Located in the extreme south of the Douro region, just off the main road connecting Guarda with Lamego, Sernancelhe is a delightfully picturesque little town originally founded on the banks of the River Távora in the 10th century.
In its centrally-located main square, the Praça da República, stands Sernancelhe’s star attraction, a well-preserved Romanesque parish church (Igreja Matriz) built in the 13th century.
The church is particularly remarkable for its 12th-century granite statues of Saints Paul and Peter (the only free-standing Romanesque statues in Portugal) fixed into twin niches on either side of the main doorway.
Inside the church is a series of rare 16th-century panels, most notably a magnificent depiction of John the Baptist. The pillory that stands across the square from the church is dated 1554.
Sernancelhe’s historic old quarter retains features of a medieval Jewish settlement and several impressive 16th- and 17th-century townhouses, one of which is the birthplace of Padre João Rodrigues, one of the heroic characters featured in Scorcese’s 2016 epic Hollywood film, Silence.
Born in Sernancelhe in 1561, he died in Macau seventy-two years later after a very eventful life as a sailor, warrior, Jesuit interpreter, missionary, priest and a prominent scholar. He is also known for his many ground-breaking linguistic works, including The Art of the Japanese Language, and for introducing western science and culture to Korea.
Nominated for the Best Cinematography Oscar at the 89th Academy Awards, Silence depicts his journey from Portugal to Edo-era Japan (via Macau) to find his missing mentor and to help spread Catholic Christianity across the Far East in the late-16th and early-17th century.
Built by the Knights of Malta, the town’s ruined castle is another of Sernancelhe’s ancient attractions and is well worth visiting for the eye-catching battlemented Casa do Padre (Priest’s Residence) situated at its feet.
And if you happen to be touring the area at the beginning of May, stick around for the local Festa de Nossa Senhora de Ao Pé da Cruz, a lively celebration of spring with much dancing and merrymaking every year on May Day (1st of May).
Sernancelhe is also the perfect base from which to explore the surrounding Beira Alta region, one of the most scenic parts of northern Portugal.
Nearby, in the Serra da Lapa hills that rise to the south of Sernancelhe, stands the sanctuary of Nossa Senhora da Lapa (Our Lady of Lapa). The shrine commemorates the miracle of a dumb shepherd girl called Joana who suddenly found her voice when her mother tried to burn a statue of the Virgin Mary.
Penedono, a short drive north-east of the town, is a charming medieval village worth renowned for its stunning castle (Castelo Roqueiro) featuring four slender crenellated towers that rise aloft like plumes.
Another very old place not be missed is Trancoso, the first of many charming walled towns to be built in this part of Portugal and the site of a famous battle with Spain in 1385.
For a taste of a bustling Portuguese city, why not head for Viseu, the enchanting capital of the Beiras located around 50 kilometres (approximately an hour’s drive) to the south-west of Sernancelhe.
Home to mainland Portugal’s highest peak, the spectacular (and often snow-capped) Serra da Estrela mountain range is also within easy striking distance of Sernancelhe where winter visitors can enjoy some serious skiing and snow-boarding.
Need more inspiration for your next visit? Why not listen to or download the Portugal Travel Show, the podcast for people planning a trip to sunny Portugal…