Exploring Portugal’s Undiscovered Central Region

19 Jul 2019

“Forward paddle, paddle. Back paddle. Stop.” The rush of water began to reach its crescendo and our little yellow dinghy slipped effortlessly over the edge of the small waterfall, then forged its way through the rocks and froth. I felt the rush of adrenaline surge, then calm, as we approached the flat of the river and began to glide smoothly once more. To my surprise, no one had fallen out and our small team had paddled through the rapids together like a well-oiled machine. I couldn’t wait for the next rapid to begin.

I had come to Portugal’s little-known central region to experience adventure, nature and tranquillity, away from the crowds found further south. Lying between the cities of Coimbra and Porto, Central Portugal provides a great alternative to the infinitely more popular Lisbon and the Algarve. Adventure sports, vineyards, luxurious rural hotels and picturesque historic towns combine to make this one of Portugal’s most underrated destinations.

I had reached the rapids by hiking along Central Portugal’s Paiva Walkway – an 8km wooden walkway which undulates its way on wooden boardwalks next to the Paiva River. It’s a crisscross maze of hundreds of wooden stairs and not for the faint of heart. As we descended, our guide Pedro pointed out the native flora and fauna along the edge – a mini yellow daffodil and a rare butterfly were just two of the many things we spotted.

Nature Parks, Fossils and Rare Geological Formations

After drying off, we headed further into the Arouca Geopark, a UNESCO designated Global Geopark, covering a total of 328 square kilometres and known for its ancient trilobite fossils and unique geological formations. As we approached the tiny village of Castanheira, lying deep within the park, I spot an old woman dressed in a black cloak, calling loudly up into the hills. After half a minute, the clang of bells could be heard, followed by two butterscotch-coloured cows trotting down the mountainside. This is the Portugal of the past, where age-old traditions remain alive and well. I was here to see the remarkable Pedras Parideiras or Birthing Stones. “These stones are a rare geological phenomenon, found nowhere else on the planet,” explains my guide Pedro. The larger granite rocks seem to ‘give birth’ to smaller black mineral-rich stones – forcing them to eventually pop out, so that in the end they become separate stones. Despite their rarity, Pedro and our small group were the only visitors there.

Vineyards and Historic Cities 

As the fog began to roll in over the mountains, we wound our way down into the valley to a rural hotel for the night. Set in its own vineyard, the Hotel Rural Quinta do Medronheiro, offered a tranquil setting to relax, sampling home-cooked Portuguese cuisine and sipping glasses of the ruby red wine the region is known for. The mountainous Dão region may not be as internationally renowned as Porto or the Douro Valley for its brands, but wine enthusiasts are beginning to take note. The whole area is dotted with small vineyards and secluded rural hotels, enabling visitors to not only sample the wines, but see how they’re made and explore the verdant vineyards on foot.

The next morning, I headed for the historic medieval city of Viseu, topped by an imposing cathedral and picturesque church. Filled with amazing pieces of colourful architecture, the city was once an important hub, home to Visigoth kings, queens and nobles. It was also the birthplace of the 15th century artist Vasco Fernandes, whose work can be seen at the celebrated Grão Vasco Museum. To get to know the city better, I took a tuk-tuk tour to explore. The small motor cart climbed Viseu’s steep cobbled streets with ease, making it one of the best sightseeing options. Along the way, I passed quaint squares, historical monuments and charming coloured houses. The tour culminated by sampling some castanhas de ovos, traditional sweet treats made from egg yolks and sugar, made to look like chestnuts.

Vast Beaches and Picturesque Canals

From Viseu, I made my way towards the coast at Figueria da Foz, a popular seaside resort home to local Portuguese families. A modern looking town, it’s fringed by vast swathes of sand and the wild waves of the Atlantic. The whole west coast here is covered in huge sandy beaches, which even in the summer, offer plenty of space for a stretch all to yourself. After all the local wine and traditional food, it was time to get active again, so I booked into another rural hotel - the Quinta d’Anta. Housed in an old rice mill, it’s been modernised with hip and trendy décor and features its own surf school, padel courts, bike hire and yoga studio. I had planned for an early morning surf lesson, but as the wave conditions were not quite right, I opted for a yoga session by the pool instead. It was a calming and relaxing way to begin the day before continuing my journey on to Portugal’s answer to Little Venice – the colourful town of Aveiro.

When I arrived in Aveiro, I couldn’t believe I hadn’t heard of the town before. Ice cream coloured houses stood either side of picturesque canals, where colourful Moliceiro boats were ferrying passengers up and down. These century-old boats were once used to harvest and transport Moliço, a type of seaweed, but are now used for pleasure. At the nearby Cais do Bico I got to take a closer look and see the boats in action. A local fisherman with a mischievous grin on his face called me over and pointed out the traditional lewd pictures painted on the sides.

My time in Central Portugal swiftly came to an end, so I headed back to Porto to catch my flight home. The region had surprised and delighted with its tourist-free towns, natural parks and plenty of opportunities for discovery and adventure. With so much going for it, it won’t be long before word catches on and the secret of Central Portugal is out.


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Esme Fox

Esme Fox is a professional travel writer who grew up in the UK, the Philippines and Uganda. She is now based in Barcelona and writes about Spain for places such as Lonely Planet and Rough Guides. Tweet me @EsmeFox