Exploring Portugal off the beaten path will lead you to many pleasant surprises, such as traditional villages, stunning landscapes and fascintating history. It doesn’t take much to leave the tourist trail behind and for this article, I’d like to tell you about some places in the east of the country that might tempt you to do so.
Between the Serra da Estrela Mountains and the border between Portugal and Spain you’ll find lots of small villages which were established centuries ago to defend the territory from invaders.
Some of them, like Sortelha, Monsanto, Idanha-a-Velha and Belmonte, have achieved international fame by being selected as part of the Historical Villages of Portugal network while others, like Penamacor, Penha Garcia and Sabugal, are less touristy but full of stories and hidden gems.
All of these remote villages are surrounded by glorious countryside, including plains, rivers, granite outcrops and the Serra da Malcata Nature Reserve, where Iberian lynx used to roam. I had the pleasure of exploring parts of this under-the-radar pocket of central Portugal with Samuel Ribeiro, who is keen to develop sustainable tourism in the area.
Here’s a short video of him and some of the places we visited. It’s in Portuguese but the images are enough to give you the idea:
As a guide, Samuel is friendly, accommodating and extremely knowledgeable about the local history, nature and culture so I felt like I was in good hands. I certainly experienced and learned much more by being with him than I would have done had I visited these places alone.
If you want to get in touch with Samuel about customising a tour in this region, please complete this enquiry form.
Since I’ve already written about the other historical villages that you can explore, with or without Samuel, in this article I’ll focus on the areas you probably haven’t heard about before, many of them unique places to visit in Portugal.
Penamacor – an authentic Portuguese village with lots of history
There are at least three stories behind the name of this village but I think my favourite is that it’s the rocky hill (penha in Portuguese) lived in and defended by a fearsome hermit named Magor. Penha de Magor morphed over time into Penamacor.
Thanks to the hilly location and views across to Spain, Penamacor was an ideal location for a castle, even though the summer heat and lack of water made living there challenging.
Nowadays, little remains of the castle, except for the keep and one of the entrances to the inner walls. The outer walls which contained the village have long been reused to construct other buildings, including the town hall.
Samuel told me about Ribeiro Sanches, a local doctor and scientist who was persecuted for his Jewish heritage to the point where he had to leave Portugal. Nevertheless, he stayed in contact with contemporaries and mentors and his innovative ideas revolutionised the way that medicine was taught in the country.
As well as a bust outside the town hall, he also has the top floor of the Casa das Memórias (House of Memories) dedicated to his life and achievements.
The Convent of Saint Anthony, which is normally closed but Samuel was able to arrange access, has an interesting history too. When the episcopal seat in Guarda refused to pay for a church to be built in Penamacor in the 16th century, the local population funded and literally built it themselves.
The church has changed a lot since its austere Franciscan beginnings and is currently embellished with full Baroque carvings and painted ceilings.
Samuel also pointed out the design in the cobblestones behind the parish church, which I wouldn’t have spotted. Penamacor is a Vila Madeiro (Timber Village), which means that just before Christmas every year, they build a massive bonfire to warm the baby Jesus, around which the community gathers.
Having seen photos of the bonfire, I’m amazed that the church hasn’t burnt down before now!
Sabugal, another lived-in village with history
I didn’t have Samuel’s company when I went to Sabugal and I missed his interpretations and tales as I explored the historical centre on my own. I’m sure he could have explained the local fascination for cats – I saw a massive cat sculpture in a park and metal cats with a poem in a small square.
Sabugal Castle is in better shape than the one in Penamacor and you can climb its unusual pentagonal tower for splendid views of the village and surrounding countryside.
The land on which it stands has been occupied since pre-historcial times – if you visit the municipal museum, you’ll see evidence of previous civilisations.
The elevated poisition provided control over the Côa River, the source of which is nearby, as it flows around Sabugal on its way to Vila Nova de Foz Côa.
The village of Sabugal was founded around 1190 by Alfonso XI of Leon but it wasn’t until King Dinis I conquered the territory that the 28-metre high keep was built, next to the entrance to the bailey. Subsequent kings and wars led to further improvements and reinforcements but by the 19th century, it was no longer needed for defence. Instead, the inside of the castle was used as a cemetery!
There are maps dotted around the historical centre of Sabugal to show you where the various points of interest are and I accidentally stumbled across most of them in my haphazard wanderings.
Serra da Malcata Nature Reserve
Samuel took me into this stunning area of natural beauty, one of the hidden gems in Portugal, which was established in 1981 in a failed attempt to preserve the Iberian lynx population.
