January in the Serra da Estrela – and a warm welcome in the Pousada de Manteigas

Wednesday, January 29, 2014, 19:42

Portugal is a country with constant sunshine, sandy beaches and balmy breezes, right? Well, not entirely. Let me tell you why.

Portugal is so much more than the Algarve, which takes up perhaps only a tenth of the country, but it is often the only part that summer holiday makers know. There are, of course, sandy beaches but there are also wide grassy plains, mountains and forests and it is the huge mountain chain in the centre, the Serra da Estrela (literally the mountain chain of the star), which I want to tell you about as winter takes hold.


For the rest of the story, click here.

This January we drove up through the mountains, which rise to 1993 metres (6539 feet) at the highest point called the Torre (tower).  We planned to stay in a Pousada - more about these glorious hotels later - which overlooks the deep glacial valley of the River Zêzere. In fine weather the view is spectacular. This year, though, the weather has been exceptional, just as it has in Britain, with excessive rain and high seas. Up in the serra, as we climbed higher and the cloud sank, we found ourselves in thick fog; then rain began to drive almost horizontally, turning first to sleet and finally as the temperature plummeted, to snow. The windscreen wipers were doing overtime and we crawled along, worried about the sheer drop to the side of the road. Eventually we broke through the blizzard to see what looked to us more like Scotland than Portugal.


We had been wondering whether or not to turn back, though that would have meant as long a return journey as going on would be but, encouragingly, as we stopped to take a couple of snaps, a snow plough came round the corner, making me jump over the barrier to avoid being drenched by the flying sludge. Now the road looked black and safe instead of white and slithery. We went on and found, tucked into a hairpin bend in the road, the Pousada de Manteigas and a warm welcome together with tea in the lounge.

Manteigas Pousada lounge

You only have to look at a road map to see that this is not the only hairpin bend on the road to Mantiegas. In fact it must be the squiggliest bit on the whole map of Portugal. We had now had enough of the car and, as Manteigas itself was hidden by fog, we decided to stay put until morning so we settled down to read up on the fauna and flora of the area until bed time.

The choice of breakfast was as always wide, ranging from the standard bread and jam or cheese and ham, through cereals, fruit salad and yoghurt to scrambled eggs and bacon, all set out on a thick check-patterned woollen cloth that made one think that cold weather was not unusual up here.

Manteigas Pousada breakfast

Manteigas was just visible, though most of the glacial valley was hidden by low lying cloud. This is what we could see from the breakfast room window.

Manteigas Pousada view

Beyond the miradouro (the view spot) where you can see a parking sign, far, far below lies Manteigas and beyond, stretching away into the cloud, is the perfectly straight, u-shaped glacial valley of the Zêzere. So, as you can tell, the view would be magnificent.... if only you could see it!

After breakfast we drove down to the town, hoping to be able to take the road up the valley and over the very top of the mountain range via the Torre, and thence down to Covilhã, a town so steeply built onto a hillside that you really need to remember to buy all your shopping as a trip back up for forgotten salt or butter would be wearing indeed on your calf muscles.

It wasn't to be. At the end of the town, just past a trout farm, where the valley road begins, was a barrier saying that the road was closed. We had no choice but to take the low road instead, bringing back thoughts of Scotland:

Oh, ye'll tak' the high road, and I'll tak' the low road,
And I'll get to Scotland afore ye...

Well, had you or someone else disobeyed and taken the high road when we took the low one, we should certainly have been in Covilhã before you.

Perhaps next time we'll tackle the Serra da Estrela in summer!

Have you had unusual weather experiences in Portugal? Do let us know if you have.


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