Advertisement

Want to get off the beaten track in Portugal? Take the ultimate road trip through mountain villages

Want to get off the beaten track in Portugal? Take the ultimate road trip through mountain villages

Many travellers set off on a trip hoping it will be unique to them. Eager to be the first to discover hidden gems, away from the bustling crowds and overtouristed sights.

My husband and I were these travellers on our first ever trip to Portugal this autumn. We wanted to take in vistas from empty roads, stopping off along the way to explore small cities and mountain villages.

While open to detours, we set ourselves a route we planned to loosely follow. We went from Lisbon to Porto to Monsanto to Evora and then back to Lisbon.

What we saw along the way did not disappoint. From picture postcard views to unforgettable meals, here's what we found.

Brandy in Lourinhã and birds on Berlenga

Choosing to stay inland before heading to the island of Berlenga led us to Lourinhã, an hour north of Lisbon, where we stayed in a converted ancient windmill and discovered the region's famous brandy.

As the only visitors to the facility that day, we were treated to a private tour of Adega Cooperativa da Lourinhã, one of only three demarcated brandy regions in Europe, the others being Armagnac and Cognac.

The English-speaking guide and her school-age son showed us around the aging barrels, before dipping bottles of 'aguardiente' into red wax to seal them.

We next ventured via ferry to the island of Berlenga, about 10 km off the fishing village of Peniche. It's a pink chunk of granite jutting out of the turquoise-to-emerald-green waters of the Atlantic, home to a vast array of seabirds.

Most visitors come in the morning and leave in the early evening, but we decided to stay overnight. The handful of rooms available offer exquisite views of the water, with schools of fish visible even from high above - a dreamy sunset viewing spot.

From Porto to Belmonte: castles and cheese

After a few days back in the tourist crowds in Porto, we took the long way to Monsanto, near the Spanish border, choosing a route through the Parque Nacional da Serra da Estrela.

Stopping at the hilltop village of Belmonte, we discovered a 12th century castle, a historic Jewish population and some of the best cheese of our trip. What we thought would be a basic lunch at a non-descript taverna ended up being a great meal at a shop that sold wheels of Serra sheep cheese made by the owner's cousin, and wine made by the owner himself. It was an afternoon stop that could easily have merited a few days' exploration.

Exploring the boulders of Monsanto

We arrived in the late afternoon at our Airbnb just below Monsanto, a magical mountaintop village where residents built their abodes in and around massive boulders.

The caretaker of the inn suggested we explore the nearby village of Pehna Garcia, where there is a castle, ancient water mills and fossils to discover. Our main objective, though, was the swimming hole nestled beneath the steep rocky hillside. We ate a few bites of our picnic lunch before plunging into the cold water and splashing under a waterfall, the only visitors there.

Idahna-a-Velha: Discovering the oldest town in Portugal

Leaving Monsanto for Evora, we made a quick stop in Idahna-a-Velha, one of the oldest towns in Portugal, once prosperous and bustling with a long Roman history but now home to a population of a few dozen. It boasts a ruin of a Knights Templar tower, Roman city gate and walls, and a ghost town vibe.

We then descended into the Alentejo region, passing vineyard after vineyard. Cork trees dotted the vast grassland, and cows and sheep took in the shade beneath them. We stopped in Arraiolos, known for its hand-knitted rugs, and nodded at the women sitting and knitting outside their whitewashed homes.

Wheels of traditional sheep cheese from the Serra da Estrela region of Portugal are shown for sale at the Mercado Nacional tavern in Belmonte, Portugal on Sept. 17, 2023.
Wheels of traditional sheep cheese from the Serra da Estrela region of Portugal are shown for sale at the Mercado Nacional tavern in Belmonte, Portugal on Sept. 17, 2023. - Kristen de Groot via AP

The best restaurant in Evora

In Evora, we opted for the sitting-and-eating type of tourism rather than the walking-around-exploring brand. We did take a journey up to the Temple of Diana and stood in line for the (somewhat creepy) chapel containing the bones of an estimated 5,000 people, including Franciscan monks, that were plucked from cemeteries.

But overall, we just enjoyed the vibrant city's vibes, and had the best meal of the trip at Restaurante Fialho. Under dark, wood-beamed ceilings, we had a lunch of presunto ham, grilled octopus, medallions of the famous local black pork and baked dog fish, served by bow-tie-sporting waiters.

Driving in the rain to catch our flight home, we talked about how we felt we had seen so much of Portugal, but how in reality it was such a small slice of the country, and a tiny taste of each place we spent time in.

"It's like I was served the most delicious sandwich of my life, and I took one bite and I'm having to just get up and leave the restaurant," my husband said. We agreed that we'll have to come back again to finish the meal.