The town of Viseu was a pleasant stop, but afterwards the weather continued to frustrate us a little as we’d been patiently waiting for a decent weather window to undertake a planned 40 mile cycle ride in this region. We’re not fair-weather cyclists by nature, but without a clear day you don’t get the stunning views and the same experience. Also, if we got soaked by rain, drying wet gear presents a logistical challenge when in an aire where you are not permitted to hang out any clothes to dry, as this is deemed to be a camping activity. Good, clear weather is the key for an enjoyable and practical cycle, when your base is a small motorhome. Reluctantly, we decided to move on towards our next stop, and to concentrate more on walking for a day or two, until the weather improved.
Staying off the motorway due to our uncertainty of how to pay the toll (the toll must be pre-paid we are told, but buying a ticket in advance of travel at post offices that don’t open on a Sunday is impossible) we followed an older ‘B’ road that followed the same route parallel to the motorway. We were in no real rush and happy to dawdle, but each village we reached, and there were many, was entirely paved in cobbles and this slowed our progress to an uncomfortable bumpy crawl. As pretty as it was to see these rural villages, and the road hugged the slopes creating fantastic views down the adjacent valley, we vowed to ensure we have a motorway toll option in place for future journeys, if we can.
For quite a number of miles in the valley road we passed through small villages with huge flying ants swarming outside, hundreds hitting the windscreen every minute. We needed to use the wipers, even though it was smearing them across the glass, to ensure clear visibility. The constant pattering of their inch-long bodies on Benny, like heavy raindrops, was disconcerting and we were quite glad not to be out walking in such a swarm.
We arrived in Guarda about two and a half hours after leaving Viseu, a trip that would be under 50 mins on the motorway. Rather than heading to an aire on the north east side of town, we stopped about one kilometre shy of the centre, parked on the side of a wide road with ample space, then walked into Guarda from here; logistically much simpler.
We had assumed Guarda, the highest city in Portugal, would be larger. For half our walk it looked like there was not going to be a town at all, as we were expecting a large city to appear. We reached the main square and located the tourist office, but as usual no maps of anywhere other than the immediate town were available, so still no maps or information for the Sierra de Estrela walks we were hoping to undertake over the next few days.
A walking tour map for Guarda had a detailed route, taking in most of the main sights, which was stated to last some two hours. We completed this wander in a little less than 30 mins, and we thought we had dragged it out somewhat.
We first visited the cathedral, only metres away from the tourist office in the central square. There was a service on so we didn’t linger, but it was pleasantly austere, simplistic and neat internally. Outside, a statue of the 11th century king Sancho I stood guard by the cathedral. The 18th century Provost’s house was on the opposite corner of the same square. A short walk away was the 13th century Jewish quarter, although visiting here felt like an unwelcome intrusion into the current occupiers’ lives.
We saw the remains of the original city walls and various gates around the perimeter, that all had a different use in days gone by. We had our lunch in a park at the top of the town, with a view of the nearby villages (and of a terribly clad ugly shopping centre right adjacent to the ancient city walls). From here we did a little shopping in the impressively modern mall before returning to the main square for a final look around.
After our quick shopping side-trip, we moved on to the nearby town of Belmonte. We passed through more rural villages and avenues of trees and over many more cobbled roads and raised speed bumps, before arriving in our aire for the night, in a parking area adjacent to a seldom used bus station. It doesn’t sound too glamorous, but it was a rather nice spot, paved and level, with all services available for free.
We decided on a short wander into town before dinner, with little expectation, as the walk from our aire to the centre of town was rather less than salubrious. We passed a strange roundabout installation, where the design was all plastic sheep, dogs and farmers, a tacky full size version of a rural scene, as would appear in a model railway set.
Climbing up through the town, the centre suddenly looked a little more looked after, and we passed a large fountain arrangement with picnic tables and neatly designed pergolas and barbeque areas that must be well-utilised in summer. We continued up the hill and were delighted by the far reaching views across the valleys on all sides of the town’s castle positioned, unsurprisingly, at the very top. The castle walls and keep were mostly intact and with a modern amphitheatre constructed of modern cut stone inside the castle, it was a neat juxtaposition of two contrasting times. It was great to see a contemporary use of the castle has been accommodated, respecting both the old and new. The castle also houses an impressive Manueline late Gothic style window, added by the Cabral family in the 15th century.
A small bell tower with steep steps leading to the bell stood alone in the cobbled square near the castle. An old man, previously resting on the steps, obligingly gave way to allow us to climb to the top and enjoy the view. A tiny stone house with a colourful washing line of clothes sat adjacent to the castle entrance. An old lady dressed all in black unpegged her laundry and returned it inside her tiny stone home, with no windows at all on the two elevations visible to us.
A large green and white water tower with the town name written on the side formed a large portion of the skyline. Not too dominant a feature, but eye-catching in that it’s unusual to see a town name painted on the side. Its dominance was more about the contrast against the older buildings surrounding it. A neat, white church with stone quoins and window surrounds was the only large structure, bar the water tower, to break the skyline.
The town has been home to a small Jewish community since the 13th century, a constant presence in all the prevailing years and still continues strong today. A small museum commemorates their centuries of history in the village. We passed by old men congregating in a neat, green square by a large statue of Pedro Álvares Cabral, a famous son of Belmonte who is credited with the discovery of Brazil in 1500 CE, and the town recently celebrated 500 years of continuous missionary work in Brazil following his original landing.
All these interesting facets and experiences from a small, previously unconsidered and insignificant town visit, gave us a feeling of having been treated to an unexpected jewel on our journey. It’s sometimes easy to forget that history happens equally everywhere, not just in the well-known cities where the wealth and interest is concentrated. This was a facinating place, made all the better for us knowing nothing about it before our arrival.