‘Beiras’ is the traditional name of a region running south of Douro river and north of Tagus river. The region is one of deep contrasts: the Atlantic coastline, where a temperate climate, white sandy beaches and the Atlantic pine forests are typical, and the interior where more forbidding mountains and rocks set the tone.
In the heart of this hinterland rises the Serra da Estrela (Estrela Mountain Range), the highest in continental Portugal. This is where the Mondego river rises, later running down through the city of Coimbra. Here, the river that over the centuries has had so many odes composed to it by generations of university students, flows out into the Atlantic ocean by the lengthy Figueira da Foz beach.
Nature has blessed this region with healing waters that in turn gave rise to spa towns, such as Curia and Luso. Nature’s generosity extended to the landscape too: ancient forests cover the mountain slopes helping to preserve intact the treasures of an outstanding natural area, which has its most perfect paradigm in the Bucaco woodlands. Monasteries, convents, castles and churches are witnesses to an artistic and historical heritage whose merits and heritage value have been acknowledged worldwide by Unesco.
Among the spacious horizons of this inland region are historic towns and villages, many of them are guarded by castles built by the early kings of Portugal for the kingdom’s defense.
In the bigger towns, such as Coimbra, Aveiro, Viseu, Guarda or Castelo Branco, museum collections reveal treasures of unexpected quality. As for traditional arts and crafts, the coastal region has always been rich in glass-working and ceramic skills, while inland artisans have traditionally worked with black clay, linen weaving, and copper and iron.
Famous for its lagoon, this town is crisscrossed by canals where colorfully painted moliceiro boats sail. Deserving a special mention: the Cathedral (15th-18th centuries) and Gothic cross; Misericordia Church and Sao Bartolomeu Chapel; 18th century churches of Santo Antonio and Sao Goncalo. Regional Museum, housed in the ancient Convento de Jesus.
Appropriately named, the town is situated at the top of a hill over which towers a fine castle. In one of its mighty walls is a particularly fine Manueline window showing the flowery Gothic style characteristic of the period of King Manuel I. Beside the castle is the fine Romanesque-Gothic church of Santiago in whose interior is to be found a very fine statue of the Madonna with the body of Christ, whose simplicity and originality are most striking. Belmonte is famous for being the birthplace of Pedro Alvares Cabral, the man who in 1500 discovered Brazil. The town is also notable for its Jewish community, which has lived here without interruption since the 14th century. Not far from the town is Centum Cellas, a mysterious construction from the Roman era. The purpose of this two-story building remains an enigma.
Surrounded by a majestic forest stands the Royal Palace, of Neo-manueline architecture, built in the 19th century, and currently a charming hotel. Milestones and memorials of the victory won over the Napoleonic army are the obelisk and the Military Museum. Distant 1.5 miles from here lies the thermal spa of Luso.
Around the 13th century castle lies a medieval quarter with its Manueline portals. In the old Episcopal Palace, is the Francisco Tavares Proenca Junior Museum. Other old monuments are the Pacos do Concelho (16th-17th centuries), Graca Convent (16th-18th centuries), Santo Antonio dos Capuchos Convent (16th century), Misericordia Velha Church (16th-18th centuries).
One of Europe’s oldest university towns, it has kept its secular academic traditions, exemplified by the black-caped students, the soulful tones of the “fado de Coimbra” (traditional song sung to the sound of guitars by the students) and the Queima das Fitas: a boisterous celebration of the students’ graduating year (Burning of the Ribbons). The university overlooks the city with its old tower and a sumptuous Baroque library. In the adjacent quarters the Old Cathedral (Romanesque) and the Machado de Castro Museum can be found, built over a Roman cryptoportico. In the ancient streets, with their medieval walls, arches and stairways, are the Santa Cruz Monastery (founded in 1131), the church of Santiago and the monastery of Celas (13th-century). On the left bank of the Mondego stands the Santa Clara-a-Nova Convent (Baroque, 17th-century). 10 miles to the south, lies Conimbriga, the most important Roman ruins in Portugal.
