Castelo Branco, Portugal
If there is one thing I have learned from watching various ex-pats' YouTube channels documenting their efforts to find the Simple Life in Portugal, it's that a lot of them wind up settling in Castelo Branco district. Of the six or so channels that I follow, five of them have settled in the area, pursuing varying levels of homesteading and off-griddiness. To see this lifestyle in action, please check out my Video Page, where I have recently added a bunch of new videos from just these kinds of channels. See also this recent article, High Tech Homesteading in Central Portugal, which takes a look at these vloggers. All of which raises the question - what is it about this region that is so appealing to those interested in simplicity and self-sufficiency?
This is an open article that will attempt to answer that question. By "open," I mean that the article will be an ongoing construction, allowing me to drop in new information and media as it comes up. Please see my open article on Santarém, for an example of this type of thing. I like this format because it lets me do what I'm about to do, which is quickly post some images, maps and whatnot during a limited time window (i.e., before housework) without worrying about completism. It produces a kind of rolling sense of achievement, and I'll take it where and when I can get it.
I will preface this article by revealing that I have never been to Castelo Branco. All of the information here has been culled from the internet and also from people I know through social media who live there. One such person, Joseph Marsh, lives and works a farm in Fundão. He starts us off with this testimonial:
"My family and I moved from the East of England to Fundão some five years ago now. We bought a cherry farm in the Beira Baixa, often referred to as the fruit bowl of portugal.
This valley between the Serra da Estrela and the Serra da Gardunha mountains is a diverse countryside of rolling green hills, fruit orchards, babbling brooks and rocky mountainside.
In my opinion it is the very perfect place to grow greens and pasture livestock. A real gem for anyone who wants to be closer to nature and looking to relocate to a more rural lifestyle in sunny central Portugal."
Thanks, Joseph! He's a lovely man with a great feed on Instagram as "farmerforfun" - definitely worth a follow. Lots of regular updates about all aspects of running their farm.
For another overview of Castelo Branco that focuses more on tourism, check out this article at Portugalist.com.
This article is becoming so long that the limitations of the blog post format are becoming evident. I wish I could drop a linked Table of Contents, but I can't. So, here's an old-fashioned toc.
TABLE OF CONTENTS
CITIES, TOWNS AND VILLAGES
Castelo Branco Municipality
For the purposes of this article, "Castelo Branco" will refer to the district unless otherwise specified.
Castelo Branco is about as central as it's possible to be in Central Portugal, located in the middle of the country on a north/south axis, and also substantially inland and bordering on Spain. This inland location results in very high temperature extremes during the summer as well as an increased risk of wildfires, both of which will be examined in some detail later.
Using the city of Castelo Branco as a point of reference, see below for travel times to various destinations. Keep in mind that the district is very large, taking over 2 hours to drive it's fullest width, with the city of Castelo Branco relatively central.
- Lisbon by car: From just over 2 hours (with tolls) to just under 3 hours (without tolls).
By train: 3 hours, 18 minutes
- Porto by car: From 2 hours and 30 minutes (with tolls) to 2 hours and 50 minutes (without tolls). By train: 4 hours and 55 minutes. Yikes!
- Badajoz, Spain (domestic) by car: From 2 hours and 8 minutes (with tolls) to 2 hours and 40 minutes (without tolls)
- Salamanca, Spain (international) by car: From 2 hours and 35 minutes (with tolls) to 3 hours and 10 minutes (without tolls)
It's a long drive to any of these airports, but it's good to have options that are all pretty much equidistant depending on where you are in the district.
- Coimbra by car: From 90 minutes (with tolls) to 2 hours or more (without tolls).
By train: 3 hours and 30 minutes
- Tomar by car: From 75 minutes (with tolls) to 90 minutes (without tolls).
By train: 2 hours and 50 minutes
- Entroncamento by car: From 70 minutes (with tolls) to 1 hour and 40 minutes (without tolls).
By train: 1 hour and 40 minutes
- Santarém by car: From 90 minutes (with tolls) to 2 hours (without tolls).
By train: 2 hours (hm, something fishy with train times here...)
- Praia da Nazare by car: 2 hours. In fact, you are looking at 2 hours minimum to reach any salt water beach.
- Zarza la Mayor, Spain by car: 70 minutes. Having a Spanish town relatively nearby is a real bonus. Gas is cheaper in Spain, for one.
Obviously, add to or subtract from all and any of these travel time estimates depending on your location within the district.
As far as location goes, I can see why it might appeal to those trying to establish a simpler, more self-sufficient life. The area's remoteness and intensely rural character means that property is plentiful and often very inexpensive, allowing larger chunks of land to be bought for the same price as elsewhere (i.e., closer to the coast). More land means more privacy and more space to do the things needed to be self-sufficient. Being very central in the country also has appeal, in that it provides roughly equidistant options for facilities like airports.
***I'm having some small issues with these thumbnail galleries. Links to individual images are not working properly. I'm working on it. ***
These photos, each from a different municipality, were taken by
the extremely prolific, thorough, and generous Vitor Oliveira.
Click here for his collection of Castelo Branco galleries.
