A mountain range dominates Portugal. Right in the centre of the country, containing the highest point on the mainland – 1,993 metres – it stretches as far as the Spanish border. The Serra da Estrela is a magnet, comprising dense forests, dangerous crags, ample expanses of water from its 25 lakes, cut through by great rivers which have their source here. Snow has turned it into a popular winter sports destination. Handmade cheese, wool, and shepherds are its treasured symbols. Ancestral myths and the adventures of hero-warriors are immortalized here. The Serra da Estrela holds a powerful fascination.
1 – THE MYTH
To these mountains, long ago named ‘the star’ (Estrela), the Romans gave the name “Herminius mons” – the Mount of Hermes, son of Zeus and Maia. Before entering mythology as Mercury, this messenger of the gods and protector of trade was adored as the divinity of fertility and protector of shepherds. The shepherds, who have walked the Serra da Estrela for generations, have derived the only wealth from it they could: the pasture which fed their sheep. Today the serra is still referred to as the Mount of Hermes. In its cold and wild immensity, it is a land of solitude. It has, however, given rise to several mysteries. None other than Herman Melville put it into Chapter 41 of Moby Dick, where “prodigies related in old times of the inland Strello Mountain in Portugal (near whose top there was said to be a lake in which the wrecks of ships floated up to the surface)”. Melville was quoting an even more fascinating passage about the mountains written in 1639 by Spanish Renaissance intellectual Juan Caramuel y Lobkowitz in one of his historical works: “of these [mountains] the most notable is called Estrela, because it was close to the stars. It is guarded by a lake and the darkness of the woods. Its water, which is sweet, flows into the Ocean, even though it is twenty leagues away. Evidence for the communion between lake and Ocean lies in the daily motion of the tides, as Teixeira finds from talking to the local inhabitants. The storms which torment the seas stir up the waves on the lake very often producing the wreckage of boats, hurled from underground caves to the amazement of local inhabitants”. Pure myth from the ancients, naturally. Even so, such earthly magic lives on in these mountains in the sanctuary to Our Lady of the Mountain carved into the rock. The shepherds will always be protected by gods and heroes.
2 – THE HEROES
We are in the year 147 BC. All of the west and south of the Iberian Peninsular have been occupied by the Romans… All of it? Not quite. One region populated by unrepentant Lusitanians still resists the invader. Viriato (179-139 B.C.) is its chief, an Iberian Caractacus, a shepherd-warrior of the Serra da Estrela who attacks Roman troops from mountain tops. Statues celebrate him even today and he has entered Portuguese mythology. The mountain folk have adopted him as their ultimate hero. It wasn’t quite so simple, obviously; appropriated by old-style nationalism, he probably wasn’t even born in these mountains. But defender of the mountains he remains. If we fast forward 18 centuries we come to another local hero: João Brandão (1825-1880). For many, a kind of Robin Hood; for others, the classic highwayman. In truth, a cartoon clan chief in the service of the liberal government which ruled the Beira Alta region and mountains for 40 years. Countless legends about both pass from village to village, for Brandão and Viriato symbolize the mountain-dwellers’ defiant identity, the main heritage of those who were never blessed with great natural resources.
3 – FLAVOURS
Kid is the king of the dinner table, roasted with onions, salt, olive oil, pepper, nutmeg and red wine. Mountain pastures make the meat tender like nothing else. Cured meats also feature heavily. While both are found all over the country – not to mention game: wild boar and rabbit – carqueja risotto is also common speciality. The carqueja is a medicinal plant which grows in the mountains. The water it is boiled in is added to diced ribs, along with onions, garlic, salt and pepper, red and white wine and long-grain rice and cooked in olive oil. There are many places to sample this dish and it is difficult to find a bad restaurant in the serra. (UP likes the classic, O Mário, in Fundão. Reserve a table on +351 275 750 000, or see www.o-mario.com.)
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4 – WINTER
The highest peak of the mountains – Torre – is a fantastic place for winter sports in Portugal. The complex boasts seven slopes (www.skiserradaestrela.com). Tour companies offer skiing (including nighttime runs), snowboarding, sledging and “donuts”, snow bikes and snowshoe excursions. Out of season, you can go skiing and snowboarding year round at Skiparque de Manteigas (www.skiparque.pt). This is a training slope with a 15% gradient, a 25% slope and 35% half-pipe (night skiing also available). All in the heart of the Serra da Estrela National Park.
