Portugal may be only a small country, but the variety of its landscapes and species is such that any trip, however short, is a pleasure of discovery.
From the towering mountains to the vast plains, from the wide sandy beaches with their gently rolling waves to the jagged coastline battered by rough seas, the country has a little of everything. And there are also islands, oases of calm and tranquillity in the middle of the Atlantic, with lush vegetation, extinct volcanoes and caves full of natural carvings. Wherever you are, the sun shines all year round, offering a mild climate that is ideal for enjoying nature and the outdoors.
Some of these places are true sanctuaries that have been preserved intact since the beginning of time. And many are the habitat of rare species of flora and fauna that enjoy here the ideal conditions to develop. You can discover them on a walk for observation and contemplation, or in more adrenaline-filled sports and radical activities. They are unforgettable moments, and you will go away with the best holiday memories.
Exploring Portugal by bike is a unique experience. You can take it at your own pace, sensing the aromas and sounds that might otherwise pass unnoticed. Whether you choose the sea at your side, to go up and down mountains, or to meander through the towns and villages, the options are endless! Just get pedalling!
With a pleasant climate, without great extremes of temperature, and a sun that shines throughout the year, Portugal offers lovely conditions to be explored by bike. Within a few kilometres, you can go from the hills to the beach, from the hustle and bustle of the city to the peacefulness of the countryside since, in Portugal, there’s a great diversity of landscapes within a short distance of each other. And it’s even easier to make the necessary detours by bike to get to those places where the views are absolutely breath-taking.
A variety of routes enables you to have several experiences – from the road to the mountain trail, for touring and mountain bikes, quietly sauntering along or tackling more challenging trails that push adrenaline levels to new heights. Many itineraries are geo-referenced, and are available in podcasts or using smartphone apps. But even when you can’t access the roadbook, there are always friendly people available to help you find your way.
There are increasingly more cycle paths in Portugal. Along the coast, in natural parks and forests, and in towns, there are many signed cycle routes, as well as service areas and specific stores for cyclists. Some hotels are also equipped for cyclists, with all the services necessary for them to rest and for their bike, so that everything always works perfectly. It is even possible to combine cycling with public transport, and so increase your opportunities for touring the country.
If you don’t have your own bike with you, you can hire one for short trips or for a longer period. In many cities, bicycles are available free of charge - a healthy and green way to spend a day discovering the city’s attractions.
For those who want to get to know Portugal by bike with the convenience of an organised trip, there are several companies that offer package programmes where everything is included. From the best hotels to expert guides, from restaurants where the food tastes more authentic to visits to monuments and museums, there are packages for all tastes. And those who prefer to be independent can opt for "self-guided tours" and travel alone, without a guide or schedules, but taking advantage of the support services that they find more convenient. In short, a holiday with plenty of exercise but no worries!
It is also possible to combine bike tours with other nature activities such as horse riding or observation of flora and fauna. In this way, it’s possible to enjoy more experiences that give you a better opportunity to get to know Portugal’s many charms.
Did you know that Portugal is one of Europe’s finest birdwatching destinations? There is no other European country where it’s possible to see an iberian imperial eagle or azure-winged magpie amongst a total of around 330 species found in the country?
The wide variety of natural habitats, concentrated in this small territory, make it possible to drive quickly from high mountains to lush hills overlooking the sea, or from estuaries to cork-oak plantations. In the estuary of the River Tagus alone - only 20 minutes from Lisbon - it’s possible to observe 100 bird species in a single day!
While experienced “birdwatchers” are easily able to distinguish birds such as the great bustard, bittern or kestrel from rarer species such as the Rupell’s griffon and the reef heron, amateurs can enjoy an excellent way to appreciate the best of nature. To start with, book a trip with a specialized company. Bring some comfortable footwear and clothing as well as some binoculars to make sure you don’t miss any colourful bird hidden in the vegetation.
Some of the finest birdwatching zones are located in protected areas - that occupy 21% of the national territory. In the North it’s possible to take a cruise to enjoy the beautiful slopes of the River Douro, where Egyptian vultures build their nests. In the Tagus International Park, walking or bike-riding provide an excellent opportunity to watch black storks and griffon vultures perched on fossil-covered rocks.In the Algarve, take a break from swimming and sunbathing in order to discover the Ria Formosa or the Sapal de Castro Marim marshland - two important wetlands populated by flamingos and herons, amongst many other species.
Why not fly to the islands in the Atlantic Ocean? It’s well worth the trip because you’ll encounter birds that don’t exist in any other part of the world, such as the Zino’s petrel and long-toed wood pigeon in Madeira, or the Azores Bullfinch. The best birdwatching zones are Ponta do Pargo, Ponta de São Lourenço and islands of Desertas in the Archipelago of Madeira, or Pico da Vara in the island of São Miguel (Azores).
Whichever option you try, you’re sure to be amazed by the spectacularly beautiful landscapes, as you follow the flight of birds intersecting across ever-blue skies. For your own “perch” why not use choose a country holiday unit, or a fine hotel establishment and surrender to the charms of Portugal’s famous hospitality.
Whale and Dolphin Watching in the Azores
The Azores, in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean, is an archipelago of nine islands showing nature in its purest state, and one of the largest whale sanctuaries in the world.
Among the resident and migratory species, some common, some rarer, you can see more than 24 different types of cetaceans in the waters of the Azores. There are also resident communities such as common dolphins and bottlenose dolphins, with which it is possible to swim, and there are whales that use the Azores as a migration route. Spotted dolphins, sperm whales, sei whales and baleen whales are more frequent in summer. Blue whales can easily be sighted in late winter. One thing is certain: whatever the season, there are always discoveries to be made.
