When it came time to depart for our two week trip to Portugal, I realized I had no memory of why I wanted to go in the first place - a consequence of a penchant for planning trips a minimum of six months in advance. In terms of expectations, I was an open book for new experiences and today, I think of that two week trip around Portugal as one of my favorites.
Portugal has an unexpected magic to it that doesn't come across in the countless grotto pictures taken in Lagos. It's so much more than big wave surfing, artisan tiles, and wine. Our Portugal was filled with the most amazing golden light we've ever seen (no seriously, it rained golden sparkles in Serra da Estrela), route finding on uncharted hikes, and endless dirt roads. This is a trip for the curious, those of you who turn off the main road because that side road looks vaguely intriguing. It's for those who are willing to take the risk, go off guidebook (which were useless for the rural parts of Portugal), and open themselves up to a different adventure than originally imagined.
Had we not planned our trip based on the best AirBnB's we could find, I doubt we would have had so many of the unforgettable experiences we did. Well, that and perhaps our general strategy of avoiding major cities and attempts to stay off major highways as much as possible.
Base Camp: Pé da Serra
With an early evening arrival into Lisbon, our first base needed to be somewhere within reasonable driving distance of a couple of hours. Close to Sintra, yet far enough to achieve some good peace and quiet, Pé da Serra offered an ideal location to try out exploring the well known castles (which we tried - not really our thing) and to then pivot to the places suggested on a hand drawn map provided to us by our hosts at Quinta Colina Flora.
Our first taste of that beautiful golden light was found nearby at Praia da Adraga, where we revealed along with literal sun worshippers and a trash-the-dress photoshoot underway in the whitewater. In search of the elusive dinosaur footprints, we pulled out some saved satellite maps on our iPad to navigate towards what one of my favorite books taught me was most likely a "desire path." After we concluded our three night stay, we stuck to the coast and made a surfers pilgrimage out to Praia do Norte and tried to imagine those massive waves crashing on one of the most beautiful beaches we'd ever seen.
Base Camp: Soajo
- Go: Parque Nacional Penada - Gerês | Santuario da Senhora Do Numão | Soajo Natural Pools
- Hike: Castro Laboreiro
- Stay: Casa da Barreira
Waking up to misty mountains in the quiet northern town of Soajo, inside a traditional stone house, very well may be my favorite experience in the whole country. We selected Soajo over the more popular Gerês, in order to have closer access to what our guidebooks called the least visited area of Parque Nacional Penada - Gerês and unsurprisingly also had the least amount of information on. The plateau of Castro Laboreiro was where the magic of Portugal really blossomed for me. We spent our time, walking gently on the walls of castles built many centuries ago, driving dirt roads to misty ridge tops, and finding ourselves awestruck over the wildflower filled views above Germil.
On all our on-foot or dirt road adventures in this part of the country we found ourselves alone. Portugal is, stereotypically speaking, not a country of hikers. So while you can expect to have the trails to yourself, what information there is on local trails will most likely be in Portuguese (if any is available at all). Additionally, unless you're basing out of Gerês, don't expect many English speakers or large markets in this part of the country. Having a relative inkling about this from the lack of information in our guidebooks - we stocked up on food in Porto and got by with a combination of basic Portuguese, French, and Spanish (preferred by our neighbors in that order).
Base Camp: Santa Comba De Seia
- Go: Cromeleque e menir dos Almendres | Serra da Estrela Natural Park
- Hike: Covão do Boerio & Covão do Meio
- Stay: Retreat of Lameira
After meeting our hosts in the square of Santa Comba, a small village outside the main town of Seia, we found ourselves following them down a rock wall lined road which clearly had not been made for modern cars. Arriving at our immaculately restored farmhouse lodging, surrounded by vineyards, our hosts gifted us with a locally baked loaf of bread (still hot), a round of sheep milk cheese, and pumpkin jelly with pine nuts. Clearly, the magic of Portugal did not end in the north.
Our stop in Santa Comba was much too short, only two nights, so we used our one and half days to explore Serra da Estrela Natural Park, home to the highest point in Portugal. We took an early evening drive up the day we arrived and on the way down, a combination of rain clouds and that famous Portuguese golden light combined to make what I referred to earlier as golden sparkles. The next day was spent with one of the most interesting and experience filled hikes I've maybe ever taken. Again, completely alone, we walked across a dry reservoir, an abandoned dam, and on the hike out came close to getting attacked by an Estrela mountain dog. No joke, this is why should always you carry something to protect yourself and keep your head on under pressure to think out the best solutions. To shake off the stress of that experience, we continued our drive up and over the highest point of the park to the much more written about Zezere Valley. The views and the roads were simply stunning, perhaps the best we've ever driven but the valley itself was unremarkable - exploring the Seia side of the park is where the magic lies.
Base Camp: Burgau
- Go: Lagos | Sagres
- Hike: Rota Vincentina
- Shop: Harmony Earth Health Food Shop
- Stay: Burgau Apartment with Roof Terrace
Trying our best to add a little more vacation to our trip, our stop in the well-known Algarve was the longest with three days and four full nights to spend on the beach. Again, we selected a smaller town for our stay and met one of our favorite AirBnB hosts in this town of British expats. Paul shared so much Portugal wisdom with us and directed us to our first health food store - which we found filled with so many gluten free treats and a wonderfully friendly Canadian expat owner.
After visiting the guidebook suggestions of Lagos and Sagres, both of which were swarming with people, we retreated to our AirBnB to enjoy walks along more desire paths on the cliffs east of town, meals on our roof top deck, and ventured out once to walk a segment of the very well mapped Rota Vincentina. The desire path up the cliffs east of Burgau runs all the way to the next bigger town of Luz and was very much the preferred after dinner walk for both us and some of the locals.
Base Camp: Carvalhal
Our final stop before an early morning drive to the Lisbon airport was intended to be the most relaxing one with fewer grand adventures and more chilling by the pool. It turned out to be the most rural spot on our whole trip and by far the quietest. We spent one full day enjoying the beautifully planned property, hammock-ing in the breeze, and taking walks down the sandy roads. In the evening, before getting down to business and repacking our suitcases for the long journey home, we drove out to the neighborhood beach, Praia do Carvalhal, to enjoy the sunset. While we brought our own picnic dinner, there were also two cafes with small plates and drinks right on the sand with us.