The quiet village of Penha Garcia straddles a rocky cliff which commands sweeping views over the neighboring plains in the southeast part of Central Portugal. The surrounding rock formations are one of the geological highlights within the NaturTejo Geopark, notably the trilobite fossils that are scattered within them.
Given its strategic and scenic, albeit remote, location Penha Garcia has been home to various civilisations since Neolithic times and contains a wealth of history, not least the cluster of well-preserved watermills. Although it wasn’t included in the Historical Villages of Portugal network, it’s close enough to Monsanto and Idanha-a-Velha to incorporate into a tour of this area, as you’ll see from my historical villages itinerary.
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For mildly adventurous travellers, there’s a hiking trail that will take you to all of these historical and geological gems as well as a ‘secret’ river beach. You can also reduce the amount of walking and drive closer to some of these spots (but not the river beach).
Further reading: Hiking in Portugal, What You Need To Know
Keep reading to find out what to do when you visit Penha Garcia.
1. Conquer Penha Garcia Castle and contemplate local history
At the top of the village, on the southern slope of the Serra de Penha Garcia and overlooking the Pônsul River, you’ll find the medieval castle. Built by order of the second king of Portugal, King Sancho I, the fortress is now a reminder that Penha Garcia, being so close to the border with Spain, was once part of the country’s strategic defense system.
In the 13th century both the town and castle were given to the Order of St James and at the beginning of the next century they would change hands and become the possession of the Order of the Knights Templar. Today, the castle is a mere shadow of its former glory.
Even in more peaceful times, life wasn’t easy in these fairly challenging and isolated lands. The people from Penha Garcia and this area were known for their equally harsh personalities, for their superstitions and for smuggling – at least that’s how 20th century Portuguese Realist author, Fernando Namora, described them.
Smuggling was something relatively common in several towns and villages along the Spanish-Portuguese border and was actually a necessity for many during the dictatorship years. Looking at the rocky terrain you can imagine what it would have been like to walk those paths with nothing but the moonlight to show you the way.
2. See ‘painted snakes’ and trace fossils
What makes this small borderland village “famous” to some extent are its much older historical remains. Locals used to talk about “painted snakes” and tell the legend of an enchanted Moorish woman combing her hair on Midsummer nights waiting for a magical kiss that would break the spell she was under.
Today, less romantically, they talk about ichnofossils, i.e. trace fossils, that reveal the trails made by prehistoric marine creatures.
In the rocks around Penha Garcia, you can easily see trace fossils of different types of marine life that existed here some 480 million years ago. The most famous are the giant trilobites that lived in the ocean long before the age of dinosaurs. Many millions of years ago the vertical slates where you can now observe these remains used to be the ocean floor.
One of the old watermills (see below for more about them) now contains a mini museum dedicated to these petrified creatures and their legacy, with some wonderful examples of the patterns they created and a fossil of an actual trilobite. There is some information in both English and Portuguese.
3. Discover a mini village of watermills
For me, one of the highlights of my visit to Penha Garcia was the cluster of watermills beside the stream. I hadn’t expected to be able to see inside these tiny stone buildings but as I approached, a man offered to show me inside them.
Several of the 25 cottages are still furnished or contain typical traditional toys, household items and tools, giving you a glimpse into the lifestyle of the millers and their families. It’s hard to imagine entire families living in such small spaces but they clearly did.
Domingos was keen to show me the mills in operation, too. He is not only the proud key holder to these cultural treasures, he spends the time in between visitors making rock and cactus gardens around them.
4. Explore the countryside on the Fossils Route hiking trail around Penha Garcia
The easiest way to check out all the most interesting things Penha Garcia has to offer is to take the fossils hiking route (Rota dos Fósseis – PR3). This is a relatively easy 3 km circular hike that can take about 1 hour to complete or considerably longer, depending on how you enjoy getting lost in details.
This hike will take you up through the village streets and then downhill from the castle, past a small cave (Gruta da Lapa), along the side of the dam and then down to the still-functioning watermills and to the fossils (which you can even see in the rocks).
Towards the end you have the bonus of a small river beach, called Fonte do Pego, that comes with its own waterfall. While you’re in the area don’t forget to look up every now and then, as you might just see a griffon vulture.
Tip: Although it’s short, if you do this hike in the summer months take extra precautions, i.e. avoid the hottest part of the day, wear a hat and sunscreen and take plenty of water as it can easily get very hot.
5. Go for a dip at Fonte do Pego river beach
This natural pool at the base of the cliff face is fed by the levada (irrigation channel), which creates a waterfall. As you can see, the setting is beautiful but note, there are no facilities other than a couple of toilets in one of the stone buildings that you can see in the photo. I’m not sure that they would be unlocked outside of the summer bathing period. If you intend to stay a while, take your own supplies.
6. Go rock climbing in Penha Garcia
If you’re into fairly extreme sports you might want to consider rock climbing in Penha Garcia. There’s a total of 6 small crags spread around the trail.
They’re considered easy climbing spots with large flat holds or crimps on the quartizite. I passed some climbers on my way down to the watermills and they seemed to be enjoying themselves. More info about the climbs and contact details on this leaflet.
7. Tuck into freshly baked goods from the traditional community oven
Don’t forget to check out the village’s still operating traditional community ovens (Forno comunitario), where you can choose from a variety of cakes and breads, most of which are made from traditional recipes, like the bica de azeite, which is of Jewish origin.
I’m not sure what the biscuity-cakey thing I bought was called but it was tasty. Unfortunately, I got the focus wrong on my camera so the picture isn’t that great but you get the idea…
8. Learn about local traditions
As in the more famous historical village of Monsanto, you can also find the traditional marafona dolls here in Penha Garcia. Although marafonas are not exclusive to the Idanha region, here you’ll see them being sold by old ladies on virtually every corner of both villages. These handmade dolls have a simple wooden cross as its structure and used to be kept on the bed to protect the house from both thunderstorms and the evil eye.
They were offered to young women and put under the newlyweds’ bed on their wedding night to assure them good luck. Probably the most notorious trait of these dolls is the fact that they have no eyes to see and no mouth to speak so the couple’s secrets would be safe with them.
Also easily found here, although not exclusive to the region, there’s the adufe, a kind of small square tambourine of Moorish origin and traditionally played only by women. Its unusual shape has led to speculation that, originally, the adufe could have had some sort of symbolic function. Inside, the adufe will have a few small shells, seeds or bottle caps to ensure a richer, more varied sound.
Practicalities for visiting Penha Garcia
This is a relatively isolated part of Portugal so public transport is patchy at best. You will need a car to get here – compare prices for rental cars here.
Once you’re in the region, you can learn a lot about Penha Garcia and nearby villages by taking a customised half or full day tour.
If you don’t want to drive, consider my fully-managed 3-day historical villages of Central Portugal tour, which includes a private driver from Coimbra.
If you do drive here on your own, there’s a car park just below the castle next to a playground and combat tank from the time of the Portuguese colonial war when the country was at war with what would soon become its former colonies in Africa and India.
Penha Garcia has a few restaurants and cafés so you should be able to find refreshments.
Accommodation near Penha Garcia
I stayed at the 4-star Hotel Fonte Santa, about 20 minutes away by car in Monfortinho. This would make a great base, especially if you want to enjoy the nearby spa or the outdoor swimming pool.
If you want to stay in in the village, there are several country cottages offering rooms, such as the rather charming Casal da Serra and the stone-built guest house Casa Santa Catarina.
An alternative would be to stay in the nearby village of Monsanto, famous for its gigantic boulders.
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Looking forward to exploring this area when we visit next month October