Forget what you know about Portugal. In addition to the sparkling sands of the Algarve or the bustling capital of Lisbon, a number of villages scattered across the Serra da Estrela mountain range are home to the heart of the country and a new form of tourism.
Portugal’s rural revival, guided by the principles of nature, community and creativity, takes place in the picturesque center of Portugal, which stretches across endless beaches facing the Atlantic Ocean, 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 region is undergoing a facelift: there is infinite beauty amidst the rugged mountainside, the riverbanks and charming communities. Instead, this renewal project draws much-delayed attention to a rare, precious lifestyle and rethinks the traditional tourist experience.
The signs of mass production are slowly disappearing as you meander along the steep slopes of Serra da Estrela.
There are no malls, but a few grocery stores run by women, and the only tour guides you will find are the locals (apart from tailor-made experiences provided by Madomis Tours).
Language barriers are common, but scenic roads and complete relaxation transcend tongues.
Why not sign up to work in 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, despite its late entry into the tourism industry, witnesses a host of features that have the power to attract January to December.
Three hours by car (essential for the region) from Lisbon Airport, on the way to Lapa dos Dinheiros, one of the villages, you can feel a profound sense of lightness slowly sinking in as you approach the serene Casas da Lapas, surrounded by stones and neutral tones, overlooking the hollow valleys.
When you check into the relaxing hotel on the hillside, owned by the husband-and-wife duo Nuno Bravo & Maria Manuel Silva, you are not only greeted with spectacular views, but a refreshing escape from the hustle and bustle of everyday life.
Those looking for tranquility will have all their requirements met within the framework of luxury accommodation, from delicious meals to spa and aromatherapy treatments and a choice of three pools (two outdoor, one indoor).
The delicious breakfast from the early chef Tiago Gonçalves will make you a morning person, but it is the sumptuous elegance of the evening meals that is the real attraction. Based on five ‘moments’, you can indulge in sumptuous dishes inspired by traditional Portuguese cuisine with a distinct farm-to-table attitude. Silky soft chickpea hummus is smeared with sticky tapenade on fresh homemade bread, while cod soup topped with a grated egg is the delicious dish you did not know you needed in your life. A choice of main courses based on meat or fish is the hardest decision to make, but do not miss the duck tenderloin with potato and apple gratin, onion juice and sweet potato puree or the finest dessert: an orange pie with salted caramel and ice cream.
As you travel around the nearby villages, go hunting for local specialties of corn and rye bread with wrinkles with chorizo and pork, freshly made in many of the towns common ovens, where tourists are invited to join in the baking.
Lapa dos Dinheiros is the perfect starting point for visits to the calm waters of Loriga’s riverside (an area of rugged relief and great natural beauty with cafes operating in the summer); the narrow, cobbled streets of Alvoco da Serra; the sienna-adorned roofs of 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 strengthen the region’s offerings.
Fradigas, with 15 inhabitants, may seem like a village in decline with a small shop and cafe-cum-bar, but the renewal project will restore a primary school so that it becomes a museum that will house the stories of the locals.
The thing to remember about regeneration is that the project is still under development. In five years, the possibilities will be endless. But already now there is something beautiful to see.
Few villages can match Videmonte’s appeal, where you are immediately greeted with the unmistakable aroma of baking bread. At the village stove, which is accessible to the 350 residents, a crisp eight-year-old presents himself in rhyme. She recites poems about how living in Videmonte, high up, promotes a beautiful lifestyle based on clean air and good people.
Videmonte is home to five Airbnbs, and last October opened the first restaurant serving traditional cuisine. The village needs to expand at a slow, measurable pace.
A stroll through and you may stumble across the 95-year-old grandmother of Michelin-starred chef Miguel Rocha Vieira, who performed at MasterChef Portugal, who offered our group lunch in his cozy home.
Everyone here radiates optimism and a positive outlook in an increasingly globalized world.
After our visit, the town mayor calls to acknowledge how proud the villagers were of sharing an insight into their way of life. The impact of this kindness is contagious and relatively unheard of in modern tourist excursions.
At the forefront of village development, Célia Gonçalves, executive director of the Association for the Integrated Development of the Mountain Villages Network, lights up when she talks about the newly opened co-working spaces scattered around the region and the communities where they are placed. . With a more formal introduction of teleworking practices, the project welcomes returning local and international guests to use the facilities, each space equipped with the connection and technology to build bridges between rural and global markets. (Last year, the PT2030 Community Support Framework announced a € 20 million investment in remote work areas in the interior regions of the country.)
Every detail is complete with impeccable taste – decorated with swivel chairs discarded from call centers restored with local Burel wool, hand-woven signs, hand-crocheted blinds and lampshades. Some of the rooms will offer visitors an opportunity to stay for free in one of its two double bedrooms, such as Videmonte, on the condition that they offer something to the village in return. (Such an offer must come from the heart to match the generosity of the locals.)
If you live in the modernist sanctuary Casa de São Lourenço in the nearby Manteigas, which exudes an atmosphere of alpine mystery meets unequivocal luxury, you can visit the nearby Burel Factory, a jewel of the Portuguese wool industry. Before the factory fell into complete disrepair, two mountain scientists, João Tomás and Isabel Costa, realized the cultural value of space and got the factory back.
Not only is wool sold all over the globe, but the regeneration project is collaborating with the factory and Sandra Piñho, a partner in a Lisbon-based design firm, to pay tribute to queijeiras (female cheesemakers) who work tirelessly on a world-renowned product but receive little recognition for their contributions. The supple woolen coats come in a palette of earthy and neutral tones, and the profits will be used to preserve the craft and continue its heritage. Everything in the network of mountain villages comes from the heart.
Far away from the tumult of events in major cities, a number of festivities are spread throughout the year to preserve the identity of the villages. Themes around events such as summer solstice or harvest, and niche events such as one that celebrates the chestnut – the mountain villages have a unique feature all year round from the first warm days to the snowy winters. The Christmas season is not complete without Cabeça’s annual Christmas markets, the city glowing with glittering light fixtures, decorated with wreaths and decorations handcrafted by about 170 locals from pine trees and vines from the surrounding forests.
Unlike Portugal’s vibrant alternatives, the goal in mountain villages is to avoid over-tourism. With the individuality of each village as a primary trait, the region hopes to attract those looking for an indelible experience.
Whether it is professional and amateur photographers who want to indulge in over 101 acres of landscapes from otters and foxes to bellflowers, a true symbol of Serra da Estrela, sage-leafed rock roses or the lush green meadows and crystalline lagoons; or lovers of adventure sports have opportunities from cycling, hiking or bouldering on mountain trails or skiing on the highest peak of the mountain in winter; or those who are just looking for a relaxing getaway – the rural revival welcomes tourism but hopes to avoid the mass production feature of the fast fashion and food franchise.
A welcome departure.