We regularly see traditional old watermills dotted along waterways, when we are out hiking, but windmills (moinhos de vento) are quite rare in comparison. However, the area around the town of Penacova has one of the largest aggregations of windmills in Portugal. So, we took advantage of a beautiful sunny Sunday in February to ride down and take a look.
These old windmills are believed to have been constructed hundreds of years ago, when they harnessed the power of the wind to turn mill stones to grind flour from cereals that were cultivated in the surrounding area. Over time, they fell into disuse and ruin, but in recent decades there has been a concerted effort to restore these beautiful structures. Some of them are operational and can be seen working between the months of May and October.
The windmills are located in several groupings, near to Penacova. We selected four of these locations to visit:
- Moinhos da Atalhada
- Moinhos de Vento de Avelheira
- Moinhos de Vento de Gavinhos
- Moinhos de Portela de Oliveira (and the adjacent Museu do Moinhos)
Our first stop was to visit the Moinhos de Atalhada, which is the largest group that we would visit. There are said to be 23 windmills at Atalhada, but I only counted 16 fully restored mills. The rest seemed to be ruins, or only partially restored. At this site, the windmills are all constructed from stone and have conical wooden roofs. They really are quite beautiful! I understand that some of these structures are privately owned and some are used for rural tourism (accommodation).
There is a paved road that leads directly to the mills, so vehicle access is easy. At one time, there was a restaurant and bar on the site, but the building currently lays empty.
Our second stop was at the Moinhos de Vento de Avelheira, but we were unable to ride the bike up to the mills. I didn’t want to take the Goldwing down the unpaved gravel road, but it would be fine for a car. Instead, I parked the bike on the main road and we walked in.
Whilst there is some evidence of recent restoration, this site is very different to Atalhada. There are only a handful of windmills on this hill. Some of the stone ruins appear to be older structures, whilst others appears to be built from concrete and had metal roofs, so probably more recent. However, there was one old stone mill with a rusty red roof that had a striking appearance. We were the only visitors at this site, so we sat and had a peaceful picnic lunch before moving on.
We could see the windmills for our third stop before we even got there. The Moinhos de Vento de Gavinhos stood proudly at the top of their hill, easily seen from the surrounding roads. This grouping of 14 mills has three that are in working order. Their appearance is notably different to those at Atalhada. Whilst some are built from stone, others appear to have been constructed with concrete (or they at least have a concrete coating). Their roofs are all made of metal, in a matching grey colour, and many of them have matching pale blue doors.
The hill, upon which the mills stand, provides some lovely panoramic views of the surrounding countryside. And, for a slightly better view, you can climb the stairs to the statue of the Immaculate Heart of Mary.
This seemed to be the most popular of the locations, with a steady stream of visitors coming to enjoy the windmills and the views. The paved/cobbled road leads directly to the windmills.
The final stop of our windmill tour was the Moinhos de Portela de Oliveira and the adjacent Museu do Moinhos. There is a scattering windmills at this location (somewhere in the region of 8-10), with several being ruins or undergoing restoration. Having already visited the mills at the previous three locations, we didn’t spend much time looking at these. Instead, we were interested in visiting the adjacent museum – Museu do Moinho Vitorino Nemésio – in the hope that we would learn some of the history behind these windmills.
The building that houses the museum was once the holiday home of a Minister of Public Works under the Salazar dictatorship. The house itself was a built around one of the old mills, which is still an integral part of the design of the building. It is a small museum with an admission fee of €2. Its exhibits are displayed behind glass and include various components of both water and wind mills, as well as tools and equipment that were associated with them. We were handed a visitor’s guide (a laminated sheet) that served as a key (in English) listing the various items that were on display. Unfortunately, I didn’t see any information on when the structures were built, or any of their history.
With our final stop completed, we hopped on the bike and made our way back home to Gaia. Our journey had covered a total of 302km (188 miles) and had taken us 5.5 hours. It had been a very enjoyable outing and we got to experience yet another part of Portugal and its remarkable history.