The Azores are an ecosystem of unique features and waters rich in fish, so it is not surprising that whaling was an important activity in the past in many of the islands. Today, the whaling tradition has been transformed into a very popular tourist activity, and there are many points of departure, spread across the various islands, which serve as a base for those who want contact with these enchanting mammals, giving new meaning to the old cry: "Thar she blows".
On the Island of S. Miguel, especially in Ponta Delgada and Vila Franca do Campo, there are several operators specialising in whale watching throughout the year. Blue whales, the largest animals on earth, measuring about 30 metres and weighing up to 150 tons, are frequently sighted in spring in the channel between the islands of S. Miguel and Santa Maria.
On Terceira - either in Angra do Heroísmo or Praia da Vitória – there are various opportunities for whale watching, particularly tourist operators that offer programmes that combine accommodation with sea activities. Of the many species whose migration routes make them visible from the island, the majestic blue whale, which passes between Terceira and S. Jorge in the spring and autumn, is especially worth seeing.
Faial forms the so-called Triangle with S. Jorge and Pico, and the town of Horta is today one of the leading and most dynamic centres for observing and studying cetaceans in the archipelago. Several of the whale watching operators in Horta use as guides scientists and technicians connected with the University of the Azores, an institution whose main study and research centres are located here, collaborating with other international universities to conduct various programmes of study of the populations, migrations and routes of these huge marine mammals.
Pico is the island where the Azorean whaling tradition is most established, with operators in Madalena, Lajes and Santo Amaro. There are various museums and ethnographic centres where you can learn more about the history of whaling and where its traditional arts continue to be preserved, most notably the Whaling Museum and the Ocean Arts and Sciences Centre (SIBIL) in Lajes, and the Whaling Industry Museum in Santo Amaro.
For anyone wishing to go on one of these adventures, trips out to sea are thoroughly prepared on land by the skipper, through explanations to visitors about the various species that it is possible to sight, how the trip will take place and the care and precautions that must be taken not to interfere with marine life.
Don’t be discouraged if sea conditions don’t allow your whale watching trip to take place. There are several museums and information centres on shore, particularly on the islands of Pico and Faial, which provide an interesting and engaging alternative. Another possibility is to visit the whale lookouts scattered around strategic points on the various islands, with amazing panoramic views.
When whale watching, there are moments that only occur once in a lifetime, so don’t forget your camera to record that unique encounter... take our word for it, the experience is fantastic and the whole family will love it!
The Azores: Nine Islands – A Geopark
The Azores originated as a result of the 1766 volcanoes that are to be found in this archipelago, nine of which are still active. The Azores Geopark was born out of all this natural wealth, as part of the European and Global Network of Geoparks. Its aim is to promote and protect the geological heritage of the archipelago.
The Azores Geopark is unique worldwide because it offers 121 geosites scattered throughout the nine islands and surrounding marine area, mirroring the vast volcanic geodiversity of the archipelago. There are nine islands, but only one Geopark!
In the subsoil, there are nearly three hundred volcanic cavities in the form of caves, grottoes and crevices. On the landscape, there are dry calderas, lakes in craters, fumarolic fields and hot springs. Underwater geothermal sources are found out at sea. The majestic mountain of Pico, whose cone is still intact, seems to protect all these geological riches. As a testimony to the power of nature, the archipelago’s volcanic history is impressive for the diversity of the region’s geological heritage that reflects a geological memory of 10 million years.
The Azores Geopark Association has created new services, routes and interpretative products, implementing a high level of quality geotourism in the region, in close connection with other strands of Nature Tourism.
Some of existing routes it is possible to take are:
- Volcanic cavities route
To discover the underground world of the islands.
- Viewpoints Route
To discover the geolandscape by car
- Footpath Route
To discover the geosites on foot
- Hydrotherapy Route
To discover the strength of the volcanoes, enjoying the advantages of the spa waters and mud baths in terms of health, leisure and well-being.
- Science Centres Route
To better understand and interpret the volcanic phenomena.
You can also combine the discovery of this amazing world of geotourism with an itinerary that includes the whole family!
Start the day at a viewpoint from which you can admire the extraordinary landscape created by the Azores’ volcanoes.
Then, go down into the subterranean depths of one of several cavities prepared for this purpose. They are magical places, suitable for even the smallest to visit.
After returning to the surface, it’s always good to take a walk to enjoy the surrounding landscape.
Whenever the heat rises, there’s nothing like a refreshing dip in a natural pool.
A visit to a museum or interpretation centre will provide answers to any questions you have as a result of the rich experiences of a day spent in a world of volcanoes.
With so many suggestions, you can’t help getting to know and enjoy the volcanoes of the Azores... an eruption of Flavours, Aromas and Experiences!
A Geopark is a park with a geological heritage of exceptional importance, recognised as such by the European Network the and UNESCO Global Geoparks Network. Its objective is geoconservation, education for sustainable development and tourism.
Highlights of the Arouca Geopark, which was recognised by UNESCO in 2009, are the Castanheira Nodular Granite (Pedras Parideiras), the Canelas Giant Trilobites and the Vale do Paiva Ichnofossils. But the inventoried heritage includes 41 geosites, i.e. sites of geological interest that stand out for their uniqueness and value from a scientific, didactic and tourist point of view. This true open-air geological museum, covering an area of 328km2, is surrounded by the Freita, Montemuro and Arada Mountains and crossed by several rivers offering excellent conditions for various activities, such as canyoning, canoeing, kayaking and mountaineering (25 routes in 3 areas of the Freita Mountain). And in the River Paiva rapids, you will find some of the best locations in Portugal for rafting and kayak-rafting.
To fully enjoy these landscapes, the Geopark has defined a Network of 14 Footpaths, 13 of which are short distance walks (PR) and one is a long distance walk (GR), all of them properly waymarked. Fourteen geosites are located along ten of these trails.
