum which will house the stories of the local people.
The thing to remember about the regeneration is that the project is still in development. In five years, the possibilities will be endless. But even now, there is something beautiful to behold.
Few villages can match the appeal of Videmonte, where one is immediately greeted with the unmistakable aroma of baking bread. At the village oven, which is available to the 350 residents, a sprightly octogenarian, introduces herself in rhyme. She recites poems about how living in Videmonte, high above, fosters a beautiful lifestyle based on clean air and good people.
Videmonte is home to five Airbnbs and last October the first restaurant opened serving traditional cuisine. The village is set to expand at a slow, measurable pace.
A saunter through and you might stumble upon the 95-year-old grandmother of Michelin-starred chef Miguel Rocha Vieira, who appeared on MasterChef Portugal, who offered our group to have lunch in her snug home.
Everyone here radiates optimism and a positive outlook in an increasingly globalised world.
Following our visit, the town mayor calls to acknowledge how proud the villagers were to share an insight into their way of life. The effect of this kindness is infectious and relatively unheard of in modern touristic excursions.
Leading the development of the villages, Célia Gonçalves, executive director of Association for the Integrated Development of the Mountain Villages Network, lights up when she speaks about the recently opened co-working spaces dotted around the region and the communities in which they’re located. With more formally adopting the remote working practice, the project welcomes returning locals and international guests alike to utilise the facilities, each space equipped with the connectivity and technology to bridge the rural villages with global markets. (Last year, the PT2030 community support framework announced a €20 million investment in remote working spaces in the interior regions of the country.)
Every detail is completed with impeccable taste – decorated with swivel chairs discarded from call centres restored with local Burel wool, hand-woven signs, hand-crocheted blinds and lampshades. Some of the spaces will offer visitors an opportunity to stay for free in one of its two twin bedrooms, such as Videmonte, with the stipulation that they offer something to the village in return. (Such an offering must come from the heart in order to match the generosity of the locals.)
If you stay at the modernist sanctuary Casa de São Lourenço in the nearby Manteigas, which emanates an air of alpine mystery meets unequivocal luxury, one can visit the nearby Burel Factory, a jewel of the Portuguese wool industry. Before the factory fell into complete disrepair, two mountain explorers, João Tomás and Isabel Costa realised the cultural value of the space and recovered the factory.
Not only is the wool sold around the globe but the regeneration project is partnering with the factory and Sandra Piñho, partner at a Lisbon-based design firm, to pay tribute to queijeiras (women cheesemakers) who work tirelessly on a world-renowned product but receive little recognition for their contribution. The supple wool capes come in a palette of earthy and neutral tones and the profits will be used to preserve the craft and continue its legacy. Everything in the network of mountain villages comes from the heart.
Far removed from the commotion of the events found in bigger cities, a series of festivities are dotted throughout the year to preserve the identity of the villages. Themed around events like the summer solstice or harvest, and niche happenings like one that celebrates the chestnut – the mountain villages possess a unique year-round draw from the first warm days to the snowy winters. The Yuletide is not complete without Cabeça’s annual Christmas markets, the town aglow with glistening light fixtures, decorated with wreaths and decorations handmade by some 170 locals from pine trees and vines from the surrounding forests.
Unlike Portugal’s vibrant alternatives, the aim in the mountain villages is to avoid over-tourism. With the individuality of each village as a primary draw, the region is hoping to attract those in search of an indelible experience.
Whether it’s the professional and amateur photographers alike who wish to indulge in over 101 hectares of landscapes from otters and foxes to bellflowers, a true symbol of Serra da Estrela, sage-leaved rock roses, or the lush green meadows and crystalline lagoons; or lovers of adventure sports have options from cycling, hiking or bouldering on mountain trails, or skiing at the mountain’s highest peak in winter; or those simply in search of a relaxing escape – the rural revival welcomes tourism but hopes to avoid the trappings of mass-production from fast fashion and food franchises.
A welcome departure.