WORDS Sophie Sadler

With strikes and cancelled flights causing travel chaos, my family decided to stay in Portugal for our summer break. The slightly unimaginatively named but stunningly beautiful Centro Region offers a wealth of delights to be discovered.

We stayed in Ferreira do Zêzere, a municipality in the Santarém District. Its main attraction, especially in the summer, is its proximity to Lago Azul (the blue lake). This 60 km long reservoir provides water to Lisbon and is held in place by the Castelo de Bode dam. Fed by the Zêzere River, which flows into the Tagus, it is a mirage of beauty.

The lake lives up to its name, with crystal blue waters providing a much-needed respite from the searing summer heat. The countryside surrounding its shores encapsulates deep valleys, pine forests, streams and sleepy villages.

The area’s historical past is notable due to the presence of the Knights Templar, who established defensive fortresses across the region. Now it survives on tourism, along with a number of industries such as Rações Zêzere. With a large factory in Ferreira de Zêzere, it is one of Portugal’s largest conglomerates. Government-owned, it was founded in 1981 and is an industry leader in Portugal’s animal feed and egg production. The company produces more than 200 products that are internationally recognised and command significant market share throughout Portugal and neighbouring areas in Europe.

Places to Visit

Dornes

The village of Dornes is the place that time forgot. Located on a bay of the Castelo de Bode dam, it is one of the most typical and picturesque in the centre of Portugal. The low white houses are looked upon by the Pentagonal tower, believed to have been built by the Templars. The church of Nossa Senhora do Pranto, dating from the 15th century, is built on the site of a previous place of worship, dating from the 13th century. Her bells ring out joyfully over the lake at certain times of the day.

There is a water sports centre here where you can hire pedalos and canoes or take a boat trip, allowing you to look back at the vista of the ancient village perched on a hill.

Castle of Almourol

Quite rightly regarded as the most beautiful Castle in Portugal, this medieval monument stands proudly on an islet in the middle of the Tagus river. For children that might yawn at the prospect of ancient castles, it is made incredibly appealing by the fact that you reach it by boat.

Part of the Knights Templar string of defences, it was used as a stronghold during the Portuguese Reconquista. After their order was disbanded, the castle lay abandoned until the romanticism of the 19th century saw it restored to its present form.

It is hard to describe the magic of being steered through the ebbing water, as the image of the semi-circled crenelations reflects back at you in the water. As you alight on the dock, you climb up the rugged granite outcrop to discover the inner courtyard and climb the warped stone steps onto the battlements that have felt the footsteps of medieval knights. 


Convento de Cristo Tomar

Tomar

17 km from Zêzere is the former seat of the Knights Templar, a city abounding in rich cultural heritage with a spectacular castle as its backdrop. The Castle is a National Monument and has been declared a Unesco World Heritage site.

Construction of the medieval castle began in 1160 and also incorporates the Convento de Cristo, a former convent. 

The ruins are spectacular, offering a romantic mix of turrets, crumbling battlements, cloisters shaded with pillared arches, with the gurgle of fountains, all set amongst a maze of gardens with hidden pathways and ancient trees. It was a paradise for history buffs and kids alike. The Chapel is breathtaking and you could spend days admiring the frescos.

The riverside town was constructed within the walls of the Convent and is one of Portugal’s historic jewels waiting to be discovered. 

Lunch Spots


Almourol restaurant on Tagus

Restaurant Almourol

I challenge you to find a more sublime lunch spot than this. Located in Tancos, on the banks of the Tagus, it offered spectacular views, with an amiable waiter and incredible value. Try the fried fish that is caught in the waters flowing beneath you.

almourol.pt

+351 249 720 100

Centro Náutico do Zêzere

We had lunch on the terrace offering spectacular vistas of the lake and a small marina. It served delicious local dishes, including clams and fried prawns, all served by a charming waiter, keen to practice his English! Quite literally culinary heaven!

Trízio, 6100-494 Palhais

+351 933 564 758

Fonte de Cima

Situated in Dornes, I adored this restaurant. The only staff was the friendly owner, who offered us the dishes of the day – no menu. The speciality is the fish soup with river and crayfish. For the main course, we shared bitoque and vitela estufada, with a chocolate mousse to finish! A true taste of Portugal!

Nossa Senhora do Pranto

+351 249 366 302

Things to Do

Praia Fluvial do Lago

About 15 minutes from Zêzere, this beach provides a fun way to enjoy the water with a floating beach and pool. In peak season, there are water sports on offer, with SUP excursions, inflatable rides, canoes and boat trips.

The lakeside Maven café is a good place to enjoy lunch overlooking the lake and offers snacks and salads.

Walking

As we visited in July, it was far too hot for hiking, but with such beautiful scenery, you would imagine that in cooler months, this would be a pleasurable activity. I found a website which listed trails.

wikiloc.com/trails/hiking/portugal/santarem/ferreira-do-zezere

WakeBoard Portugal

I researched wakeboarding behind a boat and it was generally advertised at around 200€ per hour, which I thought a tad pricey. So instead, I opted for the cable park, which was 20€ for 15 minutes and was great fun, apart from when I almost landed on the rocky bank!

wakeboardportugal.com

Trízio

The river beach of Trízio is another great location to enjoy some fun on the water. 

The surrounding area has a campsite, a children’s playground, a nautical shop and a floating swimming pool. From here you can take part in nautical activities such as canoeing, water skiing or wakeboarding. They also offer boat trips and charters.

Praia Fluvial da Bairrada

This quaint village is notable as it has the only sandy beach on the lake. We launched our SUPs here and paddled over to some islands, rising up from the flooded valley.

Places To Stay

Villa Rental

We opted for a villa rental for our stay. Stunningly located in a valley on the edge of a forest, on the outskirts of the Zêzere, Casa Vista Verde achieved 5-stars in most of the reviews and did not disappoint. 

Much fun was had lazing by the pool, BBQ’ing and attempting to make pizzas in the pizza oven. It was an incredibly relaxing setting and a great base from which to explore the area.

www.airbnb.pt/rooms/44091808

Lagos Azul Eco Hotel

I can’t find the words to enthuse enough about this undiscovered gem. With just 20 rooms with lake views, it cannot be described as ‘boutique’ but has an old-world rustic charm with a panorama of the lake and wooded hills that would be hard to find elsewhere. You can enjoy lounging by the lakefront pool, play tennis or sauntering down to the lake to enjoy a swim or watersports. If a hotel is not within your budget, you can book a table on their stunning terrace for lunch or dinner.

www.lagoazulecohotel.com

On a Budget – Alojamento do Zezere

In the heart of Zêzere and conveniently located opposite Intermarche, with free parking, this lodging may not offer the charms of a rustic setting, but the rooms are immaculate with a very friendly host. 

There is a café below which offers delicious pastries and tostas for breakfast.

 +351 918 468 180

Through Airbnb and Booking.com