At the Geological Interpretation Centre of Canelas, located on PR9 (Schist Route), there is a collection of giant trilobite fossils. These marine animals, some 465 million years old, are internationally protected since they are the largest specimens of trilobites in the world.
On PR15 (Journey to Pre-History), close to the village of Castanheira in the Freita Mountain, is another geosite, unique in the country and extremely rare worldwide. This is a granite outcrop with incrusted nodules which, by the action of erosion, pop out spontaneously from the matrix, and so they are known as Pedras Parideiras (rocks delivering stones). Besides the great variety of flora and fauna, you will also find on this mountain the Frecha da Mizarela geosite, where the River Caima drops from a height of about 75 metres. Not far away is the Pedras Boroas do Junqueiro Geosite, two granite blocks that look like corn bread rolls (boroas).
With half of its area classified by the Natura 2000 Network, the whole Geopark is a place of choice for nature tourism, with river beaches and traditional villages that are worth exploring. This is true of the villages of Castanheira and Cabaços on PR15 (Freita Mountain) and Janarde and Meitriz, on PR5, with beaches by the river Paiva, such as Paradinha. But there is also the option of discovering other historic and artistic sites that are well worth a visit. In Arouca, visit the Monastery and the Sacred Art Museum housed there, or the chapel of Misericórdia. And 8km from Arouca, there is a Geosite with the Senhora da Mó Panoramic View, which owes its name to the wide view it offers over the surrounding valleys and hills and where the small chapel of Senhora da Mó is located.
This area also abounds in old tungsten mines, which make as many geosites: from PR8 (the Black Gold Route) or a panoramic spot, you can see the clandestine mine pitheads of the Pena Amarela area; on PR6 are the old Rio de Frades Mines where it is still possible to walk 400m into the Vale da Cerdeira Gallery; and close to the Regoufe village is the Poça da Cadela Mining Complex.
Deep in the interior of the country, where the Tagus River becomes Portuguese, there is a preserved territory where people live at the pace of nature and seem to have all the time in the world to share their stories and knowledge with others.
Here you will find the Naturtejo Geopark of the Southern Plateau, which covers the municipalities of Castelo Branco, Idanha-a-Nova, Nisa, Oleiros, Proença-a-Nova and Vila Velha de Rodão. There are 16 geomonuments in this area whose importance is recognised by UNESCO, such as the imposing Ródão Gateway which force the longest river in the Iberian Peninsula through a narrow gap, and the striking curious formations of the ichnofossils of Penha Garcia.
But there is much more to discover in these lands which include the Tagus International Natural Park. On arrival, you immediately smell the aromas of pine, lavender and rosemary released from the vegetation, where rabbits, deer and foxes lurk and disappear instantly when they notice your presence.
If you look carefully, you might see the colourful bee-eaters perched on the branches of trees, or nightingales and hoopoes outdoing each other with their singing. Black storks fly higher and spend some time here between February and August. And there are imperial eagles and vultures living in colonies that enjoy landing on the river cliffs from which they have the best view of the landscape. The Geopark organises birdwatching trips on which you can admire all this diversity – there are about 154 species that frequent these parts!
The marks of the past are still present. Found in archaeological treasures such as the complex of River Tagus cave paintings and the ruins of Egitânia. And also in the historic villages of Monsanto and Idanha-a-Velha and the churches that receive lively pilgrimages every year.
You can even combine these visits with some exercise. The range of activities is very varied and includes hiking, horse riding and mountain biking, climbing and canoeing. To recuperate from these exertions, there’s nothing like a few moments of leisure on the river beaches, breathing in the fresh air and the aromas of the countryside, or a longer rest in the thermal spas at Monfortinho or Nisa.
But the wealth of the region is its people. They are hospitable, and love to welcome outsiders with delectable delicacies such as strong smelling cheeses, kid or river fish cooked using age-old recipes. Their skills are also revealed in their handicrafts - embroidery from Castelo Branco and ceramics from Nisa are souvenirs that will remind you of these lands until you return. And you surely will, because as they say in the region, "those who come always come back."
Living Nature in Madeira
One of Madeira’s greatest tourist attractions is its exuberant, diverse vegetation, whose combination of the tropical and the Mediterranean produces a patchwork of plants that are rich in shades of green, and of various shapes and sizes.
The Madeira Natural Park was created in 1982 to preserve this vast natural heritage, a worldwide rarity. The park is classified as a Biogenetic Reserve, and in it you can find a unique range of flora and fauna, with some rare species such as the Orquídea da Serra (Mountain Orchid), unique in the world, and also large trees belonging to the Lauraceae family - the Madeira laurel, the bay tree and the Madeira mahogany, as well as shrubs, ferns, moss, lichens and other small plants typical of the Laurissilva forest.
To visit this park is to discover Nature! The park covers about two-thirds of the island, and a number of land and sea protected areas have been defined within it, making Madeira a truly ecological destination. The largest tract of the Macaronesian Laurissilva Forest is concentrated between 700m and 1,300m above sea level in the South of the Island, and at 200m in the North, and was included by UNESCO in its World Heritage list. The park’s protected area also includes the Ponta de São Lourenço, the Desertas Islands Natural Reserve, the Selvagens Islands Natural Reserve, the Marine Nature Reserve of Garajau, the Rocha do Navio Nature Reserve and the Marine Protected Areas Network in Porto Santo.
The peculiar relief of this archipelago, combined with the diversity of terrain and rich landscape, enables a countless number of outdoor activities. Whether on land, sea or air, the choices are many for nature lovers. The numerous trails and Levadas (irrigation channels) which crisscross the endemic Laurissilva Forest will delight trekkers, with their breathtaking views over the mountains and, for the more adventurous, a climb to the Areeiro and Ruivo Peaks will take you above the clouds, with the island at your feet.
