Nestled in the Lousã Valley, not far from the city of Coimbra in central Portugal, is a secret world alive with ancient fairy tale magic.
In a patchwork landscape of lush mountains and relics of medieval castles, 27 Schist Villages wait to be explored by the intrepid explorer. Emerald moss creeps across quiet paths, very much reflective of the gentle pace of life in these charming unknown valley villages.
The Schist Villages were largely abandoned in the 19th and 20th Centuries by the young of the day who wanted to set themselves up in the cities. Wooed by economic opportunity, they dismissed the peaceful, quiet charm of a traditional sleepy village. Many of the Schist Villages fell into disrepair.
However, over recent years locals and expats alike have returned to these magical villages to restore the stone houses and take advantage of the traditional way of life that so many have forgotten how to live.
Most of the Schist Villages now are a mixture of renovated homes and a few uninhabited ruins, making the villages both charming to visit, and equally exciting to explore.
Where does the name Schist Village come from?
Schist is a funny name for a group of villages – especially for an English speaker. The name doesn’t sound all that complimentary…
The group of villages in the Lousã Valley get the name Schist from the type of rock that was used in the construction of their houses.
Schist rocks are rocks where you can see the differences in layers of rock with the naked eye. Because the layers are clearly distinct and all oriented in the same direction, it makes it very easy to split the rocks into plates, which is exactly what the founders of the villages did.
The rocks are used to build walls and tile rooves in the villages, making them visually and spiritually distinct from the whitewashed architecture more often seen in Portuguese towns and cities.
You’ll also find Schist rock used for paving in the villages’ winding streets. When you’ve got such a ready source of free building material, why not?!
Hiking Between the Schist Villages
There are seven official hiking routes in the Lousã Valley.
A good place to start your hike is the 11th Century Lousã Castle, just south of Lousã itself. The castle was built to control access to Coimbra from the South, and is nowadays classified as a National Monument in recognition of its historic significance.
The castle itself is open to explore during set hours (10am – 1pm, 2pm – 6pm), and is worth some time before or after your hike.
An Easy Circular Route
The route known officially as PR2 is an easy to complete three-hour round trip. You’ll cover 6km on the hike, and visit the Sanctuary of Nossa Senhora da Piedade as well as two of the main Schist Villages: Talasnal and Casal Novo.
Whilst the route isn’t generally too challenging, it is quite hilly, so it can be a good idea to tackle the route in a clockwise direction to save yourself an extremely steep climb right at the beginning. That said, any who’s ever tried descending a steep path will know that can be just as demanding on your calf muscles! You’ll feel a bit of a burn – it’s worth it!
The route is well sign-posted throughout, so once you’re on the right track you won’t need to overly rely on your map, though still worth having it for reference.
For most of the hike you’ll find yourself engrossed in forest and vegetation, occasionally crossing an energetic stream by way of a casually positioned timber plank. You’ll feel like a bona fide explorer.
About half way through the route you’ll arrive in Talasnal, a Schist Village at the top of a hill. Not only will you be blown away by the gorgeous views, you’ll also enjoy the opportunity to rest for a short while in the village and grab some local lunch.
A More Challenging Longer Hike
If you’re really looking to lose yourself in the Lousã Valley – not forever, but perhaps for a couple of days – then combining routes PR3 and PR4 offers you a mesmerising and physically rewarding experience.
Starting at Lousã Castle, the Levada Route (PR3) follows a levada (bet you didn’t see that coming), which channels water from the mountains in to a hydroelectric station, which is still in use today. There’s something particularly enthralling about a waterside hike, and you’ll be treated to plenty of mirror-effect water here.
You’re also likely to spot local wildlife during this hike, including deer and wild boar.
The Schist Villages you’ll pass through on this 7km leg of the hike are Candal and Cerdeira.
Candal is particularly well prepared for visitors and boasts a Schist Villages shop, where you can browse unique crafts made by locals in both traditional and modern styles. The shop also has a terrace for a refreshing drink and slice of cake.
If you’re considering turning this into a two-day hike, Candal could be your perfect stop-off point for the night. There are some good B&B options – though it’s a good idea to book ahead as pandemic-inspired domestic tourism has made Candal more appealing than ever.
Cerdeira has a more natural – if not magical – feel to it. In fact, it’s difficult to know for sure where nature stops and human design begins in this incredible Schist Village. One of the highlights of this village is the quiet sound of gently trickling water passing through the spring, which slinks past the village under a bed of green vegetation.
Combining the Levada Route with the Four Villages Route, offers you an inspiring return leg, with the opportunity to add the villages of Catarredor, Vaqueirinho and Talasnal to your itinerary.
The starting point for this route (PR4) is in the Schist Village of Candal – another reason it’s a great choice for an over night stay between these two connected hiking trails.
