In some mountainous regions of Central Portugal, houses were traditionally built using a material that was readily available. This was a metamorphic rock known as schist. Not only was schist easy to locate, it also had properties that made it easy to split along its grain, to create flat surfaces useful for building, and for creating roofing. The usefulness of schist as a building material resulted in entire villages being built using it. Perhaps as testament to its durability, many of those traditional schist villages remain today.
A group of 27 of these schist villages have been gathered under one organisational association, to encourage their preservation and to promote them as tourist destinations. This association is called ADXTUR – The Agency for the Tourist Development of the Schist Villages. These 27 schist villages – aldeias do xisto – are all located in Central Portugal, between Coimbra and Castelo Branco. They are easily reached by road, with ample road signs pointing the way and with bright yellow marker stones at the entrance to each village. Many of the villages are also connected by hiking trails, which are clearly marked – pointing out the direction, distance and estimated time to cover the distance. Each of the villages also has an information board at the entrance, showing the layout of the village with points of interest mapped out. There is an official website with useful information on each village.
I took a ride from Porto to see some of the villages and managed to visit five of them: Casal Novo; Talasnal; Chiqueiro; Candal and Cerdeira. Each village differs in size and layout. Some are developed for tourism and others are small, simple residential hamlets. The five that I visited are fairly close to each other, with the nearest town being Lousã.
Chiqueiro – ‘Rocked to sleep by the bells of the flock. Only the bells of the flock seem to contradict the feeling that hereabouts time stopped long ago.’
Chiqueiro was the smallest and the sleepiest of the five villages. Yet it holds some historical significance, due to the presence of its small Chapel of Senhora da Guia. The original chapel was constructed in the 16th century but the current building is a later replacement. Residents of nearby villages would have walked to Chiqueiro for church services.
During my visit, I didn’t see a single person in the village. A barking dog was the only sign of life. I walked down the narrow steps and took a few photos. One quizzical feature about the village is that the roofs are made of modern roofing tiles, which then seem to be weighted down with pieces of shale/schist.
Casal Novo – ‘A new village in old schist. Hidden in dense woodland, it tumbles down the hillside.’
Were it not for the signs, it would be easy to drive right by Casal Novo without noticing it. At road level, only a couple of schist buildings are visible. The rest descend the hillside, out of view of passing traffic (although there is very little traffic on this narrow, winding mountain road). On the opposite side of the road, a water tank that serves the village is surrounded by mint, growing wild.
The small parking area can take a handful of cars. From there, a single footpath heads down the hillside, with a few small perpendicular pathways running off it to access several houses. Part way down the main footpath is a water fountain and small water tank. Towards the bottom of the village are two threshing floors that offer views of the valley below. Casal Novo has an interesting mix of modernised buildings alongside more traditional houses and derelict ruins. The practice of weighting down roof tiles with pieces of schist/slate is also visible here.
This is a purely residential village, with no shops, restaurants or bars to cater to tourists. As I walked around, I passed a few of the residents who were going about their daily lives. It’s a pleasant place to visit and it won’t take much time to see most of the village.
Talasnal – ‘Here nature reigns. Explore this village deep in the magical world of the Serra da Lousã, hidden among lush vegetation where deer, roebuck, wild boar and many other species lurk.’
Whilst following the narrow road from Casal Novo, a gap opens in the roadside trees. It reveals a distant view of Talasnal, perched on a ridge with tree-covered mountains as a backdrop.
Further along the road, signs direct visitors down a slight hill where cars park on both sides of the road. Talasnal may be larger than its neighbours, but it still doesn’t have any roads within the village. Residents and visitors alike must park on the approach road and walk in, along the various pathways.
Talasnal has been developed for tourism, so it differs significantly from the sleepy villages of Chiqueiro and Casal Novo. The village is home to several guest houses as well as restaurants, bars and shops. There is an abundance of colourful signage throughout, to ensure visitors can find their way.
A delightful little bar was calling out to me, tempting me to enter and drink a cold beer. But I don’t drink when I’m out on the bike, so I had to make do with poking my head through the door and taking a few photos. The ‘O Curral’ bar could have been designed for hobbits, with its tiny entrance door. In reality, it is a converted corral, or animal shed, which explains the low door. It has rustic wooden furniture and old hand-tools adorning the walls. And the ceiling is covered in paper notes, left by previous guests. I would have loved to spend a little time in there with a drink – but I settled for a bottle of water and an ice cream bar at the shop next to the car park.
Despite having been developed for tourism, the village still has many traditional features and some derelict buildings that can be seen whilst walking around. It would be a good location for an overnight stay for hikers, as there are several trails that connect the schist villages. It would also be a nice spot for lunch whilst driving around the area.
Candal – ‘Nestled among the mountains. A soothing resting spot for those climbing or descending the mountains.’
In sharp contrast to Casal Novo, there’s no way that anyone could miss this village whilst driving past. It climbs up the side of the mountain next to the National road (N-236), at a point where traffic slows to negotiate a tight bend.
Candal has a restaurant and a small shop situated on the roadside. Other than that, it is a fairly simple residential village that hasn’t been adapted to cater to tourists. There is a building that houses an olive press (next to the restaurant) but it was closed and locked. There’s a nice natural swimming area that has been built into a stream that flows through the village. Despite wearing motorcycle gear in 30C-plus temperatures, I climbed up the steep hillside to wander between the houses and take a few photos.
Cerdeira – ‘Where inspiration lives. When will art again populate the wild places in Portugal?’
Continuing along the N-236 from Candal towards Lousã, a sign-post points up a steep side road to the village of Cerdeira. Several hairpin-turns later, the road comes to an end next to the village church.
A small bridge crosses the Ribeira da Cerdeira to get to the village. The small river (stream) has been modified to create a small swimming area with a ‘creative-stage’ platform next to it. The village has an artistic flavour and features a library, a cafe/gallery, a couple of studios and a pottery kiln. The village hosts international artist residencies, training workshops and creative retreats.
It is a fairly small village that follows a small ridge, overlooking a steep valley. It has one main footpath that runs through it, with several off-shoots.
Getting to the villages required a boring hour on the A1 motorway from Porto towards Coimbra, and close to another hour after that to reach the first village. But the second part of the ride was more interesting, especially the twisties as I got to the mountain. Starting with Chiqueiro, the other villages generally follow each other in line, on a loop back towards Lousã. The villages make a good option for a day-trip from Porto.