Portuguese hinterland villages, gems waiting to be discovered
As in other European countries, a significant part of the Portuguese people is located along the coast, clustering around the cities of Lisbon and Porto.
But the hinterland has plenty of interesting things to offer - especially ancient villages where traditional lifestyles coexist harmoniously with nature and the needs of the modern world.
There are many villages well worth a visit from north to south of the country. Here are five villages you really can't miss out on.
he village of Soajo is situated in the municipality of Arcos de Valdevez, and it is one of the most charismatic villages bordering Peneda-Gerês National Park. Located less than an hour and a half from Porto Airport, this village is known for its communal threshing floor, which features 24 granaries built on an impressive granite crag. These granaries were used to store cereals, keeping them dry and elevated from the ground.
With narrow alleys and some manor houses, Soajo was once an important village - as the ancient pillory in the main square shows. Nowadays the village has a population of about 900 people, as well as a rich and diverse tourist offering. Soajo has been able to adapt to modern times, thanks to the creation of hotel accommodations in previously closed or vacant houses, but without becoming a lifeless, inauthentic open-air museum.
This is one of Portugal's most beautiful and well-kept villages - one that has been able to retain its urban and architectural design to this day. Boasting a surprising location, perched on a granite massif, Sortelha is an excellent example of how mankind has always tried to adapt to the whims of nature. The village's central area is in pristine condition, and strolling through the narrow streets, surrounded by carefully renovated houses, is a very pleasant experience.
The village has four gates (the Town Gate, the Fake Gate, the New Gate, and the Castle Gate) and choosing the best gate for a photo can be a challenging task. The most daring visitors can walk along the wall, which is fully crossable, to better appreciate the beauty of the setting and admire the details of the village center from a higher angle. It is regrettable that no one lives in the village throughout the year. However, the village is kept alive by customers who come to eat in the local restaurants and by guests who stay in the recently renovated houses. Sortelha is located in the municipality of Sabugal, whose capital is also a walled village. There are definitely a lot of reasons to visit it.
Sitting in the heart of Montemuro Mountain, Campo Benfeito is located in the municipality of Castro Daire, just a short distance from the city of Viseu. Throughout the year the village has a population of about 50 people. However, the numbers more than double during the summer season, not only because of the migrants who return to the village, but also thanks to the many outsiders attending the Altitudes Festival, which is held by the Serra do Montemuro Regional Theater.
Campo Benfeito is the headquarters of this theater company, whose plays have been exploring for more than 30 years - and with great success - the experience of living in a mountain and in the countryside. Another local institution is the Capuchinhas Cooperative, which consists of four women who create linen, wool and felt cloth garments, as well as fabrics in manual looms, using traditional methods - but with contemporary designs. With the help of the Internet, they have been selling their creations all over the world.
When strolling through the streets of Campo Benfeito you will also come across the village's friendly residents and listen to stories of yore.
Located in the municipality of Idanha-a-Nova, Monsanto stands at an altitude of about 750 meters (2460 feet), in a granite massif that not only widens its horizons but amplifies the beauty of the setting. A competition held during the New State/dictatorship years aimed to choose 'Portugal's most Portuguese village' - and Monsanto, which boasts the very unique trait of having its houses surrounded by huge crags and cliffs, won the title.
For some people, this dictatorship memory is most unwelcome, but the 'Silver Rooster' that symbolizes the accolade is still visible there, next to the church bell. In fact, Monsanto is still an icon of Portugal and 'portugalness'. It is perhaps the best known of the 12 villages that make up the Historical Villages network, and it is also the birthplace of an interesting traditional music project – Adufeiras de Monsanto. Climbing to the top of this majestic, haughty village, where the Templars once built a donjon, is well worth your effort and time, as it offers absolutely stunning views over the surrounding area.
Located in the northern end of Alto Minho, in the municipality of Melgaço, Castro Laboreiro has always suffered (and benefited) from its state of natural seclusion. From Melgaço, the municipality's capital, to Castro Laboreiro, there is an 800-meter altitude rise along a 30-kilometer distance - not a steep climb, but an unforgettable one, as Literature Nobel Prize Winner José Saramago put it in his 'Viagem a Portugal' ('Trip to Portugal') back in 1981.
Once you get there, take your time to explore the historical and architectural heritage of a village whose inhabitants have learned to live in this barren landscape - a place dominated by wolves. Don't forget to visit the medieval citadel and the castle - an unforgettable monument with an extraordinary location - as well as the Castro Laboreiro Museological Center, where you can learn about local moors and traditions, such as the annual move from the summer house, located in the most exposed plateau, to the winter house, where people would take shelter from the inclement weather.
Luísa Pinto / Rostos da Aldeia