Over breakfast we discovered just how cheap property is in Castanheira de Pera. Our waiter Rafael explained how old properties could be picked up for under 40,000 euros, with the average property renovation costing between 15-20,000 euros. Alternatively, if it was a brand new villa we were after, then one could be built for around 100,000 euros (excluding land costs). With property prices so low, it’s not surprising the town is becoming popular with overseas buyers.
We were still pondering the pros and cons of living in a sleepy little backwater that only really came alive between June and August when we reached a pretty village on the outskirts of town and I noticed one of the houses on our left had a Se Vende sign attached to its fencing. As he’d just been saying how pretty and well-positioned Ameal was, I cajoled Harri to take a closer look. Definitely a renovation project, we agreed, as we noted the corrugated steel roof on the single-storey annexe and the exposed timbers above the first floor entrance.
A few metres up the hill, a mature couple had been sitting on a wall watching us. As we approached, the man stood up. He had noticed our interest in the old house and now he introduced himself as the owner. He would show us around, he insisted in French, ignoring our protestations. In the end it was easier to agree and, reluctantly, we left our rucksacks in the front garden of his nearby home and waited while he found the keys for the ruin.
We followed the owner from room to room, and it was obvious we were talking a complete rebuild here. The existing rooms were small and dingy, the overall layout not convenient for modern living. A high wall at the front obscured any views from the lower floor and the single-storey rear extension currently lacked a roof (the missing terracotta tiles were piled up on site). I glanced through an upstairs window at the garden; it was overgrown, narrow and sloping. Vicente, our lettings agent in Albufeira, once told me how, in his experience, it’s often the women who are unable to see a property’s potential, imagine how it might look after refurbishment while their husbands can instantly see the possibilities. I studied the dark crannies and crumbling walls of the 1959 property, but it was no good … this house in Ameal was never going to be my dream home.
Now it’s embarrassing enough when you view a house you really don’t like with a third party, but when it’s the owner showing you around … And to use estate agent parlance, he was ‘motivated’ to sell … for just 15,000 euros. I tried to make encouraging noises as we did a second tour of the tiny rooms. I could see Harri was growing impatient and wanted to get walking, but the couple were now insisting we join them in their kitchen for tea and biscuits. The conversation wasn’t exactly flowing as the man and his wife switched easily from Portuguese to French and we listened hard for the odd word we recognised … in either language. Not one to be defeated by our lack of enthusiasm about the house, the man jotted down his contact details – and a reminder of the low price – on a sheet of notepaper.
It was eleven o’clock when we bade the couple farewell and eventually got the day’s walking underway. We were following the old road to Lousã, which meant steadily climbing for seven kilometres to cross the mountains which separated the two towns. As we gained height, so the wooded hills of the Serra de Lousã revealed themselves around us. Eventually, the ground levelled out and a sign informed us our current elevation was 977 metres – we were higher than if we’d been standing on the top of Cader Idris in Snowdonia (though having clambered up boulders to reach the top of that Welsh mountain, I have to admit that today’s gradual climbing on quiet roads was a lot easier).
Now we could see Lousã in the valley and, in the distance, an urban sprawl which Harri thought must be Coimbra. In the distant haze, we could just make out the Atlantic Ocean. I felt a tingle of excitement. In two days’ time we’d be walking along the Silver Coast. We passed a sign for a miradoura but although we kept our eyes peeled it proved elusive. Before long we were heading downhill again, our stomachs rumbling loudly. Two mountain bikers passed us, pushing their bikes up the steep, rutted track we were trundling along. We finally settled down to eat at a wooded picnic/barbecue area at the bottom of the track.
The Serra de Lousã is known for its schist villages, so-called because all the houses were built from schist. Luckily, our route passed through Casal Novo, a once-abandoned village which clung to the wooded slope. Some of the properties have been renovated, and we saw a sign offering one for rent. Whether or not anyone lives in Casal Novo on a permanent basis, we weren’t certain.
