Dornes and the Zêzere River

The main attraction for this hike was the picturesque village of Dornes, with its pentagonal tower, constructed in the 12th century by the Knights Templar. The gorgeous Zêzere River played a strong supporting role. The sheer beauty of the river environment overcame the drab, uninspiring nature of the hiking trail itself.

With a length of 214km, the Zêzere is the second longest river that falls entirely within Portugal. By comparison, the Douro River is 897km long, but passes through Spain and Portugal. The Zêzere begins high on the Serra da Estrela mountain and flows in a south-westerly direction, until it joins the Tagus (Tejo) River near Constância. Along its route are three hydro-electric dams, one of them being the Castelo de Bode Dam, which is downstream from Dornes, and is responsible for the flat, calm reservoir appearance of the Zêzere near Dornes. The river is home to various species of fish: the Shad (Alosa alosa); the Boga (Chondostroma accidentale); the Eel (Angilla anguilla); the Barbel (Barbus bocagei); the Black Bass (Micripterus salmoides); and the Carp (Cyprinus carpio).

Dornes is 186km south of Porto, taking approximately two hours to reach via the Auto-Estrada (motorway). Facing a projected completion time of 6.5 hours for the hike, and with nightfall occurring around 5.00pm, I knew that I needed to arrive in Dornes between 10.00 – 10.30am. Accordingly, I bundled up with warm clothing and my heated gloves, and departed Porto on my motorcycle around 8.15am. Along the road south, there was frost in the surrounding fields and the temperature dropped as low as minus-1C. On arrival in Dornes, after 10.00am, the temperature had risen to 3C. I parked the Goldwing in front of the Cafe Fonte de Cima and prepared for the hike.

I would be following the ‘PR1 FZZ Zêzere’s Sentinel’ hiking route, supported by a GPS trail uploaded to Wikiloc by João Marques Fernandes. Whilst the recommended direction for the trail is clockwise, João opted to do the trail in reverse. I agree with this decision, as it puts the highest climb early in the hike, when legs are still fresh. João’s trail also includes a couple of slight extensions, to enjoy views of the river. The official route has a distance of 19km; an accumulated height gain of 885 metres; with a minimum elevation of 125 metres, rising to a maximum of 330 metres. It has a level 3 difficulty rating (in a 1 – 5 range).

Upon leaving the cafe, the route heads along the paved road, away from Dornes and across a road bridge, before turning left onto a dirt trail. The trail passed a small river, that had steam rolling across it, presumably evaporation as the sun reached the frost-covered ground.

After following a dirt trail for a while, the route turned off and passed the Lagar de São Guilherme, located next to the river with the same name. It is an old olive oil mill, recently rebuilt with the support of the Ferreira do Zêzere City Hall, where some cultural events take place. From the original construction, its general structure was maintained, with a longitudinal plan, with few openings and a gable roof that, on the side of the main entrance, descends on a small porch resting on columns [source].

From the old mill, the route follows a paved road for a short distance, passing a couple of numbered ‘stages of the cross’, before turning onto a dirt forestry road, signposted towards Peralfaia. This is the start of the big climb. I started the hike wearing a base layer, a Polartec fleece mid-layer and my down jacket, as well as some thin gloves, a neck buff and my woolly hat. Within 30 minutes from the start, and part-way into the hill-climb, I was sweating. Off came the jacket, gloves and buff, and they remained in my backpack for the rest of the hike. The dirt roads passed through eucalyptus plantations and were muddy in places, with ruts caused by vehicles. There were also some iced-over puddles. Fifty-five minutes into the hike, I reached the top of the big hill. My Wikiloc app shows that I climbed from 416 feet (127m) to 1,055 feet (322m), which is fairly close to the official elevations of 125-330 metres.

Once over the hump of the big hill, the stunning panorama over Dornes came into view. From that elevation, it is easy to see how the Dornes peninsular juts out into the river, and why it was such a good location for anyone wishing to monitor and control movement on the river. It’s quite a special view! A little further along the trail, the view over the river also included the road bridge that I would reach, later in the hike.

The trail continues its descent, along drab forest roads, until it reaches a paved road. It follows that road for a short distance and then turns off on the opposite side, to follow another drab dirt forest road. Relieving the boredom, along the dirt road, is a cluster of large boulders with some yellow features within the rock.

The dirt road continues further downhill, until it reaches its first small deviation. A narrow gravel road leads steeply downhill to a small peninsular at water level. It is a serene location, with the silence only being broken by a flock of ducks, that took off across the river in a clatter of flapping and quacking, as my appearance on the peninsular surprised them. I imagine that it is a popular location in the summer, but I had the place all to myself on this chilly January day.

From this point onwards, the route would generally follow the river back to Dornes. Initially, it followed a wide forestry road, then turned off onto a narrower dirt road, flooded in places, to pass an area known as ‘the Islands’. The three islands in this location were caused when the river level rose, following the construction of the Castelo do Bode Dam. I left the trail and scrambled down the steep bank, to capture this spectacular scenery, as the view from the trail is obscured by tree trunks.

Continuing on, the dirt road offered frequent views of the Zêzere River, to the right of the trail. Along the way, the trail passed by a couple of houses and the small village of Rio Cimeiro.

