Viseu, Serra da Estrela: Central Portugal, Old and New

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Bronze sculpture of a local writer in Viseu.

Bronze life-size sculpture of a local writer in Viseu.

Hotel Casa da Insua

Hotel Casa da Insua’s portrait room, with paintings of the original owner who was a governor of Brazil during colonial times.

Cathedral Square in Viseu

Cathedral Square in Viseu, where a church and a cathedral face eachother.

Portugal has surprises around every corner. We pull up to a place and inside, we are dazzled by some piece of artwork, or an intricate garden, or something built so long ago and done so perfectly it makes you want to weep with admiration.

Today’s destination in central Portugal was Serra da Estrela, a region of mountains and vineyards in what is a lesser known parts of the country.

Cheesemakers at Hotel Casa da Inguas, central Portugal.

Cheesemakers at Hotel Casa da Inguas

Casa das Penhas Douradas, in Serra da Estrela National Park.

Casa das Penhas Douradas, in Serra da Estrela National Park.

Casa das Penhas Douradas, in Serra da Estrela National Park, a Scandinavian design hotel.

Casa das Penhas Douradas, in Serra da Estrela National Park, a Scandinavian design hotel.

Casa das Penhas Douradas, in Serra da Estrela National Park, a Scandinavian design hotel.

Casa das Penhas Douradas is like being in a Swedish ski chalet.

Guests enjoy gourmet meals and kids like it too!

Guests enjoy gourmet meals and kids like it too!

Chef Jorge Guedes of Casa das Penhas Douradas

Chef Jorge Guedes of Casa das Penhas Douradas: simple yet very excellent food served at the mountain hotelnown part of the country. The fame and publicity goes to the famous golf courses and golden beaches of the Algarve, or Lisbon, the dominant city with hip artists and chefs cooking in heralded kitchens.

But this middle part with its rolling hills and well designed cities has been a

Tiles on the street in Viseu

Tiles on the street in Viseu

delight to experience.

In the town of Viseu, we walked narrow streets of small black and white pavers to Cathedral Square, where there is a church and a cathedral facing one another. Here is the home of the Grao Vasco Museum, dedicated to one of the best Portuguese painters of the 16th century.

These buildings are striking because their architecture is so dramatic, accented blacks and whites and very distinct shapes in the turrets and crenellations of the high building.  Next to a big city square, beautiful tiles decorate a wall beneath a city street.  When do you see blue tiles on a public street?  In Viseu, of course.

Later on lunched at a restaurant in a section of the city with office buildings, it was not the old part but the food was traditional and substantial–veal cooked til it was falling off the bone in the oven, and a typical steak frites, simple and very good.

The local Dao wines were perfect accompaniments to the hearty fare. Then we drove out of town to Serra da Estrela, to the 1780 manor house Hotel Casa da Insua.  It could have been a simple hotel tour, but this old house was a palace with the kinds of details that anyone who appreciates classic architecture and history would appreciate.

One room was filled with paintings of the master of the  house, Luis de Albuquerque de Mello Perpiera e Caceres, once a governor of Brazil back in the day. It’s still owned by his descendents, and features a cheese factory, elaborate English and French gardens, and a large swath of vineyards and apple orchards, complete with grazing sheep who keep the orchards well fertilized.

A few highlights included a kitchen with a giant iron device for cleaning forks, and an oven that could have cooked enough food for Portugal’s army.  Guests can learn how to make cheese and how to keep their gardens as tidy as the ones at Casa da Insua–it takes six full time gardeners to keep it all trimmed and perfectly in order.

Our day was not done, and we rode in our guide’s black Mercedes up, up, up from sea level to a dizzying 5000 feet. Our next stop was our next two night’s lodgings, the very modern Casa das Penhas Douradas in the Serra de Estrela preserve.  This mountaintop hotel is as Scandinavian as anything I’ve seen in Sweden.  Sleek birchwood walls, modern minimalist furniture, cozy woodstoves and skis adorning the walls.

It is owned by a couple from Lisbon and there are 18 rooms, each overlooking the view of the slope down to the next village.  Guests can get massages, hike the 200 kms of trails, enjoy a hot pool swim, or just chill out with strong wi-fi and a glass of wine or some of their strong coffee. Once again I revel in staying two nights–a little time to relax, catch up on work, and have no where to go until tomorrow at the luxurious departure time of 10:30.  We’ll tour the wool factory that the hotel owners run in the village of Mantiegas, where ancient machines make burel, a wool fabric used by make blankets, shepherd’s capes and other products. Oh, and my massage is scheduled for 6 o’clock.  Find out more about Central Portugal

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Max Hartshorne
Max Hartshorne has been the editor of the travel website since 2002. Over the past decade, he has had the privilege of working with writers and publishing travel articles about nearly every country in the world. He has also been a consistent world traveler, writing hundreds of his own travel stories and posting daily blogs from the 10 or more yearly international trips he takes around the world.

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