Should I first tell you about our amazing rides in the Serra da Lousã, or about the Aldeias do Xisto?
Language barrier aside, I had heard about Schist villages many years ago, probably in school. But it took me a while till it clicked.
Had they called them “slate villages” in the English tourist leaflet, I would have remembered, but the word “schist” hadn’t registered in my English vocabulary up until then. Only when I saw the German “Schieferdörfer” translation, I pieced the information together. I wasn’t able to map their location geographically. The Coimbra tourist information was a treasure grove of all the information.
A bike ride was definitely high on our agenda, together with some Fado and more addictive Pasteis de Nata (Creme Pasties) and Bolinho de Bacalhau (traditional Portuguese fish cakes made from salted cod). So it made perfectly sense to combine a bike ride with visit to the Serra da Lousã and the historically, culinary and architecturally unique villages.
We were getting good at sightseeing by bike. Not this time!
The villages are remote but we did not quite realise how remote they are.
Coimbra is a mystical university town that sits high on a rocky hill and oozes “saudade”. We loved strolling through the charming lanes, stuck our head into churches and old-world cafes, and it was late afternoon when we finally, slowly, made our way to the free motorhome parking area across the river.
The next morning our route was supposed to take us to Porto and then further North, back into Spain and France and ultimately towards Berlin. We were running out of time.
Even though it was late afternoon, we set off on our ride. The plan was to cruise over to the town of Lousã, an estimated 25km, visit a couple of the Schist village that seemed not far from Lousã, and ride back. It looked straight forward on the map – the one from the tourist office with the arty touch in earthy brown colours. At the back of the map was a short description of some of the villages and an explanation of the criteria for authentic Schist cuisine, arts and crafts. Yes, very detailed and reliable cartographic material…
Follow the N17 all the way to Lousã and then just look for road signs for any of the 24 Schist villages like Casal Novo, Talasnal, Chiceiro or Candal – a fool-proof plan!
We did not find the N17. Some road signs had village names that we recognised but they were usually not the ones we were looking for. There were more town names that we could not find in our map. For a while we thought we were on the correct road and at some point we didn’t really care where the road was taking us because it was so scenic and pretty, all rolling hills and pine forest and a river running alongside the valley.
And then we found ourselves indeed on the N17 but it was Miranda do Corvo and not the anticipated Lousã, where we came out. Not to worry, the N342 was a major four lane road and we started flying towards Lousã only to realise that adding another 11 km in one direction meant a further 11 km for the return trip. It was past seven. We did the math and had to admit to ourselves that we had left the ride too late and ran out of daylight.
Disappointed, we turned back towards Coimbra. You find details of the Coimbra Ride on Strava.
That night we shed a tear or two while listening to the live performance at Fado ao Centro. Full of happy memories of our ride, despite not having made it to our destination, we both felt sad to say Good Bye to this part of Portugal. Before bed we read some more about the traditions, the history, and the construction rules that the two level, schist-stone houses obey in order to withstand rain and wind and harsh winter conditions. We wanted to see it in order to better understand it, and we decided, instead of driving straight to Porto, we would bugger the tight schedule and detour a little in the morning, visit a couple of the villages by motorhome, enjoy a “Schist lunch” and drive to Porto in the afternoon. A couple of hours… sure it wouldn’t make any difference… and we would catch up the time later. It was an all too familiar routine that got us behind schedule in the first place.
And like so many times before, the couple of hours’ detour turned into an entire day’s delay, and another night by the Lousã castle, and another ride up the 26km climb from Lousã to Trevim.
The fact that we had to be back in Berlin in less than two weeks’ time would have normally freaked me out. But some things can’t be rushed and there is a sweetness to the carefree lack of urgency. Things rarely turn out the way you expect and little did we know how much further behind schedule we would soon get with a clutch repair in Porto… but that’s an entirely different story, which I won’t tell here.
