By Françoise SPIEKERMEIER
Trip to the centre of Portugal
Between the Douro and the Taje, a handful of villages were built in the Middle Ages as fortresses, on promontories, overlooking the attacker, Spain. This is the Serra da Estrelais, a region located in central Portugal; a wooded mountain range that shelters the largest Natural Park in the country. From top to bottom, from village to village, we discover a harsh universe, unexpected landscapes. A stopover in a traditional wool mill, a visit to a Baroque garden, and an evening stay in a beautiful hotel, the Casa de San Lourenço, where we take time to explore the horizon, do nothing, cultivate the art of indulgence.
Who would think of the centre of Portugal as the ultimate relaxation destination to reenergize yourself with good earth energies? The nature bath begins here, in the heart of Portugal, in a hotel strategically located on a ridge, a little like the surrounding fortified villages that can be explored along the valleys: the Casa de São Lourenço. This iconic hotel in the region, inaugurated in 1948, is renowned for having one of the most interesting views of the whole country, over the Serra da Estrela, Manteigas and the Vale Glaciar or “Glacier Valley ». In the footsteps of Maria Keil, a famous 20th century Portuguese designer who designed the interiors and furniture, 70 years later, new life has been given to the place, turning it towards the beauty of the landscape. Entrusted to Portuguese designers, the comfort of a mountain spa has been added, with an indoor and outdoor pool to breathe the pure air of the altitude and the beauty of the surrounding peaks. In the hammam, the aromas of birch oil, rosemary and juniper remind us that we are in the Serra da Estrela. The panoramic restaurant’s table honours local products: pure wonders. And comfortably seated in a velvet armchair, you can sip a porto wine while admiring the setting sun, in wisdom and tranquility.
In the early morning, a walk on the grassy plateau to meet the shepherds, Augusto or Manuel, leading their flocks of sheep: the country reveals itself a little bit more, through a conversation woven according to the bells of the animals and the barks of dogs. Enchanted and curious, you follow in the footsteps of the herd, to descend the slope to the village of Manteigas, where life flows quietly, along the river.
The Centre of Portugal is the perfect combination of tradition and modernity, heritage and innovation, past and future. The time devoted to a sustainable lifestyle has made it possible to preserve and enhance beautiful spaces with a soul. An example of this is the Manteigas wool spinning mill, which has since become the Burel Mountain Originals. The spinning mill that was created in the last century, but has since been abandoned, had preserved its old machines and the entire mechanized chain for processing wool, from carding to spinning to weaving. The two mountain explorers, João Tomás and Isabel Costa, who discovered the place in 2010 were sensitive to its heritage. They hence completed the restoration of the factory, which became the Burel Factory – the Burel Mountain Originals factory. Adding decor and design to the traditional wool fabric inherited from the local wool industry, they have created an innovative and contemporary product used for clothing, accessories or decoration. Manteigas wool is now exported all over the world!
A stone’s throw away from Manteigas, the village of Belmonte is the cradle of Pedro Alvares Cabral’s family, the “discoverer” of Brazil, who had transformed the massive castle into a seigneurial residence. The fortification that still remains today is formed by the “menagem” tower and a modern open-air amphitheatre, fully integrated into the many walls. This village is also a major centre of active Judaism in Portugal, as it is home to the largest diaspora in Portugal after Lisbon and Porto. A group of families kept their religion secret for five centuries, transmitting religion orally, while they were given the status of “new Christians”. It was only in 1987 that the first rabbi from Israel to “verify the legend”, “discovered” them, allowing the recognition of their community in 1989.
The road winds through the foothills of the Serra de Opa. It slips between impressive granite blocks to open up in front of the fortified city of Sortelha. Once you slide through the door, an inn invites you to enjoy a feast of local game and terrines: at D. Sancho’s, the menu seems to have remained unchanged for centuries! Set in a rocky massif, Sortelha retains its medieval character. The houses nestled at the foot of the imposing castle, follow the curves of the land. Its steep position made it possible to repel enemy attacks. Today, the small houses are closed – no more chickens or pigs in the alleys that are now haunted by the ghosts who reincarnate on the occasion of medieval festivals! Outside the ramparts, tombs dug into the rock bear witness to a human presence dating back to the Neolithic period. Leaving the site, a glance at the Eternal Kiss, two lovers petrified in the granite used as a base for the castle… They are in total peace to love each other fully.
We then make our way to a wine region, south of the Serra da Estrella, the stronghold of the DAO appellation, where we discover the wines of Casa Santar, renowned and appreciated throughout the world. Among the five wine producers in the village of Santar, two are doing well: Vila Jardim Santar and Global Wines, which are developing their production in parallel with wine tourism.
The Vasconsellos e Souza family home is at the origin of a vast project for the village’s high-end tourist development, in association with the local authorities. The village is the scene of a project integrating the vineyard in organic conversion, a luxury hotel, and the restoration of historic houses as a setting for this perfect world where visitors will slip into the Portuguese way of life: Santar Vila Jardim. The historic home of the Vasconselos family, with its rose and boxwood gardens, lemon hedges and fountains decorated with azulejos, forms the heart of the attraction based on the approach of local know-how: jam, vegetable growing, oenology classes…. Across the street, opposite the main entrance to the “château”, the cellar, open to the public, has been selling the wines of Vila Jardim Santar since the first vintage released in 2013, based on Touriga National, the king of the terroir.
At the top of the village, in an old stately farmhouse bordering the central square, a gourmet restaurant welcomes visitors for a wine tasting during a meal. Global Wines, a Portuguese company with an international reputation, founded in 1990 by Joachim Coimbra, present in 40 countries, cultivates 37 hectares of vines and vinifies its wines of the Casa Santar appellation in the ancient cellars of Casa Vasconselos.
In the alleys and at the back of the repopulated houses, the 1500 inhabitants of Santar are also waiting to be able to seize the opportunities in light of the spectacular reinterpretation of their traditional way of life.
Hôtel Casa de Sao Lourenço www.casadesaolourenco.pt
Burel Mountain Originals Factory, à Manteigas www.burelfactory.com
Auberge D. SANCHO à Sorthela
Santar Vila Jardim à Santar (Région de Beira) www.santarvilajardim.com
Le guide parlant français et les transferts : MADOMIS à Coimbra www.madomistours.pt