Driving Tour: Serra do Caldeirão
Beginning around 10km north of Loulé, this is a beautiful protected area of undulating hills, cork oaks and scrubland. Hiking, birdwatching, pretty hill villages and hearty mountain cuisine all abound. Easy to explore on a day trip, the region also has some wonderfully authentic guesthouses set within farmhouses if you want to stay.
Length 108km; five hours
One of two main towns in the Serra, Alte is a compact village of flower-filled streets, whitewashed buildings and several fontes (traditional water sources). The fontes were traditionally used for the mills and former wells; the largest, Fonte Grande, passes through dykes, weirs and watermills. The small Pólo Museológico Cândido Guerreiro e Condes de Alte museum also provides tourist information.
The hamlet of Torre’s school fell into disuse as there weren’t enough children. There wasn’t much work around either, so three local women decided to put the building to use. It’s now the Fábrica de Brinquedos workshop where they make charming wooden toys such as cars, aeroplanes, spinning tops, building blocks and puzzles from carob, almond, gorse and olive wood.
Coffee & Cakes
Back in Alte, stop for a morning coffee and Portuguese pastry such as a tarte de amêndoa caramelizada (caramelised almond tart), at Agua Mel, a welcoming cafe in the village centre, with elevated views extending from its balcony.
Rocha da Pena
The Serra do Caldeirão’s most worthwhile short walk is climbing this 479m-high limestone rock via a well-signposted 4.7km circuit (allow two to three hours return). Museums in Salir, Alte and Querença stock a basic map-guide. Carry water and snacks (the only refreshment stops are small shop-cafes at the base and in Pena village) and heed seasonal forest fire warnings.
Whitewashed Salir is a sleepy hill village spread over two hills below the 12th-century ruins of its castle. The intriguing museum Pólo Museológico de Salir has a glass floor above the Moorish foundations, and displays other local archaeological finds, including Neolithic menhirs (standing stones), Iron Age stelae (stone carvings) and Roman pottery
Querença is one of the region’s prettiest villages, with whitewashed buildings set around a square graced by an early 16th-century church. There are plenty of good walks hereabouts; information is available at the Pólo Museológico da Água, with a model of a waterwheel and information panels (in Portuguese) on water use; it also holds the key to the church.
Nearby, in the village of Clareanes, a former threshing mill’s stables now house the charming restaurant Monte da Eira, with white-clothed tables over several rooms and two outdoor terraces. Refined rustic specialities, such as estfado de javali (wild boar stew with local herbs) and caçarola de coelho e ameixas (rabbit and plum casserole), are complemented by hundreds of Portuguese wines.