The final descent to Lousã was tough-going, not least because the steep gradient meant my toes kept ramming against the toecap of of trail shoes in the most agonising manner. It was hard to believe this precipitous, stony and, in places, badly rutted path was once the main route between Casal Novo and Lousã. It was tough enough walking downhill; I don’t think I’d have wanted to turn around and attempt to walk back up to the village.
Our efforts paid off when we emerged from the trees to find ourselves gazing down at the gorgeous gardens, whitewashed facades and schist pathways of the Santuário de Nossa Senora da Piedade. In fact, it’s actually four individual chapels built at different times, three on the hillside below us and one next to the castle. Apparently, it was to this tranquil place that the mothers of local soldiers came to pray for their safe return. The misery of the painful descent was immediately forgotten as I attempted to capture the incredible scenery with my camera. We were too tired to explore all the chapels – and the cafe/bar was not yet open – but we had great fun darting in and out of the cooling spray of the garden watering system.
We crossed the River Arouce and looked down onto the praia fluvial; like Castanheira de Pera, the river had not yet been dammed for the season, but it looked far less appealing with the only access via a rung ladder. A multi-lingual signpost had surely been translated with online software for it waxed lyrically about the tiny beach ‘having innumerable propitious hidings [sic] place to rest, to eat or to dream about of [sic] legends of Peralta Princess’. And there was me thinking people just came here to splash around in the river! We set off in the direction of Lousã, worn out but in far better shape than the old banger which kept stalling on the road leading to the castle.
I read on a blog that the Castle of Arouce is the smallest in Portugal. Its exact age is unknown (the village it once protected is known to have existed in 943 but disappeared over five hundred years ago); however, the original fortress is thought to predate the Romans. The castle has been rebuilt several times and changed its name to the Castle of Lousa towards the end of the 14th century. One of its most distinctive features is its ramped foundations, which had the effect of hindering invaders using assault towers or scaling ladders from reaching the castle keep (we’ve all seen those Games of Thrones battle scenes).
From here, we strolled along the road to reach Lousã, where we looked for –and failed to find – a bar with outside seating. We ended up sitting inside with two friendly old local guys who were already on the port at 5pm and chuckled when I raised my own drink and wished them ‘saúde‘. Our bill for three bottles of Super Bock came to just one euro 80 cents, making it the cheapest round so far.
We had already wandered passed our hotel – the Palacio of Lousã – so it didn’t take long to retrace our steps. According to my DK Eye Witness Travel: Portugal book, this grand eighteenth-century property was still a private residence when the book was last revised in 2010; however, happily for us, the palace where the Duke of Wellington is reputed to have eaten his rival’s dinner after his victory at the battle of Battle of Foz de Arouce now welcomes paying guests.
Just over a year ago in the Costa Brava, we stayed at the Hotel Palau lo Mirador in Torroella de Montgri. When we presented ourselves at reception in that exquisite hotel – grubby, exhausted and with large rucksacks strapped to our backs – the receptionist politely informed us where we could park our car. We were amazed to be asked about our car again at the Palacio of Lousã, I’d like to think if I ever arrived at a palace with Harri in a car (a remote possibility I admit), I’d manage to look slightly less dishevelled than I did right now. On the bright side, we were also invited to partake in a glass of the delicious local medronho.
There’s no denying the Lousã palace, completed in 1818, was gorgeous with a wonderful, wide staircase and huge chandeliers – and our room enormous – but I think Torroella just pipped it to the post in terms of jaw-dropping gorgeousness.
If you want to follow in our footsteps, download our route from Castanheira de Pera to Lousã (20.7 km).
The Via Algarviana – an English guide to the ‘Algarve Way’ by Harri Garrod Roberts is available from online bookstores, included Amazon’s Kindle store and is priced at £2.99.
The Via Algarviana: walking 300km across the Algarve by Tracy Burton is available in paperback (£5.99) and Kindle edition (£2.99) from Amazon.