The underrated Portuguese region that needs to be on your radar

Photo of Steph MarinkovicPhoto of Steph Marinkovic
By Steph Marinkovic

18 April 2019 | Updated 21 May 20216 min read

A wooden walkway runs alongside the rushing River Paiva, surrounded by lush greenery on both sides

A low call followed by the jangle of bells cuts Pedro’s speech short. Minutes later, two caramel-coated cows amble along the street below, ears pricked towards the coaxing murmurs of the shepherdess.

“The cows don’t really need to be called home,” Pedro, our guide, picks up again, noting our city-slicker delight with the wildlife. “They know when grazing time is over, but the pastora likes to call aloud anyway – it can get a little too quiet out here.”

Here is Castanheira, a miniscule village just three streets long and two wide. It’s one of many forgotten places nestled in Central Portugal, the often-bypassed region stretching between Lisbon and Porto. While the cities jostle for a spot on tourists’ maps, Central Portugal has been left to its own devices. Now, it’s beginning to flourish, just without the fanfare.

It means hilltop hideaways can still offer five-star luxury for a fraction of the cost, jaw-dropping landscapes are still wondrously well-preserved and vineyard-cum-hotel owners trust guests to tread through their secluded properties with wine glass in hand. With a wildly beautiful stretch of the coast – a secret held dear to the surfer community here – it’s astounding the region’s recent resurgence is still so unnoticed.

Central Portugal offers up a lot for those willing to venture through it. Here’s what else to expect.

Walking tracks and ancient curiosities

There’s only one national park in Portugal, a surprising titbit for a country blessed with so much spectacular scenery. Instead, Portugal designates its landscapes as either ‘natural parks’ or ‘geoparks’; it’s the latter, in Arouca, we explore.

First stop is the Passadiços do Paiva – an 8km trail of boarded paths that cling to the cliffs by the Paiva River. Our group, just five of us, are the only ones on the passadiços on this brisk March morning. As we make our way down our local guide points out unique flora, hidden waterfalls and once, a rarely seen butterfly perched on the railing. It’s these walking trails, and the natural beauty they trace, that are helping put Central Portugal on the map.

“The region’s favoured by Swiss and Belgian tourists,” Pedro explains. “But they’re keen to keep it quiet – they love having the trails to themselves.”

Unfortunately for them, the secret is out. Offering hikes of all kinds – from cool hour-long strolls to challenging four-day treks – the Arouca Geopark is a walker’s paradise. (Editor's note: since May 2021, the geopark even claims a world record. It's recently opened the world's longest pedestrian suspension bridge, at 516m long and suspended 175m above the Paiva).

It also hides hotbed of ancient activity; all over the park, trace fossils reveal millions of years of biological secrets. In Castanheira, the Pedras Parideiras, so-called ‘birthing stones’, compete with the caramel cows for attention. The stones are a phenomenon unique to the area, where eons of erosion causes native white granite stones to ‘birth’ deposits of tougher, black minerals.

As we marvel at the stones, a comfortable silence falls over us – a much needed moment of zen before the heart-pumping action we were about to experience.

Water thrills and red wine spills

“Don’t worry if you fall out. You’ll catch up to us eventually,” grins our instructor. We’re about to tackle the white waters of the Paiva and the only things keeping us out of its cold depths are coordination and teamwork – a hefty ask of five strangers.

We get the hang of it though, and halfway in, we start to relish going up against nature. Jagging through ragged rocks, deaf to the threat of a snagged raft, we lean in to untameable currents that should send us spinning; instead, they seem to bend to the will of our experienced instructor with each deft manoeuvre.

Classed as a level three run, it’s thrill-a-minute stuff and dizzying enough to warrant a drink. Coincidentally enough, that’s next on the Central Portugal menu. Yep, we’re talking wine, wine, and a little more wine.

Smack bang in the Dão region, luckily, we’re in the right place. It’s a relative newbie in the playing field but its spirited wines are making oenophiles all over the world take note. A new wave of plucky winemakers is positively itching to experiment with local varietals, their deep, balanced reds making an impact, in particular.

What’s more, the wineries open their doors to guests year-round. Called quintas, these country estates are complete with vineyards, luxe accommodation, to-die-for vistas, and a whole lot of history. Now, in addition to their top-shelf ranges, the quintas are looking back to their roots to offer traditional grape-stomping events for guests. It’s hungry work but, of course, Central Portugal has that covered, too.

Dishes for every tastebud

Covering every spare inch of land between Lisbon, Porto and the Spanish border, Central Portugal’s cuisine sure has range. By the sea, you’ll find everything from bacalhau (salted cod fish) done a hundred different ways and freshly-caught cockle stew to fried eels with escabeche sauce (made from tomatoes, onion and vinegar) and sea-salt snails served with a pin, used to carefully twist the prize from their shells.

In the mountains, heavy meat dishes replace the fruits of the sea; think slow-roasted veal, black pudding, thin slices of smoked ham and specialty chorizos in seemingly every town.

Then there’s the eggs. They compete only with the cod for real estate on fuss-free, laminate menus across the region. They make up the base of many traditional Portuguese desserts, a staple harking back to when practical nuns transformed the yolks into tea-time treats to feed the poor. Look out for castanhas doces (sweet ‘chestnuts’ made of egg yolk, sugar and almond meal) and arroz doce (rice pudding).

Blissful beaches

Central Portugal has nabbed itself a fair chunk of coastline; the fact it’s often overlooked by international tourists may be the only thing sweeter than the eggy desserts.

From Nazaré in the south all the way up to Praia do Furadouro, you’ll stumble upon stretch after stretch of quiet sand, such as Mira Beach near Aveiro. And if they’re just not quiet enough for you, hop along to the next one. Between them, you’re bound to find one just for you.

One of the bigger resort towns along the stretch is Figueira da Foz, where whitewashed hotels are set far back from the beach. In summer, it busies itself with local tourists and avid surfers, though it hardly matches the crowds of that flock to Portugal’s south.

In March when we visit, the beaches are empty. Endless sands are battered by the waves and Pedro laments our early flight home: the conditions are prime for a surfing lesson. Next time, he promises. It feels prophetic; the charm of Figueira da Foz, with its wild grasses giving way to golden footprint-free sands, is already calling us back.

This trip was provided by the Hotéis Rurais de Portugal, an association of rural hotels dedicated to promoting the richness of Portugal’s interior.

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