There are still some places in Europe where getting lost is a pleasure and disconnecting a must. Places where the world stops and nature connects you with prehistoric times with infinite landscapes. You can find a few of them in Portugal, like the beautiful magical mountains Montanhas Magicas, between Porto and Lisbon.
A road trip here has high mountain ranges, stunning little villages, unique entrepreneurs, miracles and crazy hermits… So, if you are looking for a short road trip to disconnect, take a trip to Centro de Portugal and do it!
Note: if you need advice on how it is to drive around Portugal and how toll roads work, I tell you all at this post ;)
1.- Follow the steps of a lost train through the calm and quiet life of Vouga river
We start our road trip at Sever do Vouga. Just a short drive from the village you will find Vougapark, and old pastry factory that is now an innovation and entrepreneurship spot, including one of the most important vocational training centres in Portugal. You can park your car there, or just behind it, at the old train station of Paradela.
The station of Paradela is not longer a train station. The train only used this way from 1913 to 1966 (it used to connect Aveiro and Espinho with Viseu.) Now, the old rails have been transformed into an Ecopista, a hiking trail that goes through tunnels and bridges, by the beautiful river and the orange trees.
Crossing Poço de Santiago bridge, one of the tallest bridges in Portugal, provides some amazing views over the river and the winding mountain road that, before Highways and SCUT, connected Sever de Vouga with Aveiro. No, you won’t find wi-fi here but you will find unique species like Lamprey, eels, salamanders and even herons.
This ecopista belongs to the longer hiking route PR3 Rota das Laranjeiras, a round route that follows down to the river to Quinta do Barco, where eating is a must (it has views over the river).
2.- Confirming that eating in Portugal is more than Cod, Cozido and Caldo Verde
Yes, we did stop at Quinta do Barco for food (recommendations here are always tested) and the Magical Mountains also have some culinary secrets worth trying. Starting with the blueberries, whose season here is in May (2 months before the rest of European farms) and make Sever do Vouga “capital do Mirtilo” (blueberry capital city).
We had them in jam, sauces, cakes… the cake were definitely the favorite on my instagram stories on this trip. Around the last week of June, you can also try them at the national Blueberry Fair at Sever do Vouga.
But this is not the only thing, local restaurants like Quinta do Barco, with a view over the river beach, offer lampreia á bordalesa (lamprey bordalesa style, cooked in its own blood), frango á padeiro (chicken stew with potatoes, served inside a big bread bun), octopus fritters, açorda de sável (shad fish stew or cod roe stew with coriander and bread)….
We also enjoyed baked stews, like the vitela assada (meat stew with potatoes and baked rice) we had close by at “Cantinho da Eira”, at Couto de Baixo little town. And an amazing lamb we had at Adega Típica da Pena (one of the 7 wonders of portuguese gastronomy nominees). And pickled trouts at Castro Daire, with the traditional Bolo Podre (rotten bread, literally, better than it sounds).
3.- Find your inner explorer and navigate over the mirror of Albufera de Ribeiradio
After a great festive lunch, Portuguese style, why not compensate the extra calories doing some active travel? Albufera de Ribeiradio offers calm waters perfect for kayaking or even paddle surf (SUP), or any other river activities.
Vouga area (all Montanhas Magicas region, to be honest) offers several activities companies that offer these activities. We went to the Albufeira with Desafios, who also toured us around the river with a small boat so we could also do a bit of birdwatching.
4.- Getting lost through Serra da Arada, looking for one of the most beautiful towns in Portugal
Leaving Vouga valley behind and up the high range of Serra da Arada, you will come across small oak forests (saved by the villagers from the wild fires of only one year ago) and flocks of sheep. They are not the only things to look at.
Stone over stone, the Mariolas da Arada are stone pillars that mark the way of the mountaineers from long time ago. Your cellphone’s GPS won’t be of much use here, but the views are stunning!
Our destination is Aldeia da Pena, which is considered one of the most beautiful villages in all Portugal (it was voted one of the best three from all Portugal), although it only has 6 inhabitants. But before we arrive there, we must go through the door to hell (Porta do Inferno e Garra) with some stunning views not recommended for those with vertigo.
Take the time to walk through the village of slate-made houses towards the path of “the dead who killed the alive”. On your way, you will come across some horses, geological strata and quartzite crests down to the river. This tight and quite dangerous route used to be the only way to reach Aldeia da Pena, even for the dead, sho had to be buried at another town (thus the name of the hiking route), but it is a beautiful path and will make you hungry enough to enjoy a good meal (I’ve told you were to go at point 2 above.)