Although the lynx died out, the reserve is one of the most heavily protected spaces in Portugal, which is probably why it’s so beautiful and full of birds and other species. We saw some bee eaters shortly after entering the reserve and lots of other birds in the air and the water.
Among the highlights of our tour of the Malcata reserve was the view from Pico da Machoca (1,072 metres altitude), which has a watchtower to look out for forest fires and a swing for Instagram lovers. Samuel normally provides a picninc lunch at this spot for guests who want to visit the reserve.
Be aware that phone and GPS signal is weak in this area so it’s easy to get lost if you don’t know the roads, even if you have a paper map. For this reason, I’d recommend using Samuel or another local guide if you want to go this far off the beaten track in Portugal.
Quinta da Bazágueda farm
This ancient farm is the only one still active within the Malcata Reserve – there were once 500! The property has been in Fernando’s family for generations and, together with Marta and their two adorable young boys, he is slowly restoring the ancient watermills and other features.
Their cows, sheep and goats are all indigenous breeds that are well-adapted to the terrain and climate but, because they don’t produce the yields needed for industrial farming, are in danger of becoming extinct.
After a simple yet tasty lunch by the Bazágueda River, I watched as the family entered the sheep and goat pen to separate the lambs and kids before releasing the older animals to graze freely. I could have had a go at catching the baby animals but I was happy enough to just watch. Some of them were quite a challenge to grab hold of!
I loved seeing how happy, relaxed and confident the two little boys were, roaming around in bare feet, playing in the river and being around the animals.
Although we only spent a couple of hours at Marta and Fernando’s farm, it’s possible to spend half or even a full day here.
This gives you a chance to really get to know about their animals, regenerative farming practices, the watermills that were built between the 12th and 16th centuries and, of course, to enjoy Fernando’s cooking and the peaceful setting.
This really is Portugal off the beaten path. There’s no phone signal so you can truly disconnect from the outside world for a while, and perhaps spend time in the hammock beside the river.
Moinho do Maneio rural accommodation near Penamacor
Talking of stone cottages in an idyllic setting by the Bazágueda River with no phone reception, I had the pleasure of spending the night at Moinho do Maneio.
This is a delightful cluster of beautifully restored and stylishly furnished cottages by the river. They also have a Bubble, which is a dome tent with clear roof so you can stargaze from the comfort of your (proper) bed. It has an en suite bathroom and is hidden in the trees to ensure privacy from other guests.
Although there’s a swimming pool, I was keen to swim in the river, which was a wonderful experience, especially when it started to rain while I was in the water. Just magical.
There is wifi in the breakfast room and the owners, Anabela and Rui, have a landline so if there’s an emergency you’re not completely isolated.
The property is, however, 2 km down a dirt road about 9 km from Penamacor so it’s definitely off-the-beaten-track! Some units have a small kitchen so you can prepare meals but otherwise, you’ll need to drive to a restaurant.
Meandros do Côa hiking trail near Sabugal
After exploring the village of Sabugal, I wanted to follow the 10 km circular hiking trail based around the Côa River before it got too hot or too late in the day. My original plan had been to walk the marked trail around the village of Sortelha (PR7 SBG) but Samuel recommended the PR1 SBG because of the pristine beauty of the Côa.
He was right.
Although not all of the trail is beside the river, the sections that are by the water are absolutely beautiful.
The rest of the walk is through attractive countryside, including oak and pine forests and agricultural land. It was a hot day and although I followed the route in an anticlockwise direction in an attempt to avoid hills, there are inclines in both directions.
Unlike some hiking trails in Portugal, this is well-marked and easy to follow.
Practicalities for visiting this part of central Portugal
Best time to go
If you want to discover Central Portugal off the beaten path, you can visit all year round but spring and autumn are the best times, when temperatures are warm and the countryside is bursting with colour, either from wild flowers or autum leaves.
In summer months (June to September), high temperatures usually make any kind of hiking unpleasant unless you go at sunrise or sunset. Samuel knows how to work around the heat and offers jeep tours of the villages or Malacata Reserve, with stops at swimming spots like the one in this photo or other river beaches, like the one in Penha Garcia.
How to get there
Getting to any of these villages by public transport can be tricky but there are trains to Guarda and Covilhã, and a few smaller stops in between those two towns, such as Caria or Manteigas-Belmonte, depending on where you are staying. You could then take a taxi to your accommodation and let Samuel pick you up from there for your tour. You’ll need to stay at least one night to make it worth the journey.
If you have a rental car, or a private driver, you’ll have a lot more freedom and flexibility and could perhaps get away with just one night in the area if you’re really pushed for time, although there are plenty of things to keep you occupied on a longer stay.