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."
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,,,
Idanha-A-Nova - "Halfway between Lisbon and Madrid, the Municipality of Idanha-a-Nova could not be better located. ...
Today, as in the past, Idanha-a-Nova is in the center of the Iberian Peninsula ." 😄
"Founded by the Romans at the end of the century. I BC and elevated to a municipality about a century later, the city survives the invasions of the Germanic peoples. With the Suevi, it became the seat of a bishopric, a status it maintains with the Visigoths. One of his most well-known legends, that of King Wamba, is reminiscent of this period. The Muslim invasion in the early 8th century and the subsequent wars of the Christian reconquest brought a serious setback to the city's development." (.)
Vila Velha de Ródão - I need to find a good, concise description of Vila Velha de Ródão, but I strongly recommend the municipal website linked to here. What a great job! All the information one could possibly need, presented slickly and cleanly. Lots of photos. They need an introduction blurb, though.
Covilhã - "Sometimes referred to as town of wool and snow, Covilhã is one of the main urban centres of the historical Beira Interior region. The proximity of the mountains offers dramatic scenery and a great environment for those fond of hiking, camping, mountain climbing and skiing."
Castelo Branco, with a population of over 35,000, is a pleasant place in its own right to spend a couple of days and to use as a base for visiting the picturesque villages of Monsanto and Idanha-a-Velha along with the stunning nature and wildlife of the Parque Natural do Tejo Internacional."
The term "Mediterranean Climate" is sometimes used to describe Castelo Branco (and much of Portugal), but it seems to me that it paints a balmier, more innocuous picture of the region than is actually the case. It gets very hot there in the summer, and the winters are cold and damp. On the hot side, please refer to the graphic above. Note that "sweltering" is a regular possibility during July and August. I have watched many videos this summer made by ex-pats living in Castelo Branco, and all of them have mentioned the heat. You have to plan your day around the heat, because it is not possible to work outside for at least a couple of hours a day when it is at its most intense.
Portugal has a reputation as a hot place, however, so encountering these high temperatures is not surprising. What can be surprising is how cold it can feel in the winter. Temperatures do dip below freezing, especially overnight, but the subjective experience of cold is worsened by a few influences: a) it's a damp cold, b) traditional Portuguese houses have neither central heating nor insulation and usually feature tile or stone floors, and c) WTF, it was almost 40 degrees just a few months ago. Those same ex-pats have also all commented on the cold, now that we are in January. The Portuguese deal with this, apparently, via extreme layering. Btw, conditions currently in Covilhã: -3°C overnight, with scattered snow flurries, humidity 78% (Jan 9, 2020).
Gina, author of Third Bee On the Left, who moved to Castelo Branco from England with her partner Ken in December of 2019, says "I was completely unprepared for how cold I would feel here in the winter. ... It seems to be commonplace here that older houses do not have any insulation. Our farmhouse is just a concrete block and sucks in moisture from everywhere." Her article, Prepping for Winter, outlines some practical advice for getting a common style of Portuguese farmhouse ready for that cold, damp weather. Another great article to check out is How to Stay Warm in Portuguese Houses During Winter by Portugalist.com: "Portuguese houses and apartments are typically poorly insulated and almost never have central heating of any kind. The result: temperatures so cold that you can sometimes see your breath inside and many people wear 2, 3, or even more layers around the house and to bed."
One aspect of Castelo Branco's climate that would appeal to the potential homesteader is the extended growing season. The first spring blooms are expected there around March 6, as compared to May 7 in Vancouver. This allows growing a winter garden, something two of the channels I follow are doing - Our Portuguese Homestead and Luke and Sarah's Off-Grid Life. I have also gotten the impression that there are many sunny days during early winter and early spring, so that really only December and January feel very wintery. That means more comfortable working time outdoors over the course of the year, a definite plus for anyone working the land.
For all your climate and yearly weather needs, please visit WeatherSpark - a great resource.
Wildfires are a regular part of summers in rural Portugal, a condition that is exacerbated by extensive pine and eucalyptus tree farms carpeting the hills and foothills. Castelo Branco is no exception, but has gotten off fairly lightly in recent years compared to other districts. The epic wildfires of June, 2017 began just above the western part of the district, in Pedrógão Grande:
"A series of four initial deadly wildfires erupted across central Portugal in the afternoon of 17 June 2017 within minutes of each other, resulting in at least 66 deaths and 204 injured people.
The majority of deaths took place in the Pedrógão Grande municipality, when a fire swept across a road filled with evacuees escaping in their cars. Portuguese officials dispatched more than 1,700 firefighters nationwide to combat the blazes and Prime Minister António Costa declared three days of national mourning. Spain, France, Morocco and Italy deployed firefighters and Water Bombers to help extinguish the fires. Although most early official reports pointed to a dry thunderstorm as the cause of the tragedy, the President of the Portuguese Firefighters League expressed his conviction the fire was sparked by arsonists."
Examination of these satellite shots and figures reveals Castelo Branco's relatively light history in this regard, particularly the eastern half of the municipality. That's not surprising, as the eastern half is not nearly as forested, composed largely of rolling fields and barrocal.
The bottom line is that anyone thinking of moving to Portugal in an effort to get back to the land better have a good understanding of forest fires and how they impact choosing where to live. One level of that choice involves where to live in the country geographically (i.e., what district and municipality), but another level involves the immediate physical context of a piece of property (i.e., what is on and near that land).
Obviously, a couple of hectares in the middle of a forest with no significant source of natural water nearby and an access road that cannot handle large vehicles is not a good situation. Trees are a good thing on your property when confined to clumps, groves and individual trees, but avoid being a part of that contiguous blanket of forest. Think of the land immediately around your property as potential firebreak and keep that in mind when selecting a place to live. Having a natural water source such as a river or pond/lake on or near your land is a real plus. Just as important is your property's access; you want it to be as easy as possible to get large emergency vehicles on to your land.
At a very practical level, the size of your property makes a huge difference in the amount of work you will have to do every year to keep it fire safe. You are required by law to maintain your property according to specific fire safety regulations. I don't know a whole bunch about this beyond it involving how close trees and brush can be to a house or structure and clearing brush generally. I know there is a yearly deadline and protocols about how to burn what has been cleared, but my impression is that while the Portuguese work with the deadline, they don't pay much attention to the protocols and try to just use common sense. Plus, I have seen videos of many long dormant rural properties for sale, and on none of them was brush cleared.
I can certainly think of worse places to consider in terms of fire risk in rural Portugal than Castelo Branco when choosing a place to settle down, especially those parts of the district that are not forested. I will point out, though, that the districts of Portalegre, Évora, and Beja appear to have suffered even less fire in recent history. I haven't taken even one peek at these areas yet, and I will certainly be keeping this issue in mind when my attention turns to those parts of the country.
"Castelo Branco gets its name from the prior existence of a Luso-Roman castrum or fortified settlement called Castra Leuca, on the summit of the hill of Colina da Cardosa. The population grew on the slopes of this hill.
Little is known of the history before 1182. There is, nevertheless, a document, from this date, mentioning the donation to the Templars of a piece of land called Vila Franca da Cardosa, by a noble Fernandes Sanches. In 1213 it received its autonomy or foral and the name Castel-Branco appears for the first time. Pope Innocent III confirmed this in 1215 giving it the name of Castelo Branco.