Europe Trip – Portugal – The Beiras and Estremadura


As we returned back to Portugal the weather turned very cold! Just over the border in Beira Alta province, our first stop was the little town of Sortelha. This virtually deserted stone village is built on a high rocky outcrop with immense walls encircling the village and the 12th century castle. Despite the cold, it was remarkable to visit the unique location and the well preserved walled village.

Next we wanted to spend some time in the Parque Natural da Serra de Estrella, a boulder-strewn high country full of icy lakes. However at the tourist office of Sortelha they told us that they just had unexpected early snow and one of the main roads in the mountain chain was closed with more snow to follow (confirmed by the threatening snow clouds we saw above the town). This meant that we had to skip this whole area, so we drove until late in the evening to a place close to Coimbra with a campersite stopover, Penacova. As we arrived on the main square after climbing some steep streets in first gear, we saw that there were festivities going on, with a huge tent and live music where the campersite was supposed to be. Before we could think about options, somebody knocked on the window: ‘Left Hand George’, a Flemish artist living in this town for almost 20 years introduced himself. He helped us out and provided a safe place to park the camper close to his house. We were then invited into this house to talk about traveling, living in Portugal, the life of an artist, and the crisis (see other blog entry) accompanied by some nice local wine. We were also told about a chestnut festival the following day, thus we decided to hang around for a day longer.

The next morning we visited the nearby Mata Naçional do Buçaco, a national forest surrounded by hills of eucalyptus trees. This unique collection of more than 700 plant species, also contained the the fairy-tale Palace Hotel du Buçaco at its center. We retuned back to Penacova just in time for the chestnut festival. The enormous bonfire had just died down and the mountain of roasted chestnut was free to all to pick through the fire and eat. All this while traditional Portuguese music was played and people were dancing. Needless to say we did not need to eat dinner that night after this chestnut feast.

Heading further west, we arrived in Coimbra on a foggy morning. At the campersite none of the facilities worked due to the crisis. Next to us was a huge old bus old parked with a German couple with kids the same age as ours.  They had been as far as India, Nepal & Pakistan and were traveling for 9 months.  It was nice to see other unconventional families doing even more adventurous traveling then us J

Coimbra is the site of one of the oldest universities of Europe and it was Portugal’s medieval capital for over 100 years. We crossed the river Mondego via a modern bridge and nice parks with ducks and fountains before starting the climb up steep cobblestoned roads to the university. The highlight of the visit was Biblioteca Joanina, where the elaborately frescoed ceilings and gilt chinoiserie bookshelves guarded over 300.000 ancient books. Extra security is provided by a group of live-in bats that make sure no insects survive in the fantastic baroque library. The other highlight in town was the stunning old cathedral or Sé Velha with Romanesque  architecture.

A visit to Portugal’s most extensive and best-preserved Roman ruins could not be missed, so we headed out to Conimbriga. These sprawling Roman ruins with extraordinary mosaics were split by a huge defensive wall.

We then visited the first in a set of three monasteries (Unesco World Heritage sites), the Mosteiro de Santa Maria da Vitória in Batalha. This is one of the supreme achievements of Manueline architecture, where solid rock has been carved into forms as delicate as snowflakes or as pliable as twisted rope. The second monastery was the Mosteiro de Santa Maria de Alcobaça. Less impressive with Manueline architecture, however highlights were: the huge tombs of Dom Pedro and his mistress, the azulejo- covered walls of the Kings’ Room and the mesmerizing Cloister of Silence. However, the unique Kitchen and Refectory alone made this place worth a visit: the immense fireplace, the gigantic chimney and cooking facilities for over 1000 monks, and the water channel through the middle of the room with a tributary of the river the provided  fish and water straight to the cooks!

Finally we hit the coast and it was beach time & we visited Nazaré, São Martinho do Porto and our personal favorite Foz do Arelho. We got to park right on the beach near a remarkably undeveloped area with a beautiful lagoon. At the beach side parking lot we got to see many Portuguese reading newspapers or books in their cars, knitting and rendezvous points for many people committing adultery.

With beach time over, it was time to head east again. The small town of Obidos surrounded by a classic crenellated wall, a medieval aqueduct, gorgeous labyrinth of cobblestoned streets and whitewashed houses with hints of ochre and blue was a fantastic place to visit.

Further east, Tomar was dominated by Convento de Cristo, the third monastery on the illustrious Unesco World Heritage site list. Located high above the valley, the convent was founded in 1160 and was the headquarters of the legendary Knights Templar! It is an amazing assembly of Gothic, Manueline and Renaissance architecture. It contains a 16-sided Templar church, two beautifully azulejo-decorated cloisters, a chapter house with a fantastic Manueline window decorated with ropes, seaweed, cork boats and the Cross of the order of Christ, an elegant Renaissance cloister, a never ending hall with numerous rooms for the monks, and we can just go on. It was truly an amazing place and a fantastic place to explore for Kyra. There was a surprise at every corner!

Approaching the Spanish border at the northern part of the Alentejo province, we visited Castelo de Vide and Marvão, two villages containing castles built in the 1300 and serving in a longer chain of protective fortifications.
Castelo de Vide, at about 550 meter altitude and high above lush countryside, contains an attractive medieval village, a nice castle offering great views, a very steep old town with Jewish quarters, azulejos covered churches and finally several fountains providing one of the best mineral waters of the country.
Marvão, our last stop before Spain, is perched high above the rocks at almost 900 meter altitude. It is an amazing place, a whitewashed village of tiled roofs, little churches and a formidable castle above the village with walled and staggering battlements. The views are simply awesome, across Spain and Portugal, wooded hills, Castelo de Vide and accompanied with vultures soaring in the sky. Kyle unfortunately had an accident. While seated in the stroller on a very steep street, he pulled himself against a wall. He tumbled face first into the wall with the stroller landing on top of him. His ear, forehead, cheek and chin were badly bruised as a resultL.

Our tough boy is fine and recently he has started to say certain words a million times a day, driving us to insanity (mommiiiiee, pappiiiie, Yaya meaning Kyra and NO NO NO NO….)!

Thus we venture again further east into Spain.


2 Responses to “Europe Trip – Portugal – The Beiras and Estremadura”

  1. 1 skip
    December 18, 2013 at 22:01

    pliable rope out of rock that makes this trip all worthwhile…Thanks for the trip ya’ll..my last Mo was just in Orange Park…Love you Guys Skip

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