Central Portugal

This was to be our last big trip of the summer, and it was one which came about because of our family business, Macho Fins (we make the finest surfboard fins don’t you know).  We were heading over to Figueira da Foz in Portugal to attend the surf festival Gliding Barnacles there for a few days, with beachside van parking included, and were then going to spend a few days heading back across to Spain via a few places of interest and river beaches.

First Night

We had the drive across Spain ahead of us to start with – down via Palencia/Valladolid/Salamanca before crossing the border at Vila Formoso.  We’ve done this drive in reverse before, and it’s easy, toll-free motorway the whole way – although the road surface of the inside lane leaves much to be desired!

We had a good idea where we were going to stop for our first night too, Castelo Mendo, a lovely old hilltop village (one of Portugal’s Aldeas Historicas) just over the border.  It turned out to have a great parking area just in front of the village walls, nice and flat and with a lovely countryside view.

It was a lovely warm evening, and before dinner we had time to wander up to explore the village, a jumble of old streets within the wall, topped by the impressive ruins of a Romanesque church and of course its castle.  There only appeared to be 1 bar and a cheese shop (sadly closed) in the village itself, but definitely an interesting place to explore.  Worth noting that just by the church there were also very clean and open public toilets too.

Days 1 – 3

The next day, we woke up after a good, quiet night’s sleep and enjoyed our breakfast with a view.

Then came the first challenge of the day – Portuguese motorway tolls.  Now, we’d stopped on the Spanish side of the border the previous evening and asked a few locals about this, who clearly just didn’t pay.  Then the guy in the petrol station told us they fined 50%.  So we decided better safe than sorry, and came off after 11km on the A25 at the petrol station where there is a toll booth, to automatically register your vehicle and credit card.  It was all very easy to do, and we felt calmer for it.

Then we slogged on towards Figueira da Foz, which was only actually a couple of hours from the border.

On arrival we parked up in the festival van parking, right on the Praia de Cabedelo, and had a wander to check out the festival set up.  Gliding Barnacles is a great, chilled out surf festival with top longboarders, music, food and lots of free flowing beer.  We had a great few days beachside – and lots of Macho Fins to be seen!

Day 3

After another lovely festival beach day in the evening we headed over to stay the night in the town aire of Figueira itself.  It’s a HUGE free aire, there must have been at least 100 motorhomes, right on the beach, and near the centre of town.  The town itself is great fun, lively, lots of places to eat and drink, and lots going on.

Day 4

After a quiet night in Figueira we woke up to a nasty surprise.  Berta had been invaded by ants.  Apparently not unusual in Portugal, we seemed to have parked up against an ant infested bush in the aire, and there were thousands of them marching around the van in various states of organization that morning.  There was mild panic (ok, I had a small fit), and to be honest we didn’t quite know what to do.  A lot of Googling later we discovered they didn’t like our cleaning spray, and the handheld hoover came in very handy.  (It took about 3 weeks to completely get rid of them, but we learnt to live together once they had decided they weren’t interested in the bed or the recleaned food cupboards).

So, post ant panic, we soldiered on and headed out of Figueira to the town of Montemor O Velho.  The town has an impressive hilltop castle ruin which can been dramatically seen on approach.  We parked below no problem, but realized that something was going on, there was a higgledy piggledy market going on at the bottom, a stage, and a lot of people sleeping in cars and vans.  When we opened the door, we could hear thumping dance music coming from somewhere (11am on a Sunday morning), but didn’t think much of it.

The town itself is lovely…and some clever soul has had the idea to put outdoor escalators right up to the castle above!  Great!  So after a relaxing “climb”, we walked up to the castle door, only to establish what was going on!  The Festival Forte – a 3 day dance festival – hence the (continued) thumping dance beats coming out of the castle itself!  Very weird, and unfortunately meaning no castle visit for us.


We continued on to our next visit and lunch stop, Conímbriga Roman ruins.  Here there is a large, flat car park, with several shady spots (it was very hot), so we had some lunch and then went off to explore the ruins.

