FERRARIA DE SAO JOAO, Portugal - Why would a young, dynamic person pack up and leave buzzing Lisbon for a life in a dilapidated stone hamlet with just 40 residents? It didn't take long for my guide, Pedro Pedrosa, an environmentally conscious entrepreneur and avid mountain biker, to make the case. I was instantly enamored with my accommodation, a contemporary cottage stocked with homemade cheese and fresh-baked bread, and with the hamlet's serene picnic spot where tables were nestled in a cluster of cork trees.
When Pedrosa first stepped over the threshold of this village, Ferraria de Sao Joao, in 2005, these and many other features didn't exist. Long neglected, as so many farming villages have become after being left by young people, it was a collection of cracked, crumbling houses overgrown with weeds and vines, and animal sheds in heaps of rubble. And lots of stone, predominantly limestone and quartzite, plus a little schist - the coarse rock, often featuring dark bands, that glints in the light and dominates much of the surrounding region.
Pedrosa saw the potential: an authentic land where the old ways lived on, where he and his family could slow down and be immersed in nature, yet not be too far from the city. "All this in a village that could be reborn from the ashes, with the help of the new Schist Village project that was starting up," he said. So, using his own money and a government grant, he began building his house and the guest accommodations.
Ferraria de Sao Joao and 26 other rural villages built wholly or partly of schist are now part of the Aldeias do Xisto (Schist Villages), an ecotourism complex located in a mountainous region of Portugal's interior that is geologically rich in this metamorphic rock. Sixteen years ago, a regional department of the national government, with the help of funding from the European Union, resolved to reinvigorate what were largely abandoned villages as hubs for tourism, binding them together with a grand philosophy: Embrace an intimate connection with nature and treasure the old ways while offering goods and services for the 21st century.
From the moment I heard mention of these stone communities, hidden in a rugged landscape, some clinging to vertiginous slopes, I was intrigued and knew I had to experience them. That's when I turned to Pedrosa, the co-owner and operator of A2Z Adventures, a small company running socially responsible biking and hiking trips in Portugal, including ones in the Schist Villages. For several idyllic days, he guided me on day hikes throughout the region, sharing his love for, and commitment to preserving, this land.
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After a two-hour drive from Lisbon Airport, suddenly, past clusters of tall eucalyptus trees, Pedrosa veered right at a whitewashed chapel, with asphalt giving way to cobbled limestone as we entered his home village of Ferraria de Sao Joao. The only sounds: creaking branches, whispering leaves in the wind and an elderly resident's cane tapping on the street.
Pedrosa pointed out his home and, next door, my accommodation, the Vale do Ninho Nature Houses - three former animal sheds reinvented as chic, minimalist cottages, with blank stone facades. "The windows all face southwest," said Pedrosa, to maximize solar exposure. After studying environmental planning in Lisbon, he became a seeker of sustainable solutions. This Schist Village is his passion. Constructed of locally sourced stone and paneled inside with sustainably gathered pine wood and cork - with solar panels covering the adjacent bicycle garage and laundry room - these edifices rose from a battered jumble of rocks.
From my sunny compact studio, I delighted in the sylvan views: groves of olive trees and, in the distance, an original forest of chestnut, oak, pine and eucalyptus. In the back yard, I alternated between relaxing on the terra cotta patio and joining other guests cooling off in the communal natural swimming pool whose waters are purified as they circulate through a nearby regeneration bio-pond Pedrosa created, lush with botanicals. Inside, the bathroom was stocked with handmade soaps using oil from local olive trees; my bedside lamp was sculpted from the wood.
Even breakfast was an eco affair: My kitchenette offered a cornucopia of locally sourced delights. I found it stocked with eggs from Pedrosa's chickens, honey and oats from a nearby village, homemade yogurt, local jams and goat cheese provided by a resident shepherd, Fatima.
After a walk to the other end of the village, Pedrosa and I came to a tangled forest of lovely old cork trees - where Fatima herds her goats up the hillside early each morning. I spotted initials carved in many of the trunks, and Pedrosa explained that they are part of an innovative program to raise funds to purchase picnic tables as well as to defend this protected species and the village's cultural heritage. "The trees come in three sizes," he said, "a different price for each; we'll carve your initials or paint a custom symbol in the one you choose to adopt." (The cork trees aren't harmed; they thrive even when the bark is removed during harvesting.)
Driving to another village in the network a mere six miles away, we passed a handful of mountain bikers attracted by the network of trails in the area. In short order, we came to a dramatic setting: The Schist Village of Casal de Sao Simao stretches across a mountain ridge of rugged cliffs, framing a yawning canyon. "Only two people live here full time," Pedrosa said as we strolled past grand stone houses showing off flower-bedecked facades and impressive timber balconies fronting the canyon.
To experience the wild landscape, Pedrosa led me on a two-hour loop down to the canyon bottom and then back up. Wandering beside threads of rushing water along an ancient irrigation canal, we spotted remnants of a bygone way of life: an abandoned mill owner's house now draped in ivy, with massive millstones once used to grind corn and wheat. "Some of these chestnut trees are centuries old," Pedrosa said as we navigated through the well-shaded forest. On the ascent, we encountered a scenic river where couples and families picnicked on the pebbled beach, and teens hopped from boulder to boulder, plunging into swimming holes. My only distractions from this cheerful scene were several birds of prey - eagles, black kites and kestrels - soaring above the majestic clifftops.
