Ancient trees arched over the country road curving along a narrow mountain ridge into Casal de São Simão, a tiny schist village in central Portugal’s Serra da Lousã. We slotted our car into the one remaining space in the small car park at the top of the village, took note of the restaurant just behind the parking field, and headed down to our cozy apartment in a stone house overlooking a dramatic gorge.
For the next week, our watchwords would be quiet, silence, and absolute tranquility. This, one of our earliest recollections of Portugal’s beautiful countryside, remains with us, from a week of slow travel in Portugal’s Aldeias do Xisto east of Coimbra. Such memories are among those we cherish more than ever after a year of global distress. Portugal’s schist villages are still there, as they have been for centuries, ready to work their magic on pandemic-weary psyches.
Ready for a timeout
Long before we decided to move to Portugal, Tom and I spent six glorious weeks exploring the country as guests of a number of food and wine producers. That journey—from the Algarve to the Minho and back again—was a six-week extravaganza of generous meals and wine tastings, in a remarkable outpouring of Portuguese hospitality.
It was also a time filled with long days of driving and challenging our car’s GPS, a trip bracketed by three-day drives between Portugal and our then-home in Switzerland. At about the three-week point, Tom and I were in need of a lie-down, and time away from being on the go from sunup until bedtime. A gloriously restorative week in a private home in a remote village proved to be just the ticket.
Our choice was Casa Amaral in Casal de São Simão, in the Lousã Mountain district. The Medieval term “casal” described an agglomeration of two or three houses in a rural environment, and this one is picturesque in its simplicity. The village’s single street is lined with stone houses that have been restored by individual home owners, according to personal taste and budgets. The nearby Ponte de São Simão, is said to date from Roman times, and the fifteenth century Hermitage of São Simão at the entrance to the village, has a gothic inscription.
Portugal’s springtime weather is famously changeable. We spent our first few days in the village lounging in front of a fire with books and travel guides, rain pelting down outside our windows. Between showers, we ventured out to explore the village, and when the sun arrived in force, took to mountain roads to visit other schist villages in the Serra da Lousã.
At home in the schist villages
The Aldeias do Xisto network is a grouping of 27 villages, speckling the interior of the Central Portugal Region. The villages, distributed over four distinct zones, reflect the architecture, gastronomy, and cultural traditions of a stunning landscape that is a bit off the beaten path but still close to Portugal’s urban centers.
Small terraces dot the landscape, and evidence of long-ago agricultural activity can be seen in the remains of threshing floors and village ovens. The region, with its ridged hills and deep valleys, is dominated by varieties of shale. Just about every building is made of stone, with houses, walls, and bridges plastered with granite and quartzite, and with the rolled pebbles from nearby streams. Most buildings here are ancient, although in Casal de São Simão a mid-twentieth-century fountain brings water from a spring on the slope on the opposite side of the steep valley. If we were to return in October, we might happen onto the Feast of Walnuts, associated with the Feast of São Simão and São Judas Tadeu.
At the time of our stay, Casal de São Simão had just four permanent inhabitants, and one afternoon two of them invited us for tea. The couple showed us through the home they had restored and introduced us to their goats. Later, over homemade cake and quince marmalade, they regaled us with tales of their move from town to the countryside and told us more about the network of villages. We came away with a basket of fresh fruit from their garden, and with a better appreciation of this special part of Portugal. We could not have had a more off-piste week away from city life!
Hearty home-cooked food
Our accommodation was self-catering, which was perfect after weeks of hearty restaurant meals in Alentejo and Lisbon. Still, we had to sample the food at Restaurante Varanda do Casal just steps from our apartment, and were so glad we did. After a wonderful meal-with-a-view there, we picked up locally made jams and cheese at the shop below the restaurant.
Our friend James Martin of Wandering Portugal has traveled here, too. He gloried in the foods of the region, from maranhos (in Casal de São Simão!) to chanfana, a goat or lamb stew known in Portugal since the age of discovery. James describes his tour through the villages as a culinary odyssey, which he writes about with gusto in Wandering Portugal’s Schist Villages Map & Travel Guide.
For Tom and me, a happy discovery was our meal of roasted kid at Tí’Lena in Talasnal. The restaurant, reached by stone steps down from the national road, is a rustic delight, filled with memorabilia. The few tables invite family gatherings and the menu is limited, memorably so on the date we ate there: cabrito, roasted with potatoes and chestnuts!
Exploring the Serra la Lousã
The schist villages occupy a natural paradise, small and easily explored over a long weekend. With more than 600 kilometers of walking routes and mountain bike trails, the district also rewards a longer stay. In summer, a network of river beaches borders some of Portugal’s purest waters. Any time of year, the region’s prehistory beckons. The interpretation center for the Prehistoric Art of Poço do Caldeirão in Aldeia do Xisto da Barroca and the Rock Art Interpretation Centre of Chãs d’Égua in Arganil are discovery points for prehistoric rock engravings.
We were in the schist villages for a rest, but there is plenty of action on tap here, as well. The Aldeias do Xisto association has created a network of hiking and cycling trails of varying levels of difficulty. Dozens of well-marked trails connect the villages, lookout points, and places of interest. Casal de São Simão is located in the wonderfully craggy Fragas de São Simão, and every village offers a unique perspective.
Each village has its own personality and there is a range of accommodation. Writer and travel planner Julie Fox knows the region well, and can provide plenty of practical information for planning a stay in the villages, or help travelers combine visits with a village walking holiday.
Time for a reboot?
Our week in Casal de São Simão felt at the time to be an intervention of almost divine proportions. We emerged from our little stone house refreshed, invigorated, and inspired to continue our travels. When we are ready to travel again—and it won’t be long—a return to the Aldeias do Xisto may be just what we need, as we emerge from our year of hibernation.