With scenery that’s a little bit Scottish, and weather that’s far from it, Portugal could be the perfect holiday destination
I’ve always had dreams about flying. So when I was invited to go paragliding in Portugal, I thought, why not? How hard can it be? Unfortunately I still don’t know the answer because rather than getting lifted up into the air I was dragged head first down the mountain.
The only souvenir from my adventure was a magnificent collection of bruises on my knees – from hitting rocks – and on my arms as four or five big Portuguese men grabbed me to stop me being pulled off the cliff. It is a shame because the paragliding was supposed to be the highlight of a trip to central Portugal where the local and national government are supporting a range of projects to bring life and work back into the mountains.
Paragliding is the speciality of Linhares da Beira, a 12th-century village built around a ruined castle. Unfortunately the activity is run by a group of terrifying macho men, who not only nearly killed me, but also left me feeling completely mortified that the whole thing was my fault.
Enough of that. Apart from the mountain men with their giant kites, central Portugal is beautiful and wonderfully welcoming with a way of life that revolves around nature and fantastic food.
Joao Tomas, who runs Casa das Penhas Douradas, left his life as a corporate lawyer in Lisbon to create a luxury lodge at the edge of the Serra de Estrela natural park. The ultra-modern hotel has huge windows with panoramic views over the mountains. The former lawyer turned hotel owner has also become an industrialist, having bought a disused textile factory in the nearby town of Manteigas in order to continue the manufacture of burel, a tough but softly woven wool product used for upholstery, blankets and textiles. It is incredibly moving to visit the factory where men and women, unemployed for years, operate giant 100-year-old weaving machines, sourced from around Europe, restored and brought back to life. The Portuguese are wary of talking about the economic crisis, but there are whispers of it everywhere. Here in the mountains people often grow vegetables and trade with their neighbours, but everyone will tell you life is hard. But to some new residents, including those from abroad, central Portugal can be heaven.
Jack Brouns, a Dutchman, can still hardly believe he used to wear a suit every day and work for one of the biggest cash and carry firms in Holland. He has restored an old manor house in Argenil into a cool hotel called Quinta da Palmeira. Looking out over a beautiful wooded valley and sleepy village Brouns is a man at ease with life. “Why did I come here?” he says. “Just look around you.”
From Argenil we visit a series of waterfalls in the hills, then head off on a hike through the forest. It’s warm but otherwise uncannily similar to Scottish woodland – with oaks, heather and silver birch. In Portugal there is a drive to replant indigenous trees, particularly chestnuts and mountain oaks. The invaders are Australian mimosa and eucalyptus, which seed themselves everywhere and leave the forests prone to the outbreak of fires.
We meet a couple from Yorkshire building an eco home in the woods. They dreamed of living in Scotland but had to find somewhere warm because of health problems. “We looked at this place and thought, ‘It’s amazing. It’s Scotland in the sunshine.’”
Aigra Nova is a restored mountain village of slate houses dedicated to hiking and reforestation. We meet George Lucas, an archeological draftsman who left his old life to live as the mountain folk did for generations. We eat amazing goat, marinated for days in good red wine and cooked by an elderly lady born in the village who is teaching the new inhabitants the old ways.
After a winding drive over wooded mountainsides, we reach Candal, another restored slate village where we meet Sergei, a young businessman, who has restored an old slate house into a funky bolthole for groups of friends wanting to hang out in the countryside. Sergei’s Casa Cimeira, the local shop and tea room are signs of life in a village which had almost become deserted.
It’s a culture shock when we reach Coimbra, the historic capital of central Portugal, which after the slow pace of life in the mountains seems like a metropolis. We are staying in the Quinta das Lagrimas, a palace converted into a hotel, which is associated with the tragic story of Ines de Castro and her lover, Pedro – Portugal’s Romeo and Juliet.
After Ines de Castro was murdered by conspirators from the court, the river ran red with her blood. Prince Pedro had the assassins killed – at dinner – while he was eating a raw steak. And four years later when he was crowned King of Portugal he had the body of Ines de Castro disinterred, so her corpse could be crowned by his side.
The hotel is decorated with pictures of the lovers and their story, with lines of romantic poetry inscribed on the walls. The Portuguese love of poetry and pathos is also evident in the traditional Fado music of which Coimbra has its own particular tradition.
The town is dominated by its ancient university – high on the hill and housed in a palace. Students take their final exams in what was once a king’s bedroom and graduate in the throne room. Students live in the cobbled, steep streets around the palace in shared houses called republics and wear ragged academic capes, which are slashed to mark each sexual conquest. After graduation, students’ old clothes are ripped apart, and the students run through the streets naked with only their academic gowns to protect their modesty.
At the Fado Centre, we listen to melancholic songs of love and longing, performed by three cape-wearing Coimbra graduates accompanied by 12-string guitar. At the same time, we watch slides showing student life, with cape-wearing singers of the beatnik era in drainpipe trousers and shades.
The 12-string guitarist tells us it is important to keep the old traditions alive. It has clearly worked for him. He has a twinkly smile and a lot of slits in his cape.
• Casa das Penhas Douradas has a double room including breakfast for E120, www.casadaspenhasdoura das.pt; Quinta da Palmeira offers a double room, with breakfast, for E110, www.qportugal.com; Quinta das Lágrimas offers a double room, including breakfast, for E125, www.quintadaslagrimas.pt. TAP Portugal (0845 601 0932, www.flytap.com) flies London Gatwick to Porto twice daily, return fares starting at £126, including all taxes and surcharges. For more information on Portugal, visit www.visitportugal.com