We had to be very patient to catch our first glimpse of Piódão, perhaps Portugal’s most famous historic village. Tucked away in the wonderful forest landscape of the Serra do Açor mountains, to the east of Coimbra, it stubbornly remained hidden from the approach road until the last moment.
Then suddenly, there it was, its houses seemingly falling down the steep slopes of the mountain opposite. The vibrant colours of spring just made the view even more beautiful as the cherry trees were in full blossom within the forest. The underlying rocks here are schist, which was an excellent building material for the village, perfect for construction of walls and also, when carefully split into large tiles, excellent for cladding roofs.
Parking was easy, right next to the main square, which was overlooked by a pretty white painted church that looked like something out of a Disney fairy tale movie! Despite the apparent medieval characteristics of Piódão, the first reference to this community only dates back to 1527.
The village’s architecture adapts harmoniously to its rural surroundings, with the colour of the neatly laid schist walls contrasting with the bright blue of some of the doors and windows.
We followed one of the waymarked trails around the very steep narrow streets and were surprised to discover a vigorous little stream splashing down right between the houses.
Our only criticism of Piódão was the presence of stalls selling cheap tourist souvenirs in the main square. But that is what we have to expect these days!
However, in order to genuinely enhance the visitor experience further, a Praia Fluvial (river beach) has been carefully created just below the village, reached by crossing bridges skillfully constructed with schist. Two streams join here, and it has made a really attractive leisure and swimming area. Despite the gorgeous warm spring weather during our visit, the temperature of the water was not conducive for a dip!
There are many historic villages in this part of Portugal in the lovely hills that loop right around the highest peaks of the Serra da Estrela mountains. We spent five days exploring some of the better known of these ancient settlements but, on route and sometimes by accident, discovered some others that were equally appealing.
Nearby to Piódão, there are two more ‘must visit’ attractions. The Foz d’Égua is a river beach of great beauty at the meeting point of the Piódão and Chãs streams near another schist village, known as Chãs d’Égua. The scenery here is absolutely gorgeous. It is definitely a place to sit down and linger, lazily throw a few stones into the river … and then linger a lot longer! Why hurry? This place is absolutely magical.
The village of Chás d’Égua is smaller than Piódão but no less picturesque. Situated at the head of the valley above the Foz, its houses appear to be glued to the precipitous mountain side.
On route back to our comfortable lodgings in the mountain hamlet of Vide, we made the popular short hike to the 20m high Fraga da Pena waterfall, which is well worth a look. It is, in fact, a series of falls and is situated in a pleasant, wooded gorge in a protected forest part of the Serra do Açor, called the Mata da Margaraça.
This is of special conservation interest as there are clusters of ancient Laurisilva Forest, some of the few such forested relics that remain on mainland Portugal.
The narrow valley here has a mild damp micro-climate and there is abundant vegetation and mosses covering the underlying schist below. Along its banks there are some lovely old specimens of European Oak, Holm Oak, Laurel, Sweet Chestnut, Arbutus and even Holly.
The following day, and quite by chance, we chose to stop for a break in São Sebastião da Feira. This was a perfect example of serendipity as, by good fortune, we parked the car right by this village’s wonderful river beach. We just had to investigate!
Apparently, the beach is thronged with happy swimmers and sunbathers in summer, but this early in the season, we had the place to ourselves. The crystal-clear waters of the River Alva lazily flow through the village and, on the opposite bank, are diverted through a small aqueduct which drives a splendid water wheel. Behaving like inquisitive small children, we decided to follow one of the walking trails upstream and were richly rewarded by the fabulous scenery. We childishly ‘skipped’ our way joyously along the glorious woodland riverbank, listening to the croaking of the frogs and admiring the fish in the deep pools. We just couldn’t help feeling that those charming animals, Ratty, Mole, Badger and the indomitable Mr. Toad from the children’s book Wind in the Willows, would feel very much at home in this wonderful watery landscape!
There were still two more villages of the Serra do Açor that we wanted to investigate before we moved away from this area. Further into the hills, at an altitude of 500m, the village of Aldeia das Dez has some far-reaching views towards the highest mountains of the Serra da Estrela.
At one viewpoint on the road that climbs steeply up to the village, there was a display of photographs of some of the horrific fires that have raged in this region in recent years.
Aldeia das Dez is built of granite but overlooks a region which has predominantly schist geology. Its nicely decorated mother church sits at the highest point of the village and undoubtedly boasts the finest view of all – stretching right to the top of mainland Portugal’s highest mountains. The village itself is famous for its cakes, medronho liquor and medronho jam. The delicious medronho fruits of the ‘strawberry tree’ grow abundantly in these parts.
We descended to the valley and followed the River Alva to the beautiful village of Avô. The name literally translates as ‘grandfather’ in Portuguese, but its origin actually stems from Roman times. Then there was no bridge across the River Alva and one could only enter the village ‘a vau’ (from the Latin ‘ad vadum’), roughly meaning river crossing by a ford!
Avô’s main attraction is a large and impressive river beach at the junction of the Rivers Alva and Pomares, which converge here. This fortunate meeting of the two rivers forms a shallow lake with a pretty wooded islet in the middle. Some of the local teenagers were heroically taking the plunge, but we noticed that despite their apparent bravery, they didn’t stay in the water for very long!
A good tourist destination is one that respects nature, conserves heritage, honours the local people’s lifestyle and yields a memorable visitor experience.
Our short and fascinating tour around some of the ancient ‘schist’ villages of the Serra do Açor definitely met all these criteria. We were now ready to drive a couple of hours to the east and begin our exploration of some of Portugal’s historic ‘granite’ villages. Their underlying granite bed rock would ensure that we would discover different but no less interesting destinations.
Part 2 – Portugal’s Historic Granite Villages will be next week.
By Nigel Wright
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Nigel Wright and his wife Sue moved to Portugal 19 years ago. The couple lived and worked in the Far East and Middle East during the 1980s and 90s. Although now retired, Nigel still continues to travel and seek out new cultural experiences. His other interests include tennis, gardening and photography.