A region famous for its good wines and even better food, the Dão is synonymous with villages lost in time, river beaches and brightly coloured landscapes. It is also home to one of the cities with the best quality of life in the country: Viseu.
If you fancy waking up in silence in a setting that could be at least two hundred years old, this is the place. From the bedroom window, you can glimpse granite houses and terraces cultivated by the only two permanent residents of Póvoa Dão, 14 kilometers away from Viseu in the interior of central Portugal. It is said that the village died and rose again with this Tourism Village. If it used to be in ruins just a decade ago, Póvoa Dão is standing proudly and stonewashed to offer a stay of pure relaxation with views on the Dão river where it’s even possible to swim in the summer.
Relaxing in this village with medieval origins could mean reading a book on the porch for days on end and imagining the life of those who used to live off the culture of corn, flax and wine around here but it is more likely to want to trudge around the property’s 100 hectares, visit the Santo Amaro chapel, some abandoned houses and hike along Roman trails.
The first impression strikes you when you’re on your way to the region. If you arrive during the night, the lit-up houses nestled in the the undulations of the Serra da Estrela and Caramulo conjure up some kind of nativity scene. During the day, it is nature that lights up the landscape, with arbutus, oaks, chestnut and fruit trees, the murmur of the river Dão, wild boars, partridges, otters and squirrels.
At the Tourism Village, after settling in, you can choose to prepare your meals at home or eat at the elegant village restaurant where the menu is distinctly regional featuring a dish of pork chunks fried in a cast iron pan called Rojões or Lagareiro-style octopus cooked with olive oil and garlic, and partly prepared with organic products from the farm.
An equally delicious alternative is the Restaurante Martelo in the same village, Silgueiros, a more sophisticated version of the old Curral da Burra, opened in 1970 by António Martelo whose fame travelled beyond Portugal’s borders. And why? Because this gentleman came up with the idea of turning an old barn into a restaurant using the building’s own stone walls on the outside to cook chunks of veal and cod that are still served with grilled potatoes – an original alternative to baked potatoes – and vegetables from his garden. So excellent it is definitely worth a mention. Apparently, even the King of Spain was a regular.
In the nearby picturesque village of Santar, other landscapes welcome you. More sophisticated, but still very much linked to the pleasures of the palate.
We’re heading to the Paço dos Cunhas, refurbished by the Dão Sul company and voted “Wine Tourism Destination of the Year 2008“. This is a beautiful eighteenth-century building which houses a restaurant, a wine shop and a wine bar. Surrounded by gardens and the Casa do Soito, it also includes 25 hectares of vineyards, gardens, orchards and shrubbery.
Despite the weight of the stone and of the years, the building gives off a contemporary feel which is partly down to its interior having been rebuilt from scratch apart from the wine press. It is now used for business meetings, meals for up to 120 people, workshops and wine tastings (advance booking is advised).
Next door, you’ll find the mythical Casa de Santar, a seventeenth and eighteenth century manor belonging to Countess D. Tereza de Lencastre de Mello and which has been in her family for the last fifteen generations. Also part of this enotourism project, the cellar, the chapel, the old kitchen, the coaches room and the gardens are all open to the public. There is no better way to whet your appetite as the chefs offer author’s cuisine with traditional products and original dishes like breast of quail, laminated truffle and tiled carrot; seafood bundle with pumpkin cream, coriander and leak emulsion or octopus roll with fresh sautéed vegetables (seasonal menu). For dessert, from the creamed rice pudding with cinnamon semifredo and lemon crisp to the sponge cake with citrus and mint sorbet, you can’t go wrong. There’s only one but… they leave (at least) some weight on your conscience.
Capital of well-being
After such bucolic experiences, an alternative is to walk to Viseu, the regional capital city and also a quiet place. The historic city centre dating back to the 6th century and almost immaculately restored is yours to discover with an unmissable cathedral that started being built in the 12th century during the reign of King Afonso Henriques, and the Grão Vasco Museum created in honor of one of the most famous Portuguese Renaissance painters. Lose yourself in the maze of medieval alleys featuring avant-garde shops alongside traditional retro outlets and drugstores selling brands of toothpaste and cleaning products all Portuguese grandparents still remember.
Viseu is a clean city with fluid traffic yet still very traditional. Increasingly resembling other urban centres, it still keeps offering novelties to residents and visitors. One of the latest is in the Palácio do Gelo shopping mall: an ice bar called Bar do Gelo where temperatures are always negative, even in the middle of August as its interior is entirely made of ice “imported” from New Zealand and sculpted by artists. At the entrance, visitors are given gloves and a fur coat so they can be comfortable inside and seats are also covered with natural fur.
Although there are other places of this kind in Europe, this is the first ice bar in the Iberian Peninsula. During a visit that should never exceed thirty minutes, you can have a vodka or any other drink that does not freeze. And in the end, you go back outside thankful for the Portuguese climate.
Another novelty on the accommodation side is the opening of the Pousada. Installed in the majestic 19th century former St. Teotónio hospital and refurbished under the watchful eye of architect Gonçalo Byrne, it is the newest business card for the city that has been voted as the one with the best quality of life in Portugal by the association for the defence of consumers’ magazine, DECO Proteste.
Where to eat
Casa Martelo / Curral da Burra – Falorca-Silgueiros, tel. 232 958 884.
Regional cuisine focussing on stone cooking. Good serrano ham and cheese
starters. Average price: € 20
Paço dos Cunhas de Santar – Largo do Paço, Santar, tel. 232 945 452/965 667 899.
Signature cuisine based on regional products. Excellent wine cellar. Price
Mesa da Sé – Rua Vasco, 29-31, Viseu, tel. 232 425 205.
Regional cuisine with original touches. Make sure you try the scallops and the clam rice created by owner Elvira Soares. Average price: €12.5
Hotel Palácio dos Melos – Rua Chão do Mestre 4, Viseu, tel. 232 439 290.
International cuisine, ideal for fine dining in one of the most beautiful buildings in the city, which also happens to be a hotel. Average price: €30
Where to sleep
Póvoa Dão tourism village – Póvoa Dão, Silgueiros, tel. 232 958 557,
Featuring about two dozen restored houses, Póvoa Dão is the ideal place for
those who prefer to unwind closer to nature. The decor is rustic but pleasant and
the houses are equipped with kitchens. Day rate: 1-bedroom house from €50
Pousada de Viseu – Rua do Hospital, tel. 232 457 320, www.pousadas.pt
The Pousada has 84 rooms, 20 of which are suites. It also has two
restaurants, a spa, a heated indoor pool, an outdoor pool, a gym,
parking facilities, a bar, a meeting room for up to 400 people and a lounge with a fireplace. Double room from €120 per night.
Viseu Map: http://maps.google.com/maps?q=viseu&hl=pt-BR&ll=40.685845,-