Once upon a time the earth yielded all the things a body needed. Vines with healing powers twisted around tree trunks, the doctor walked narrow paths between little villages to make house calls, you built your house from the left-over stones nobody “owned” but lied upon the earth for you to find; the local Schist worked great for the roof. You said good morning to passers-by and tipped your hat if you had one.
Then it ends. Nobody in the prime of youth really wants the garden of Eden (why build rock terraces for your vineyard when you could build wealth by working in a factory?) so the garden died; it can only exist in dreams.
Wait though. Vacation is best when you can live inside a dream. Quieter times, kinder times, fresher air. Biking trails, river beaches, rocks to jump from or to lie upon. Welcome, then, to the Schist Villages, where you can celebrate life, maybe as a cannonballing daredevil if you wish.
Once upon a time people farmed the fertile, undulating earth of the Schist Villages. It wasn’t easy, but the earth yield wonders: The lowland valley was called “valley of abundance”. But the farmers and shoemakers got old. The kids left to build cars and computers. The Schist Villages went on life support.
Then they began rebuilding the little houses and the interesting vernacular architecture got spiffed up to charm foreigners.
That’s not to say that the Schist Villages have been turned into a tourist Disneyland. Far from it. When they decided to restore the area, the folks who came to create mountain biking trails found the area much to their liking and many stayed. The top mountain biking racers train here because of the idylic landscape—and the facilities. Life was fun again in rural Portugal.
There aren’t any corporate boxes for you to stay in, no high-rise hotels. Guesthouses and B&Bs rule the roost, like the evocatively named Casa do Zé Sapateiro, the house of the shoemaker. And boy, can that family cook a leg of wild boar!
So where is my favorite place in rural Portugal? Let’s look at a map.
Map of the Schist Villages
Just east of Coimbra is an area of little villages hidden among mountain slopes and leafy vegetation, an area nearly bisected by the meandering Rio Zêzere. The map shows the four sectional groupings of villages.
- Serra da Lousã Group: Aigra Nova, Aigra Velha, Candal, Casal de São Simão, Casal Novo, Cerdeira, Chiqueiro, Comareira, Ferraria de São João, Gondromaz, Pena, Talasnal.
- Açor Group: Aldeia das Dez, Benfeita, Fajão, Sobral de São Miguel, Vila Cova do Alva.
- Zêzere Group: Álvaro, Barroca, Janeiro de Baixo, Janeiro de Cima, Mosteiro, Pedrógão Pequeno.
- Tejo-Ocreza Group: Água Formosa, Figueira, Martim Branco, Sarzedas.
The Serra da Lousã Group has the most villages and the easiest access to Coimbra. The distance between Coimbra and Lousã is a mere 18km, a 27 minute drive.
You can hike, swim, or paddle the Zêzere. You can do nothing. It’s slow travel. You marvel at natural things and stacked rocks made into a house. You take pictures because the goats roam free and you’ve had cheese from them just last night…
I’d be happy to introduce to you some of the mountain cuisine that we packed away while we were there. Remember, plan an active vacation and you can eat more. That’s why I do walk those hills!
We’ll take you through a culinary odyssey that includes Maranhos, a combination of mint, rice and lamb stuffed into a sheep stomach and cooked, sausages made by Jewish folks to disguise the fact they weren’t eating pork, to a “dirty rice” that had us salivating for more.
That’s the Maranhos. They told me I didn’t have to eat the stomach, but that would violate every rule of the cuisine of the poor. You used everything. You ate everything. It was quite good, all of it.
The Maranhos you see above was served at the Varanda do Casal Restaurant in Casal de São Simão, one of the Schist Villages of the Serra da Lousã Group. You can’t miss it. Upstairs the restaurant has views of the countryside. Downstairs you can buy local crafts and get tourist information.
Duck Rice with Orange, Arroz de Pato com Laranjais a traditional Portuguese dish, served throughout the country with regional variations to the recipe. Here it has some chorizo, and makes a good main course when you’re tired of “too much” meat.
Then there’s the iconic Chanfana, a Portuguese goat or lamb stew famous throughout the land. They included the ingredients for this dish on ships during the age of discovery. Since the lamb (or goat) is marinated in wine, it will last for a while. It’s cooked in a wood fired oven in a ceramic vessel. We had a very fine version at the Patio do Xisto Restaurant
If you come across someone in New Orleans who makes a great “dirty rice” you’ve come across a treasure. The rice that accompanied our Chanfana was made from the “offal” of the goat, the bits we don’t get to eat much of in the US unless you’re in Louisiana. The taste of the Portuguese version was out of this world—who could have guessed? It’s the cuisine of the poor, who have done more for tasty cuisine throughout the world than all the Michelin starred chefs put together.
And then there’s Alheira de Caça, a sausage made of game meat and bread with spices like smoked paprika. They cold smoke the sausage, giving it a very smoky taste.
There’s a long and sad history behind this dish. The idea of Alheira comes from the Portuguese Jews, who used to hide their identity by making sausages that looked and were as fatty as the ubiquitous and traditional Portuguese pork sausage. You don’t hear about it much, but the Portuguese inquisition was as brutal as any on the Continent.
These days Alheira, with its strong, smoky taste, can be chopped up and added to bland foods like mashed potatoes to “kick them up a notch” like the chef says. But a sausage and some greens sauteed in olive oil makes a fine starter—or even a whole meal if you haven’t walked up hills all day.
The Alheira de Caça was wonderful at the Vallecula Restaurant in Barreiros. The rustic little restaurant is one of the culinary wonders of Portugal.
The Schist Villages in Pictures: Aldeias do Xisto, Little Rock Houses, Water, Rocks, and Paths
Mountain Biking Facilities in the Schist Villages
Here’s a short video we made introducing the facilities available to mountain bikers visiting the Schist Villages.