There is no better plan for a good weekend than traveling and staying overnight in the land where Beira Alta ends and Beira Baixa begins. Despite their different names, these two regions share many similarities, which is why many people refer to this piece of land as only “Beiras.”
Whoever gets in the car and drives through these mountains brings home a new meaning of the word relaxation. There is an indescribable sense of serenity in those territories. And I, who like words so much, have a hard time finding the right ones to convey the same feelings when I glimpse an infinite meadow or stumble upon a historic village still walled in.
And the same can be said for the flavors and aromas that float there and how pleased I am when my palate contemplates them. Namely the lamb stew, the cheese from Serra da Estrela, or the “requeijão” —cottage cheese — wrapped in pumpkin jam.
If there are still romantics left in our world, you will surely find part of their soul around every corner on any road in this part of Portugal. I speak of the joy one gets from the harmony of that land that the hustle and bustle of the city do not allow us to have.
In this itinerary, the visitors should include many historic villages worth visiting. These include the landscapes of the highest mountain on the Portuguese mainland, Serra da Estrela. A part of Portugal immensely devastated by the last summer’s wildfires and that needs tourists, more than ever, to revitalize its economy.
Still, for now, this article aims to take you to the town of Celorico da Beira.
The history behind the Castles
This historical village is not only important locally, but its history is directly linked to a broader one, namely in several episodes of the Portuguese nation. And it’s in the same municipality that one can find nearby towns such as Trancoso and Linhares da Beira. Two villages with centenary castles and walls that protected the Portuguese from Castilian onslaughts.
But like many other villages, the history of Celorico da Beira goes back to times even before the nation’s foundation. The visitor can find this in the evidence of Roman occupation in its surroundings, with one of the oldest Roman roads in the country. Namely, the ancient roman road built in the 1st century B.C. can be found between the parishes of São Pedro and Santa Maria and Vila Boa do Mondego.
On these roads, using one’s imagination, one can hear the noise from the hard work of those who placed those stones, opening paths that until then had never been opened. And going forward a few centuries, one can also feel their destruction as the rocks were thrown against the barbarians or simply stolen by people locals to build their houses as the Middle Ages began.
Although it lacks historical documentation, Romans, barbarians, and Muslims will have passed there, with the last ones entering the Iberian Peninsula in 711 BC.
Then, with the foundation of Portugal in the 12th century, the Christians reconquered the territories, namely the first king of Portugal, D. Afonso Henriques. He was the one who also ordered the construction of fortresses in Celorico as well as in Trancoso.
This defense investment would still carry on in the 13th century, during D Dinis’ reign. And in Celorico, this is visible in the existence of the Castle’s keep. To those who visit it, look at the small balcony, and observe the famous machicolations, where archers would spurt arrows or even boil oil against the enemy. A dangerous time to be on the opponent’s side.
But the significance of these castles goes further than one may expect, as it’s linked to a critical moment in Portugal’s history, the Battle of Aljubarrota. From 1383 to 1385, Portugal had a severe dynastic crisis with no king to govern the country. As such, taking this advantage, John I of Castile entered Portuguese lands to conquer us.
He entered the south while some of his troops penetrated through another border further north. But now imagine a stampede of knights entering Portuguese lands, thinking they could easily conquer us, only to have their hopes crushed upon finding three important defensive castles and the enemy there ready to fight.
I’m mentioning the castles of Celorico da Beira, Linhares da Beira, and Trancoso. The local governors let their rivalries aside and joined forces to defeat the Castilians. The Battle of Trancoso in 1385 would be crucial in not only defeating Castilians but also as a kind of rehearsal for the Battle of Aljubarrota. A moment when Portugal defeated Castile and consecrated king of Portugal D. João I Mestre de Avis. This king would become famous for having been the father of Infante D. Henrique, the most crucial figure at the beginning of the maritime discoveries.
Thus, if we stop to think about the broader influence that Portugal had in the world’s history, namely in the process of globalization, maybe we will look at Celorico da Beira differently. We will perhaps walk through its streets feeling the weight of history that goes beyond a mere medieval castle lost in the Portuguese countryside.
Where to taste the Serra da Estrela cheese
But even those who may be unaware of this more profound history, at least will not miss the call of another tourist attraction.
On the slopes of the Serra da Estrela, one can see the Bordaleira breed of sheep spreading across the land, providing us humans with some of the best cheese you can taste, eat, and cry for more in Portugal. The Serra da Estrela cheese!
It’s here in Celorico da Beira that Estrellacoop — the leading cooperative of the Serra da Estrela’s cheese producers— has its headquarters and where the authenticity of the cheese is attested by the famous PDO (Protected Designation of Origin).
And it’s in this town where one can visit the Museum of the Farmer and the Cheese and the “Solar do Queijo,” where this delicacy appears on the main posters as its icon. One can learn more about this tradition while seeing old pictures telling the famous cheese story.
On this mountain, we still see shepherds taking care of their flock, spending their days from sunrise to sunset going up and down the hill. It is an old vocation that is hard to find elsewhere but still prevalent in this part of Portugal.
But one doesn’t need to visit the museum to feel the cheese perfume. It’s enough to wander around Celorico da Beira streets, where cheese can be bought at a reasonable price.
And for those who are not such big lovers of very flavored cheese, you are always invited to try the “requeijão” — curd cheese— that white cheese typically eaten with any type of jam.
All this while wandering through the streets of Celorico, with the Serra da Estrela in the distance. And if you’re lucky to meet some locals, they will not fail to know how to welcome you. Which in Portugal almost always means being invited to sit at a table.
In this region, this welcome comes with the taste of buttery cheese, which one can easily eat with a spoon while drinking a glass of good red wine and taking bites of corn, rye, or wheat bread. These are some of the ingredients for happiness that can never be missing from a Portuguese table.
And while we are enjoying the cheese, it is important to know that we are eating something that, in 2024, will apply to become a UNESCO World Intangible Heritage Site. A curious name is intangible, perhaps because we can’t resist its presence for long, and the cheese quickly melts in our mouths and disappears.
In addition to the Solar, Casa dos Queijos in Praça da República sells cheese to whoever passes by and wants to take some with them. It’s very easy to find the store as it is right in the middle of the biggest square.
Besides cheese, Celorico proudly presents a diverse cultural agenda, with food festivals such as the lamb festival that usually takes place in the fall. Or with the square that is filled with ancient stories, where the passionate visitor sits in the square to listen to them.
Recent History of Celorico da Beira
But this trip is not only about food or medieval history. In more recent history, Celorico da Beira is proud to call one of the masters of Portuguese aviation a son of its homeland. We are talking about Sacadura Cabral.
This important Portuguese figure is also a global one, for having, together with Gago Coutinho—another historical figure— made the first aerial crossing of the South Atlantic in 1922, on the centennial of Brazil’s independence.
And as your visit is about to be over, don’t forget that those other historic villages are very close. It is obligatory to go to Linhares da Beira, where you can also glimpse parts of the history of the Jewish people in Portugal, a region with strong traces of Jewish culture.
But while in this region between two areas, put a visit to the town of Almeida on your agenda. This town will surprise you with its well-preserved fortresses. And continue your trip, stopping in Sabugal, where you’ll find one of the most well-preserved Castles in Portugal. Continue then to Sortelha, where a medieval fair is held every summer within its walls.
These and many more historical villages remain in Beira Baixa, where their stories foreshadow in our imagination, and for which I will reserve another article.