The Gândara. When I was challenged to make a three-day itinerary through “lands of the Gândara”, I came across the term. The word in Portuguese means “sandy land where only rockrose grows” or “sand that is bare during the dry season”.
This led me to think that I would be traveling through more desert-like terrain, sandy areas that bore into the land, or an area of the country left to abandonment and bereft of life. But what I found was quite different. Ancient lands with colors between the green of the forest and the blue of the sea.
This three-day trip begins in Coimbra, the center of everything in central Portugal and a World Heritage Site.
From there, to Cantanhede to learn stories told by stone, and then to the seaside to discover the ancient arts of the seafarers of Tocha and Mira.
This is a different itinerary to get to know part of the soul of the Coimbra Region. You can do it as I show you here, in a three-day getaway, or for longer, at a slower pace, absorbing all the details of these lands of the Gândara.
- Day 1 – Coimbra
- Day 2 – Ançã / Cantanhede
- Day 3 – Tocha / Mira
- Tocha: The art of the sea
- Mira: With water in sight
- Surfing in Coimbra Region
- The dunes that dictate the history of the Gândara
Day 1 – Coimbra
The City of Students
Coimbra is no stranger to me. In fact, I had already written here a detailed itinerary of Coimbra to do in a day. But any excuse is good to go back there. From the University of Coimbra to the Monastery of Santa Clara-a-Velha, on the other side of the Mondego River, the city conquers at every corner, every detail found on the eaves of the buildings.
During the first day of this itinerary through Gândara, put on some comfortable shoes and discover these unmissable places in the city of students.
Coimbra Botanical Garden
Any botanical garden can be fascinating, but Coimbra’s is even more important. Not only because it is recognized as one of the most respected in the world but because it was created to aid the study of Natural History and Medicine at Coimbra University.
Enter this park and forget about time as you walk down its various levels and staircases on a journey through this natural environment from the four corners of the planet.
University of Coimbra
Since 2013 the University of Coimbra, Alta and Sofia, has been recognized as a World Heritage Site. When passing through the Porta Férrea and entering the Paço das Escolas, or the Paço Real, you will understand why. The imposing University Tower, the Manueline portal in the Chapel of Saint Michael and the incredible Joanine Library are more than reasons to spend a few hours there.
Machado de Castro National Museum
The next stop is the former Paço Episcopal building, where you will find one of the most iconic museums in Portugal. The Machado de Castro National Museum was founded in 1911, built on the cryptoporticus of the forum of Æminium, the most significant Roman work, dating from the 1st century, in Portuguese territory.
In this museum, one of the country’s most important fine arts and archeology museums, are collections of painting, sculpture, and decorative arts that span more than two thousand years of history.
Santa Clara-a-Velha Monastery
Built in 1314 by the order of Queen Santa Isabel, the Monastery of Santa Clara-a-Velha stands out on the west bank of the Mondego. Cross the bridge to discover this fantastic building that once housed the Clarisse nuns. Take a closer look at its exterior and enter the interpretation center to learn more about its history.
Day 2 – Ançã / Cantanhede
Ançã: The stone in Coimbra region
Coimbra is the starting point of this tour through Gândara’s territory, and Ançã is the first stop from the students’ city. The small town in the region of Coimbra could go unnoticed were it not for its name being associated with one of the most famous stones in Portugal. The same one that is incorporated in several monuments, inside and outside the country.
Life around here goes on as usual. You stop at the coffee shop on a Saturday morning to buy vegetables from the neighbor’s truck or to exchange a few words of conversation. This is not a tourist destination, but some spots are worth visiting.
Terreiro do Paço and Igreja Matriz de Ançã
One of them is Terreiro do Paço, an ample space to which we arrive, passing through the arches of the palace that belonged to the lord of the village of Ançã. The building, with several details on the facade, leads to a small but well-kept garden and to the main chapel. For me, the church’s interior could be more beautiful. Still, the bells ringing at the right time fill the space and draw the image of local events where the whole square is filled with people.
Fonte dos Castros (Fountain of Castros)
Back through the arcades of the old palace and past the pillory, the path leads down the street in search of the Fountain of Castros. I thought it was just an old fountain that supplied the population, but it is more than that. The fountain is there, dated 1674, and makes the water flow where I catch a local woman washing her clothes ” like in the old days”. But there is also an infrastructure that makes one believe that this place turns into a river beach on hot summer days. There are stairs and spots to jump into the water and a lawn where, most likely, towels are laid out. But on the day of this visit, water was nowhere to be seen. Nevertheless, the desire remains to return and find that space lively.
Cantanhede: The stone and the Gândara
After Ançã, Cantanhede is the next destination. It is there that we find the Stone Museum. The history of Gândara is also told by what exists under the ground and in the quarries of this territory. There, many of the region’s people found their source of livelihood.