Divers, in turn, can explore the turquoise waters of the Marine Nature Reserve of Garajau. The resident marine fauna includes some large fish, such as Dusky Sea Perches, the biggest tourist attraction of the reserve. Surrounded by steep, almost inaccessible cliffs, the Desertas Islands are the last sanctuary in the Atlantic for the monk seal, the world’s rarest seal. Also uninhabited, the Selvagens Islands are considered a bird sanctuary. The best way to visit these reserves is to take a boat ride with one of the many leisure companies that organise tours of the archipelago. This will give you the opportunity to see large sea species such as whales, dolphins, sperm whales, loggerhead turtles, and monk seals.
You can also explore the coastal area’s majestic cliffs, pebble beaches and natural rock pools, which bear witness to the island’s volcanic origins. Or you can take a ferryboat or a plane to Porto Santo to enjoy the several kilometres of golden beaches.
For bird watchers, the archipelago is full of surprises since some species exclusive to this part of the globe can be sighted here, such as the Madeiran wood pigeon, the firecrest and the Zino’s petrel. To record these moments forever, a camera is really a must.
Do not miss the opportunity when you visit Madeira to experience at close hand all these wonders and majestic scenery. You will find it hard to resist the temptation to discover the beauties of this paradise.
Natural Parks and Reserves
You will find scattered around the country places of preserved beauty, inhabited by a wide diversity of species of flora and fauna, where Man and Nature live in perfect harmony. Protected in order to maintain their biodiversity, many of these areas are classified as Natural Parks and Reserves.
Peneda-Gerês, the only one to be classified as a National Park, stands out from them all. It is located in the northwest of the country and has stunning landscapes between mountains and reservoirs where unique species like the wild garrano horse and the Castro Laboreiro dog breed. Here, like in Montesinho Park, a rural way of life is preserved, with community villages where the people share the work and facilities.
Further down, in Alvão Natural Park, rivers flow between crags and cliffs and there are spectacular waterfalls, such as Fisgas de Ermelo. To the east, the river that makes the border with Spain gives its name to another Park – Douro Internacional, whose deep valleys form canyons which are nesting sites for birds of prey such as the Egyptian vulture. Quite close by you find another protected area, the Azibo Reservoir, also ideal for bird watching and for a few moments of leisure on its river beaches.
But for those who prefer the invigorating sea air, there’s the Litoral Norte Natural Park, a succession of beaches and dunes, matched only by the São Jacinto Dunes Nature Reserve, which attracts many sea birds. The largest is Serra da Estrela, with its imposing uplands where the highest point in mainland Portugal is to be found. Between slopes and lagoons, it offers a multitude of options for the most varied sports activities, in both summer and winter. Footpaths and cycle tracks, mountain climbing and canoeing are just some possibilities, also available in the Tejo Internacional park, where more than 154 bird species nest, of which the highlight is the black stork. The Iberian lynx roams free in the Serra da Malcata, and in the Serra do Açor, amid the lush vegetation typical of these mountains, there are villages of schist and slate houses that resemble nativity scenes.
In the fens – Paul de Arzila and Paul de Boquilobo – wading birds predominate, the purple heron in the former and the white egret in the latter. In the Berlengas Nature reserve, a small, almost wild archipelago, only the ubiquitous seagulls break the absolute tranquillity. And bats of the most diverse species live in the surprisingly shaped caves in the Serras de Aire and Candeeiros.
Close to Lisbon, by the sea, there are two more natural parks of breathtaking beauty: Sintra-Cascais, with beaches and lush vegetation, where farms and palaces blend perfectly together, and Arrábida, a harmonious patchwork of colours, where the green covering the mountains alternates with every shade of blue in the ocean. In the Arriba fóssil da Costa da Caparica, the sea cliffs carved by erosion take on golden hues, especially at sunset. And in the river estuaries, it is the fauna that provides the most spectacular views – both in the Tagus with its pink-feathered flamingos, and in the Sado, with its dolphins and white storks. Further south, the Santo André and Sancha Lagoons also boast a diversified group of ecosystems.
In Alentejo, the Serra de São Mamede should be mentioned, with its unusual altitude and vegetation for this area of the country, and to the west the Sudoeste Alentejano e Costa Vicentina Natural Park stands out, forming one of the most well-preserved coastal stretches in Europe. In the Vale do Guadiana Natural Park, the river flows at times between narrow banks to branch out further south, in the Algarve, into creeks and canals across the plain within the Castro Marim and Vila Real de Santo António Marshlands. Ria Formosa, in turn, extends along 60km of labyrinthine canals, marshlands and islands which form a barrier with the sea and provide the Eastern Algarve with a landscape of rare beauty.
Andthere’s more in the middle of the Atlantic! In Madeira, the Natural Park covers two thirds of the island and extends into the sea. There are many preserved areas, from the Nature Reserves of the Selvagens and Desertas islands to Garajau, Rocha do Navio and Ponta de São Lourenço. In the Azores, each of the nine islands has a Natural Park with various protected reserves and areas where landscapes are at their most pristine. This is nature in Portugal which you can enjoy as a fellow traveller for memorable experiences.
Gardens, Parks and Quintas in Madeira
Famous all over the world for its natural beauty, the Island of Madeira is often called “the floating garden of the Atlantic”. Here, the hues of the vegetation that covers the hillsides are matched only in the exotic flowers that bloom from every recess.
Owing to its mild, year-round temperate climate, you can admire flowers and plants from nearly every continent in their natural environment, such as orchids, birds of paradise, anthuriums, magnolias, azaleas, proteas, and many others.
