Spain is relatively familiar territory.
From our vacation home in Olvera at the intersection of the Málaga, Sevilla, and Cadiz provinces, we’ve spent time visiting many of the charming “pueblos blancos” (white towns) of Andalucía: Ronda, Grazalema, Pruna, Villamartín, Algodonales, Morón de la Frontera, Antequera, and many others.
We’ve flown into and out of Madrid, Málaga and Sevilla, passing through this big city on our treks to and from Portugal. We’ve taken day trips to Granada and Cádiz … the latter usually to shop at Ikea. Weekend getaways have found us in Martos, just outside Jaén, the provincial capital. Longer vacations were spent in Alicante, Ibiza, Barcelona, Sitges, and the Benedorm playground; Valencia was a port of call on a cruise.
Attending the University of Madrid for my undergraduate degree, I got to know this special city and notable nearby places: Toledo, Segovia, Ávila, La Granja, Salamanca, and the “casas colgadas” (hanging houses) of Cuenca. During the time of my studies, I traveled to Barcelona, bicycling around this most cosmopolitan city and marveling at Gaudi’s La Familia Sagrada. I visited Sitges–one of Spain’s first gay destinations during the Francisco Franco regime … and booked passage on a boat to Ibiza and the Palmas, Mallorca and Menorca.
Portugal is another matter entirely …
It’s been several years now since we’ve moved to our village of Lousa, 20 minutes outside of Castelo Branco. In addition seeing the sites of this often overlooked city – the Episcopal palace gardens, the white castle for which the city is named, its museums and cultural centers – we’ve wandered around places outside our own backyard: Alpedrinha, Castelo Nueva, Covilhã, Lardosa, Louriçal, Penamacor, Sertã, etc.
We’ve have crossed over the awesome aqueducts in Segura on way to and from lunch in Spain … visited (several times) Monsanto, touted as the “Most Portuguese Town” … frequented the marvelous Monday market in Fundão, quite possibly one of the district’s best … feasted our eyes on the spectacular scenery and unparalleled topography of Vila Velha do Ródão and Foz do Cobrão, enjoying the food at one of the best restaurants around. Not unlike the Western (Wailing) Wall in Jerusalem, the Jewish sanctuary of Belmonte is a spiritual experience–regardless of one’s religion.
Cutting short our catastrophic “vacation” at a TripAdvisor (aka FlipKey) beach property, we missed out on planned excursions to Porto, Espinho, Tomar, and Aveiro—the “Venice” of Portugal. We’ll go back, but we’ll do it differently, leaving the dogs at a highly-commended canine “hotel” near us (in Alcains), enabling us to stay at somewhat more comfortable and convenient places.
Also on our list of must-see places is Lisbon – where its expansive aquarium fulfills an exhilarating but exhaustive day – and heading north towards Santiago de Compostela, capital of northwest Spain’s Galicia region, for the “Camino” pilgrimage. Still, we did enjoy a birthday weekend in two very special suburbs: Cascais and Estoril.
But, for now, we wanted to devise a series of day trips … places within a 90-minute drive … so we could go, do some sightseeing, and be back in time to feed and walk the dogs. If we were hosting out-of-town guests for a few days, what would we want them to see?
Here are the places on our list:
• Sortelha Somewhat along the lines of Monsanto, Sortelha is one of the oldest and most beautiful towns in Portugal. A visit to its streets and alleys enclosed in a defensive ring and watched over by a lofty 13th century castle takes us back to past centuries among medieval tombs, by the Manueline pillory, or in front of the Renaissance church. Home to the legendary Eternal Kiss—two boulders resting on the slope below the castle walls, just touching, it’s not difficult to imagine that they are kissing. Another odd looking granite formation in Sortelha is referred to as The Old Lady’s Head (A Cabeça da Velha). Neighboring town Sabugal provides a bonus castle and museum to visit.
• Belmonte Tradition has it that the name of this town in Castelo Branco region’s northernmost district came from its location (“beautiful hill”). Near a 13th century castle is Bet Eliahu synagogue and the Jewish zone, with its own special museum.
• Idanha-a-Velha Reportedly invaded and looted throughout history, Idanha-a-Velha is one of the oldest towns in Portugal. Extensive Roman ruins and epigraphs refurbished as a modern museum, a restored 16th century church, and ancient oil press all make this place very special.
• Penha Garcia Situated on a hillside next to the road between Monsanto and the Spanish border, a walk leads up to the castle and a dam below. On the lowest point of the trail, beneath the castle, you can go for a swim in the cool mountain lake. But what makes Penha Garcia truly outstanding is its geology, with huge fossils plentiful.
• Serra da Estrela Even from our lowly house in Lousa, we can see the snow-capped peaks of the highest mountain range in mainland Portugal, whose highest point – Torre, accessible by a paved road – is 1,993 meters (6,539 feet) above sea level. Three rivers have their headwaters in the Serra da Estela, the only place in Portugal during the cold weather to ski, go sledding, snowboarding, or ride a snowmobile. We moved here from Sturgeon Bay, Wisconsin … so, seeing the snow from a distance is quite enough for now.
• Marvão Perched on a granite crag, Marvão is the highest village in Portugal. An old, walled town with gardens and a castle, it’s one of the few nearby places included in the New York Times #1 bestselling book, 1000 Places to See Before You Die. Access to the village is through a narrow medieval archway, close to which stands a Moorish-looking building known as the Jerusalem chapel. People tell us that Marvão – deep inside Portugal’s hinterland, within a whisker of the Spanish border – is probably one of the prettiest places in the whole of southern Europe because of its views and lunar-like landscape.
• Piedão What could be more romantic than a small town of homes hidden in the middle of the mountains? Astounding architecture attests to mankind’s ability to adapt harmoniously to the most inhospitable places, with blue schist and shale houses standing sentry along the sloping terraces between narrow, winding streets.
• Guarda Built around a medieval castle on the northern cusp of the Serra da Estrela mountain range, the dominant 12th century Gothic cathedral is a star attraction and allows you to step onto its roof to survey the city, with a Jewish quarter where Hebrew inscriptions have lasted since the 1100s.
And there’s more: Almeida, a fortified village whose 16th-17th century castle with all the proper fortifications still remains in tip-top, textbook shape, along with its military museum … Manteigas, a glacial valley …Even its name, “Well of Hell,” makes Poço do Inferno tempting …Mira de Aire, with its largest caves in Portugal … Castelo de Vide ‘s red-roofed, whitewashed houses clinging to the side of lush mountain slopes and an old quarter described as one of Portugal’s best make this small town one of Portugal’s gems.
After this bucket list of placeholders has been completed, we can take a train ride on the Beira Baxa line to Abrantes in the Portalegre province and visit the 14th century Almeiro do Tejo castle. Will I have the nerve to walk across the castle’s steep ramparts—which have no guard rails? Or the truly frightening new 1,692 foot long suspension bridge called 516 Arouca about an hour from Porto? Considered the longest pedestrian suspension bridge in the world, it’s situated 575 feet above the ground with a see-through bottom to the sheer drop below, connecting the Aguieiras Waterfall and Paiva Gorge. It’s not a place to visit if you’re afraid of heights. But, if you do go to this new bridge, remember: Don’t look down!
Not even a chance.
Shared here are personal observations, experiences, and happenstance that actually occurred to us as we moved from the USA to begin a new life in Portugal and Spain. Collected and compiled in EXPAT: Leaving the USA for Good, the book is available in hardcover, paperback, and eBook editions from Amazon and most online booksellers.