Hiding in Beira Litoral between the cities of Aveiro and Coimbra is the town of Cantanhede. Since prehistory there have been quarries in Cantanhede, exploiting rich seams of high-quality limestone. There’s a museum all about this stone in the centre of town, in one of a couple of sophisticated palaces from the 16th century.
In the 17th century the 1st Marquis of Marialva left his signature on the Cantanhede, commissioning what would become the town hall and the church that now holds his tomb. He was a member of the Menenses family, whose pantheon is set in one of the chapels in the Cantanhede’s parish church. The wider municipality is extensive, and has a stretch of coast, home to the adorable fishing village of Tocha.
Let’s explore the best things to do in Cantanhede:
1. Museu da Pedra
In a restored 18th-century palace with a fine loggia, Cantanhede’s stone museum has all the hard facts about Cantanhede’s quarrying heritage.
The town has supplied limestone for so long that even its name comes from the Celtic word “Cant”, meaning “great stone”. The museum approaches stone from a few angles: There are riveting paleontological fossils discovered in the town’s quarries and statues unearthed at Roman sites.
More recent are the masterly Renaissance statues that used to adorn the interiors of churches and convents.
There’s also an exhibit of all the tools used to extract and shape limestone across different periods.
2. Praia da Tocha
Tocha is a fishing village that embraced tourism towards the end of the 1900s.
It has never lost its old-school essence, and has just celebrated 25 consecutive Blue Flags.
There’s a grid of streets beside the dunes, flanked by sweet little weatherboard houses.
On most of these buildings the ground floor was a storage space for equipment while the upper level was for families.
The front row on the dunes are especially quaint as they’re built into the sand on stilts.
As for the Blue Flag beach, it’s everything you expect from a Portuguese Atlantic beach with boisterous surf and kilometres of seductive white sand.
3. Igreja Matriz de Cantanhede
Cantanhede’s parish church is the town’s historical landmark and has been declared a “Property of Public Interest”. It dates back to medieval times, but has been through a lot of reconstructions, mainly in the 16th and 18th centuries.
The outside is rather sober, except for a small flourish in the portal, flanked by columns supporting a pediment.
Inside, the 16th-century chapel on the right side of the nave should be your priority.
This is devoted to the Blessed Sacrament and was fashioned by the Renaissance sculptor Jean de Rouen.
It’s a richly decorated pantheon for the noble Meneses family, with a coffered ceiling, tombs and a tabernacle between images of the evangelists, the Virgin Mary Magdalene.
4. Paços do Concelho de Cantanhede
The town hall on Praça Marquês de Marialva is no ordinary municipal building.
Long before it was adopted by the town, it was the Renaissance palace for the Meneses family.
And you can pay a visit from 08:45 to 18:00 on weekdays.
The outside looks quite ordinary, but the interior patio is the thing to see.
On the lower floor there’s an arcade with groin vaults and sculpted keystones, one of which has an inscription from 1533. On the upper floor of the patio is a colonnade/loggia, with regal Ionic columns.
5. Igreja da Misericórdia de Cantanhede
António Luís de Meneses, the 1st Marquis of Marialva, was responsible for this church, founded in 1675. It came about after a vow that he had made at the battle of Montes Claros against the Spanish ten years earlier.
Work began in the year of the Marquis’ death, and when the interior was complete his remains were laid in a tomb in the choir.
This is marked by a marble stone, dated to 1713. The remainder of the church was finished in 1733, as commemorated by a plaque in a niche on the facade.
6. Terreiro do Paço de Ançã
The centre of Ançã in the same municipality is a pretty tangle of cobblestone streets hosting churches and genteel mansions.
But the postcard scene is this square at the centre.
There are gaslights, wrought iron benches and regimented plane trees, fastidiously pollarded.
And on the northern edge of the square is the fine Palácio do Marquês de Cascais Ançã, a 17th-century building with a triple arch and coat of arms.
Go through to see Ançã’s pillory, set up in the 1700s and restored 100 years later.
7. Moinho da Nascente de Ançã
Also in Ançã there’s a natural spring that bursts from the ground at serious force.
The water gushes out at 20,000 litres per minute and is channelled from the ground via historic conduits.
These have been in place for more than a millennium and were the work of the Moors who also founded the mill driven by these fast-flowing waters.
The earliest reference to this building goes back to 937, and is now owned and run by the parish of Ançã.