Some of these tropical and subtropical plants were introduced into the Island in the 18th and 19th centuries, by British merchants who made their fortunes from the Madeira wine trade and chose the Monte, Camacha, Santo da Serra and Jardim da Serra neighbourhoods to set up their quintas. The cooler and more humid climate in these areas, closer to English weather conditions, made them ideal for the plants to adapt.
The Quintas of Madeira are today one of the region’s great attractions. You can get to know them since many have been restored for different purposes, such as holiday accommodation, museums, and cafés. The Quintas of Madeira boast large, spacious blooming gardens, brimming with the rarest and most varied plant life, and offer spaces that encourage you to rest and relax or simply gaze at nature. They are indeed ideal places for a stroll or to spend a family holiday.
Some of these sites include the Botanical Gardens, located in Quinta do Bom Sucesso, the Jardim da Orquídea (Orchid Garden), and the Santa Catarina Park and the Municipal Garden, right in the centre of Funchal.
Also worth a visit are the Jardins do Imperador (Emperor’s Gardens), the Monte Palace Tropical Garden and the Quinta do Palheiro Ferreiro, where you can spend a few hours enjoying the panoramic views that they offer. Quinta Vigia, Quinta Magnólia and Quinta das Cruzes, in downtown Funchal, are also worthy of a visit for their extraordinary variety of plants.
In Quinta do Arco gardens, located at Arco de São Jorge, on the island’s northern coast, you can admire one of the largest collections of roses in Portugal, which include some rare and otherwise endangered species of rose.
Madeira also boasts various parks, such as the Funchal Ecological Park, the Queimadas Forest Park 5km from Santana, and the Ribeiro Frio Forest Park. The latter is also an excellent setting for walking, as one of the most spectacular trails in the Island, linking Ribeiro Frio to the Balcões belvedere, starts here, offering stunning views over the deep valley of Ribeira do Faial and the rocky amphitheatre of the Maciço Central, featuring the island’s highest point, Pico Ruivo.
They say that spring spends the winter in Madeira, so there’s nothing better than celebrate the fact with the annual Flower Festival. This event pays tribute to the flowers of this garden island, by filling the streets of Funchal with blossoms.
Before heading home, we suggest to pay a visit to the Farmers’ Market in Funchal to buy a souvenir of this holiday… Madeira’s emblematic flowers.
A Tour Round Gerês
The Peneda-Gerês National Park, in the far northwest of Portugal between Upper Minho and Trás-os-Montes, is the only Portuguese protected area classified as a such.
It is a world apart in which human activity and nature are harmoniously integrated, preserving ancient values and traditions clearly evident in the village communities of Pitões das Júnias and Tourém.
The lush vegetation in all shades of green includes a forest of holly, the only one in Portugal, and endemic species such as the Gerês lily, which brightens up the fields with its shades of violet-blue. Rivers and streams flow through the Peneda, Soajo, Amarela and Gerês mountain ranges, which comprise the park, rushing down in waterfalls and then spreading out into reservoirs. The landscapes are breathtaking.
You might sometimes manage to spot a roebuck (the Park’s symbol) or its predator, the Iberian wolf. More common are the ponies, small wild horses that run free in the mountains. You may also come across the Barrosã breed of cattle or the dark-haired Castro Laboreiro dogs, guarding the herds that move to the rhythm of the seasons, between the mild and the wintry. These are the villages and mountain areas related to the ancient transhumance, to where the people today move only the cattle: valleys and low altitudes in winter, the highest places in summer, according to the availability of pasture.
Soajo with its ancient group of stone “espigueiros” for storing grain, is a good starting point in the west for a tour of the park. You can also see these granaries in Lindoso, where it is worth climbing to the castle overlooking the River Lima valley. A little further north, you can stop off at the village of Castro Laboreiro, where the shepherd dogs from the region are bred.
Gerês is the most southerly of the ranges, whose gateway to the park, in Campo do Gerês, is closest to Braga. Two places of great beauty, the Caniçada and Vilarinho das Furnas reservoirs, are in these mountains, the latter having submerged the village that gave it its name, and whose remains are now on display at the Terras de Bouro Ethnographic Museum. On the outskirts of the town, the Shrines of São Bento da Porta Aberta [Santuário de São Bento da Porta Aberta] and of Senhora da Abadia are the focus of major festivals and pilgrimages.
Setting out from Campo do Gerês on foot, you can leave the car at the entrance to the forest known as Mata da Albergaria and follow the river up to Portela do Homem. On the return, you can rest at the Caldas do Gerês spa. Another great idea is to follow the well-preserved Roman road, whose milestones have stood for almost two thousand years.
The River Cávado , which borders the Park to the east, indicates the way to the Paradela Dam. Relax here with a horse ride or a swim in the river. For those who really prefer to walk, don’t miss a visit to Pitões das Júnias, a village where the old community customs are kept alive. This is the end of the road and from here you can only go on foot. But the walk is worthwhile for the waterfalls and small streams that you’ll come across along the way and for the surprise at seeing the ruins of an ancient monastery emerge from the landscape.
To sum up, there’s no lack of opportunities to be energetic in the Park, because there are conditions for activities such as canyoning and canoeing. But not only that. The diversity and abundance of local flora and fauna provide a unique contact with nature and whatever your option you are likely to find that mediaeval castles, monasteries and traditional villages are part of the landscape, which always has a unique natural beauty.
Peniche and the sea are inseparable. It is one of the largest traditional fishing ports in Portugal and a major Atlantic hub for maritime-tourist activities.
