Clusters of red-roofed houses perch on the tops of hills, as verdant terraces cascade beneath them to the valley below. Portugal has an abundance of gorgeous scenery, but these spectacular vistas are something special. After being largely confined indoors during 3-4 weeks of constant rain, gazing over these emerald hillsides created a profound sense of elation. It was so good to be in the beautiful outdoors again.
The parish of Sistelo embraces three villages: Sistelo, Padrão and Porta Cova. The villages stretch along the ridge above the Rio Vez, with their respective terraces descending down the hills towards the river. The parish lies within the municipality of Arcos de Valdevez, in the province of Minho, in the north-west of Portugal. You are unlikely to stumble across Sistelo’s gorgeous views, as they are not on the route to anywhere else. You need to search out this tucked-away gem, that has been called ‘Portugal’s Little Tibet’.
Laying 123km north of Porto, we can reach Sistelo in about 1.5 hours by motorcycle, so it is a good location for a day-trip. Autumn weather is certainly with us, and whilst it was a dry day, the temperatures ranged between 11-13C (51-55F).
On our way to Sistelo, we made a brief stop at the medieval bridge of Vilela (Ponte Medieval de Vilela) which dates back to 1258. The bridge isn’t visible when driving past on the M505-4 road, but there is a brown tourism sign pointing to ‘Ponte Medieval’. The bridge is accessed via a steep cobbled lane, with no vehicles permitted to cross the bridge itself. The humped stone bridge has two arches, of unequal size, providing a lovely photographic opportunity.
We continued along our route to the village of Sistelo and parked the bike near the parish church (Igreja Paroquial de Sistelo). Close by is the ‘Sistelo Castle’ that was closed for renovations. Whilst the village dates back to medieval times, the Casa do Castelo (Castle House) was built in the latter half of the 19th century as a palace for the first Viscount of Sistelo, Manuel Goncalves Roque.
It was lunch-time so we were pleased to find that the village has a thriving restaurant – Restaurante Cantinho do Abade. It has a glass covered dining area and an outdoor terrace for summer dining, but in cooler weather there is a small dining room in the main building. The restaurant was attractive and the staff were welcoming. We were pleased to see that the menu contained traditional Portuguese fare. For the main course, there were three meat options and one fish. Whilst I was tempted by the meat dishes, the fish option was only available for two persons sharing. Bev wanted the fish, so that’s what we decided upon. Bacalhau das Lavradas is a typical recipe from the Arcos de Valdevez municipality. The codfish is served with a special type of rice that includes beans and some chourico. The cod itself is cooked with onions and tomatoes and is served on a large platter with roasted potatoes, green beans and some slices of boiled egg. The rice and beans are served in a separate bowl. Tasty, and plenty of it.
With our bellies full, we took some time to wander around and explore. The village is dissected into two parts by the N202-2 road. On the southern side of the road, the village climbs up a steep hill with a narrow, cobbled road leading to old granite houses and a lovely array of old granaries, where the villagers would have stored their corn. Next to the granaries is a communal outdoor laundry, fed by a mountain stream.
As enjoyable as the visit had been so far, we had yet to experience the terraced views that had inspired us to visit. They couldn’t be seen from the village itself and the tourist maps posted in the village didn’t highlight any miradouro viewpoints. But I could see that the nearby villages of Padrão and Porta Cova both had terraces of their own, so I decided to head in that direction to see what views they offered.
We hopped onto the bike and turned onto the narrow M1289 road, that climbs up above Sistelo on its way to Padrão and Porta Cova. Wow! The views from up there are just what I was hoping for. There were multiple locations along the road that offered views back towards Sistelo, in all of its glory.
As nice as the views of Sistelo were, there were more views to come. Across the valley from Padrão is the small hamlet of Paço. This cluster of perhaps 15 houses is surrounded by south-facing fields and terraces. The view of Padrão is even better! The surrounding slopes are much steeper and the view of the terraces and mountain backdrop is that much more impressive. Then, for good measure, the village of Porta Cova is squeezed between granite peaks and green terraces. We enjoyed a steady succession of stunning views. Amazing! No visit to Sistelo would be complete without a drive up the M1289 to experience this dramatic scenery.
I imagine we’ll return to explore this beautiful region further, perhaps when the weather warms up next year.