Though I spent my nights stargazing, the area also offers other sources of nighttime entertainment. In Penela, a town 25 minutes away, I satisfied my oenophilia by visiting D. Sesnando, a restaurant whose owner is a wine connoisseur. I lingered over a glass of the Monte da Peceguina, a dark red with floral notes, that paired well with the warm Rabacal cheese drizzled with local honey. Another night I visited nearby Espinhal, which was in the middle of a three-day arts festival. I joined what appeared to be most of the town - including the mayor and his family - in the main square to listen to the contemporary Portuguese band Pensão Flor.
If I were seeking other diversions, I could have gone to a movie house in Coimbra, where there are also places to listen to traditional Fado music. And the picturesque Schist Village of Candal, which I visited on one of my excursions, has an open-air cinema in August.
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It's either up or down stone staircases in Candal, which is completely constructed of schist and located about an hour's drive from my lodging. Above, Restaurante Sabores da Aldeia, a shop and cafe, shows off wares from contemporary regional artisans. I couldn't resist buying a piece of schist brightly painted with an image of a cottage, as well as a colorful felt beaded necklace. Two talasnicos, tart-like baked goods rich with chestnuts, honey and almonds, made for an energizing snack before our planned one-hour trek. Our path - narrow, dotted with boulders in spots and rimmed in ferns - eventually brought us to car-free Cerdeira, the most remote of the Schist Villages. The traditional cottages - eight of which are now charming accommodations - cling to the steep verdant valley slope.
Lunching under a grapevine-draped pergola at Cafe da Videira, Pedrosa introduced me to Kerstin Thomas, a wood sculptor who moved here 28 years ago when there wasn't even a sidewalk or electricity. As we dug into a thick slice of baked goat cheese and vegetable pie, I learned how she and 30 of her friends from Lisbon were the driving force behind repurposing this village into a vibrant art center, complete with artist residencies, workshops, studios, and a unique no-smoke kiln created by a master Japanese ceramist.
Locals built everything using traditional methods and materials from the area, and different artists, including Thomas, decorated each guest cottage with their works. Later, after clamoring up the schist lanes zigzagging the hamlet's length, I visited the art gallery displaying creations by these sculptors, ceramic artists and painters. A sculpted wood chair shaped like a hoe was especially inventive and eye-opening, as was my entire journey through these revitalized stone villages, transformed from desolation and decay into an enchanting new life.
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Barone is a writer based in New York. Her website is jthetravelauthority.com.
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IF YOU GO
Where to stay
Vale do Ninho Nature Houses
Ferraria de Sao Joao, Penela, Coimbra
Three simple renovated stone cottages make for scenic-but-affordable contemporary accommodations for the whole family. The property is pet-friendly and highly eco-conscious, welcoming cyclists and offering bicycles for use during a guest's stay. Cottages from $127 for two, including breakfast.
Every cottage in this car-free village showcases the work of a different artist in keeping with that cottage's theme. One of these, Casa das Esterias, like some of the other seven accommodations, boasts a wide balcony overlooking the verdant valley. Cottages from $74 for two, including breakfast.
Where to eat
Varanda do Casal
Casal de Sao Simao
This sun-filled second floor restaurant specializes in carefully prepared traditional dishes, such as roasted young goat served with chestnuts and delectable local potatoes ($18 for two to share). Many dishes are cooked in the wood oven, including the scrumptious orange tart drizzled with dark chocolate ($3).
Rua de Coimbra, Penela
This contemporary restaurant has an impressive wine collection, with some 400 varieties of red. The local cheese (Rabacal), served warm with honey ($5), is a treat as is the shareable main course, cataplana de marisco, which is chock-full of shellfish in a spicy sauce ($28). Save room for the mousse duo: pineapple, and walnut made with local nuts (each $3).
What to do
Rua das Oliveiras 53, Leiria
011-351-9111 222 93
Among the many Schist Village tours offered are bicycling and walking adventures that appeal to everyone, from endurance cyclists to leisure walkers who prefer to base out of one village. Tours can be guided or self-guided and include van support. Packages including transfers, lodging, activities start at $722 for a self-guided week based on double-room occupancy.
Goat cheese and bread workshops
Vale do Ninho Nature Houses
Ferraria de Sao Joao, Penela, Coimbra
Guests can sign up for myriad workshops that reflect some of the area's timeworn activities, such as goat milking and cheese making, as well as making bread in a wood oven. Prices range from $32 to $48 per half-day workshop per family.
Guests can choose from among any of the five different three-hour creative experiences ($27, children $11); more in-depth, two-day workshops include bookbinding, decorating Portuguese tiles or pottery ($100 to $159, includes lunch); for those who are qualified, there are master classes ($414 to $510) or a week with a well-established artist ($829 to $1,583, depending on accommodation type, which also includes materials, all breakfasts and lunches, two dinners, a visit to the university city of Coimbra and a walking tour).