Before heading to the beach, your visit to Peniche must include a walk through the historic centre. Besides the Nossa Senhora dos Remédios Sanctuary, the São Pedro and Misericórdia Churches, the Peniche Fort is a must-see. It was built in the 16th/17th centuries to defend the coast, together with the Fort on Consolação beach and the fort on the Island of Berlengas. It played a major role at various points in Portuguese history but its most recent purpose was to serve as a political prison under the Estado Novo regime, holding some of the most important public personalities in the fight against Fascism. You will learn all about it once inside, since it is currently the Peniche City Museum.
In addition to fishing, which has always been one of the sources of income of its people, Peniche is also known for the art of bobbin lacework, perfected by the women while the men were out at sea.
The sea is still one of the main points of interest and development, and the beaches at Peniche are much appreciated. While Consolação and Baleal bays provide good shelter for a family day out, the waves on this west coast, such as the Supertubos (tubular Supertube waves) off Medão Grande Beach, are much sought after by surfers and bodyboarders from across the world. It was elected one of “Portugal’s 7 Wonders” in a national tournament. Together with Lagido Beach, it is the setting for the major world surf championship, Rip Curl Pro Portugal, an event that is part of the ASP World Tour.
The Nature Reserve on the Island of Berlengas is a boat ride away. Its translucent waters are ideal for divers, who will find here a natural sanctuary for sea flora and fauna. The choppy sea and the seclusion of the Island have also prompted many mysterious stories about fishermen and sunken vessels off this coast.
It’s only natural that the sea dominates the local cuisine, so you mustn’t leave Peniche without tasting the bouillabaisse, the seafood rice or the charcoal-grilled sardines, always accompanied by the Western region’s wines. For dessert, we recommend the almond cakes, whether an “Amigo de Peniche” or the biscuits called “Esses”.
Ria Formosa and the Marshlands (of Castro Marim and Vila Real de Santo António)
Ria Formosa, the most important wildlife sanctuary in the Algarve, and the Castro Marim and Vila Real de Santo António marshlands – the River Guadiana wetland zone – are two protected areas waiting to be discovered on foot or by boat. Trips that will surely stay in your memory!
The best way to start your visit is to talk to those in the know. The relevant Environmental Education Centres provide information about the species that can be seen and the best footpaths to take to fully enjoy the scenery, while respecting nature. And there is much to admire in these labyrinths of channels. From the green vegetation that harmonises with the blue waters and contrasts with the whiteness of the salt pans, to the pink hues of the flamingos’ feathers, you will find many excuses to take the photographs of your dreams. You’ll find it hard not to keep pressing the shutter!
On the long strip of sand that separates the Ria Formosa from the sea you will discover some beautiful, almost deserted, beaches, while the Natural Park, which extends over 60 kilometres between the Ancão Peninsula and Manta Rota Beach, is frequented by about 1500 species of living creatures. The gallinule and kingfishers with their showy plumage, the chameleon that takes on the colours of the places it passes through, and the warm and fuzzy Portuguese water dog are just some of the regular residents.
But in this oasis of preserved flora and fauna, there is also a wide variety of molluscs which foster one of the main regional activities and provide gastronomic specialties that will delight you, such as razor clam rice, oysters and mussels. To have a proper view of this area and its size, you have to seek the high points, such as the Cacela Velha fortress, a village of Arab origin worthy of a visit.
If you look to the east, you almost make out the Castro Marim and Vila Real de Santo António Marshlands, the first Nature Reserve created in our country. This area of salt pans, pastures and marshes is bounded by the two towns and stretches along the River Guadiana.
In addition to the hiking trails, you can enjoy a wide-ranging view over the area from Castro Marim castle or get to know it in a more relaxed manner by boat. On the shore, you can discover frogs, toads, newts and sand-lizards, and up above the white stork, the black-winged stilt and the heron crisscross the horizon, commanding undivided attention. There’s also a dry area of farmland where cereal crops and almond trees, fig trees, carob trees and olive trees are grown. There is a lot to see in between swathes of gleaming nature!
Buçaco, Luso, Curia - A Tour Around Bairrada
Between the majestic forest of Buçaco and the thermal spas of Luso and Curia, you will find a region that offers everything you need to make you feel good.
Start with the beauty of the landscape, whose main feature is the Buçaco Mountain, a magical place that earned protected status by papal decree in the 16th century and was transformed into a monastic retreat isolated from the rest of the world. You can still see today, dotted around the mountain, the chapels and sanctuaries which form the Stations of the Cross and can be visited by following one of the trails of the National Forest. But there are other itineraries and guided tours that present century-old trees, and a great number of lakes and stone crosses to visitors, where you can find memorable places such as Vale dos Fetos (Fern Valley) and the Fonte Fria (Cold Spring).
Another unforgettable picture will certainly be that of the Palace Hotel, emerging from amongst the leafy vegetation. Built in the late 19th century in the Neo-Manueline style for the last Portuguese Kings, the palace occupies part of the Santa Cruz Convent, of which the cloisters and a few cells still survive. It is yet another enchanted place in an environment conducive to romance and contact with nature.
Nearby, on the western slope of the Buçaco Mountain, are the Luso Thermal Baths, whose spring supplies one of the most popular table mineral waters. The spa dates back to the late 19th century, although the therapeutic properties of the water had already been known a century earlier, and it preserves the original buildings which, together with innovative spa facilities, make it an exceptional space of well-being.
Some 15km away, the Curia Thermal Baths compete for health and leisure opportunities. Here you breathe a “Belle époque” atmosphere, evoked by the early 20th century architecture. In addition to the spa facilities, there is a plethora of charming hotels, an artificial lake stretching for about a kilometre, a fitness circuit, tennis courts and golf courses. All in the name of a healthy lifestyle!
