ALDEIAS HISTÓRICAS DE PORTUGAL
The GR22 is basically a hiking trail. But now you can also ride it, though on a modified route, both on mountain or gravel bike and on a touring bike. In addition to the overview map of the route, each village has an information leaflet in English with a map. And almost every village is well worth a visit. You have to take into account that there are some steep climbs and descents.
After arriving from Brussels at the busy Madrid airport, we still have to drive for about 3.5 hours before we arrive at our starting point. Like almost all villages here, the walled and beautifully restored Castelo Rodrigo lies high on a hilltop (820 m). This is how attacks in this border area with Spain could be resisted in the past. If, after a steep climb, you enter the village through one of the gates in the city walls from 1296, you immediately go back centuries in time. The castle built on the rocks dates from the 14th century. In the middle of the village is an old pillory. Fortunately, we are no longer nailed to it. A former synagogue has been converted into a water reservoir. In 2017, the third stage of the Volta a Portugal started here. That stage, by the way, was won by Bryan Alaphilippe, the younger brother of the more famous Julian.
From the summit, we can see our place of residence, the Hospedria do Convento de Santa Maria de Aguiar, below us. This historic 11th-century complex among the vineyards was once inhabited by Cistercian monks. The inn is now a Bikotel, a chain of bicycle-friendly hotels in Portugal. The attractively decorated building also used to serve as an overnight stop for pilgrims. But we come as modern pilgrims on bikes. The surrounding vineyards were part of the monastery in the past. According to connoisseurs, the wines are among the best in the country. And since it’s not busy, we immediately get an upgrade to our room.
Cycling with the blessing
The next day we cycle through the Sierra da Marofa . High on a wooded hill (971 m) Christ watches over us. We enjoy the beautiful nature around us. After 55 km and a tough final climb, we are in Marialva. The Romans and the Arabs passed here. And also the pilgrims to Santiago de Compostella. The small village is dominated by the remains of a large castle. The modern tourism office contrasts starkly with the old buildings. We wonder if this is a successful marriage. Through the cobbled streets past the old houses built of natural stone, we explore the village. Here, too, time has stood still. At the home of an old lady who still keeps a store open, we drink a cup of tea in the garden and enjoy the beautiful view.
About 22 km away is the first major town on the route, Trancoso. Located on a plateau (870 m) of some 3,500 inhabitants, the town is completely walled and has 15 towers. Just outside the city walls are tombs carved into the rocks. Through the impressive Portas d’El Rei, a tribute to a royal wedding celebrated here in 1282, we drive through the narrow streets into the centro histórico. At the edge is the imposing castle that dominates the town. But unfortunately we are there on the wrong day for a visit because the castle is closed. Then we wander further along the city walls and the other three city gates. Here, too, the beautiful tile panels so characteristic of Portugal. When it gets dark, as in many of the other villages, the lights create an enchanting atmosphere. And then we enjoy the typical Portuguese dish Bacalhau à Brás (cod with potatoes and egg).
On the way to Linhares da Beira, we cycle into the Parque Natural da Serra da Estrala, the largest piece of protected nature in Portugal. Here is also the highest mountain peak in the continental part of the country, the Torre (1993 m). It also receives snow in winter, so skiing is possible. The landscape is dominated by stones, rocks and cliffs. At the edge of the small village are the remains of the old Roman road between Mérida and Braga. The village, besides some country houses here and there, consists of simple granite houses. But everywhere you see features from distant noble past. In the center is a beautiful white mansion from the 19th century that is now used as a hotel. Above the village, on a rock 820 m high, stands a castle with two giant towers. There you are treated to magnificent views of the surrounding landscape. In a small atmospheric restaurant Taberna do Alceide we enjoy a delicious lunch. Because Portugal also has a delicious cuisine that we enjoy every day.
We now enter the real high mountains on our way to Piódão, one of the most picturesque villages in the country. To do this, we have to cover 102 km with almost 3000 meters of altitude. The toughest stage. The quality of the narrow roads is sometimes not too good. And when we get near the village we notice that we are not the only ones who want to visit the village. It is a tourist hotspot. The houses built entirely of slate are plastered against a green mountainside. Even the narrow steep streets and steps are made of slate. Only the snow-white church stands out from the brown-orange houses. The water from the mountains runs through lakes along the streets. A natural swimming pool has been built in the river. When the day trippers have left, you can enjoy the special village in peace. By the way, there are many more such slate villages (aldeias de Xisto) in this region.