Shade spots!

They’re impressive!  Mainly for their mosaics, many left outdoors to the elements, but the most impressive in the House of Fountains are covered (and in shade!).  The site has toilets, restaurant and an interesting museum too – unusually most of what they found onsite has actually stayed onsite at the museum.

We then headed off towards our overnight, Coimbra.  There’s a large parking area in Coimbra, right on the river (many were river swimming as it was so hot – not sure I would here), with toilets and water.  It was busy as people were at the “beach”, but we found a space between the other motorhomes – and it was reassuring to have so much company.


It’s a pleasant walk into the old town, over the funky footbridge and along the river on the other side, through a nice shady park and the fountain in the river.

We had a nice wander around Coimbra old town, but rather relaxed as we intended to return to go right up to the top to the university and cathedrals the following day.

That evening we had a nice meal on the street at Arcada before wandering back to the van.

Day 5

The following morning we were all ready to go back into Coimbra to explore further…and then disaster struck and Gonzalo stubbed his toe, about 5 metres from the van.  Blood everywhere, luckily Berta has a good First Aid Kit, and he was soon bandaged up, but in considerable pain, so we decided we’d leave Coimbra for another day, and head off and drive a bit (I drove, Gonzalo squirmed).

The main objective of the rest of the trip had been to explore Portugal’s inland river beaches, very much inspired and guided by the book Wild Guide Portugal.  For Gonzalo, however, this was now not an option, so he rather watched me wild swim for the rest of the trip.

Our first praia fluvial as they’re called in Portuguese – and there’s loads of them, and they’re well signposted – was in the town of Góis.  This seemed like it could have been a very nice place to stay for a few days actually, although we were just there for a picnic lunch and swim.  In fact two swims!  There are two river beaches here, each with their own fake-sand beach and riverside beach bar, and they were empty (and the bars closed) on a Monday morning.  We started up at the top beach, Praia Fluvial do Prego Escuro with a swim and then enjoyed a picnic on the terrace of the bar’s terrace.

We then walked down the riverside boardwalk to the main bottom beach, Praia Fluvial da Peneda, for a sunbathe and another dip – a bit livelier down here with a great grassy area for sunbathing as well as the sandy beach.  The town looked to be very pleasant too, and had an AC area.

Then we drove a bit further on past Arganil to the river beach above a weir at Secarias, although we didn’t actually end up swimming here, but had a nice ice cream at the riverside bar instead.

We continued on to Coja, where another river swim was in order at what was obviously a popular spot, a nice couple of bars either side of the weir and a nice beach area.


Then we headed to where we intended to overnight, we decided that evening to do a campsite, and headed for the Parque de Campismo Ponte Das Tres Entradas in the town of the same name.  Riverside, with some more very picturesque river swimming, the site was nice, very quiet midweek off season, nice bar, did actually have a swimming pool too, and a little shop across the road which sold the cheapest local cheese ever!  Decent showers, and flat pitches, although we couldn’t see the water services for the van admittedly.

Day 6

The next morning we first headed back to somewhere we’d driven through the previous day, Avô, for a morning swim at the very lovely, but very shallow, river beach there.


Then we started heading to our main destination of the day.  We drove back to Ponte Das Tres Entradas and took the road up first up to Aldeia das Dez.  We parked up on the main road, and had a wander around this very picturesque town, with interesting ruins, pretty windy streets and great views over the valley from up by the church at the top.  And a random British phone and post box!  We had a bit of the local cheese we’d picked up and then headed on.

The next bit of drive seemed a little endless, mainly because the scenery around these parts is one thing – burnt trees.  Evidently very badly hit by the previous year’s forest fires, literally everything except the towns and villages were burnt out.  This was very evident around a strange little town we drove through, Vale de Maceira, and the Santuario de Nossa Sra Das Preces.  We stopped as it was rather striking, the large church, and its gardens and its curious stations of the cross – each a little chapel with life size figurines inside.  And everything was burnt right up to the edge of the religious buildings.  In fact, above the town was an sad example of a burnt out building which showed what could have been.