The mechanism inside is a replica of what was here before, but is in working order and continues to grind maize.
8. Cruzeiro da Póvoa da Lomba
In the village of Póvoa da Lomba there’s a beautiful Renaissance cross housed under a little pavilion.
Nobody is sure exactly when this monument was built, but matching it against other crosses in this style it’s probably from the end of the 1500s or start of the 1600s.
This one is a crucifix, and you can still make out the image of Jesus.
The structure sheltering the cross isn’t much newer and features a dome above a cornice held up by four pillars.
9. Casa Municipal da Cultura de Cantanhede
In the opposite wing of the palace holding the Museu da Pedra is Cantanhede’s cultural centre.
This graceful venue hosts temporary exhibitions of sculpture, painting, liturgical art, graphic design and photography.
Pick up a leaflet at the tourist office if there’s a show that suits your taste.
But you could also go just to see more of the 16th-century building, with refined coffered ceilings and a beautiful blue and white tile panel in the lobby.
10. Praia Fluvial dos Olhos da Fervença
In you find the ocean a bit rough there are a few outdoor pools around the municipality, including one in Cantanhede and Ançã.
But only in Fervença can you have the pleasure of swimming in a natural spring.
The small, green hollow around the pool has been tiered to make space to dry off or laze in the sun, all accessed via wooden stairways.
These lead through pines to the bar, terrace, changing facilities and off into the woodland on walking paths.
The water is an inviting shade of turquoise, and stays cool even on blistering summer days.
11. Clube de Golfe de Cantanhede
The town’s golf course is special, because when it opened in 2009 it was Portugal’s first ever publicly-owned golf facility.
The idea was to open the game up to everyone, regardless of age or income.
It’s in the Complexo Desportivo de Cantanhede to the northwest of the town.
The club has a 9-hole pitch & putt course, a driving range and a practice green.
And as it’s a pitch & putt newcomers and casual players won’t need to feel intimidated! The course conforms to IPPA standards (International Pitch & Putt Association) and all the greens on the course have natural turf.
There’s also a clubhouse with a bar and a balcony overlooking the training area.
Praia da Tocha is a surf spot that is still under the tourist radar.
There’s a right and left beach break here with swells that form hollow waves that hold at up to two metres in height.
This is manageable for beginners if you’ve ever felt like learning how to ride a wave.
Ticket2Surf in the village is a surf camp that has plenty of options: You can come for a whole week, taking twice-daily lessons and mixing it with yoga sessions.
Or if you’re just passing through you can book one-off lessons for half-days and full days.
There’s a “surf guiding” service, shuttling you to other surf beaches in the region, and a stand-up paddle board tours.
A contender for the most beautiful city in the country, Coimbra was Portugal’s capital in the 12th and 13th centuries.
It’s a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and somewhere you can tap into medieval tales like the forbidden love between the murdered Inês de Castro and the future King Peter I. Coimbra also has its own genre of fado music, which was started by students at the prestigious university.
This institution dates to 1290 and is the goal of any sightseeing trip: The finest buildings border a square in the highest part of the city.
The Biblioteca Joanina up here is a library sans pareil, with a colony of bats living among the Baroque gilt-wood and hunting any wood-boring insects at night.
14. Wine Tours
You’ll know from the profusion of vineyards around Cantanhede that wine is integral to the region’s identity.
This is the Bairrada DOC, which has a climate softened by the Atlantic.
Nearer the coast the soils are sandy, but once you get to Cantanhede they become rich in clay.
In these conditions the Portuguse Baga grape does well.
Baga produces acidic highly tannic reds that age well and are a superb partner to Bairrada’s meaty cuisine.
There are three establishments nearby for a bit more depth: The Cantanhede cooperative winery (Adega Cooperativa), the Quinta de Baixo winery and the cave, Symposio Wine & Friends .
If you’re the kind of tourist that can’t visit a town without trying one of its local specialities there are a few things you can try.
None are more prized than leitão assado à Bairrada, which is Bairrada-style roast suckling pig.
This dish is has enough country-wide appeal to be named as one of Portugal’s Seven Gastronomic Wonders.
The piglet is seasoned with salt and pepper and then skewered and roasted on a low heat in a wood over for two hours.
On the coast you can sample fish stew (caldeirade de peixe), sardines roasted on terracotta tiles (sardinha na telha) or baked bass with roast potatoes.