With its steep narrow streets and spectacular views, Covilhã is one of the most charming places in central Portugal. It’s also an excellent base from which to explore the wild and rugged Serra da Estrela mountain region.
Traditionally the hub of the Portugal’s woollen industry, Covilhã was already a cloth centre during the time of the Moors and it remained wealthy until the 16th century when the general use of silk (a result of the riches acquired from beyond the seas) struck a grave blow to its prosperity.
But to keep its looms busy and to maintain the thriving wool industry, King João V gave it the monopoly of materials destined for the uniforms of the army and navy.
Walking around you’ll see a statue of Pero de Covilhã, the locally-born 15th-century explorer and adventurer, standing proud in the town’s main square – the Praça do Município.
The nearby Palacete-Jardim boasts an attractive array of azulejo tiles as well as interesting architecture from the early 19th-century Art Nouveau period.
In the lower part of the town, the chapel of São Martinho e Calvário is a simple Romanesque building of rough stone housing an 18th-century painting of the Crucifixion and two primitive representations of saints.
Interestingly, the town’s original walls were built by King Sancho I who gave Covilhã its first charter in 1186.
There’s much to see in the environs and a car is needed to take the short drive up the glacial valley from Covilhã to Torre, the highest point (1,993 metres/6,539 feet) on mainland Portugal in the heart of the Serra da Estrela mountains. Close by, the ski runs of Penhas da Saúde offer the best conditions during the months of January, February and March.