Portugal’s Best Kept Secret
While most travelers to Portugal travel along the sparkling coast, only visiting the cities of Porto and Lisbon, those who venture further inland—into the mountains—will discover places where time passes slowly: the Schist Villages.
For everyone who doesn’t remember their 8th grade earth sciences class, schist is a type of rock, related to shale. Parts of the interior of Portugal are dominated by schist, which has been used for centuries as a building material. And so, people living in this region of central Portugal built entire villages out of schist—steps, walkways, garden walls, houses, etc. These clusters of stone construction cling to hillsides and epitomize Old World charm.
Until recently, many of the 27 historic villages had fallen into disrepair—some abandoned completely as the younger generation left for education, jobs, and life in modern towns. But this story has a happy ending! Several years ago, interest grew in preserving and reviving these centers of Portuguese rural culture. The villages have since banded together to become an ecotourism hub that encourages visitors to connect with nature, sustains a livelihood for residents, and preserves a traditional way of life to be enjoyed by all.
What makes the Schist Villages so special? Because they are at the center of a story about conserving and promoting a unique part of Portugal’s heritage, while at the same time reviving it in a relevant and sustainable way for the 21st century.
The houses and villages have been restored with traditional methods and materials, but also with modern electrical and plumbing systems. People are moving back to these hillside hamlets, attracted by the slower pace of life, proximity to nature, and historical atmosphere. Hiking trails and paved roads linking the villages have increased their accessibility and viability. Many talented artisans and crafters have found their niche in these villages and open their studios to meandering visitors. Some of the larger villages even have cafes and art galleries.
The way of life in the Schist Villages is unique. Residents still bake bread in community, wood-fired ovens and wash clothes by hand in the village laundry pool fed by mountain water. Traditional and religious celebrations are regular occurrences, and a high degree of self-sufficiency is required to make a life here.
A visit to the Schist Villages is a trip to a simpler time and place—a time before modernity, where tight-knit communities celebrated and sorrowed together, and where a unique culture developed in relative isolation. And because this area is still largely off the radar of most international travelers, there are only a few other travelers spread among the villages, keeping the sense of tranquility intact.