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The peaks of the Serra da Estrela – the highest mountains in Portugal rise to the southwest of Guarda. The range is basically a high alpine plateau cut by valleys, from within which emanate two of the country’s greatest rivers, the Mondego and the Zêzere – the only rivers to begin and end in Portugal rather than crossing the border from Spain. The mountains – snowcapped in winter – soon impose themselves upon any approach, while the lower flanks on either side of the range reveal a patchwork of small villages that retain much charm. Some Portuguese come to the serra to ski in winter; many more clog the narrow roads in summer looking for picnic space, or wind in convoy up the mountain highway between Seia and Covilhã to park right on top of Torre, at 1993m, the country’s highest peak. A network of hiking trails covers the peaks and valleys, though relatively few people take to the paths to explore the region.

Over the last few decades life in the mountains has changed markedly. Farmers have moved from stone mountain houses to more modern dwellings on the valley floor while many of the former intensively cultivated Zêzere valley terraces have been abandoned in favour of spreading pine plantation. Meanwhile local village production is often now directed towards the tourist traffic – widely available are queijo da serra, an unctuous mountain cheese, and blankets from the wool of the grazing upland sheep, as well as rye bread, fruit preserves and honey from the fertile valleys.

The encompassing Parque Natural da Serra da Estrela (whttp://www.rt-serradaestrela.pt) covers around 1000 square kilometres, and stretches for around 55km from north to south and around 25km east–west at its widest point. From the west, access is from the N17, through the small service towns of Seia or Gouveia and then on over the high mountain roads, deep into the park; the smaller western-flank villages of Linhares, Folgosinho and Loriga offer a prettier introduction to the mountain landscape. The valley town and spa of Manteigas, pretty much in the centre of the park, is the single best base for hiking and touring, while the ski industry – such as it is – centres on the road between Torre peak and Covilhã, south of Manteigas. Covilhã lies just outside the park proper, and is the only town of any size in the region.

 

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