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Seg | 02.02.15

11 places not to miss in Mainland Portugal


Portugal is a small country, yet it is full of lovely places, the majority of them off the busiest tourist routes and many of them still rather unheard of.

I have travelled a lot in my country and been lucky to “discover” many of these places. Some of them are magical wonders offered to us by nature, whereas in others human intervention has provided them with a particular character. Some have remained virtually unchanged over the years, others have become more famous and are no longer a well-kept secret, but all of them retain characteristics that make them truly special places.

They are certainly must-see locations during your next visit to Portugal.

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About 750 metres away from the centre of the small town of Carvoeiro, on the road that climbs east along the coast, there is a spectacular rock formation that gave origin to a network of caves flooded by sea water. Access is currently made by a cemented staircase which takes us to a kind of “indoor pool” surrounded by rocks. The outdoor areas are a favourite place for fishermen and a privileged spot to watch the sea and the coastal shoreline of the western Algarve.

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Buçaco National Forest (or Bussaco, in the old spelling) is a magical place and one of the richest Portuguese forests, blessed with a unique biodiversity and a remarkable architectural heritage. Its icon is the Palace Hotel of Bussaco, a building mainly designed by Luigi Manini in the 19th century in the Neo-Manueline style. Dating back to the 17th century and adjacent to the Palace, the Convent of Santa Cruz displays very original features, such as embedded panels with shells and ornamental tiles. In the forest there is also a Via Sacra, some buildings in ruins and several fountains, among which the most exquisite is the Cold Fountain with its big staircase. But the greatest beauty of this forest is undoubtedly its flora, with special emphasis on Vale dos Fetos, where we can see examples of arboreal ferns which are several metres high and where a path built in the 19th century takes us to Lago Grande (a beautiful small lake), on a walk for which there is only one adjective: wonderful.

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Cape Carvoeiro is located to the west of Peniche, at the end of the peninsula with the same name. It is a rocky promontory with particular characteristics, where we can see large areas of lava and other rock formations resulting from great erosion over many thousands of years. One of these formations is Nau dos Corvos, a big isolated rock in the middle of the water that evokes an old vessel heading for the sea. You also cannot miss Varanda de Pilatos, a balcony overlooking the Atlantic ocean, and Furna que Sopra, a hole from where the wind blows when a wave hits the rocks (a rather funny experience, actually). In the distance, the Berlengas Islands mark the landscape.

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In the 1950s, the fishermen of the small village of Carrasqueira started to build this wooden pier on stilts so as to be able to access their boats during low tide, when the banks of the River Sado are muddy and swampy. This unique masterpiece of popular architecture has remained unchanged over the years and continues to be used by some fishermen, whose number has been regrettably decreasing. It is an irregular network of paths made of boards nailed on wooden stilts, which seem misleadingly fragile, extending over a few hundred metres into the river estuary and harbouring colourful small fishing boats, some of them abandoned, others filled with nets and tackle. Small cabins also made of wood, some of them painted in cheerful colours, serve as storage places for those who make use of this handmade pier. This is undoubtedly the best place to watch the birdlife of the Sado estuary and enjoy a stunning sunset at the end of a summer day.

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One of the most beautiful waterfalls in our country is located in the mountain of Açor, near Arganil. The route leading to Fraga da Pena is itself worth a visit, as we have to follow the road connecting Coja to Benfeita and cross the forest of Margaraça, the last remains of the native forest of the Beira region mountains, and then walk for a few hundred metres along a schist path lined with trees and shrubs until we reach the waterfall. Nothing can be heard except the noise of the birds and the water, which falls spectacularly from a height of about 20 metres to form a small pond. A cool and peaceful place where you can relax in communion with nature.

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Near the village with the same name, in the municipality of Mértola, the place where between 1858 and 1965 a mining operation was run is nowadays a science fiction scenario unique in our country. It has ruined buildings, abandoned equipment, stagnant water sheets and vast stony areas with coppery or greyish colours, a surprisingly attractive post-apocalyptic setting and an infinite source for those who enjoy taking photos. There is a project for recovering this area, so go there before the landscape changes.

(Read here a full post about Mina de S. Domingos)

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Included in the Peneda-Gerês National Park, Peneda displays a variety of scenery which is not easily found in other regions. Huge rocky massifs, lush green slopes, large coniferous areas reminiscent of Nordic countries, wild horses grazing calmly and a nineteenth-century Sanctuary strategically located alongside a dizzying waterfall with a rocky peak as background. Although you have to travel far in the heart of the northern region of Minho to get there, it is absolutely worthwhile a visit.

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Near the much more famous village of Monsanto, Penha Garcia is quiet, charming and surprising. Its origins date back to the 12th century. There is much to see in this village but my favourite place is unquestionably the valley of the Pônsul River, which is currently contained in a dam from where it flows as a brook. Old water mills and small houses, which were once important and are now unhabited, have recently been recovered and now form an open-air museum. Of greatest interest and truly unique, well-preserved ichnofossils can be seen on the rocky walls, traces of the Trilobites that dominated the seas hundreds of millions of years ago. Another very pleasant place to enjoy is the river beach, a kind of “pool” surrounded by a wooden walkway and fed by a small waterfall - a truly idyllic nook.

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Certainly one of the most hidden and therefore least visited places in Portugal, the Misarela bridge has been in my heart for many years. The first time I visited it, it was necessary to walk for miles and we were almost in despair when it finally emerged after a bend in the road, solidly set on a rocky ravine, with the Rabagão River powerfully running below. Nowadays it is much easier to get there from Ruivães or Frades (Vieira do Minho) or from Vila Nova (Montalegre), but there is always a reasonable distance to go by foot on cobblestone or unpaved paths. The place is well worth the detour off the usual tourist routes, because Misarela is located in a wonderful setting and the bridge blends with the surrounding landscape as if it were a part of it instead of a human work. IIt consists of a single granite arch and was built in the Middle Ages, but its origins date back to the Roman period. It is also known as the “devil’s bridge”, due to the legend associated with it, which can be read (in Portuguese) here or here.

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Around 18 km upstream the town of Mértola, a section of the Guadiana River runs through dark and tight rock formations until it falls noisily more than 20 metres. The landscape is breathtaking and the strong flow of the river is impressive even it does not have much water. It is possible to access the site from both the east side and the west side, but access from the west side (passing through the village of Amendoeira da Serra, leaving the road that connects Beja to Mértola) is easier and there is a purpose-built structure for observing the waterfall from above.

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There is no better place to watch the splendour of the Douro River and its banks than the viewpoint of S. Leonardo da Galafura. Halfway between the towns of Régua and Vila Real, the viewpoint rises to 640 metres above the river, which runs quietly down below, and from there we can enjoy a clear panoramic view of the landscape of the Douro region, with hills and valleys in shades of brown and grey speckled here and there with patches of green, cut by winding paths and the terraced steps of innumerable vineyards. Absolutely breathtaking!

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11 places not to miss in Mainland Portugal