Starstruck in the Serra da Estrela
by Susannah Grant
Nowadays, more than ever, we find ourselves on a permanent quest to avoid crowds whilst we scour endless websites of far-flung places that promise to restore body and spirit.
However, in addition to the beaches and mountains of Asturias, Cantabria or Granada we can essentially disappear into an abyss of anonymity only 4 hours away from Madrid if we cross over in Portugal.
Just 2 hours west of Salamanca lies Portugal´s largest national park in the craggy mountains and glacial valleys of the Serra da Estrela (Star Mountain Range). Stellar by name and galactic by nature as some of the precipitous peaks poke through the clouds at the country’s highest point at 2000 m, thus providing respite from the summer heat as well as Portugal´s premier ski resort in winter.
How did I end up there? Simple, having been an ardent traveller my whole adult life I rather favour physical maps from which to plan itineraries. So, whilst everyone else was heading for deepest Denia or extreme solitude in Extremadura I unfurled my old country map of Portugal and saw an enormous uncluttered area of mountains intermeshed with spidery tributaries miles away from the popular haunts of Coimbra, Lisbon and Oporto within shouting distance of the Spanish border.
This has proven to be a most reliable way to travel in the past and I´m fortunate to have a battered suitcase full of maps of anywhere from Bhutan to Rumania. The internet then becomes a suitable tool with which to check there aren´t any remote military training grounds in the vicinity and that quality variety of food or wine is readily obtainable. Although I must say, I did have to rather stretch that final criteria to the limit on my trip to Romania. Fortunately a sheep´s bladder full of fresh cheese in the boot of our car managed to keep us going for 2 weeks and the awe-inspiring sights more than compensated for any gastronomic shortcomings.
In my enthusiasm to escape Senhor Covid ravaging through the suburbs of Lisbon, I forgot to take into account that holidaying in remote mountainous terrain might be somewhat of a challenge for someone who had only just relinquished her wheelchair following a fractured hip. However, undeterred, westwards we drove, wending our way through picturesque villages, vine-clad hills, scattered with endless herds of sheep and goats until we arrived at a boutique farm at Casas do Toural in Gouveia.
A perfect location for the circumstances as each guest had its own bijou self-catering house complete with its own private terraced garden brimming with flowers and allocated walkway to the communal pool, all within walking distance of the local shops and restaurants. The owner, Maria José Osório is a keen gardener and her coral pink manorial house is framed by a rainbow of horticultural gems. There are also a few sheep and plenty of entertainment by way of a tennis court, billiards room and even a painting studio on site. Gouveia, is an attractive gateway from which to explore the more remote outposts of the Serra da Estrela National Park which I will mention in Part II. Find out next week more about Jewish synagogues, the wool trade and celestial cheese as I explore deeper in the Serra da Estrela.