Serra da Estrela is Nature in its purest form: raw, brutal, bizarre, magnificent and mesmerizing! Rocks with strange shapes, dizzying cliffs, endless gorges, dense forests, juniper bushes, mountain rivers of virgin water sprouting from the rocks into lakes… The big nothing surrounds us, making it impossible not to admire this as, fundamentally the most beautiful natural scenery of Portugal. This void of human intervention is the Serra da Estrela Nature identity …
I would like to point out that the journey that served as the experience for these series of posts was taken in January 2016, meaning that winter was at its peak. Although I recognize that most of you will be more interested in traveling to the Serra da Estrela when the weather is fairer, I choose this time specifically to tell this story, as I wanted myself and the team to experience Serra da Estrela in its purest form. This is, after all, a mountain. And a mountain is supposed to be cold and to snow. Winter is the defining season of any mountain and the overwhelming factor that sculpts the territory, the people, the traditions, the food…Everything!
With this in mind, I hope you can come to enjoy the true Serra da Estrela Nature…
Serra da Estrela Nature
The whole mountain range, which develops from the Iberian central system, is home to some of the most breathtaking views of the clearest rivers and lakes, as well as the purest water in the country. Its 25 glacial lakes are the water mirrors of the largest existing elevation in Portugal. It is during the spring and summer when the green mantle of forests and bushes cover the mountain in full, the beauty of this scene can be better appreciated. It is at these times that walks through ancient trails of the shepherds become more rewarding without being subjected to freezing temperatures.
I would like to make a special appointment to the fact that the weather is extremely volatile in Serra da Estrela. Even in summer, but especially in winter, it can be sunny for the whole morning and in 5 minutes the whole mountain is covered by thick fog. So thick you can’t see 3 meters in front of you. Abrupt temperature drops, hail, rain, snow and even thunder can happen at any time. So unless you are a high altitude mountaineering expert, never venture on your own. While Serra da Estrela offers you the possibility to still track your own path through the mountains, even for those with little experience, be aware that weather can change in a minute, always take extra precaution. Always take a guide with you.
This difference of weather patterns is increasingly more noticeable when you are driving around Serra da Estrela and have to cross every one of the 2000 meters of altitude. In the winter this journey was made, on one single trip from Gouveia to Penhas Douradas (about 45 min drive in slow pace), we experienced sun, blue skies, clouds, fog, a temperature dip of 15 degrees (from 14 to -1), rain, a bit of snow and ice on the road, a herd of goats coming out of the thick fog…
Wood for the Portuguese Discovery Ages caravels was brought from the Serra da Estrela high altitude forests. The Iberian Oak, a species now on the brink of extinction was harvested to make the masts of this ships, as it wood was more resistant to the force of the winds than any other withing the Portuguese territory. Years later, it was the coal industry, the one responsible for changing the lower altitudes landscape. This last fact is particularly interesting, as Portugal is a charcoal barbecue country, and since we don’t have coal mines, all that charcoal mainly came from forests in Serra da Estrela.
Urze (heather) is a bush tree particularly important in Serra da Estrela, as after 1500 meters there is no more forest, meaning there is no more wood. The shepherds needed wood to burn through the night, so they turned to the root of heather for fuel. round in shape and made out of dense wood, the shepherds just kicked from the ground and lighted it on fire. Some say the good ones can slow burn for a week.
Leading the recent facelift of the tourist reality of Serra da Estrela, private companies have established themselves as tour guides, trekking leaders, nature insiders and territorial experts. Working for one of the most prominent, A2Z Adventures most valuable asset Manuel Franco, was my guide during my time in Serra da Estrela. He proved to be a true revelation. Far beyond the obvious professionalism, his sheer overwhelmingly interesting knowledge of the Serra da Estrela and everything around Serra da Estrela Nature made me understand the truthful nature of this place. I know that there are others guides out there, who may be equally competent, but Manuel is a guy I admire and someone who I wish to stay in contact with for many years to come.
At the impressionable age of 18, a Lisbon city boy moved to the Serra da Estrela to fulfill his boyhood dream of being close to the mountain. He is an absolute living encyclopedia of everyone and everything about Serra da Estrela. The most interesting this are that he is not for one single moment dull. The passion of his boyhood dream is present at every moment of the day when you are with Manuel. Let me put it this way, without Manuel (or someone like him) a visit to the Serra da Estrela is just sightseeing. Beyond all the breathtaking vistas, landscapes, the valleys, and rocks, his stories and explanations make evening come to live. They make sense of everything you see. He spends his free time reading books written about the Serra da Estrela, so his knowledge is vast. Why is that rock over there? What kind of bush is this? How was this lake formed? Who is that shepherd in the distance? When were these trees planted here? Where does this trail lead to? Ask him anything and he will tell you.