5 – SUMMER
Quench your thirst and fill up you canteen from the Mondeguinho, the source of the River Mondego, the longest in Portugal, which rises 1,427 metres up in the Corgo das Mós and flows into the sea at Figueira da Foz after a journey of 227 kilometres. Several stretches are good for canoeing, complete with safe river beaches – and the nearby valleys attract paragliding enthusiasts from all over Europe (go to the Federação Portuguesa de Voo Livre at www.fpvl.pt) – the Mondego is joined by its tributary the Alva, which offers similar recreational pleasures – the river beach at the small town of Avô is a gem. Another great river to enjoy is the Zêzere, to the southwest, a valley containing major European glacial deposits. But summer in the mountains offers much more: trails along the 25 glacial lakes up on top make for an appealing summer hiking programme. Two are circular, the Lagoas da Torre and the Grandes Lagoas, and the third is the Penhas da Saúde-Torre route (find out how to organize your walks in point 8 below).
6 – CREATURES
There are eight Portuguese breeds of dog. The valuable Serra da Estrela is one. It “accompanies its owner in guarding his possessions, namely his cattle and goats. It will never desert them, climbing the mountains when the flock does, and following the long grazing routes when the herbivores in its care are obliged to look for pastures in more temperate zones”, says the Portuguese Serra da Estrela Breed Association (www.apcse.com.pt). Affable and brave, and tough enough to protect it against wolves (which no longer exist here), it is a symbol of these mountains, along with the sheep, the basis for man’s subsistence. Other intriguing animals inhabit these parts: 90 of the 130 butterfly species in Portugal can be seen in the mountains between May and August. (Pick from a great range of visit programmes at www.turistrela.pt.)
7 – CHEESE
“Send from the town of Seia/ for five hundred new cheeses/ all made by lamplight”, to be offered as a present to Queen Catarina, wife of King João III, on the birth of her daughter in the Royal Palace at Coimbra. The person giving the order is Serra da Estrela herself, personified as a shepherdess, a character which Gil Vicente, father of Portuguese theatre, invented around 1527 for his Tragicomédia Pastoril da Serra da Estrela. This old reference to the magnificent Serra cheese – the best in Portugal and one of the best in the world – was the first in literary history. This unique product, probably introduced by the Romans, is a soft cured cheese. It is made of sheep’s milk from the Bordaleira Serra da Estrela or Churra Mondegueira breeds, curdled with the flower of the thistle (Cynara cardunculus), a native of the region. It is made in winter by the finest artisans. Eating it with local bread and red wine is such a worthy meal, it would be criminal to visit and not partake.
8 – HISTORY AND ICE
You could spend long weeks walking the Serra and still not know it completely. There are 16 towns and cities which make good starting-off points to explore the area – you can begin at lofty Guarda or Almeida, the fortress-town. Being a cultural tourist is fascinating: it will take you on the Route of the Ancient Jewish Neighbourhoods; the Historic Villages; the 20 Castles; the Discoverers; the Wool Route – covering 800 years of history and ruins, museums and monuments. Environmental tourism will also amaze: the Glaciar Route (think geological history, visiting a place where millions of years ago there was a dome of ice 80 metres high); the Four Rivers Route; the 25 Lakes; and the Natural Areas. Excellent information and suggestions can be found at www.rt-serradaestrela.pt (also in English), the Serra da Estrela Regional tourism site– very useful.
9 – WOOL
Out in the mountains you will find roadside stallholders, and even in summer the sales of the region’s big raw material don’t slacken: wool. Real wool. It is the most valuable handicraft product in the mountains. The whole process is carried out in Estrela – shearing, carding, spinning and weaving. The hand looms preserve the old unique ways of doing things. Shawls, caps, scarves, and gloves are the proof. Then there are shepherds jackets, waistcoats, and slipper made from wool or leather. A comforting treasure. The industry is unique and has been going for eight centuries: don’t miss the Wool Museum at the University of Beira Interior in Covilhã (www.museu.ubi.pt), regarded by the Portuguese Museum Association as one of the best in the country.
10 – BOOKS
“The mountain-dweller is introspective and keeps things to himself because, outside, the power of the rocks and the trees frame his horizon.” The man who wrote this is António Alçada Baptista (1927-1981), giving a perfect description of the region’s inhabitants. This “writer of the emotions”, is one of the four main authors to put the Serra da Estrela at the heart of their work. Reading them provides the best travel guide to the mountains. Virgílio Ferreira (1916-1996), “the” Portuguese existentialist writer, in Manhã Submersa defines the desire to reach that horizon through the figure of a boy held back by religious education at a provincial school. In contrast, the feelings of Alçada, a Catholic progressive, take the weight of this liberation in other directions: read Tia Suzana, Meu Amor, about an urban childhood in Beira. In A Lã e a Neve by Ferreira de Castro (1918-1974), we encounter a libertarian novel about workers in the wool industry. And so we come to Aquilino Ribeiro (1885-1963), perhaps the greatest 20th prose writer in Portugal. Native of Tabosa do Carregal, Sernacelhe, on the northern slopes of the serra, you should read his novel O Homem da Nave, populated by hunters and wolves. It contains a phrase which explains a lot: “The Serra da Estrela has a personality of its own”.
By João Macdonald
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