We continued on through the burntness to our main objective of the day – Piódao.  This UNESCO village is in the middle of nowhere, and is composed of beautiful schist houses with blue doors, picturesquely sprawled down the hillside to the river and swimming area at the bottom of the valley.  It’s lovely to wander around, or rather up and down, and we had the coldest swim ever in the river at the bottom – absolutely freezing!

We then drove on to another pretty spot just down the road, Foz de Égua.  This is a picturesque river spot with two schist bridges and the potential for a walk up the hill to the viewpoint at the top, which we didn’t do.  We did, however, jump in for another swim – and the water seemed quite tropical after the water at Piódao!  A lovely swim spot, I think my favourite of the trip, great depth and lovely clear turquoise water.

To finish the day we had a bit of a drive ahead of us, and a bit of a windy one.  We were heading to the Parque Natural Serra da Estrela, and the drive took us through some very pretty villages, we particularly liked the look of Cabeça, through lots of non-burnt pine woods and then up and up to the mountains, with spectacular views in all directions, and a complete change in scenery from trees to rocks.

We got to our destination just before sunset, Torre, the highest point in mainland Portugal.  A strange place, which today was covered in drifting cloud, so no great sunset, but quite atmospheric – it was like being on the cloudy moon.  Except that there are also 2 touristy supermarket style shops, a visitor’s centre, the sparse installations of Portugal’s only ski station, and 2 huge unused radar domes.  Oh, and the tower of course, built so that Portugal’s highest point would be at exactly 2,000m.  It’s all a bit weird!  But was a quiet overnight, and we got some more cheese from the shop.

Day 7

Our last day in Portugal, and we decided that as we woke up in cloud, we would descend from Torre before breakfast to find a better spot.

We stopped a few times on the road on the way down, first to check out an impressive glacial cirque, then to check out an interesting statue in the rock, the Senhora da Boa Estrela, and then stopped for breakfast roadside with views over the U shaped glacial valley leading down to Manteigas.

Here we stopped for a drink and a wander around, a rather random town with no obvious centre or plaza as such, but picked up some more cheese!

We were looking for a nice place for lunch – it was our last day in Portugal…and my birthday!  And thanks to Tripadvisor, we came up with a real gem, Soadro do Zêzere in the village of Valhelhas. We had lovely local meat and duck and thoroughly enjoyed the buffet desert table!

After lunch, we headed on to the town of Belmonte, well known for its Jewish population.  First we headed to the AC area of the town, which was very well equipped with toilets, showers, washing up sinks, water services, but only has 4 spaces, all of which were full.  The area is also on the outskirts of town, so whilst walkable to the centre, we decided to see if we could park closer to the centre instead.

And we had no problem, the town has a small castle, and we parked easily just below it in a large open plaza area.  We did go in to the castle, and although nothing to write home about, nice views.  The town is pretty and interesting to wander around, up to the church, and to its pretty main square where we had a locally made ice cream.

That night we wanted to sleep somewhere on the border to be ready for the long drive the following day.  We had considered going back to Castelo Mendo again, which in hindsight would have probably been the best idea, but instead we headed directly east to a Park4Night spot we’d seen at Aldeia del Ponte.  What could have been a picturesque picnic area by a bridge over the river was in fact stagnant water, and the AC service area had no taps, so only useful for grey water disposal.  It was so late we had no other option, so parked up and slept there – peacefully, but wouldn’t stay there again.

Day 8

Home time!  We woke up, drove back up to Vila Formoso, crossed back over into Spain, and made the 5 hour or so drive home – but not of course without stopping on the way, which we did for lunch at another Park4Night spot literally just off the A62 motorway between Valladolid and Palencia on the Canal de Castilla – parking in the shade of a bridge next to the canal, it was a very convenient and pretty decent spot for an hour or so.


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