There are certain types of towns that just FIT in their landscape, both historically, culturally and physically. Whether it’s the Pueblos Blancos of Andalucia, the Trulli of Puglia or the limewashed stone houses of Greece we instantly understand the connection to the land, the sea, the past.
The Schist Villages in Central Portugal have that transcendent connection to their landscape and past. Long have they been neglected and forgotten, but that is luckily beginning to change. People are moving back to these small, stone villages to repair – and sometimes to redesign totally – these ancient houses. Add to this a verdant, mountainous landscape, medieval castles and a fascinating history, and you’ve got all the right reasons to visit!
It comes as no surprise that schist is readily available here. Throughout the centuries, villagers have just needed to go outside their door in order to obtain the building materials needed: schist and wood.
Schist is a timeless material, and – just as with wood – you can work with it for many architectural expressions, from cosy stone cottage to sleek, modern villas. Here, in its natural habitat the buildings seem to simply protrude from the earth. Whether it’s a renovated farmhouse or a new architectural endeavour, they both are connected to the land. Not only because their building blocks are farmed just outside – just like everything else in the village – and thus the houses look and feel like its surroundings. No, they are connected just as much by history and tradition, because people have built schist houses here for millennia and that memory is preserved in the schist.
To meet the most beautiful villages and structures, keep on reading.
There are traces of human occupation in the area since prehistoric times. They are evident in the rock engravings found on the edge of Zêzere river and in the archaeological finds from the Neolithic period. Up through history, Romans, barbarians and Arabs also left their traces here, on some bridges, sidewalks and local names.
But it’s in medieval times that the schist villages really expand. Some were constructed in strategic points of commercial routes, others were created by religious orders and some again were established by farmers based on the need for agricultural development.
Unfortunately, the villages went through a period of desertification and abandonment in the middle of the 20th century, when their populations left in search of better opportunities. There was only a Schist Sadness left behind.
Then between 2000 and 2002 the “Aldeias do Xisto” Program was conceived and planned in collaboration with the municipalities, aiming to create a brand in the territory, starting from the strong identity of a group of villages and innovating in the methods and the way of requalifying it. As the number of adherent villages developed, the network grew and now consists of 27 villages. You can now sleep, eat and live in a schist village and even rent your own schist house on AirBnb.
This way, you only have to open your door and step outside to be in this magical landscape.
We love to hike. For us, it’s the perfect way to connect with a landscape, with a region, and really sense its singularity.
In the two weeks we spent in this magical environment, we went on several hikes. We visited in March and found the region quite wet and dark, compared to the sunny Algarve from where we travelled. The contrast was huge and it took some adjusting and cosying up in front of the fireplace before we felt its charm.
The protected landscape of Serra do Açor and the region Serra da Lousã are both made up of medium sized mountains: Big enough to give a sense of achievement when you scale them, and small enough to actually achieve it. You can find link to many hikes here:
Our favourite hikes were
Due to Covid-19 we unfortunately had to leave before scheduled, without completing PR2 AGN – The Peoples of Ribeiras de Piodam. That was really a shame, because we had looked forward to this hike that traverse the enigmatic, terraced countryside and would take us past Piódão and Foz d’Égua.
Well, now I have an excuse to come back!
SERRA DO AÇOR:
This protected landscape consists of historic and schist villages, medium height mountains and rivers of all sizes. Here are those schist villages we found the most beautiful:
Benfeita is a quiet, little village nestling in a valley, cut though by a trickling river and close to the water fall of Fraga da Pena. It’s also the starting point of the PR1 AGN – Caminho do Xisto da Benfeita hiking trail we mentioned earlier and has a small café in the central square, where you can replenish with a warm or cold beverage after your hike.
Fraga da Pena
This dramatic cascade with several falls is accessed by a paved, riverside walkway along a narrow canyon. You come across it on the PR1 AGN – Caminho do Xisto da Benfeita hiking trail and it’s close to Benfeita. It’s a perfect Study in Schist.
