SERRAS DE AIRE E CANDEEIROS NATURAL PARK
I absolutely love exploring natural wonders and nature reserves in Portugal so I was very excited to visit Serras de Aire e Candeeiros Natural Park. We had quite a tight schedule for this day trip as we had already visited the spectacular Batalha Monastery and spiritual Fátima so we only had the afternoon until late evening to view the park’s delights. I am not great with crowds and although I do enjoy city trips, I love the outdoors being immersed within nature so I much prefer heading off the beaten track and exploring what I would call the authentic rural Portugal. I really wanted to visit the famous Mira de Aire caves but decided we wouldn’t have enough time so we re-visited the caves on another day and combined it with a surfing lesson in Názare. The Serras de Aire e Candeeiros Natural Park covers around 39,000 hectares spread over the municipalities of Alcobaça, Porto de Mós, Alcanena, Rio Maior, Santarém, Torres Novas and Ourém. It became a protected area on the 4th May 1979 to maintain the natural and architectural heritage of the mountains where it is located.
The park is located in the Massif Calcário Estremenho, an elevated geomorphological area located between Ota and Coimbra which integrates the Montejunto-Estrela System. It is a compact group of mountains, made up of rugged landscape of mountain ranges and plateaus. In addition to the Serra de Aire and Serra dos Candeeiros, it also includes the plateaus of Serra de Santo António and Serra de São Mamede. This area is known for its natural beauty, chalk, karst (limestone) and is home to 1500 caves, an amazing paradise for speleologists. If you are lucky you will spot many species of birds and mammals including colonies of bats.
I was astonished at the wide diverse range of epic sights to view in the park, such a vast variety of different wonderful unique places to explore including many hidden treasures such as panoramic breathtaking views across the mountains, hiking and cycling trails, donkey rides, river beaches, natural springs, underground rivers, lakes, ravines, lagoons and waterfalls, lapiás, geological rock formations and natural amphitheatres, numerous caves, fossils and gigantic dinosaur footprints, castles, windmills, roman roads, valleys, salt flats, sinkholes, quaint little villages with small chalk walls and tiny ruins of houses (built centuries ago to shelter the shepherds from the harsh weather conditions) and you might even encounter a shepherd or two along your travels. It was fascinating to learn that there are no permanent water courses on the surface yet the area is rich in vegetation due to the underground water systems which rise to the surface in the form of natural springs. The Park is part of the Natura 2000 network and is known for its biodiversity and water resources that make this region the largest underground freshwater reservoir in the country. I was so excited to plan our itinerary.
- Praia fluvial dos Olhos d’Água
- Pegadas dos Dinossauros em Vale de Meios
- Castelo de Alcanede
- Salinas de Rio Maior, Fonte de Bica (Salt flats)
- Miradouro do Alto da Fórnea (Viewpoint)
- Castelo de Porto de Mós
Praia fluvial dos Olhos d’Água
Our trip started with a spectacular river beach: Praia fluvial dos Olhos d’Água with crystal clear waters, which erupts from a rocky gorge and underground river. We spent some time here and ate a tasty Portuguese picnic. It was a roasting hot day and I wish I had bought my bikini with me. Praia fluvial dos Olhos d’Água is located in the parish of Louriceira, in the municipality of Alcanena and district of Santarém. It has a combination of grassy areas, sand and stone and is surrounded by nature. The Olhos d’Água spring is one of the most important in Portugal due to the fact that since 1880, it has been one of the main sources of water supply in Lisbon, thanks to the Alviela aqueduct. The water from this spring comes from the rain which falls and is led to this place by a complex network of underground channels made up of hundreds of caves. There are some beautiful hiking routes in the surrounding area and I can’t wait to return and get lost in nature.
Pegadas dos Dinossauros em Vale de Meios
When I read about the Dinosaur footprints in Vale de Meios I was stunned and slightly overwhelmed, I absolutely had to add this to my itinerary. I was so delighted to view a quarry with dinosaur footprints imprinted in limestone. I wasn’t disappointed, it was absolutely fantastic and we were the only ones there in this abandoned quarry so we had the whole place to ourselves! I wasn’t expecting much and I thought with my poor eyesight that I wouldn’t see anything resembling a footprint, how wrong was I! It was so impressive and incredibly unbelievable. The footprints date back 168 million years to the Middle Jurassic period and along with those of the Galinha Quarry, they are the oldest known in the Iberian Peninsula. It was a truly extraordinary experience viewing impressions of many different dinosaurs such as theropods and sauropods. My vivid imagination ran wild and I spent some time day dreaming imagining being chased by carnivorous dinosaurs (ha ha). You can even see the claw marks in some of the footprints. It was truly amazing and such a unique special experience to share with my family. Some of the footprints are huge and I really enjoyed running around and placing my own size 37 foot and lady sized hands in the prints and comparing size. There was an abandoned container with some dinosaur artwork and the intrigued family that we are, had to climb up and have a peek inside. To our shock there was an old mattress inside. It looks like someone at some point used this place to crash and sleep, how weird and wonderful!