5.- Search for wisdom at San Macario and follow the path of those living here before the dinosaurs
After a great walk and lunch at Aldeia da Pena, we headed to San Macario and its cave. San Macario was a hermit and he is considered the patron saint of the crazy, with a big pilgrimmage by the end of July, where people comes here to see the break of dawn over the rocky mountains and have a breakfast pic-nic by the hermitage.
The legend says that Macario fought against dragons and snakes here and that he survived here by eating herbs and grasshoppers. But he certainly had some incredible views! You can see almost the whole area of the magical mountains of Portugal from here and, in sunny days, even Caramulo and Serra da Estrela mountain range.
Also, not far from here, you can also see some of those rare things you wouldn’t stop by if nobody told you how important it was: ichnofossils. This phenomenon is a fossil path, the routes that the “bugs” that inhabited earth 480 million years ago made. Those paths were little steps on a muddy floor, which after thousands of years became a rock on top of a mountain. You can see some of them on the picture above.
6.- Think only in yourself, under the natural hot springs that come from the heart of the mountains
After a day (or two) watching Portugal from above, without beeps, rings and other sounds trying to get your attention through your cellphone, it will be a great time to go back to the Vouga river and get under water to relax. Portuguese kings had that same idea when in 1515 they built the Royal Hospital of Caldas de Lafoes at S. Pedro do Sul. Romans already had this ide when they set a Balneum at 1st Century AC.
Water springs hot, out and inside the Baths, heating the city through the geothermal project and giving life to Balneario Rainha d. Amélia since the XIX Century.
Sao Pedro do Sul attracts up to 25.000 visitors during high season (it is known as the biggest thermal complex in all Europe) but only 5% of them are foreigners. Plus, the Viseu region is a known hot spring region, so you will find many options around, including the hot springs at CastroDaire (termas do Carvalhal).
7.- Learning that being a fashion entrepreneur is also possible next to a Bio-Diversity station
If you ever had to think about how the small villages of the future should look like, one of those ideas would probably look like Aldeia de Campo Benfeito. A small village of small houses, surrounded by nature (and many unique protected species), farm fields with a few cows here and there, an international theatre festival and a fashion company that sells in shops around the world… Ok, maybe that’s not what you were thinking of.
Tradition, modernity, people that has been able to take the crafts of their elders and “turn them around”, transforming an old shepherd cape that keeps you dry when working all-day at the mountains, into a fashion “must”. Capuchinhas have also transformed the old village school into a design workshop where they build new seasons and work with clients from around the globe (you can visit them too.)
8.- Walking through the mountains, among farmers, mines, small rivers and forests, knowing that while alone, you were never lost
Only a few meters from the Capuchinchas place, you will find the hiking route “trilho dos carvalhos” (oak route) that goes through farm fields, peat bogs, small rivers of clear waters, watermills… and also Arouca breed cows, blue butterflies (alcon blue, a protected and endemic species), frogs and even horned adders (we didn’t see any.) It is a round route, so no risk to get lost.
Here in Castro Dire region, as in most of the hiking routes of magical mountains of Portugal, the routes are round. All of them. Wherever they go through, they all return to the same point.
On weekends, the Town Hall also organizes free hikes around a specific theme (in Portuguese). From routes around mines to stargazing, and all including ideas around gastronomy.
Where to sleep at Montanhas Mágicas
For this trip, we stayed at Inatel Palace at S. Pedro do Sul. An old style hotel with the looks of an old bath balnearium, located by the river and less than 5 minutes walk from the Balneario. It’s a bit old-fashioned but rooms are big and comfortable.
Don’t forget about villages and cities. From the original churches at Sao Pedro do Sul and the Information Center of Castro Daire (with archaeological reproduction from Montemuro mountains) to the chapels, the watermills, the crafts and markets…
And, if you want to discover more of these magical mountains, check out this 12 must-sees you shouldn’t miss near Porto.
This post has its origin on an invitation from the team of Adrimag, Centro de Portugal and Montanhas Mágicas to explore the area of Sever do Vouga, Sao Pedro do Sul and Castro Daire. As always, you will only find my experience and real opinion about what I’ve seen and liked from the destination. If you have any questions, let me know in the comments. ?