One of Portugal’s most historic villages, Sortelha is an ancient place photogenically wrapped inside a ring of walls in the heart of the enchanting Beiras region of central Portugal.
Located 40 kilometres to the south of Guarda and 33 kilometres north-east of Covilhã, it is notable for its rich Hispano-Arabic origins and was once a stronghold of the Moors until they were driven out in the 12th century.
The oldest part of the village is contained within its robust castle walls, and entering through the old Gothic gates brings you to a picture-perfect cluster of idyllic granite dwellings where stones marked with Arabic patterns and script can still be seen on some of the walls.
Nestling on a rocky promontory, Sortelha is the oldest of a string of strongholds guarding Portugal’s vulnerable eastern frontier in days gone by. It’s a medieval village of immense charm with sloping cobblestone streets and ancient alleyways, some of them so narrow there’s hardly enough room for a donkey and cart.
Sitting on a rocky spur overlooking the village, Sortelha’s star attraction is its strikingly dramatic castle which was the first so-called rock fortress (castelo roqueiro) to be built south of the River Côa.
Making good use of the rock formation when building its sturdy walls, King Sancho I chose the site in the 13th century when relations with neighbouring Spain were at a low ebb. The castle is perfectly positioned for defensive purposes and still dominates the upper Zêzere valley, affording visitors panoramic views across the plains as far as the Estrela Mountains in the distance.
In front of the arched castle entrance is a 16th-century pillory topped by an armillary sphere and Sortelha’s old parish church close by has many fine features, including an intricate mudéjar ceiling executed by medieval Moors.
Just 10 kilometres to the east of Sortelha lies Sabugal, another of the region’s characterful villages that’s also blessed with a well-preserved castle dating back to medieval times.
Where to Go in Central Portugal
Covering 20 square-kilometres to the south-east of Sortelha, the Reserva Natural da Serra da Malcata is a protected area of forest that’s home to the endangered Iberian lynx, as well as large numbers of wolves and wild boar.
Less than an hour’s drive due north of Sortelha lies Guarda, a city of immense historic interest with a magnificent Gothic-style cathedral constructed in the 14th century. Located at an altitude of 1,075 metres, it is the highest place in the country and its name reflects the importance of the role it once played in the defence of Portugal’s often-besieged eastern frontier.
Another of the region’s historic villages is Belmonte which lies just 17 kilometres to the west of Sortelha and is the birthplace of Pedro Álvares Cabral, the first of Portugal’s intrepid navigators to cross the Atlantic Ocean to Brazil in 1500.
Sortelha is also the perfect base from which to explore Serra da Estrela Natural Park (Parque Natural da Serra da Estrela), a vast wilderness covering a protected area of some 1,000 square-kilometres, making it the largest natural conservation area in Portugal.
Parque Natural da Serra da Estrela encompasses many quaint little towns and villages, chief amongst them Covilhã (notable for its fine locally-made woollen garments) and Celorico da Beira where some of the region’s best Serra cheese is produced and sold.
This is prime touring country and visitors with time on their hands can fully immerse themselves in Portugal’s picturesque heartlands and savour one of the loveliest rural areas in the whole of the Iberian Peninsula.
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