Some say he knows all the rocks by name, and if you ever get lost, all you have to do is to describe the boulder in front of you and he will know where you are in a matter of moments. When he first arrived at the mountain in 1998, he used to meet some of the locals for a beer and a game of “Name the Rock” – they would get old postcards and photos from the mountain and challenge each other to name what was in the picture. Something a bit legendary for someone who is just in his mid-40’s. But like all Portuguese, he is quiet and quite introvert, scaling down the heroic status he has acquired over the years. He denies this acclamation, quoting and ancient saying of the Serra Estrela – the complete knowledge of everything about the Serra da Estrela resides in the communal memory of everyone who lives in Serra da Estrela have. No man can know everything, it is impossible, it is too vast and too diverse.
Besides the Serra da Estrela Nature, his only allegiance is to his friend Alfa. He adamantly refuses to call Alfa a dog, as far beyond other siblings, it is the affection that counts.
The best sunsets and sunrises in Portugal
Call me shallow, but these are my two favorite moments of the day. After breakfast and lunch, that is. Even if you are not the biggest fan of getting up while it is still dark outside, believe me that it is worth your while. Again, the lack of human presence and the homogeneity of the Serra da Estrela’s silhouette, when seen from the top two plateaus – Torre and Penhas Douradas will honestly make you say thank you to the almighty for creating such natural beauty. The journey to Serra da Estrela from which this story originates from was made in January 2016, so the Sunrise happened quite late – around 8.00 am and the Sunset very early – around 17h30.
Unless you are extreme adventure sports lover and are happy to camp through the night in the middle of the bare mountain, I would recommend Lagoa da Paixão. This is unanimously held as the best sunrise in Serra da Estrela. Otherwise, if you are a regular guy like me, who enjoys the comfort of a stylish hotel, they do like I did and stay at Casa das Penhas Douradas. The walk from the hotel to the highest point of the plateau (1540m) takes 10min. All you have to do is to climb one of two agglomerates of Fragas and you are set for the spectacle of a lifetime.
Like a firestorm blazing through the horizon, the red dawn lights up the tundra on the highest plateaus of the Serra da Estrela. On this day, the sky crystal clear, with visibility extending further than 300 kilometers. The faraway system you see in the photo are the eastern mountains of Sierra de Francia, Sierra de Brejos and Sierra de Gredos in neighbor Spain. I quickly finish sipping my first coffee of the day and head out to the plateau to admire this spectacle. My recommendation is to bring some extra warm clothes and just sit atop one of the Fragas. Don’t do anything else, don’t take photos, don’t call your friends, just sit there….
As the sun sets on the west front of the Serra da Estrela, I recommend that it is best enjoyed from the top of the Tower. From here you have an almost 360-degree view of everything of the setting dusk. I believe the photo bellow speaks for itself.
Driving through Serra da Estrela Nature
Going up the mountain along the national road 339, make a detour to Manteigas at the kilometer eight, instead of going through the Sabugueiro towards the Tower, and follow the directions for Vale do Rossim. The views of the plain which is in the foothills frankly worth and the thrill of driving on a road without name makes this detour worth even more. At the end of this road, we find the EN 232, which brings us close to two mountainous wonders: the Vale do Rossim and the Penhas Douradas.
Vale do Rossim
The Vale do Rossim is located at an altitude of 1435 meters and, before the construction, it was one of the best altitude pastures of the municipality of Gouveia. The crystal and raw waters of Serra da Estrela make this beach the highest in the country, the coldest also, registering little over than 13 ° C in the summer peak, whose mirror of water reflects with much beauty the Fragões das Penhas Douradas. This water mantle is the scene of much activity related to the mountain sports such as canoeing, rappelling, slide and hiking and quad bikes, also attracting holidaymakers of the neighborhood when the heat tightens in the mountain.
As concluded by the Royal scientific expedition of 1887, Penha Douradas featured a constant low humidity through the whole year. This, more than temperature, was the best current time treatment for tuberculosis and another lung disease. It started by the “Casa da Fraga”, a makeshift house built under a huge “fragão” (rock) in the year 1882. A few more houses were commissioned by rich families to be built in Penhas Douradas, to be serve as both treatment and holiday homes. A glory short lived as medical discoveries by Pasteur and Fleming in the start of the 1900’s, rendered this high altitude, constant humidity treatment useless. Nevertheless, this movement marks the beginning of Tourism in Serra da Estrela.
Tower (2000 meters)
It is at this point that one can feel the effect of rarified air. Even though the difference of oxygen is minimal you will feel light headed for brief moments. For most persons it goes unnoticed as the magnificence of the landscape suppresses any other sensation you might be having. Emanuele was lucky to be able to capture such an iconic set of images, and it gives you a sense of how much the weather can change in just a few hours days.
This Serra da Estrela Nature post is a part of a series of 8 posts I wrote based on my journey to Serra da Estrela on January 2016. Please find the links o the other articles bellow:
This Serra da Estrela Nature post was written 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.