A shortlist of ideas and tips for visiting the Beira interior region.
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We don’t get tired of collecting the best information about unexplored and untamed fringes of beautiful Portugal. We’ve done it in the past with our post on “The best of Portugal off the beaten path” and “Alternative seven-day itinerary for Portugal no.1”. And we know that mainstream places such as Sintra, Porto and Évora are ok, don’t get us wrong. In fact, if you really want to have a full grasp of Portugal, you should design yourself an itinerary that balances both the mainstream and the unexplored. The mainstream places are quite popular for some reason right?
However, spurred by institutional branding and serious word-of-mouth advertising, the recent tourism explosion has led to a circus-like atmosphere in some of these places, meaning that the once unspoiled gems with easier logistic access (mostly Lisbon and Porto hubs) are now somewhat compromised in terms of experience quality. Try (not!) visiting Sintra in high season and you’ll know what we mean!
As such, off the beaten path itineraries is the way to go if you want to have a truly immersive experience, without worrying about the hordes of culture thirsty tourists (no offense intended). In order to leave this amazing country full of rich memories you’ll carry with you for the rest of your life, you need that sense of uniqueness. Something or someplace no one has ever been! But one might think, how can a country so small still be displaying so many unexplored attractions? Well, being a really old nation (800 years old) and even older inhabited region, whose life has been a constant imbalance of greatness and loss makes the job easier. Nature, weather and landscapes do the rest of the trick and frame the plot.
The Majestic landscape of Serra da Estrela
While the North and seaside regions of Portugal boast much of Portugal’s most well-known and richer heritage, they are perhaps more suitable for people with less time on their hands and more dependent on the comforts of the 21st-century tourism. You’ll have access to wider accommodation offerings, the best museums, plenty of gastronomic variety, and a diverse menu of heritage that ranges from the eclectic Palaces of Sintra to the striped down Romanic churches of the North region.
Needless to say, on the opposite side, if you’re that kind of traveler who seeks genuine traditions, austere villages, jaw-dropping landscapes, raw attractions, and Nature thrills, then the “Beira interior” region is for you! This unofficial region spans from Vila Nova de Foz Coa in the North, to Castelo Branco in the South, and is perhaps (alongside Trás os Montes) the least touristic place in Portugal. As such, don’t expect to see a wide availability of Michelin rated restaurants or Taj Mahal like hotels. In fact, it’s quite the opposite actually, you’re not supposed to experience this region comfortably, or you would be missing some of the most authentic experiences and sights.
The rocks and hills of “Beira interior”, where Portugal borders Spain, pretty much define the inhospitable landscape of the region, and the colder temperatures are not exactly inviting. But don’t be fooled, the region has been inhabited for at least since the Neolithic (10.000 B.C) and has since witnessed the development of the Lusitanian people (roughly 300 B.C) and then the birth of Portugal as a Nation. For the latter fact, the close to 60 castles and fortresses spread throughout the border, serve as proof for the sort of belligerent behavior that went along the foundation of Portugal. As such, given the “advanced age” of the region, it’s a perfect place to witness some of the most ancient Portuguese traditions that define the region, such as the “Madeiros” (huge bonfires set up during Christmas), sheep herding and even the world-famous “Serra da Estrela” Cheese.
The snow caped summit of Serra da Estrela is a great place for kids
Up until roughly 40 years ago, roads were nonexistent, leading the small villages of the Beira region to live in an almost state of isolation. This, in turn, led to a strong diversity and cultural identity among each individual sub-region. This is quite obvious for instance, in the construction materials used in the past. The northern region is known for its heavy usage of granite, whereas the Southern and Western regions are famous for their usage of schist. This cultural diversity is, unfortunately, fading away with modern times. Nonetheless, the region as a whole remains quite unique and retains a character you won’t find in any other region except perhaps, the remote Trás-os-Montes.
For that reason, we’ve come up with a shortlist of tips for travelers that want to adventure and try an alternative itinerary of Portugal. It’s not a premade itinerary, as we believe that would pervert the whole concept of venturing into the unexplored side of Portugal. Rather, it’s a small list with nuggets of specific and useful information. Enjoy it and please do let us if you need a tour guiding service! Did we mention we’re experts in the unexplored side of Portugal? Anyway, it’s without further ado that we provide you our condensed tips & trick for the “Beira Interior” region:
Base Camp and accommodation
It’s a big region and apart for the tollway that runs across, roads tend to be far from perfect. Therefore, you must choose your basecamp wisely, or you would end up driving endless hours between places. We recommend the small villages and cities close to the East side of “Serra da Estrela” as you would be right in the middle of the region and pretty close to most of the historical heritage and nature thrills. Specifically, the area between Guarda, Sabugal and Fundão is very recommendable due to its proximity to the tollway.
