My first encounter with Portugal was back in 2011 and it was love at first visit. Back then I did a road trip from Porto to Algarve, following only the coast line. So I missed a whole side of the country by not diving more inland. Last November I had the opportunity to visit Beira Baixa area, near the Spanish border. Located in the central area of Portugal, just north of Lisbon, this region is made of Castelo Branco, Idanha-a-Nova, Oleiros, Proença-a-Nova, Penamacor and Vila Velha de Ródão municipalities.
Despite being one of the largest areas in Portugal, it is also one of the least populated, many young people moving to larger cities like Porto or Lisbon. So if you are looking for a quiet road trip, where you can discover traditions, beautiful villages, delicious local food and beautiful landscape, Beira Baixa is the place to go.
Following the Egyptian olive oil
All around Europe we are used to young people leaving the countryside for “a better life in the city”. Many rural areas become almost abandoned, just like this region of Portugal. However, smart, overworked people living in the city are starting to realize that 9-5 might not bring that fulfillment and joy that others might think.
Tiago and Ricardo are the perfect example of that. They left their busy life in Lisbon and decided to give the rural life a chance. They took upon themselves to recover an old olive grove, leased 180 ha in Idanha-a-Velha region and started to produce Egitânia, a bio olive oil. This special oil is produced from a variety of olives – Galega, Bical and Cordovil – that don’t rely on heavy irrigation.
In addition to the revival of the grove, Tiago and Ricardo reintroduced sheep grazing with two endangered species: Beira Baixa merino and the black merino. Basically they are part of the team, “controlling” the grass growth around the farm and producing the manure to fertilize the soil.
The whole production process is more laborious. These hundred year old trees production is slower and not as rich. The olives are picked with the help of solar powered scissors and once on the floor, the leaves are separated from the olives by hand, before being sorted into crates and sent to the press. This process ensures the oil is kept 100% organic and you can taste it in the exceptional quality of the final product and of course can be seen in the price.
Portuguese olive oil heritage
After taking a tour of the land, witnessing the harvesting process (which is done mostly manual) and discovering a few aspects of what make Egitânia special, we had a tasting at the Idanha-a-Velha Mill. Here you could see some of the old presses and mills used to process the olives and transform them into the liquid gold.
To have a more comprehensive idea about the tradition of olive oil production, you should check out Olive Oil Nucleus – Lagares de Proença-a-Velha. Here you will get the chance to step through history and understand the culture of olive oil in Portugal and especially the Beira Baixa region. You can actually find some of the oldest olive trees in the world in Portugal. And when I say old, I mean they caught the Roman empire and the invasions of Moors and Visigoths… so some of them are over 2000 years old.
In contrast with the old methods of producing the oil, we also visited the Agricultural Cooperative of Olivicultores do Ladoeiro, for a modern take on olive oil production, from reception to final product.
Exploring the villages around Beira Baixa
The rural area of Portugal is full of charming little villages that offer not only delicious olive oil, tasty food and beautiful people, but also hidden gems. Cobblestone streets, old cathedrals, Templar towers, Roman bridges will make you fall in love with central Portugal. Take your time and explore the villages of Beira Baixa. You’ll be walking in the steps of many cultures like Celts, Visigoths, Muslims or Templar Knights.
Discover old traditions in Idanha-a-Nova like the music played by the Adufeiras. This is a typical women’s musical group that has been passing the tradition from one generation to the other since the 8th century, when the instrument – the adufe – was introduced in the Iberic peninsula by the Moors. Typically made with sheep or goat skin, these square tambourines are usually played exclusively by women on religious celebrations or town festivals.
Penha Garcia is an archeologist dream playground. Here you will find many fossilized marine creatures. And you might wonder how come? this is inland and on top of a mountain. Well, 480 million years ago this area was under the sea. And Penha Garcia is one of the places in the world with a very high concentration of these fossils, in a remarkable state of preservation. You can see some of these fossilized rocks and enjoy a nice cup of coffee at Penha Garcia Vila Templaria.