Castelo de Alcanede
I have now lost count of the many castles we have visited in Portugal. I absolutely love castles. I know I have said this before but I think I must have been a princess in my former life as I have such a fascination with castles especially Moorish Castles. I prefer the not so famous castles which are now ruins where my family and I can roam freely and climb to the top of the turrets and have the whole place to ourselves. This has happened a lot and it’s such a crazy encounter. I often think to myself how lucky we are to have this solitude family experience. I am pretty sure that back in the U.K these such castles would be closed due to health and safety or they would fence it off and charge an entrance fee, an additional fee for parking and add a tacky gift shop. Here in Portugal you can explore for free to your heart’s content and I love it. It’s origin is thought to date back to the occupation of the Romans. After the battles of the Christian Reconquest, D.Afonso Henriques ordered it to be rebuilt. The castle suffered severe damage during the 1531 earthquake and remained in ruins until the 20th century. Restoration work was carried out in 1943. The castle gate and coat of arms above the entrance door are very impressive. Teanna loved this castle so much and I agree it was a special family time. We could have stepped off the edge and faced a quick death but we were very careful whilst climbing the narrow staircases.
Salinas de Rio Maior, Fonte de Bica (Salt flats)
When I read about the Rio Maior salt flats I was very intrigued and just had to visit. It’s such a weird yet natural oddity! The salt flats are located in a large valley next to Fonte da Bica, in a place known as Marinhas do Sal. The salt flats/pans are situated 30km from the ocean and are the only inland salt flats in Portugal. They contain water that has seven times more salt content than sea water and is extracted from rock salt mines in the depths of the mountains.
I have never ever witnessed salt being farmed in the middle of the countryside and it was epic to see the salt pyramids. The area was very quiet and what I would call quirky with lots of tiny wooden huts which were all closed due to Covid when we visited back in mid June. The huts looked epic and sold all sorts of food, drink, crafts and souvenirs. There was a small shop open which sold a range of regional goods and you can even buy some salt to take home for personal use. It’s a shame that the huts were closed as I could have eaten a fartura or two or three! (ha ha). I love the fartura vans which are usually located by the coast here. We enjoy eating a few on the beach watching the sun set. It’s become a family tradition since we had our first Portuguese fartura’s at the the Peneda-Gerês National Park. Once you get over the embarrassment of ordering something with the word “Fart” in it, you are home and dry (ha ha).
Miradouro do Alto da Fórnea (Viewpoint)
We love all the Miradouro (viewpoints) in Portugal. Each one is very different and Fórnea is absolutely amazing. It’s a natural viewpoint and by that I mean no one has built any elaborate fancy glass or wooden platform and there are no additions like a swing, binoculars or a board explaining the history. Fórnea, is a geological phenomenon formation in the shape of a natural amphitheatre which gives it such a magnificent view. Again, as it was close to the end of the day we were the only ones there so had the whole place to ourselves, this is becoming a regular thing for us now with no other tourists in sight. I am beginning to think we might smell as a family as no one is ever around us (ha ha).
I assumed Fórnea translated to “ant” and thought how appropriately named as I totally felt like a tiny ant on top of the mountain, looking down on the huge big wide world below. It was only when I returned home that I realised the word for ant in Portuguese is actually Formiga and Fórnea translates to “oven” (ha ha). Apparently locals call it Fórnea because it resembles an oven, but Fórnea or Reculée is actually a pronounced amphitheatre setback from a lowland into a limestone plateau. It was only a very short trek up to the viewpoint from where we parked on the road and I was not expecting such natural raw beauty. We live in a tiny village within a mountain range so are used to incredible views on a daily basis so this becomes our norm but I was still speechless when I first reached the top. We did our family tradition of jumping in the air and taking photos (ha ha). It felt amazing to jump high and throw my arms up in the air, very liberating although I’m not very graceful like Teanna and kind of look like a sack of spuds (ha ha). We then spent some time here admiring the views and sitting in silence soaking up the atmosphere and ambience whilst the wind played havoc with my fine hair (ha ha). It was such a sense of pure freedom gazing out into the wilderness and I got a little bit emotional. I am so very lucky to be living a new life in such an amazing country. I still wake up most mornings and am confused about my surroundings for a few seconds. Then it hits home and I smile a big wide smile for my new epic yet simple life which brings me such joy.
Castelo de Porto de Mós
Unfortunately the medieval castle was closed by the time we arrived as it was evening so we explored the outside and the wonderful panoramic views then visited a local restaurant for the largest pizza I have ever seen! This castle is very different from the one we viewed earlier in the day and I would say it’s most likely more of a tourist attraction with many visitors. It has an entry fee to view the inside. I must elaborate that the sign outside says the entrance fee is a whopping €1.58 per adult, 79 cents for 6-25 and over 65’s to view the inside area! Why they don’t round it up to a whole number is beyond me but it always makes us laugh. It closed at 18.30 and I have a feeling we arrived around 20.00 as the sun was setting. We ended the day with a visit to a nearby local restaurant and enjoyed a gigantic pizza.
I absolutely loved this day trip and it was definitely one of my favourite places that I visited during my daughter’s 8 week 2021 summer visit. It was simply stunning and it is such a beautiful place to breathe in fresh air and reconnect with nature. We were the only ones at many of the attractions we stopped off at which made the experience truly magical indeed. It was so great to visit with my family and we saw so many varieties of fauna and flora and I especially loved the wild flowers and butterflies. I am definitely planning a return hiking trip with hubby in the near future.