Regarding accommodation, the area is laden with countryside cottages and quaint houses that will definitely offer you the suitable rustic experience of the region. Here’s a small list of alternatives: Palheiros do Castelo in Sabugal, Quinta da Vargem in Unhais da Serra, Agro-Turismo – Quinta do Pinheiro near Guarda and Serravale within the mountains. If you’re looking for a standard hotel with some level of Comfort you would do best to check in at H2O Hotel in Unhais da Serra.
Castle of Sabugal
If you’re that sort of person that simply can’t get away from history and old heritage, then we recommend you to check some (if not all) of the quaint villages that form the official circuit of the “Aldeias Históricas de Portugal” (Portugal’s historical villages). Strategically placed next to the Spanish border, Portugal’s historical villages are the work result of many generations of Kings who were concerned about territorial defense and decided to populate and fortify the area. As such, they are a fine example of medieval heritage and serve as a testimony of the warfare of the past. In order to plan your trip, you can get information here and here.
Apart from this circuit, you can also dig into some of the Jewish heritage quite present in the region, especially in the village of Belmonte, where a closely-knit Sephardic Jewish community managed to survive despite the pressures of the Portuguese inquisition throughout the 16th, 17th and 18th centuries. In Belmonte, you can also visit the house of the “Cabrais”, a minor noble family and house of famous navigator Pedro Álvares Cabral who discovered Brazil in 1500. Funny enough, this ocean deprived region produced many other figures associated with the discovery age, most notably Pero da Covihã and Afonso de Paiva.
Sortelha – Portugal’s historical villages
Nature and sports
It will be in between the mountainous area of “Serra da Malcata” and “Serra da Estrela” that you will be presented with enough ground to suffice your nature craving needs. Take your time, and try a couple of mountain biking and hiking trails that abound the region, look here and here for more information and don’t forget to check-in at the tour office in one of the bigger villages such as Guarda or Covilhã. No matter what you do, be sure to set your eyes into the Zêzere river glacial valley and “Covão da Ametade”.
Apart from hiking and biking, if you’re the sort of fellow with an unlimited amount of patience, in Serra da Malcata you can try to pay a visit to the World’s most endangered feline, the Iberian lynx. Chances are you won’t be able to spot one, but hey! You never know!
Like most countryside cuisine, the Beiras region boasts unlimited amounts of comfort food, that will make you hate yourself once you look into your swelled belly in the mirror. One might add that there’s not a particular type of main course that’s more renowned than the other. There isn’t that one dish that marks the region. This simply reflects the fact that we already highlighted above: the absence of roads and communication led to each place developing its own set of culinary rules and ingredients… Consequently, you just need to keep your stomach “open” to new experiences and try a local dish every single time!
That being said, and contrary to many other Portuguese regions, wine is not the best gastronomical product of the region, and not certainly the most famous. Rather, it’s one culinary ingredient that goes perfectly with it: Cheese! In particular, the cheese known as “Queijo da Serra” can brag about being the most famous of the Portuguese cheeses, and certainly one of the best. Its production has to follow rigorous rules starting with the usage of the “Bordaleira” species of sheep. Its particular qualities result from the slow draining of curdled raw sheep’s milk which has been coagulated by using local Cynara cadunculus thistle rather than rennet. Be sure to try it!
Give the huge amount of sheep herding that takes place in the region, you can also expect a huge number of lamb related dishes, especially roasted inside a traditional oven. Oddly enough, despite the distance from the coast, you can also expect one of the best codfish recipes out there: “Bacalhau à Conde da Guarda”, which literally translates into “Codfish Earl of Guarda style”.
Serra da Estrela Cheese
We could go on and on, and provide you with more information. There’s still plenty to cover! We didn’t mention any particular festivity and tradition you should be aware of, we didn’t talk about the music and the dances, and we didn’t pinpoint that idyllic waterfall anybody knows of (check Poço do Inferno and Fonte do Pego but don’t tell anyone, shhh). That’s true! However, as stated above, this is simply a shortlist of ideas and tips that you should be aware of, not the entire region guide. We suppose you’ll have to wait a bit more for more information…
Local shepperd calling his dog
About Rootfarers: Private tours from Lisbon filled with genuine experiences! Rootfarers was born in 2019 with the mission of showing travelers what Portugal is really about. We do that by organizing private tours and itineraries that help curious tourists get away from mass tourism, thus showing them the authentic side of Portugal. In order to achieve that, we provide itineraries that are heavily focused on Portuguese roots and traditions.
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