Portugal often gets overshadowed by its larger neighbour, Spain, but its Centro region, in between Porto and Lisbon, reveals a land of history, beauty and (sunny) charm.
An area with strong links to the Duke of Wellington and the Peninsular War, there are sites of great historical importance – from the Bussaco forest to Wellington’s winter headquarters at Freineda.
For the most authentic experience, stay in one of the country’s pousadas – a network of atmospheric inns housed in historic buildings such as 13th-century monasteries, castles, palaces and convents.
One of the most fascinating towns in the region, Almeida is a star-shaped fortress, close to the Vilar Formoso border. This walled city is a medieval town with a population of just 1,500. Interesting sites include the castle ruins (originally built in the Middle Ages), the town hall and the 17th-century fortress. Almeida was designed to defend the nation and is an example of military architecture. There is a pousada (Senhora das Neves) located on the site of a former prison within the old walls of the village.
Belmonte is most famous for its 13th-century castle and Jewish quarter – it’s home to the largest Jewish community in Portugal. There is a modern synagogue and a Jewish Museum. The castle was converted into a manor house in the 15th century by Pedro Alvares Cabral, the founder of Brazil.
The Pousada do Convento de Belmonte is an ancient monastery on the Esperança Mountain with views over the Cova da Beira region. Fans of mushrooms should head to the pousada’s restaurant – during the Mushroom Festival (October-December), the head chef puts on a seven-course banquet with courses including a mushroom cappuccino with herbs and mushroom ice cream. The chapel and sacristy have been converted into a lounge and bar area, with the original granite preserved.
Close by is Estrela’s Mountain, one of Europe’s most important nature reserves and the highest mountain in Portugal.
Home to one of the oldest universities in Europe, Coimbra remains a lively student town where cobbled old streets rise upwards from along the river banks. The town has a Jewish, Arab and Christian heritage. It is one of Portugal’s oldest cities and was the capital from 1139 to 1256.
The university itself is the city’s biggest attraction – perched high above the town and lit up at night, it remains one of the world’s greatest learning centres.
The commercial centre of the city – Baixa (downtown) – is full of cafes, shops, restaurants and boutiques. Nearby, in Comercio Square, is the Church of São Tiago. Don’t be misled by its plain 12th-century façade – inside is a rococo altarpiece in gilded wood. The Baroque Library, built in 1717, is comprised of books that all date from before 1800.
The Hotel Quinta das Lágrimas is an 18th-century mansion whose previous guests include Centro’s favourite British hero, the Duke of Wellington.
Not far from Coimbra is Curia – a small town that is home to the Palace Hotel, a grand art nouveau building dating from the 1920s, and the Quinta do Encontro, one of the most prominent wine-making estates in Portugal’s Bairrada region.
A forest dense with around 700 varieties of trees, many of which were brought to Europe by Portuguese explorers from Africa and America, Bussaco was the scene of one of the major battles of the Peninsular War in 1810 – when the Duke of Wellington defeated Napoleon’s troops.
In the midst of the forest, amongst waterfalls, fountains and tiny hermitages, is the Military Museum of Bussaco. Even better is the Bussaco Palace Hotel – a five-star former holiday residence of Portuguese royalty and one of the most unique hotels in the world.
Viseu is known for its art – it was home to an important school of painting in the 16th century and now hosts the museum that exhibits the works of Grão Vasco, one of Portugal’s finest painters.
The centre of Viseu has hardly changed since medieval times. Rua Direita is a vibrant street full of shops, cafes and old townhouses.