Back to our morning exploring the remoteness of the Serra da Lousã. We said Good Bye to Coimbra with a lingering, melancholic Fado song in our heads and an entire CD in the car stereo. From Lousã we found the road sign to the Aldeias do Xisto and shortly afterwards the motorhome carried us up the most beautiful climb. Sun rays sprinkled golden highlights the reddish trunks of tall pine trees. I regretted not being on my bike.
And then the asphalt finished and a cloud of white dust started trailing our motorhome. And higher we climbed into the mountains. Now and then a gap in the trees allowed glimpses across to another range and more forest. Nothing hinted at any civilisation up there. It was not much more than a goat track in the forest and I was all of the sudden glad that we hadn’t made it this far the previous night.
The first village, Casal Novo, we almost missed, if it hadn’t been for the little red car parked by the side of the track. We perched the motorhome close to embankment, leaving hardly enough space for the slim chance that another vehicles had to squeeze pass.
A stone path lead down the side of the dirt road. All we could see were slate roofs when we descended down the few steps. The place looked deserted. Cats roamed the narrow lanes. Houses, tiny and crooked and made solely from schist-stone, were locked up. Thorny bushes grew out of windows and walls. Alberto filled my hands with sweet and shiny blackberries in no time.
It was eerie. Where were all the people who once lived here? How can a once striving community disappear? What happened to this place? Did life up in the Portuguese Mountains got too harsh and hard for modern humans, or was there simply no means to make a living anymore? Did the lure of material things like cars and computers and electricity reach this forgotten corner of Europe?
We got some answers in Talasnal at Restaurante Ti’ Lena, where we enjoyed a simple lunch, and later in Catarredor, the village with the “German Hippies” we had heard about. The village with some sort of community, where we chatted with Rebella, the young woman who was living there with her infant daughter and her German mother and twin brother and a few other people. She looked like any twenty-something year old woman, wore a skirt down to the floor and a singlet, and she told us how her parents had come from Germany in the late 1960ies to live at the Algarve when it was still rural and undeveloped. She and her mother had returned to the village from Switzerland only a few days before. For the past three years they had spent their summers up in the Swiss Alps herding sheep and goats. She knew how to make cheese, and she told us how life was hard in the village, how her mother runs the “bar” since she lost the herd of goats that had provided a small but steady income. We chatted for an hour or longer. Every answered question raised three new ones, and the “three locals” patiently accommodated to our curiosity. They invited us to have a look at their village, which wasn’t quite so quaint and neat as the other two we had seen before. Some houses reminded me of squatter homes.
It was once again late afternoon when we carefully navigated our motorhome down the dirt track, back onto bitumen and into Lousã. Our first stop back in civilisation was the car wash, not so much for our motorhome but more so for the bikes that were white from dust, even underneath the bike cover.
On an immense high from the eventful and interesting day and already a day late, we had put it in our heads that a quick dash up the same road – the sealed part of it – on our bikes wouldn’t make any huge difference to our already screwed time schedule anymore. What are another couple of hours in the big scheme of things? The climb looked too inviting to be missed. In those days we had very little self-discipline when it came to sticking to plans. I wanted to squeeze every last two adventure out of final weeks of our trip.
By the time the high pressure hose had put the bikes back in ridable condition, it was once again too late for a ride. We were hungry and so we parked the motorhome at the town square, chose one of the two restaurants for dinner and afterwards parked up at the Lousã castle in the fading evening light of a burning sky.
We slept well that night, and for once woke early and were in the saddle by nine. Maybe it was a teeny-weeny bit of bad conscious that got us out early. The advantage of the early rise was incredibly beautiful morning sun light. The now very familiar road, pass the dirt turn offs to Cerdeira and Talasnal, climbed higher and higher up into the mountains. It was an easy gradient and the scenery made it so worth the wait.
Strava details of the Lousã – Trevim Climb.
We did make it to Porto that afternoon, but only limping into town with a clutch about to go. It was Friday afternoon, and it took till Tuesday for us to continue our trip to Modim de Basto and another fascinating climb: Senhora da Graça. But more about that one in my next post!