Conimbriga is situated 10 miles south of Coimbra. It was a point on the Roman road that came from Sellium (Tomar) and made its way to Aeminium (Coimbra). It is still surrounded by the original walls, and visitors can see colored mosaics, as well as figurative and patterned illustrations in an excellent state of conservation. There is an early Christian burial ground and a set of hot springs. A museum can be found near the archaeological site.
Figueira da Foz
Summer resort at the mouth of the Mondego river (featuring long sandy beaches and water sports facilities). Special mention to the mother-church, Casa do Paco (17th century), Municipal Museum, Santa Catarina Fortress (16th century) and pelourinho.
The walls, the towers, the old Jewish quarter and the houses of Dom Joao I and Barbadao call to mind the days of the town’s medieval splendor. The Cathedral, Gothic in its origins, displays a Manueline portal and window as well as a Renaissance retable. Also deserving a visit are the churches of Senhora dos Remedios (16th century), Misericordia (17th century), and Sao Vicente (18th century), and the Regional Museum. On the outskirts there is the Romanesque chapel of Nossa Senhora de Mileu (11th-12th-centuries).
Piodao, and Other Historical Villages
These ancient population centers, dating back before the establishment of the Portuguese nation, are characteristic of the Beiras region in central Portugal. Many are located on higher ground because they were originally built to defend populations in an age before the Roman invasion. Here military architecture prevails, the entire settlement being surrounded by strong walls. One exception to this prevailing military spirit is the village of Piodao. Examples of typical centers are: Almeida (whose polygon-shaped fortress was in the 18th century considered unassailable); Castelo Mendo, Castelo Novo, Castelo Rodrigo, Idanha-a-Velha (with Roman remains and a cathedral of Visigothic origin); Linhares da Beira, Marialva, Piodao and Sortelha. Worthy of mention is Monsanto, which is built on the site of the ancient Lusitanian fortified camp of Serra de Penha Garcia and has a Pousada with splendid views.
This historic village encloses the ancient Lusitanian settlement of Serra de Penha Garcia, the 12th-century castle and beautiful manor houses (18th-century), the mother-church and Misericordia Church (16th-century). There is a Pousada with a nice view over the landscape. Nearby stands the Roman-Visigothic chapel of Vira Corca.
With fortifications of the probable camps left by the imperial legions from Rome, the town keeps remains of the Gothic walls and the ancient doors of the 15th-16th centuries. Not to miss: Grao Vasco Museum, with important painting collections; the Cathedral, of Romanesque origin; the church of Terceiros de Sao Francisco, the Neris Convent, and the Sao Teotonio Hospital. Also worth a visit are the 17th century church of the monastery of Jesus and the town’s Historic Museum.
Other Places of Interest
Agueda, Aguiar da Beira, Anadia, Almeida, Arganil, Arouca (monastery), Belmonte, Caramulo, Celorico da Beira, Covilha, Curia (spa), Figueira de Castelo Rodrigo, Fundao, Gouveia, Idanha-a-Nova, Idanha-a-Velha, Ilhavo, Linhares da Beira, Lorvao, Lourinha, Mangualde, Marialva, Mealhada, Minde, Mira, Monte Real (spa), Montemor-o-Velho, Oliveira do Hospital, Penamacor, Pombal, Porto de Mos, Proenca-a-Velha, S. Pedro do Sul (spa), Seia, Serra da Estrela (6,335 ft high, winter sports), Sortelha, Trancoso, Vouzela.
- Fish and seafood
- Roast suckling pig and lamb stew
- Sausages and smoked meats
- Cheeses: Serra da Estrela, Alcains, Castelo Branco
- Sweets: custard cream, hard and sweet biscuits and pancakes, egg sweets and sponge cake (ovos-moles, pao-de-lo)
- Wines: Dao, Lafoes, rose, and Bairrada table and sparkling wines.
- Vista Alegre porcelain
- Hand-painted ceramics from Coimbra
- Linen, wool and cotton
- Embroidered silk bedspreads from Castelo Branco
- Ceramics and black pottery
- Lace (bilros)
- Copper and wrought-iron works