Most travelers to Portugal gravitate to its cities and beaches, so the Serra da Estrela, the country’s highest mountain range, comes as a wonderful surprise for those who prefer to explore lesser-known destinations. Sparsely populated and known for its excellent cheeses, wines and woolen goods, the heart of the area is protected by a national park.
Many summer visitors come to hike and mountain bike, since there are miles of well-maintained and clearly signed paths; waterfalls and riverside beaches offer perfect places to cool off on a hot day. During the winter, the Serra da Estrela is the only place in Portugal where it is possible to ski, so the inhabitants of Lisbon and Porto descend upon the area, which becomes a Lusitanian version of Vermont.
On an expedition for the Lisbon Geographical Society in 1881, Dr. Sousa Martins deemed this mountain resort to be the healthiest place in Portugal, due to the pure mountain air at an elevation of nearly 5,000 feet and the pure water from local springs. But perhaps the impact of the place’s stunning beauty on the mood and morale of visitors should also be taken into account. The landscapes here are dominated by huge blocks of granite and stands of pine trees. And the views over Manteigas and the Zêzere Glacial Valley are truly spectacular. Plan on lunch at the restaurant of the Casa das Penhas Douradas, the first hotel renovated by Isabel Costa and her husband, João Tomás, the owners of recommended Casa da São Lourenço in Manteigas.
Portugal had a prosperous Jewish community long before the arrival of the Romans, and even during the Moorish occupation of the country, it thrived. Once the Muslims were driven from Portugal, this Sephardic Jewry flourished until 1497, when King Manuel ordered Jews to convert to Catholicism or leave the country. Many of those who agreed to be baptized then moved to the remote region of the Serra da Estrela and continued to practice their Jewish faith in isolation from the outside world.
Belmonte is the town with the most impressive Jewish heritage in the region. Between the streets of Fonte da Rosa and Direita, many of the granite houses have inscriptions in Hebrew. This closed community survived for more than 500 years. In 1989, the Jews of Belmonte returned to the religious rites of their ancestors and began to worship publicly. The Bet Eliahu Synagogue was consecrated in 1996. The Belmonte Jewish Museum on Rua da Portela further documents the history of Jews in Belmonte and Portugal as a whole.
As is the case in Provence and Tuscany, the remote stone villages that dot the mountains, hills and forests of the Serra da Estrela reward anyone who takes the time to visit them on foot. Many are very beautiful, but the real pleasure comes from savoring their ambiance in an unhurried way, stopping in a café, browsing a local market, enjoying a bowl of hot cabbage-and-potato soup on a cold day, and receiving the greetings of the locals. One of our favorites is Monsanto, where red-roofed cottages are squeezed next to giant boulders along cobblestone streets.
Built on the steep slopes overlooking the Golda and the Carpinteira, the two rivers that made it a thriving woolen mill town in the 19th century, this handsome old town is slowly creating a post-industrial identity. The Carpinteira Bridge that links former industrial zones with the city center is one of the highest and most dramatic pedestrian bridges in the world. The city’s Wool Museum (Museu de Lanifícios) provides a fascinating glimpse of the town’s industrial past, which began when the Royal Textile Factory was founded here in 1764 by the Marquês de Pombal, the influential chief minister to King Joseph I.