Oeste in Centro de Portugal, with its long golden coastline, its centres of profound historic importance, its enticing backstreet restaurants and its enormous religious importance has many more attractions waiting to turn your head. At every crossroads, by every seaside village and in every corner of the rolling interior there is a lifetime of experiences waiting to be discovered. As in the other diverse regions of Centro de Portugal, this is no different and the advice is the same. Take your time, and let the region reveal itself to you one step at a time.
Standing by the sea at Santa Cruz, watching wave after wave, curl, break and sibilantly shush its way up on to the endless sandy beach, the words of the American poet, Sarah Kay, come to mind. “There’s nothing more beautiful than the way the ocean refuses to stop kissing the shoreline, no matter how many times it’s sent away.”
Here on Portugal’s western coast, ‘The Silver Coast’, which runs from just north of Lisbon to the town of Esmoriz through the region of Centro de Portugal – a distance of almost 300 kilometres – I could fully understand why the sea refuses to stop kissing this beautiful land. If I were the sea, I too would return again and again to kiss its shores.
Centro de Portugal is a diverse place; a land of boulder-strewn mountains where birds of prey soar in clean blue skies, and wide deep-bodied rivers offer nourishment to the wines of the Dão and Côa valleys. It is a land of kings and knights, Templars and Moors, a land of historic villages and castles which cap the rugged mountaintops like crowns. A land of vines and cherries, orchards and pasture. It is a land of birdsong and wildflowers. It is also a land of smiling people and tables laden with all the earth, its rivers, and the sea have to offer up. In Centro, every pleasure of the senses can be satisfied.
But it is on the coast, in the Oeste in Centro de Portugal – where the true nature of the region is born. It is born on the winds carved over the ocean which temper the climate, and in the waters which flank its entire length, moulding the souls and satisfying the appetites of the people. A friend who was about to embark on a vacation of one week, traveling from Lisbon to Porto along the stretching coastline, recently asked me, ” What should I do?” I thought for a moment, my mind bursting with suggestions, “Take a month,” I answered.
The reason for my answer was this. Your intentions may be clear, your destination may be set in stone, but just like a visit to a funfair, your head will forever be turned by the sights, sounds, tastes and thrills, tempting you from every direction you turn.
Oeste in Centro de Portugal
There are the beaches at Santa Cruz where surfers and sun worshipers rub shoulders along unending, honey-coloured sands. There is the sublime experience of the Areias do Seixo Hotel, a mixture of surf meets style, in some of the most beautifully appointed spaces and rooms you are ever likely to encounter – and a place whose heart beats to the rhythm of Mother Nature’s drum.
Further north, your attention will be bushwhacked by the historic, castellated town of Óbidos. A town of narrow streets designed for wandering and getting lost, craft shops, galleries, restaurants, and museums. Óbidos carries another curiosity which is sure to kindle the spirits of book-lovers the world over. It even has its own book hotel – The Literary Man. Bestowed with the title of UNESCO City of Literature, the town is home to a hotel dedicated to books, tens of thousands of them; a church which has been converted into a bookshop and reading library, and an indoor fresh produce market, which also doubles as a bookstore. A rare gem.
Travel a few kilometres west from Óbidos to the seafaring town of Peniche where fishing fleets dock daily. Follow the trail of the fish and seafood as they are landed on the quayside, delivered to the sales room and shipped to hotels, bars and restaurants right across the whole region, and beyond. Watch the women mend the nets in the open spaces beside the docks, and wander the quaint streets around the traditional fishermen’s village, sampling the dishes recently retrieved from the sea, by the houses’ owners.
Take to the waters and the open ocean on an excursion to the Berlengas archipelago and to the island of Berlenga Grande; a gull-infested rock which juts from the sea breaking the backs of the incessant Atlantic waves and offering refuge to a myriad of marine creatures and bird life.
If activity is your thing, take the coastal bicycle route – Estrada Atlantica – from Foz do Arelho along a designated flat track running through pine forests, past beaches, and quaint fishing villages, to the town of Nazaré.
Nazaré, together with being a beach resort possessing a beautiful ‘old quarter’, is renowned for having some of the biggest, and best, surfing waves in the world. It was here that US surfer, Garrett McNamara broke the world record for riding the biggest wave (tow-in) in the history of surfing; a mind-numbing monster of twenty-four metres high.
But not everyone is made from the same stuff as McNamara, and for those who prefer to live their life at a less exhilarating pace you may continue north from Nazaré along the Estrada Atlantica discovering empty beaches, astonishing scenery, quiet coves and bustling seaside towns whose beaches are large enough to accommodate everyone, with plenty of space to spare.
Inland from Nazaré Centro de Portugal will spoil you with treats; especially for lovers of history and culture. A trio of ancient towns, dating back to the birth of the Portuguese nation – and beyond – are waiting to welcome you; Alcobaça, Batalha and Tomar.
Alcobaça gained its status as a must-see attraction for visitors to the Centro region due to the presence of the Alcobaça Monastery, one of the most important and well preserved Cistercian monasteries in all of Europe. The monastery itself was constructed on the site of a church which was built by King Alfonso Henriques, the first King of Portugal, to commemorate the victory over the Moors at the Battle of Santarém. Today the monastery receives over 350,000 visitors per year, many of whom come to view the final resting places of Dom Pedro I of Portugal and his murdered mistress Ines de Castro; their ornately carved tombs lie on either side of the church’s main aisle.
30 kilometres north of Alcobaça lies the city of Batalha which also features a convent dedicated to victory in battle, The Monastery of Saint Mary of the Victory – Mosteiro de Santa Maria da Vitória. This time, the victory was against the Castilian forces at the Battle of Aljubarrota in 1385 and the in parts unfinished (but still hauntingly beautiful) church contains the tombs of the Aviz Dynasty of Royals who ruled Portugal during the 15th century. Prepare to get lost as you wander the church, the Founder’s Chapel, the Royal Cloister and the Chapterhouse, with its guarded tomb of ‘The Two Unknown Soldiers’ who died in World War I. In 1983 the convent was added to the UNESCO list of World Heritage Sites.
The Templar City of Tomár – also a UNESCO World Heritage Site – 60 kilometres east of Batalha, greets its visitors with the impressively arched stonework of an aqueduct (Aqueduto dos Pegões) complete with its 180 arches, which carried water for over 6 kilometres to the town which lies inside the protective walls of the Convento de Cristo. The convent was constructed in the 12th century, in the style of a fortress, by Gualdim de Pais, the fourth Grand Master of the Knights Templar. The town was the last Templar town to be built in Portugal before the banning of the Templar Order, who incidentally were reintroduced under the name of the Order of Christ. Despite its historic connotations, Tomar is a pretty town where life is lived at a slow place on the banks of the tree lined River Nabão.
In order to explore these gems of history and Portuguese culture, the traveler would do well to base themselves in one of the Catholic religion’s most important cities, Fatima. From the luxury of the Luz Houses Hotel, walking distance from the famous and venerated shrine and basilica of Fatima, the city forms the epicentre of discovery for the entire area. As a centre of religious pilgrimage since the apparition of the Virgin Mary to three children in 1917, Fatima is inundated with visitors making the secluded splendour, walled gardens, private pool and spa of the Luz Houses Hotel an oasis of calm and reflection, and a welcome retreat at the end of a long day of discovery.
This Oeste in Centro de Portugal post is a part of a series of 10 posts I wrote based on my journey to the Oeste Region in July 2016. Please find the links o the other articles bellow:
This Oeste 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 Emanuele Siracusa.