Amongst visitors to Portugal’s Beira Alta, there is an air of shared conspiracy. On every sun-washed cafe terrace, in every historic village, beneath an overhanging canopy of living vines, strangers nod knowingly like the characters of some espionage-riddled movie. Each and every one of them has discovered a secret, and they know it. Beira Alta is many things to many people; a land of elegant wines, historic villages lost in time, mountaintop castles, vibrant cities, and towns filled with art and culture, festivals and fine foods, rugged natural beauty, welcoming people, and a scene where we can link the past and the present. The Beira Alta is also full of the secrets which put knowing smiles on the faces of its visitors, secrets waiting to be discovered by you.
Beira Alta in Centro de Portugal
The Beira Alta, situated in the north-eastern corner of the Centro de Portugal region, is home to some of the country’s most spectacular scenery; endless plateaus, rugged boulder-strewn mountains beloved by hikers and lovers of adventure sports, the deep meandering gorges of river valleys where eagles and vultures soar, and ancient mountain villages capped by castles, keeps and other protective structures so important to the country’s early history.
It is also home to the famous Dão wines – Portugal’s third most important wine producing region, after the wines of the Douro and Alentejo regions. The distinctive and distinguished Dão reds are often referred to as the ‘Portuguese Burgundy’, while the Dão whites are fast gaining a reputation for their vastly improved crisp and highly palatable qualities.
It is the geography of the Beira Alta, and the Dão Valley in particular, which have made its wines so greatly appreciated. The vineyards of the Dão Valley are located in a region of high altitude surrounded by even higher mountains protecting them from both the Atlantic vagrancies and the searing heat of the lands to the east. The soil is mainly composed of a sandy granite, watered by substantial winter rains, and the air and ground temperatures are eased by the raised altitude, producing quality, elegant wines of high acidity.
There is also the added attraction of sampling wines in the site of their production in a variety of locations, such as the truly magnificent Paço dos Cunhas de Santar with its wine museum and restaurant, and the historic Quinta de Saes; both producing wines of style, quality and both with a guaranteed, heartfelt welcome for wine-lovers and the curious.
Historical Villages of Centro de Portugal
The urban areas in the Beira Alta are mainly small, enchanting mountain villages whose histories stretch back to the beginnings of the nation proper. Villages whose locations on the border with the neighbouring Spanish kingdom proved to be strategically important in the preservation of peace and the protection of its people. Villages such as Trancoso, Marialva, Castelo Melhor, Castelo Rodrigo and the beautiful star-shaped fortified town of Almeida, are all living witnesses to the country’s past.
Viseu, the district capital, is a city of light and culture; in fact, so pleasing is the city it has twice been voted as ‘best place to live in Portugal’. It is home to museums, ornate churches, and cathedrals, elegant sidewalk restaurants, gardens, galleries and also hosts the annual July arts festival, ‘Jardins Efemeros’, when the city bursts to life through a combination of street art, musical and theatrical performances, thought-provoking installations, all inclusive events and events which expound the notion of social responsibility; a festival which draws up to 100,000 visitors to the city, so book early.
The Côa River is not the biggest river in Portugal by a long shot but in terms of historic and natural value this river which carves its way from south to north to its confluence with the Douro River is arguably one of the most important places of historical and natural preserve in the country. Back in the 1980’s and 1990’s thousands of stunning pieces of individual Palaeolithic rock art were discovered etched into the walls of the cliffs lining the banks of the Côa River. The discoveries were made at a time when the construction of a giant hydroelectric dam was well under way, a dam which would have lost these treasures of history forever. It was quickly decided and acted upon that these gems of antiquity needed to be preserved, studied and opened to the public to bear witness to the lives of our ancestors.
The Museu do Côa (Côa Museum), set seamlessly into a rocky escarpment overlooking the confluence of the Côa River with the Douro River, bears testimony to the lives of the those who lived, hunted, fished and migrated through the area up to 30,000 years ago. Through guided tours organised by the museum, and selected local guides, visitors can experience the largest open-air site of Palaeolithic art in Europe, or possibly even anywhere in the world, and since 1998 a protected UNESCO World Heritage Site. The beauty of the Côa Valley rock art is that they are not hidden in the depths of some deep, damp, dripping caves, but are etched onto the walls of the riverbank in the open air and in plain view. By far, the best way to view the art is on a guided tour at night where expert guides using torches will introduce you the outlines of horses, mountain sheep, wild cattle, deer and fish which were part and parcel of the inhabitants lives and formed part of their daily existence.
Reserva da Faia Brava (Faia Brava Natural Reserve)
Not far from the Museu do Côa and the stunningly beautiful village of Castelo Rodrigo, a link to that ancient past is being reimagined.
The Reserva Faia Brava is a privately run reserve of just over 1,000ha which is in the process of being ‘rewilded’ – that is, returning the area to its natural uncultivated state and the reintroduction of wild flora and fauna which have long since been eradicated. Managed by ATN (Associação Transumância e Natureza) Faia Brava is the first private protected area in all of Portugal.
Within the confines of the reserve, the lands are managed with the ideal of ‘making space for nature’. Through the reintroduction of wild cattle, wild horses and other herbivores Faia Brava is in the infancy of this non-profit project, but although a fledgling project – 12 years in existence – the first tentative steps are yielding rewards with meadows filled with wildflowers, and a sky alive with the outlines of countless raptors (three species of vulture, harriers, eagles, falcons, and kestrels).
As an area of recreation the reserve includes many kilometres of wild hiking paths, conducts interactive educational weekends, focusing on ecological awareness for both adults and children, wildlife identification courses, jeep safaris and various information events. The reserve also houses ‘Star Camp’, and ecologically sustainable camping alternative where visitors can experience the wildness of the region, the open cloudless, star-filled skies and reacquaint themselves with nature, all in the comfort of an immaculately appointed safari-style tented camp.
This Beira Alta in Centro de Portugal post is a part of a series of 7 posts I wrote based on my journey to Beira Alta in May 2016. Please find the links o the other articles bellow:
This Beira Alta in Centro de Portugal post was written by my inspiring friend Brendan Harding as part of my ongoing collaboration with the Centro de Portugal Tourism Board. All opinions are my own. Photo credits to my inspiring friend Emanuele Siracusa.