Besides the waters, the wines and the gastronomy also contribute to the reputation of this region called “Bairrada”. Roast suckling pig is the most famous speciality and attracts many people who come just to taste it. It ideally goes with the white, red or sparkling wines that are produced here. If you care to know them better, you can visit the Museums dedicated to them, such as the Bairrada Wine Museum and the Aliança Underground Museum, or follow the Bairrada Itinerary for tastings and purchases at the producers’ wineries and cellars. The tour finishes with a toast to the pleasures of life.
Caramulo, Açor and Lousã – Other Mountain Ranges to Explore
The most common image of Centro de Portugal is of nature in its purest state, massive mountains and many rivers in deep valleys, creating landscapes of great beauty.
The highest and most famous mountain is Serra da Estrela, but Centro de Portugal also has others that are worth exploring.
These are places to discover unhurriedly, breathing in the fresh air and enjoying the preserved nature on quiet walks or in more adrenaline-pumping activities.
But there are more adventures to be had in these mountains, amid pristine landscapes and the silence of nature. There’s nothing better for the soul.
To the north, Serra do Caramulo, whose highest point, Caramulinho, is at 1075 metres above sea level and offers fine views over the whole region.
Classified as a protected landscape, Serra do Açor is amazing from the top of its 1349 metres. The terraces, the water running in channels and the impressive wood, Mata da Margaraça make it a quite different kind of place
To the west, Serra da Lousã has some real scenic treasures and monuments and is also a choice location for radical sports.
Discover the Serra da Arrábida and the Sado Estuary, Two Protected Areas
The Serra da Arrábida Natural Park, amidst the deep blue sea and the green of the hills, is an excellent place to test your physical condition.
Situated by the sea, the park offers some of the most stunning coastal scenery in the Lisbon area. The highest point is in the Serra do Risco, a magnificent cliff 380m high. Good ways of getting to know this pristine place, featuring pure Mediterranean vegetation, are by hiking or cycling the waymarked footpaths. You can choose the most appropriate level of difficulty, and even make night trips.
Like a wall of green sticking out over the Atlantic, the hills offer shelter to small coves of white sand where, despite being on the edge of the ocean, the sea is almost free of waves.
Portinho da Arrábida is one of the most beautiful beaches and a great place for scuba diving, with unique flora and fauna to be discovered in the clear waters of Pedra da Anixa, a small island just off the beach. You can discover it all in the Oceanographic Museum, housed in the fortress of Santa Maria da Arrábida. Galapos, Galapinhos and the secluded Praia dos Coelhos are some of the other beaches in this protected landscape, which are well worth exploring. Figueirinha beach is one of the most visited.
The Sado Estuary Nature Reserve has other attractions, whether it is the dolphins accompanying your boat trip, or because it is a very special bird observatory, with more than 250 species to be sighted. Moinho de Maré da Mourisca (the Moorish Tidal Mill) is one of the best places to do this.
To further unravel the Sado estuary’s secrets, take a trip on the galeões do sal, traditional boats that cross the river to Arrábida, or even on a trawler. The contrast between the white of the salt flats, the blue river, the green of the pine forest and the golden sand is the guarantee of a time well spent.
In autumn and winter, flamingos cover the estuary with a blanket of pink, and in spring and summer the miles of beaches on the Troia peninsula provide an escape from routine. The white storks that build their nests on church steeples and on the highest chimneys are a familiar, customary sight for the local people.
In this region, men have always followed the course of the River Sado, - which runs from south to north, contrary to what is usual in Portugal - to enjoy the gifts of nature, undertaking activities such as fishing, salt extraction or rice growing.
With luck, your trip will be enriched by the symbol of the estuary - the dolphins accompanying you with their magnificent leaps. For a different viewpoint, a balloon flight is a great suggestion and an experience you will not forget.
Serra da Estrela
In summer or winter, mainland Portugal’s highest mountain is the perfect scenery for a few relaxing days in contact with nature.
At 1,993 metres at its highest point in Torre, Serra da Estrela is an area of rare landscape beauty, with striking mountain drops, where you can have a deep experience of the silence of the heights. Take advantage of those moments of communion with nature to observe it, discovering the diversity of plants and birds and the flocks of sheep herded by Estrela dogs from the breed named after the Mountain.
You can also follow the course of some major Portuguese rivers from their sources: the Mondego at Mondeguinho, the Zêzere at Covão de Ametade and the Alva at the Rossim Valley are breathtaking places. Or you can admire glacier valleys at Loriga, Manteigas or Covão do Urso and Covão Grande. In the warmest months, the best suggestion will certainly be the 25 Lagoon Itinerary, leading you to some refreshing locations.
In cold weather, Serra da Estrela is the only place in Portugal where you can try ski, or go sledging, snowboarding or ride a snowmobile. There are several pistes with support infrastructure, as well as synthetic snow pistes for skiing at any time of the year.
This natural park is excellent for trekking, horse-riding or mountain biking. It boasts some 375km of marked trails of varying degrees of difficulty, so you’ll no doubt find one fitting your physical condition. And who has not dreamed of flying like a bird? You can experience the sensation para-gliding in Linhares da Beira, soaring over this historical village - which you shouldn’t miss exploring on foot either.
To recharge batteries, you must taste the most famous product in the region - the Serra da Estrela cheese. With its buttery texture, it goes ideally with traditional bread. It can be tasted all over the region, but in the Solar do Queijo (Cheese Manor House), in Celorico da Beira, the tasting will be accompanied by an explanation about the manufacturing process. In Seia, it is bread, however, that has museum status, and in Covilhã, woollens. The most popular roads to cross the Mountain link these two cities and will take you to mountain villages such as Sabugueiro, Alvoco da Serra and Loriga, and to many other unmissable places: Penhas Douradas, Penhas da Saúde or Torre, at the summit of the Mountain.
