Serra da Estrela

With a height of 1,993 metres, Estrela (meaning star) is by far the highest and most imposing of all the mountains on the Portuguese mainland. Topped only by Pico in the Azores, it is an integral part of the central chain of Iberian mountains and the main feature in a magical land of cobbled roads, Roman bridges, ancient castles, gushing waterfalls, stately manor-houses and tiny villages stretched out along a fertile plateau between the Zêzere and Mondego rivers.

The Serra da Estrela mountain range represents a natural barrier between northern and southern Portugal, with a mix of Mediterranean, Atlantic and continental influences strikingly evident from its wide variety of vegetation.

Its central plateau exudes an alpine-style ambience nestled in the very heart of the country, with picturesque glacial valleys, rock-strewn masses, natural amphitheatres, peaceful lagoons and large swathes of humid grassland harbouring many endemic types of flora.

The highest point of Estrela mountain, and indeed the whole of mainland Portugal, is Torre where a solid stone tower built by King João VI in the early 19th century brought the mountain’s height up to a neat 2,000 metres. Torre is also a popular place for star-gazing and other astronomical activities.

On a clear day, the view from Torre stretches far and wide, encompassing Serra da Boa Viagem on the Atlantic coast and Serra de Gredos over the border in Spain.

The well-protected Parque Natural da Serra da Estrela covers some 100,000 hectares across the Seia, Gouveia, Covilhã, Manteigas, Celorico da Beira and Guarda districts of the region, with schist and granite featuring prominently.

The large numbers of rock rose, holm and Lucombe oak are visible signs of the Mediterranean climate that predominates much of the area, while a few rare examples of yew and common baldcypress trees still exist, being the sole survivors of the Serra da Estrela region’s earliest and most primitive forest.

Sheep rearing, wheat farming and production of the creamy, flavoursome Estrela cheese are some of the main activities carried out on the mountain slopes, along with forestry along the banks of the Zêzere.

Known locally as casais, many houses typical of the region can still be seen in their original splendour, built with stone walls and straw roofs in sheltered locations close to rivers and streams to protect inhabitants from the harsh meteorological conditions during the winter months.

Serra da Estrela is particularly alluring in summertime when the meadows are blanketed by buttercups and dotted with grazing sheep watched over by thick-coated mountain dogs wearing studded collars to protect themselves and flocks against the wolves which still roam those isolated parts.

From the sheep’s milk comes requeijão, a deliciously fresh ricotta cheese as soft and white as satin, as well as the gluey queijo da Serra with its refined taste and fine smell of the Estrela mountain pastures.

Large and very loyal, the Estrela mountain dog is endemic to Portugal and has been used for centuries to guard both herds and homesteads throughout the region. Calm and fearless, it is one of the oldest breeds in Portugal and an ideal house dog despite its size.

Still unknown to many winter sports enthusiasts around the world, the modern ski resort at Torre is another of the Serra da Estrela’s hidden highlights, with skiing possible for up to 150 days a year due to an innovative combination of natural and artificial snow.