As we drive along a quiet interior road near Castelo Novo, a fire-fighting helicopter suddenly flies overhead. A huge plume of smoke rises from between the hills. A few minutes later, we hear the sirens of the bombeiros (firefighters) who quickly approach. Taking a picture is not really appreciated by them. As we approach the village after 110 km, all we see are blackened hillsides. In a café at the edge of the village we have a drink. There the bartender tells us that they only just escaped disaster a few months ago. The fire stopped at the city walls. So even today they are still protecting the village. Through the narrow streets past the granite houses, we come to the high castle that dates back to the 11th century. Here you have a wonderful view of the surrounding, but now heavily battered, landscape. In front of the magnificent town hall with its striking arches are a royal fountain and a pillory.
Back to the countryside
The hills are followed by a short drive to Idanha-a-Velha. The entrance the small village is dominated by a gate with two round towers. It is built on the remains of a Roman town. The history of this place dates back to the beginning of our era. The Roman bridge over the Rio Ponsul is well preserved. When there is water in the river you can cross it on the other side of the village over a row of stones. A second bridge was apparently too expensive. In the local café they do their best to make us comfortable. But the village could use a facelift. For it is quite out of place compared to the other villages. Our next goal 11 km further on we see high up on a hill. The most Portuguese village of Portugal Monsanto.
A village surrounded by rocks
The road up the hill is steep but it provides a fantastic reward. The village is at 758 m altitude and is in the middle of a granite rock landscape in beautiful nature. The rocks were already there and later they were simply built between them. That is what makes the village so unique. You walk up through the narrow winding streets between the crookedly built houses of roughly piled granite stone. The giant stones act as walls or ceilings. The high medieval castle was destroyed by an explosion of ammunition in the 19th century. Near the remains of the castle are still some walled sheds where livestock used to be kept. So in the event of a prolonged siege, everything was within easy reach. In some villages, like here, there is still the old custom of preparing dishes centrally in village ovens. In southern countries you still see it regularly, but we don’t really know it.
We cycle north again, to Sortelha. This completely walled off almost circular village is built on a rock. And it is, you can guess, dominated by a ruined castle. Once an important strategic site for the defense of the land behind. Through an old city gate with a balcony we drive in. Here, too, you expect to find yourself in a medieval scene at any moment. Many beautiful vistas and beautiful old houses. You hardly see any tourists here. Fortunately, there is a shady terrace where we enjoy a delicious lunch with an artist. On the other side you leave the village again through a gate over an old Roman road. The surrounding landscape here is dominated by chestnut groves.
A farming village
Near the city wall of Castelo Mendo, a farmer sits in the bucket of his tractor peeling potatoes while his goats search for some scarce green sprigs. A picture. The upper citadel is also walled in. Over the ancient pavement we hobble up the hill. The ruins of the beautiful 13th century Santa Maria church tower high above the tiny village. Nearby, you can see everywhere the large granite stones that a giant seems to have strewn around here. The village with its six medieval gates is named after its first lord of the castle. Just outside the town wall is another beautiful old pigeon tower, as you see many in this region.
The last village on our tour is the nearby town of Almeida. This gem from 1641 is only seven km from the Spanish border and is built like a 12-pointed star. Two large gates form the entrance. You have to view the town from the air to see how beautifully designed the fortifications are. Within the fortress you can still find a large number of military buildings such as the infantry barracks. The old arsenal has been transformed into the beautiful horse-riding school Picadeiro D’el Rey. The fortifications, consisting of six bastions and six ravelins, have all been made accessible. A flock of sheep keeps the grass on the ramparts short.
Closing at Belmonte
Before driving back to Spain, we pay another visit to Belmonte where Dalila Dias has invited us to the route office for a visit. After a cup of coffee, it’s time to explore the town. It has a rich Jewish history and is also the birthplace of Pedro Alvares Cabral, who discovered Brazil. At the museum in the castle, you’ll learn all about that. At a terrace of Fio de Azeite in the square near the old city hall, where the logo of the route hangs, we concluded our visit to Portugal. We were pleasantly surprised by the beauty of this unknown part of Portugal and the hospitality of the people. The route office will be happy to help you with any information. See http://aldeiashistoricasdeportugal.com. In recent years there was a Portugal stand at the bike and walking fair promoting the route.
Text: Rens Klaasse