The PR1 FZZ route then joins up with GR33 for a while. GR33 is also known as GRZ – Grande Rota do Zêzere. This Grande Route is said to extend for 370km, and follows the route of the Zêzere River from its source to the point where it joins the Tagus (Tejo) River. I note, with interest, that the river itself is reported to be 214km, so the GRZ must deviate from the river somewhat to gain an additional 156km. Regardless, the GRZ was designed to be a multidisciplinary route that can encompass cycling, walking or canoeing. Additional information on the GR33 – GRZ can be obtained using this link. It was along this stretch of the GRZ that the route took another detour, off the road and down to the river’s edge. This perspective offered some nice photo opportunities, but it came with a challenge. Having reached the river bank, the route intends to follow the water’s edge for a while. The problem with this is that a corner of the bank is covered with fallen trees, that make passage quite difficult. I accepted the challenge and made it around, by climbing over, and squeezing under the various tree branches and being cautious whilst walking over wet schist stone. I do question whether it is worth the additional effort. For anyone following me along this trail, I would suggest walking to the river’s edge, enjoying the view and then returning to the road to continue. The proposed route re-joins the road further along, and travelling via the road would save time and avoid some aggravation.

Upon rejoining the dirt road, it led to the road bridge across the river. From there, the route moved to a rougher dirt road, and this one seemed to be almost vertical! It was easily the steepest hill of the hike. Fortunately, it wasn’t very long, but it required care, due to the steepness and the surface. After the hill, the trail flattened out for a while and then joined a paved road through a village. After many kilometres of drab dirt roads, the route became more pleasant as it left the village and became a narrow trail. A one point, it rejoined a paved road and appeared to lead directly to a private house with a big gate – but the trail abruptly turned left, just before the gate, to climb up a narrow track alongside the house and its garden. The trail climbed uphill, offering a glimpse back over Vale Serrão, before joining a paved road.

From the paved road, the route pointed down a gravel driveway, but there was a red barrier stretching across it. It would be easy to conclude that it was private property, and that access was not permitted, but I was sure that it was still part of the official PR1 FZZ trail. Assured that I was on the official trail, I walked beyond the barrier and followed the trail using the app (the trail is quite faint in this section). The trail wound behind a nice old stone building and into a wooded area, before joining a narrow dirt road.

The final leg of the route, into Dornes, is alongside a paved road but, along the way, it offers some very nice views of Dornes. It also passes a small roadside picnic area.

After passing the road sign for Dornes, the route turns off the main road onto a smaller, cobbled road. On entering the village, the top of the tower can be seen, poking over the white houses with their red tile roofs. Turning right, onto the village’s main road, the Church of Our Lady of Sorrow (Igreja de Nossa Senhora do Pranto) comes into view. It’s a rather simple building with a set of double staircases leading up from the road. The historic tower stands behind the church. An information board in the village says “The history of Dornes is lost in time, however important monuments and archaeological remains still stand as witnesses.”

The Pentagonal Tower of Dornes was ordered to be built in the 12th century, by Gualdim Pais, master of the Order of the Temple, and must have been used as a defensive watchtower of the Tagus Line. Inside the building, which features an unusual floor plan with five sides, there are still a few Templar funerary steles. As it is located near the Parish Church of Dornes, it was later used as a bell tower [source]. This Templar Knights tower was constructed on top of a Roman tower at the site, that has been attributed to Quinto Sertório, a Roman general (c. 126 – 73 BC). Limestone elements of the tower are thought to be part of that Roman structure. The Romans are believed to have been active in the area and explored for gold in the river.

The Church of Our Lady of Sorrow was built in 1453 by Dom Gonçalo de Sousa, on the site of a former 13th century temple, that had been built by Queen Saint Isabel . It features a Renaissance pulpit, dated 1544, and a 17th century tube organ. Every year, on 15th August, the church is the centre of a festival to celebrate Nossa Senhora do Pranto.

A sign on the wall indicated that the church, gift shop and museum are open between 13.00 – 19.00, but everything was closed when I was there around 15.10. Therefore, I was unable to visit the interior of the church.

After sightseeing around the tower and church, the hike was almost over. I just had a short walk left, from the centre of the village to the cafe, where I started. Once the loop had been completed, I had covered a total of 21.2km in a time of 5 hours and 4 minutes (allow more time for completion if you are not a fast walker). The total elevation gain throughout the hike was 1,916 feet (584 metres). The signage was sporadic along the route and can’t be relied upon. To avoid taking wrong turns, use of the app is recommended. A GPS track for this route can be downloaded from Wikiloc by using this link.

By the end of the hike, the temperature was at 9C, so the ride home was much more comfortable.


  1. On week 13 of a hard lock down and must say I am enjoying at least someone who is able to go out and enjoy life a little, although I must say every time I see pictures I may first go “That prick!” Then soon thereafter the anger dissipates and I enjoy the scenery of anything other than snow and my warehouse.

    You may have set a new standard for what people should be aiming for in retirement I must say!

    Though I am starting to think I never will have to go to Portugal as I feel like I have experienced most of it already!

    Your cold locked down Canadian friend!

    1. Hi Spence, good to hear from you!

      Fortunately, at the moment at least, our movement is only restricted by weekend curfews, so I can get out for hikes on weekdays. There are so many lovely places to visit over here, so I’m enjoying working my way through them. Glad to hear that you are enjoying my photos.

      I imagine that you still have several weeks of severe cold and snow up there in Winnipeg. I don’t envy you. 🙂

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