Serra da Estrela: Discovering Portugal’s mountain landscapes

By Pedro C. Garcia / Miguel Moore

Serra da Estrela: Discovering Portugal’s mountain landscapes

(Photograph: Luís Afonso)

Portugal is typically associated with summer, beaches and mild winters. Yet, despite being small in size, the country offers a bewildering variety in landscapes and climates, some of which are often overlooked by visitors from abroad. Portugal is not known for its high mountains and fabulous skiing, but it is still possible to enjoy some alpine scenery and a slope or two in the mountainous region of the Serra da Estrela.

For the Portuguese, the Estrela mountain range is the closest they can get to a ski and mountain resort without leaving the country. Sure the rest of the Iberian Peninsula is teeming with good skiing (think Sierra Nevada in Spain and the whole of Andorra, to name but a few), yet Portugal’s highest region has much more to offer the curious visitor, from fabulous hiking trails that lead you down glacial valleys and past granite crags to cultural landscapes where some of the country’s most famous cheeses are produced. And not a single golf course within sight.

The Serra da Estrela Natural Park is the country’s largest conservation area. Located in the eastern half of the country’s central region, it includes the highest point in mainland Portugal at 1,993 m above sea level (Torre) – only beaten by Pico mountain (2,351 m), in the Azores islands. The mountain’s considerable snowfall during the winter months attracts many to the Vodafone Ski Resort, the only one in the country which, despite being small and only offering 9 pistes with a total length of 7.7 km, is a great place for beginners. The resort also offers some terrain for more experienced skiers and snowboarders and a terrain park for those keen on more extreme tricks. Don’t expect the Alps, but you can still have some fun.

The nearby village of Penhas da Saúde offers cosy, chalet-type accommodation and a youth hostel for those interested in exploring the region over a few days, or you can always look further afield as accommodation abounds in the villages around the foothills of the serra and the city of Covilhã, some 20km away.

The glaciers which moulded the Serra da Estrela into its current shape, created one of the most beautiful sceneries in Portugal. Some 100 km long and 30 km wide, the mountain range is basically a huge granite ridge that juts out from the surrounding plateaus. It is also connected with some of Portugal’s founding myths, as its rich cultural landscapes are said to have been home to the Lusitanian people – described by Roman invaders as undaunted and untamable, inhabiting the area around what they named as the Mountains of Hermes (Herminius Mons).

The highest point in the plateau that characterises the higher regions of the Serra da Estrela corresponds to the highest point in continental Portugal. This summit features a tower which, according to legend, was initially built by order of King João VI in the early 19th century to help reach an even altitude of 2,000m. The Torre (tower) is thus known as Portugal’s highest point, and political manoeuvers aside it offers splendid views on clear days of the surrounding areas of both Portugal and Spain. The building itself resembles a fortified tower, surrounded by more modern observatories, and is located at the end of the road that brings tourists from the cities of Seia (on the western slope) and Covilhã (on the eastern slope). You can usually find a few stalls around the car park, where local goods are sold, such as cheese, woolen blankets, clothing and the inescapable plastic sledges for kids.

Once away from the tourist pitfalls, however, you can start enjoying the quiet and natural landscapes the serra has to offer. The natural park encompasses one of Portugal’s most interesting geological terrains. The entire region was shaped by the vast forces of ice from glaciers, which created the fascinating U-shaped valleys of the Mondego and Zêzere rivers, and left a number of small lakes and lagoons in their wake, such as Lagoa da Paixão and Lagoa dos Cântaros. The scenery is dotted with granite crags in the shape of animals and people and other peculiar formations.

The park covers a variety of different landscapes, from human settlements and farmlands in the foothills and valleys, to the alpine meadows of the higher regions. Local fauna includes the occasional wolf (now extremely rare), and other mammals such as foxes, genets, badgers, otters, and moles, as well as a huge variety of birds, like goshawks, jays, wood pigeons, woodpeckers, eagle-owls, and buzzards, among many others. The park is also home to several plant species which are endemic to the serra, and other more common species from the cultivated pine trees that grown below the 900 m line, the black oak that grows between 900 m and 1600 m, to the wilder juniper trees that grow at a higher altitude.

The park is also home to a vast network of hiking trails which are signposted (recent years have seen a great improvement, even if some of these still use cairns and painted markers instead of wooden markers or stakes) which can be best enjoyed in spring and summer. You will need a good ordnance survey map and updated information, which you can get from the natural park’s offices in Manteigas (head office), Seia, or Gouveia, or try their interpretation centre at Torre.

The Serra da Estrela can be easily reached by the two toll motorways that serve the region – the A23 and the A25 – from both Lisbon or Porto (if you want to avoid tolls and travel through secondary roads while enjoying the picturesque landscapes, try this itinerary from Lisbon and this one from Porto). However, bear in mind that in winter some roads may be closed due to heavy snowfall.

More information on the Serra da Estrela Natural Park



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