Today’s route is 10km and presents you with another challenging hike. You’ll feel physically tired come the end of the day, but mentally refreshed and emotionally energised.
As you venture out on today’s hike, you’ll notice the gorgeous oak, chestnut and olive trees that fill the voids between villages. Some of these trees are centuries old, and will have witnessed these very villages being built, flourish, become abandoned, descend into ruin, and most recently be resurrected and given a new lease of life.
Talsnal, which also features in the short, circular route outlined above, is arguable the most beautiful of the 27 Schist Villages. Occasionally engulfed in misty clouds, this hilltop village is a storyteller’s dream. If you’re seeking inspiration for your great novel – soak up the inspiration in Talsnal.
In addition to the villages on today’s route, take a moment to stop at the Shrine of Senhora da Piedade – a tiny chapel dedicated to the patron Saint of Vila da Lousã. This white-walled chapel, with its terracotta pitched roof, bears more of a resemblance to the rest of Portugal than the local Schist Villages, which makes for an intriguing contrast.
Between the chapel and the Castle of Lousã, be sure to enjoy the river beach of Senhora da Piedade. The beach is, of course, a Schist beach, as you’d expect. Even the diving board is made from schist! Yes, there’s a diving board – it’s about 1.75 m high, so remember to pack some swimming gear for this hike.
There’s also a shallow pool, which is safe for children to enjoy, and a bar with beautiful views over the mountains. There are changing rooms and showers available too.
Where to Stay in the Schist Villages
The Schist Villages are a well-kept secret – event many Portuguese people don’t know about them. So, whilst you’ll find some information on the standard booking sites, such as Booking.com, it’s a good idea to check out the official booking website for the region: Book in Xisto.
On the official booking website, you can browse B&B accommodation, as well as book tables at local restaurants for your stay. There’s also a section on their site where you can book onto local experiences, if you prefer to explore with a knowledgeable local host.
The Schist Villages are spread all across the valley, with Talasnal, Cerdeira, Comareira and Casal Novo being the closest to Coimbra. Agua Formosa is the furthest South, whilst Martim Branco and Sarzeda stretch out to the East of the valley.
Candal is particularly well-positioned if you’re looking for a base from which to explore a number of different villages, which is a good option as each village has its own distinct character.
However, if you’re looking for more of an escapist retreat – maybe even a week without your phone (heaven forbid!) – Figueira could be an ideal option for you as it is the most isolated of the 27 Schist Villages.
Top Things To Do In the Schist Villages
Chill out on the river beaches
The river beaches in the Lousã Valley are award-winning, thanks to the quality of the water and their safety and accessibility records. 14 river beaches were awarded the internationally-recognised Blue Flag in 2021, and 21 beaches were classed as accessible in 2019.
In the past the local tourist board has organised events at some of the beaches in the summer, so it’s worth checking their events listings to see if they have anything planned for during your visit.
Get the adrenaline pumping in Serra da Lousã
If you’re the adventurous type, the Lousã Valley is home to some intense climbing experiences. In particular, prove your mettle by tackling the Via Ferrata of Pampilhosa da Serra.
This “iron way” is a climbing route prepared with metal ladders, cables and other supports to make this challenging climb accessible to any adrenaline junkie, without requiring lots of climbing experience or specialist equipment.
The climb starts at the base of the Santa Luzia Dam and makes an almost vertical start as it targets the landing that connected with the national road at the top of the rock.
Try Maranhos and Tigeladas
There are many ways to explore an area, and one of the best is through food. So, whilst you’re visiting the Schist Villages, be sure to make a reservation for one of the traditional local restaurants.
On the menu you’ll likely find maranhos, a tradition dish made with a mix of goat meat, chouriço, dry-cured ham, rice, and mint. The dish is typical of the area and dates back to the 19th Century, and most often eaten at celebrations.
For dessert, order yourself tigeladas, a traditional baked custard dessert, which is served with a golden-brown crown – a little like a crème brulée. Inside the custard is rich and creamy, with a hint of lemon setting off the warm cinnamon flavour. It’s thought that the dish has its origins as a special sweet in the convents of central Portugal.
Marvel at the Fraga da Pena waterfall
For your insta-moment, take a trip to the Fraga da Pena waterfall. Engulfed by towering European Oaks, and Sweet Chestnut trees, this 19-metre waterfall is an inspiring and relaxing natural wonder in the protected landscape of the Açor Mountain.
The waterfall can be seen from multiple angles, and there’s a charming wooden bridge that give you a phenomenal view, plus a great photo opportunity. New profile picture? You’re welcome!
Come here with a book, and nestle at the base of one of the grand, historic trees. Or perhaps connect with your inner self with a nature-inspired meditation in this truly mesmerising space.
If you enjoyed this article you might also like to read about Hiking in Sintra