Cantanhede Stone Museum
It is in a building from the XVIII century where the Cantanhede Museum of the Stone is located. In the back, large stone blocks and old pieces of machinery announce the theme of this place, where we enter to understand the importance of stone in this region.
The journey crosses thousands of years, following the history of limestone extraction in these lands of Gândara and the activities associated with it, including archaeological findings from the quarries. But also works of art where the local stone is the highlighted element.
Town Hall Building and Cantanhede Main Church
In Cantanhede, two other buildings are unavoidable: the City Hall and the city’s main church. The first is an old palace from the 16th century that has hosted the sessions of the local town hall since 1805. The church, founded in the 11th century, houses stone sculptures from the 15th century.
Day 3 – Tocha / Mira
Tocha: The art of the sea
From the interior of the stone to the waves of the sea. The populations of Gândara have always been divided between agriculture, stone extraction and fishing, and the Xávega Art is one of the greatest traditions on the coast of this region.
Only 25 km of land, divided between dunes and forest, separates Tocha Beach from Mira Beach. However, these two lands are united by the call of the sea. And it is here that you get to know how much it has influenced and still influences the people of Gândara.
From Cantanhede, the path is made of straight tar roads flanked by bushes and forests. If once all that was sand, today the greenery cheers all the way to the coast.
Once there, the height of the dunes is overcome by long footbridges. An “invention” of modern times, but it protects the dune belt from the influx of people to the coastal area, especially in the summer months.
The beach here is long, but it has entrances where the boats of the xávega art go until they reach the sea.
Without a doubt, this is a land of fishermen and the old Palheiros, which were used to store the instruments and fishing nets, are proof of this. Today they have been renovated, and many converted into small beach houses for the family to enjoy in the summer or to rent to the tourists who increasingly seek the region of Coimbra.
The old characteristics are still there: small wooden houses supported by stakes, many painted with stripes reminiscent of the old beach awnings.
Xávega Art Interpretation Center
To understand the art of fishing in Tocha Beach, the Xávega Art Interpretation Center, on the avenue that runs along the beach, is the place to visit. The space is small but rich in information. On large panels are old images of the palheiros in Tocha, with the Gandaresas dressed in black standing next to them, the boats used for fishing, and the area’s wildlife. Clippings from old newspapers also remind us how difficult life at sea is, with reports of shipwrecks and the memory of the men who once went fishing and never returned.
Mira: With water in sight
On the beach of Mira, water is a constant presence. Be it fresh or salty. On one side, the sea, the same sea that receives the boats, parked on the sand on big swell days. On the other, Barrinha, a lagoon whose calm is only disturbed by canoes and local birds.
Palheiros of Mira
Next to the Barrinha, you can find a sizeable second-floor building called Palheiros de Mira. This museum provides a trip back in time to the people of Mira and the gandaresa culture.
The museum is very well organized and full of details about the local community, how fishing and agriculture influenced these people, and the land’s development.
One of the curiosities of this place is a collection of miniatures of old palheiros that tell various stories of how the community was organized.
Chapel of Nossa Senhora da Conceição
Among the miniatures of Mira’s old palheiros is a replica of the Chapel of Nossa Senhora da Conceição. However, the real version can be visited by the beach wall.
Dating from 1843, the church interior could not be more appropriate. On the ceiling are stretched fishing nets, and on the walls lurk several saints that are so often evoked by local fishermen and their families.
Like Tocha Beach, Mira Beach has an extensive sandy stretch that is very popular in the summer. On days when the sea is calmer, you can watch the xávega art; when the boats go out to sea, extend the net offshore and bring it to be pulled from the beach. On higher swell days, the boats stay on the beach for those who want to see them and the nets are spread out on the sand to dry and for possible repairs.
When we talk about Mira, we immediately think of the beach, but only 10 minutes away is the village that gives it its name. At the entrance of Mira is a small natural oasis that many people use for walking, fishing or just spending quieter moments: the Mira Lagoon.
This is the ideal place to discover the region’s biodiversity revealed in this beautiful natural setting.
The territory of the Gândara Museum
It is in Mira that we close this itinerary. A finishing touch to what we have seen.
In the Territory of Gândara Museum, housed in a former elementary school, you uncover the history of the Gândara and the Gandareses, from its origin until nowadays. From land to sea and from sea to land, showing the demographic evolution and the dominion over the dunes and the sea.
The dunes that dictate the history of the Gândara
This itinerary through the Gândara made me discover a part of the country that I didn’t know. Of course, Coimbra is unavoidable, but the other villages I had the pleasure of visiting were just dots on my map. Until now.
The truth is that this is a fascinating region. For those who live there, life goes on as usual. Still, for those visiting, there are several attractions that testify to their ancestors, the difficulties they went through, and the evolution they had.
So, don’t be fooled by the name. Because Gândara has nothing dry and uninteresting.
Now you! What did you think of this itinerary? Is it an area of Portugal you already know or would like to visit? Comment below. Let’s talk!
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