As anyone who knows this website can attest, I love Google Earth in general and Street View in particular. These screen grabs represent my morning stroll around Castelo Branco.
As the images above portray, the district of Castelo Branco contains a variety of landscapes that are typical of rural Portugal. This country scores about as high as possible on the bucolic Shire scale, with rolling, groomed agricultural fields and foothills filling in the spaces among a few mountain ranges, most notably the Serra da Estrela. With the granite bones of the country emerging through the fertile soil of the region in so many places, it's not surprising that large, exposed stones are common, both as bedrock and boulders. This type of landscape is sometimes referred to as "Barrocal," a term that I have encountered before in my earlier examinations of the Algarve (see "Zoning Out in the Algarve" for more on this). Interestingly, there is a large park just outside of Castelo Branco that is dedicated to this type of geology, The Barrocal Park.
The landscape is watered by rivers and streams, which, when they flow through towns and villages, create a quintessentially Portuguese water feature, the "praia fluvial," or river beach. Access to water and opportunities for water recreation are more than a luxury, however, as temperatures easily exceed 30 degrees Celsius in the summer, with extremes in the high 30s and low 40s not unheard of. There are at least two significant reservoirs, including Albufeira da Barragem de Santa Águeda and Albufeira da Barragem de Marechal Carmona. Down in the southernmost municipality of the district, Vila Velha de Ródão, runs a very famous water feature, Portas da Ródão: "It is an imposing gorge dug by the Tagus river in the quartzitic crest of the Serra do Perdigão, which created a stranglehold in the water stream 45 meters wide."
(I include that quote because the Vila
Velha de Ródão website is so great, and I love the translation as "stranglehold.") Of course, the size and flow of these water features depends on the season, with the winter months seeing a lot of rain to swell and quicken them. Indeed, the summers are so hot and dry that locals expend considerable effort to capture and sequester as much water as possible during the wet months to help offset the dry ones.
I am having some difficulty finding a definitive source for this, but it looks like Castelo Branco's main crops are olives, grapes, citrus fruits, and cork; that is true for a lot of Portugal. One municipality in the district, Fundão, is known particularly for it's cherries.
Over a third of Castelo Branco is covered by a landscape that is composed of elevations that range from large hills to small-ish mountains. Almost all of them are planted with tree farms growing either pine or eucalyptus. That's a problem every summer when wildfire season happens, because both species are very flammable. Eucalyptus, in particular, is known for it's volatility. These screen grabs kind of sum it all up - monoculture as far as the eye can see.
Click on an image to trigger Google Earth with that view.
I often evoke Tolkien's Shire when describing rural Portugal, and Castelo Branco feels like an outer province of the Shire. Still groomed, gently-rounded, and managed using traditional methods, but on the verge of the wild and woolly. It is undeniably beautiful.
That beauty is likely the most compelling reason for choosing Castelo Branco as a place to homestead. If you're going to live off the land, why not live off of beautiful land? Also, there is enough variety of landscape there to suit a wide range of tastes.
CITIES, TOWNS AND VILLAGES
These photos, again, are thanks to the amazing Vitor Oliveira.
Click here for his collection of Castelo Branco galleries.
The following images are all screen grabs from Google Earth's Street View. Click on an image to be taken to that view so you can walk around these places yourself. The descriptions are quotes I have pulled from various pages, but I hope to replace at least some of these with descriptions from locals.
Monsanto - "Defined by its landscape, Monsanto hangs off a mountaintop overlooking the Portuguese countryside, with views for miles.The mountaintop has actually been extremely important strategic position since prehistoric times. ...
The village has hardly changed in hundreds of years, and enjoys distinction in Portugal as a living museum. Due to this standing, Monsanto cannot be changed and has retained its classic village charm.
Its tiny streets wind at a steep grade past red-roofed cottages tucked against mossy boulders. Some of the boulders are actually fitted with doors, leading to structures carved right into the rocky landscape."
Meimão - "...in the Serra da Malcata, we have one of the most beautiful landscapes of Beira Baixa. From the Nossa Senhora do Pilar viewpoint we see the village surrounded by two huge lagoons. It is the reservoir of the Meimoa dam that paints the green spot of the mountain blue. Henrique Cunha says that his land reminds him of another wonder of nature, Lagoa das Sete Cidades in the Azores. A friend, sitting at the same coffee table, uses another image: “the view is huge and there is a formidable puddle. As they say, the parish is in a valley like the bottom of a bowl. All around, the landscape is green, extraordinary. ”"
Fundão - A wonderful glimpse into farm life in this area can be found at Joseph Marsh's Instagram. From Wiki: "The town is an important local center of industry and services. Around it lies some of the most fertile land in the region, in a large valley (Cova da Beira) between the Gardunha and Estrela ranges, where the Zêzere River starts its way towards the Tagus. The most significant productions are cherries, peaches, olive oil, wine, wood pulp and vegetables.
Some of the most important wolframite mines in the world (a mineral source for the element tungsten) are explored within its municipal limits. Other important mines extract lead and tin. High quality mineral water is bottled from several sources.
The Cavleiro tree is a common trade item from this region. It is used in everyday products such as wooden dolls, shoes and bedposts."
Sertã - Description to come,,,