It feels like this emblematic village remains hidden between the mountains of Açor only so it can then astound us when we approach it on winding streets. Like a schist peekaboo. The houses stand along the terraces of the hillside; a show of blue and schist between narrow labyrinthine streets. The village also offers accommodation, restaurant and cafés.
Foz de Égua
This village really has an ancient feel to it. It’s only 8 minutes by car from Piódão and shares the mystical beauty of the Serra do Açor.
Characterized by its mountainous rural aspect, with the typical schist and slate houses, surrounded by an almost pure nature, it is rich in fauna and flora species that find their natural habitat here. In Foz d´Égua there is a river beach of great beauty, the meeting point of the Piódão stream and the Chãs stream.
SERRA DA LOUSÃ
This region is also a Natura 2000 protected landscape. The Natura 2000 network aims to ensure the long-term conservation of the most threatened species and habitats in Europe, helping to stop the loss of biodiversity. A protection of this landscape means, that you may able to spot wildlife such as otter, water lizard, Iberian frog, marbled newt, peregrine falcon and great horseshoe bat.
Oh, and sufficient schist structures to satiate your salacity for slate!
Castelo da Lousã
Also called the Castle of Arouce, belongs to one of the first defensive lines created to control southern access to Coimbra in the second half of the 11th century. It appears documented for the first time in 1087. In the early days of the Portuguese monarchy, the fortification played an important role in relation to its condition as a border town. And indeed, it was taken in turn by Moorish and Portuguese forces.
According to legend, at the time of the Muslim occupation, the castle was built by the emir Arunce for the protection of his daughter Peralta and his treasures after being defeated and expelled from Conimbriga, ancient Coimbra.
The adjacent Sanctuary of Nossa Senhora da Piedade is a quiet, meditative complex with grottoes and small pools created from the river. Both sites are worth the visit, and you’ll cover them both on the PR2 LSA – Lousã Schist Villages Route hike.
The first village you reach, if you hike the PR2 LSA – Lousã Schist Villages Route trail, is the picturesque schist village of Talasnal. It’s one of those villages in the “Aldeias do Xisto” Program that is really experiencing a boom, perhaps because its proximity to the city of Lousã – and of course because it’s in the smack middle of the historical and natural beauty of Serra da Lousã.
Many houses have been restored and you walk past some creative decorative solutions built with slate. There are a few Bed and Breakfasts here and a restaurant.
This more quiet schist village offers great views of the surrounding landscape, though perhaps not quite as impactful as Talasnal but you can really feel the calm and quiet here. You are in the middle of this meditative landscape, surrounded by the strong presence of the slate houses and can listen to the wind rustle in the trees and the birds singing.
And if you listen more closely, perhaps you can hear the spirit of Serra da Lousã as well.
On the PR1 GOI – Schist Traditions Route where we came upon the schist villages of Comareira, Aigra Nova, Aigra Velha and Pena, plus the magnificent rock Penedos de Góis. The trail began at a small car park at Comareira, that didn’t have much to show for, except a couple of curious dogs and welcoming cats.
The first village to reach after Comareira is Aigra Nova, that has an information panel and the Eco-Museum Tradições do Xisto where you can learn more about the schist villages in the area. It also has a café and restrooms.
If you’re on the PR1 GOI – Schist Traditions Route you’ve probably lost the accompanying dogs around Fonte des Bois between Aigra Nova and Aigra Vehla; a watering place still used for cattle (and dogs). You’ve passed the quiet schist village of Aigra Vehla that is the highest situated of them all at 770 metres above sea level and walked along trickling strams and verdant forest.
The houses of Pena are per tradition arranged in clusters and typically include two floors: the first floor, for living and storage and the ground floor, which usually housed the cattle. An easy way to have heated floor in your living space. That is, if you can stand the cow farts!
After Pena you reach the impressive rocks of Penedos de Góis where the stone looks like it’s been molded. Suddenly you’re in a different landscape, rocky, elevated and with gorgeous view of the forest-clad mountains. and before you know it, you’re back at your car, where the dogs welcome you like a returning friend.