Another particular thing you will find in Penha Garcia is a tank in a “field” of carnations. It is a symbol that marks the end of the dictatorship in Portugal, on 25 of April 1974.
Local cuisine in Beira Baixa
You can taste the tradition in all the recipes, some passed down from generation to generation. The biggest advantage of exploring rural areas like Beira Baixa is that almost every meal feels like it’s home cooked by your grandmother. Typical foods include delicious cold cuts and various enchidos (typical sausages), vegetable cream soups (yum), different cuts of roast meat – pork, lamb, cow, paired with wild mushrooms, roasted or mashed potatoes and of course the traditional bacalau (cod fish). If this doesn’t scream home cooked comfort food, I don’t know what is.
The gastronomy in Beira Baixa is deeply rooted in its agriculture. Its granitic soils and lavish pastures make it the perfect place to create rich, tasty cheese and luscious liquid gold from hundred year old olive trees. In fact, the Castelo Branco cheese, Beira Baixa spicy cheese and Beira Baixa yellow cheese, together with the bio olive oil are protected by DOP certification.
For a truly local experience, you can also join a local mushroom picking group and pretty much gather your own dinner. I have never been mushroom picking and to be honest, I am not a big fan of eating them (unless they are on pizza hahaha), but none the less it was a great experience to have. Together with my friend Luli, we found the biggest mushrooms of the group (made everyone a bit jealous also). You can check out her experience here (she even cooked them).
If you have never been mushroom picking, it’s good to go with a group that knows how to identify the edible ones. The huge ones we picked are called bolete mushrooms. And unlike normal edible mushrooms they don’t have gills, but a spongy head.
A few rules to take into account when picking mushrooms:
- never pick mushrooms with red cap or stems. Go for white, brown or tan.
- look at the gills. If they are white don’t pick them. Look for brown or tan gills.
- avoid mushrooms with scales on the top. They may appear as spots also. So a white mushroom with tan or brown spots is no good.
- seek mushrooms without a ring around the stem, underneath the cap.
- and final advice never eat mushrooms that you are not 100% sure of.
Where to stay in Beira Baixa?
I stayed at Hotel Fonte Santa, that is located literally in 5 minutes walking distance from Monfortinho Thermal Spa. From the entrance I had a good feeling about this place, but it really exceeded any expectations I had. The rooms are large, elegant and very comfortable, the food is delicious with an abundant breakfast for all tastes (local and international options), the surrounding area is perfect for walks and the spa is just amazing. The only downfall… because it was November, I couldn’t use the pool outside.
For more info about the hotel and bookings access this link: Hotel Fonte Santa.
While the surroundings are amazing to explore, there are also a lot of accommodation options you can use, from 5 star hotels to guest houses. You can find a complete list here.
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I visited Beira Baixa by invitation. The opinions expressed in this article are, however, totally independent and only mine. I try my best to keep things fair and balanced, in order to help you make the best choice for you. This article contains affiliate links. I may receive commissions when you click these links and make purchases, but this doesn’t influence your final price. The decision is yours, and whether or not you decide to buy something is completely up to you.
- To reach Beira Baixa you can either rent a car and drive the countryside or take a train from Lisbon to Castelo Branco. With the car you can reach in about 2h30min, with the train a little over 3h. But to get around I recommend a car.
- The local cuisine is delicious and feels like it’s homemade comfort food. So don’t miss out.
- Visit a local olive grove and buy the oil directly from the producers. You’ll help out the local community and you’ll get top quality products.
- For olive picking season, visit the area in November, to enjoy to the max a place like Fonte Santa, visit during summer.
- Other ideal visiting periods:
- April – Cherry trees blossoming
- May – Cherries & Lemon Festival in Proença-a-Nova
- May – Soup Festival in Idanha-a-Nova (Portugues love their soups)
- July – Boom Festival in Idanha-a-Nova (A truly psychedelic global gathering of music, arts, culture & hands-on sustainability)
- December – Penamacor Christmas Celebrations