Forget what you know about Portugal. Beyond the shimmering sands of the Algarve or the bustling capital of Lisbon, a series of villages sprawling across the Serra da Estrela mountain range are home to the heart of the country 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 spans countless 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 have experienced in the country.
It would be unfair to say that the area is getting a makeover: there is endless beauty amid rugged mountains, river beaches and charming communities. On the contrary, this regeneration project pays far too late attention to a rare and precious way of life and rethinks the traditional tourist experience.
Signs of mass production slowly disappear as you meander the sheer cliffs of Serra da Estrela.
There are no malls, just grocery stores run by women, and the only tour guides you’ll find are the locals (except for the bespoke experiences provided by Madomis Tours).
Language barriers are common, but the scenic trails and total relaxation transcend languages.
Why not sign up to work in one of the many recently opened coworking spaces in the area to focus on professional development surrounded by history and natural beauty?
From a simple stroll to a cultural event, Portugal’s rural revival, despite its late entry into the tourism industry, witnesses a multitude of attractions that have the power to attract from January to December.
Three hours by car (essential for the region) from Lisbon airport, heading towards Lapa dos Dinheiros, one of the villages, one can feel a slowly pervading sense of well-being as one approaches the serene Casas da Lapas, beset with stone and neutral tones, overlooking cavernous valleys.
Checking into the relaxing mountainside hotel owned by husband-and-wife duo Nuno Bravo and Maria Manuel Silva, one encounters not only spectacular views, but a refreshing escape from the routine of everyday life.
Those seeking tranquility will have all their requirements met within the confines of luxury accommodation, from delicious meals to spa and aromatherapy treatments, and a choice of three swimming pools (two outdoor, one indoor).
Precocious chef Tiago Gonçalves’ delicious breakfast will make you a morning person, but it’s the sumptuous elegance of the evening meals that is the real draw. Based on five ‘moments’, one can indulge in simple dishes inspired by traditional Portuguese cuisine with a distinctly farm-to-table attitude. Silky chickpea hummus is flecked with sticky tapenade on fresh homemade bread while cod soup topped with a grated egg is the delicacy you never knew you needed in your life. A choice of meat or fish dish is the trickiest decision to make, but don’t miss the duck breast with potato and apple gratin, onion juice and mashed sweet potatoes, or the dessert finer: an orange tart with salted butter caramel and cream ice cream.
While visiting nearby villages, seek out local delicacies of corn and rye bread crinkled with chorizo and pork belly, freshly baked at many of the communal ovens in towns where tourists are invited. to participate in cooking.
Lapa dos Dinheiros is the ideal launching pad to visit the calm waters of the river beaches of Loriga (an area of rugged terrain and great natural beauty with cafes open during the summer); the narrow, cobbled streets of Alvoco da Serra; the ornate sienna roofs in the Manteigas hills.
There is something unique about every village landscape.
In the remote Quinta da Taberna, a real ghost town, 14 dilapidated properties will be sold and transformed into luxury housing to strengthen the region’s offer.
Fradigas, with 15 residents, may seem like a rundown village with a small shop and cafe bar, but the regeneration project will restore a primary school to become a museum that will house the stories of the local people.
The thing to remember about regeneration is that the project is still in development. Five years from now, 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 by the unmistakable aroma of baking bread. In the village oven, accessible to the 350 inhabitants, a bubbly octogenarian presents herself in rhyme. She recites poems about how living in Videmonte, above, promotes a beautiful lifestyle based on clean air and good people.
Videmonte is home to five Airbnbs and last October the first restaurant opened and serves traditional cuisine. The village is set to expand at a slow and measurable pace.
A stroll through and you might bump into the 95-year-old grandmother of starred chef Miguel Rocha Vieira, who appeared on MasterChef Portugal, who offered our group lunch at her cozy home.
Everyone here radiates optimism and a positive attitude in an increasingly globalized world.
Following our visit, the mayor of the town calls to emphasize how proud the villagers were to share a glimpse of their way of life. The effect of this kindness is contagious and relatively unknown in modern tourist excursions.
Head of village development, Célia Gonçalves, executive director of the Association for the Integrated Development of the Mountain Village Network, lights up when she talks about the recently opened coworking spaces scattered around the region and the communities in which they find themselves . With the more formal adoption of the practice of remote working, the project invites returning locals and international guests to use the facilities, with each space equipped with connectivity and technology to link rural villages to global markets. (Last year, the PT2030 community support framework announced a €20 million investment in remote workspaces in the country’s interior regions.)
Every detail is completed with impeccable taste – decorated with swivel chairs discarded from call centers restored with local Burel wool, hand-woven signs, blinds and hand-crocheted lampshades. Some spaces will offer visitors the possibility of staying in one of its two twin rooms for free, such as Videmonte, provided they offer something in return to the village. (Such an offering must come from the heart in order to match the generosity of the locals.)
If you’re staying at the modernist Casa de São Lourenço sanctuary in nearby Manteigas, which exudes an air of Alpine mystery and unmistakable luxury, you can visit the nearby Burel factory, a gem of the Portuguese wool industry. Before the factory fell into disrepair, two mountain explorers, João Tomás and Isabel Costa, realized the cultural value of the space and recovered the factory.
Not only is the wool sold around the world, but the regeneration project is teaming up with the factory and Sandra Piñho, partner at a Lisbon-based design firm, to pay tribute to the queijeiras (women cheese makers) 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 profits will be used to preserve the craftsmanship and continue its legacy. Everything in the network of mountain villages comes from the heart.
Far from the hustle and bustle of events found in large cities, a series of festivities punctuate the year to preserve the identity of the villages. Thematic around events like the summer solstice or the harvest, and niche events like the one that celebrates the chestnut – the mountain villages have a unique draw all year round, from the first warm days to the snowy winters. Yuletide is not complete without the annual Christmas markets in Cabeça, the town lit up with twinkling lights, 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 goal in the mountain villages is to avoid over-tourism. With the individuality of each village as its main draw, the region hopes to attract those looking for an unforgettable experience.
Whether professional and amateur photographers who wish to indulge in more than 101 hectares of landscapes ranging from otters and foxes to bellflowers, a true symbol of the Serra da Estrela, sage-leaved rockroses or verdant meadows and crystal clear lagoons ; or adventure sports enthusiasts have the option of biking, hiking or bouldering the mountain trails, or skiing at the highest peak of the mountain in winter; or those simply looking for a relaxing getaway – the rural revival welcomes tourism but hopes to avoid the pitfalls of mass-produced fast fashion and food franchises.
A welcome departure.