For a tour around the region we suggest an itinerary across the mountain, but since there is so much to see and do in the largest Portuguese protected area, it is best to start by asking for information at one of the Natural Park’s Information Centres, so as to make the most of your stay.
Along the Algarve Way
Discover a completely different Algarve – nestling in its green and peaceful hinterland are traditional villages and spectacular landscapes. How do you reach this world preserved from the past? Nothing could be easier… just follow the arrows!
Marked with signs and interpretive panels, this footpath is known as the “Algarve Way” and runs across the region from east to west. The path has its origins in an old religious trail followed by pilgrims heading for the Sagres promontory, where the relics of St. Vincent were found. Running from Alcoutim, on the bank of the River Guadiana, to Cape St. Vincent, the 300-kilometre-long path is divided into 14 sections, each beginning and ending in places where its users can stop for lodging and refreshment. Everything has been planned so that hikers can adapt their journey to their own pace, or just choose the sections that interest them most.
This trip into the heart of nature begins at the quay on the bank of the River Guadiana in Alcoutim and crosses over the Serra do Caldeirão, an area of cork production where you will find the delightful typical villages of Salir, Benafim and Alte. About halfway along its length, the path passes through São Bartolomeu de Messines and continues along the banks of the Ribeira do Arade, offering some truly beautiful views. Silves is another place that calls for a visit, before you head on to the Serra de Monchique, whose breathtaking panoramas are best admired from Picota or Fóia, the highest points in the Algarve. After crossing some almost completely untamed countryside, the path passes through the villages of Marmelete, Bensafrim and Barão de São João, and a forest of stone pines. You can already begin to smell the sea, and the Algarve Way finally reaches its end in the South-West Alentejo and Costa Vicentina Natural Park, Europe’s best preserved stretch of coastline.
All along the path, you can admire the beauty and aroma of the vegetation, which includes rosemary, lavender, fennel, thyme, rock rose, heather, and even orchids, although these are rarer. The trees and shrubs include arbutus, fig, carob and cork trees, as well as the almond trees that provide the raw material for the region’s delicious sweets and liqueurs. Rivers and streams help to keep you cool on hot days and are the natural habitat of otters, among other species of fauna. Part of this region belongs to the Natura 2000 network and you will see hares, wild boars and foxes, although it may prove more difficult to spot the few lynxes that also live here. The birdlife includes the brightly-coloured rufous bush robin and the bee-eater, but you may need a pair of binoculars and to look more closely if you are to observe the Bonelli’s eagle or the eagle owl, both of which prefer much higher terrain.
This is a region where the more traditional farming practices are still to be found, and you will see several windmills, threshing floors and community ovens. The traditional white lime-washed houses are all topped with the remarkably delicate and unmistakable lace-patterned Algarve chimney pots. The friendly and welcoming inhabitants of the villages you pass through continue to preserve the traditions of the rural world and are skilled at transforming what the land has to offer them into flavoursome food and drink – medronho (arbutus-berry brandy), liqueurs made from penny royal or almonds, honey, cheeses and sausages are just some of the produce that you should sample and take away with you. And look out for the local handicraft, pieces that are excellent souvenirs and testify to the skilled handiwork of the local people, including wickerwork, woven articles, pottery and so many other crafts.
Are you ready to begin your journey? Fit yourself out in the right clothes, put on some sturdy footwear and don’t forget your compass or GPS, and other practical objects. Before setting off, consult the Algarve Way website to obtain detailed information and… then get walking! Have a great trip!
The Alqueva Dark Sky Route
Imagine a place where we feel covered by a majestic starry sky.
The feeling is indescribable, and usually only possible artificially, in a planetarium, where we sit comfortably for a lesson on the stars. In Portugal, we are lucky to have that feeling in the open air.
Right in the middle of Alentejo, the wonderful Alqueva sky is like dark velvet cloaked by a huge blanket of stars. It is a protected area and internationally certified as a Dark Sky Reserve, or "Starlight Tourism Destination", which extends over an area of about 3000 square kilometres.
Recognising it as an exceptional place for star-gazing, the municipalities around the great Alqueva lake - Alandroal, Reguengos de Monsaraz, Portel, Mourão, Moura and Barrancos - joined together in an effort to preserve this special feature and so at night public lighting is reduced to a minimum to enable a better enjoyment of this natural phenomenon.
You can see the Ursa Major, Ursa Minor, Cassiopeia, and a wide variety of other constellations, visible depending on the season. You can locate the signs for Leo, Virgo and Libra, discover Scorpio and Sagittarius, and even follow the mysterious Capricorn, as well as Cygnus, Aquila and Lyra.
You can identify the majestic Milky Way and behold Aquarius and Pisces, Pegasus and Aries. Then you’ll see Taurus, which night after night defies the glorious Orion. And there is still time to see Gemini, Auriga and to select your favourite star.
The quality of the Alqueva sky enables naked eye observation of a large number of celestial bodies. But to make everything perfect, the ideal is to have binoculars or a telescope. If you don’t have any with you, no problem, because the companies that are part of the Dark Sky Route make this equipment available and are ready to teach you how to look at the sky and identify the stars.
In addition to accommodation and restaurants, the initiative also includes tourism companies and guides with which you can learn more about the area through hiking trails, signposted tracks for observing flora and fauna, canoeing, workshops, astrophotography and other activities during the day or even at night.
In the midst of nature, you will be surprised by the ever mysterious megalithic monuments such as the Cromlech of Xerez, near the Orada Convent, and the dolmens and menhirs that are part of a tour of the heritage of the region, and you mustn’t miss a trip to the admirable walled village of Monsaraz, where the streets and houses are made of schist.
There are a number of suggestions for discovering the Alentejo region and Alqueva, but the Dark Sky Route is undoubtedly a journey of surprises and discoveries that you will always remember.