In the Centro region on the first peaks of the Serra de Aire range, Ourém is a town under the watch of a castle and citadel. This fortress was controlled by the medieval Counts of Ourém, and is posted high on hill that even now is a challenge to conquer. The old settlement within the walls is like a movie set, as is the 15th-century palace and the scenery from stronghold in the sky.
Ourém is also the closest large town to the world-renowned pilgrimage site at Fátima, which is inside this municipality and continues to receive millions of worshippers every year. And if the mountainscapes kindle a spirit for adventure there are caves and long-distance trails for hikers and mountain bikers a few minutes on the road.
Let’s explore the best things to do in Ourém:
1. Castle of Ourém
A Portuguese National Monument, Ourém’s castle is almost unmatched for its beauty and drama.
It was a Moorish base, pulled down and rebuilt in the first years of Portugal’s monarchy in the 12th century.
The castle was besieged during a rebellion by King Afonso Henriques’ mother Elizabeth of Aragon, and again during the interregnum in the 1380s.
In these turbulent times it must have seemed unconquerable, because even today the drive or walk up the precipitous 330-metre hill is onerous and often downright scary.
In the 1400s the 4th Count of Ourém turned the fortress into a luxurious home in the High Gothic style, when it became the Paço dos Condes (Palace of the Counts).
2. Medieval Centre of Ourém
Practically in the clouds, the medieval village is encircled by the castle’s fearsome outer walls.
Anyone who enjoys adventuring through old scurrying streets, up stairways and under arches will fall in love with this place.
It’s also a kind of outdoor museum for architecture historic architecture, with every medieval and early modern style represented, including Gothic, Mudéjar, Manueline, Baroque and Pombaline from the 18th century.
Remember to wear sensible shoes, as the slopes are ridiculous in parts, but you’ll be compensated with views that can make you gasp.
Pause at the traditional tavern for a snifter of ginja, local sour cherry liqueur.
3. Igreja Colegiada de Ourém
This church was founded in the 12th century by Portugal’s first king, Afonso Henriques.
Unfortunately it was almost totally levelled in 1755 by the cataclysmic earthquake, and had to be rebuilt almost from scratch.
But one thing survived unscathed was the crypt, and this is absolutely riveting.
There’s a stairway guiding you down from the chancel into a deceptively large hall, with vaults held up by six columns that have capitals sculpted with geometric and foliate patterns.
In the centre of the crypt is the tomb of Afonso, the fourth count of Ourém, with 15th-century stonework fashioned by the sculptor Diogo Pires, o Velho.
Try to come at sunrise when the sunlight illuminates this enigmatic space.
4. Praça Dom Nuno Álvares Pereira III
Also known as the Terreiro de Santiago, this square is on the north side of the castle.
It’s no exaggeration to say this scene could be in Lord of the Rings or Game of Thrones, consisting of an open, level square with sumptuous distant views of the countryside in almost every direction.
Stay and just bask in the scenery, and go up for a closer look at the statue in the centre.
You’ll meet Nuno Álvares Pereira III, the 3rd Count of Ourém, who was a military commander-turned Carmelite friar, and was canonised in 2009.
5. Monumento Natural das Pegadas de Dinossáurio de Ourém-Torres Novas
In the Ourém municipality there’s history of a prehistoric kind 10 kilometres to the south, just inside the Serras de Aire e Candeeiros Natural Park.
Here in 1994, the footprints of colossal sauropod dinosaurs were found in a quarry and a few years later it was turned into a monument.
At 30 metres in length and weighing 70 tons, these are some of the largest beasts ever to walk the earth.
The site is in 20 hectares and has two tracks with 20 footprints.
Along the one-kilometre route there are snippets of information about this site in different ages and what it would have looked like when the sauropods were grazing here.
6. Sanctuary of Fátima
Fátima, one of Christendom’s most visited pilgrimage sites, celebrated its centenary in 2017. Even 100 years after the Virgin Mary is claimed to have appeared to three children in the nearby village of Cova da Iria, up to five million people come here every year to this now vast complex 10 minutes from Ourém.
Whether you have a spiritual side or not, it’s a sight for sore eyes, if only to gauge the amazing scale of the place.
There’s a vast plaza, two basilicas, two museums with catholic themes and a row of hotel blocks.
7. Basilica of Our Lady of the Rosary, Fátima
Fátima’s fame spread quickly and the Dutch architect Gerardus Samuel van Krieken was drafted to design a church on the site where the apparitions happened.
The product is a Baroque revival building that bears comparisons to the iconic Clérigos Church in Porto.
As you enter there’s a beautiful mosaic depicting Mary being crowned by the Holy Trinity.
Nearby is a statue of Mary, which was designed with the help of a description of the apparition by Sister Lúcia, one of the children who witnessed it.
Finally, don’t miss the stained glass windows, recounting the story of the apparitions.
8. Basilica of the Holy Trinity, Fátima
By the 1970s more people were coming to Fátima than the site could handle, and a new church was proposed.
It wasn’t until 1997 that a design competition was held, won by the Greek architect Alexandros Tombazis.
The building took ten years to complete, and is simply immense: It has a diameter of 125 metres and can seat 8,500 worshippers.
In 2008 the Italian sculptor Vanni Rinaldi contributed the Via Lucis and its 14 stations, while the three-metre Marian statue was sculpted from Carrara marble by Benedetto Pietrogrande.
There’s also a Portuguese touch in the tile panels on the walls, portraying scenes from the life of St Peter and St Paul.
9. Aldeia de Aljustrel
In the same parish, you can stay on the Fátima theme at the village where the three children who witnessed the apparitions grew up.
The house of Sister Lúcia is labelled, and she lived to a ripe old age, only passing away in 2005. But you can actually enter the home of her cousins, Jacinta and Marto.
They passed away in 1920 and 1919 respectively during the flu epidemic, and all three are now saints.
Apart from this connection, Aljustrel warrants a tour for its stone-built architecture dating from the 1500s.
10. Museu Municipal de Ourém
Ourém’s municipal museum has a few branches, but the main one is in a 19th-century townhouse known has Casa do Administrador.
Now complete with a new extension and annexe, it puts on temporary exhibitions about the region’s culture and history that are updated every few months.
The permanent exhibition recreated the atmosphere of Ourém in the early 1900s at the time of the Fátima apparitions, hanging black and white photos, costumes, toys and farming equipment.
Special talks and workshops are also held to coincide with anniversaries, saints days and international initiatives like Museum Day.
11. Praia Fluvial do Agroal
With the coast up to an hour away from Ourém, the next best thing is a river beach.
And the Blue Flag beach at Agroal even has a few advantages over the ocean shore.
For one, you can swim in the water as there are no currents.
But the coolest thing (literally) about Agroal is that the water comes from a natural spring.
This bursts from the ground at a very frigid temperature and cascades into the river from a man-made pool.
When the temperatures are in the 30s in July and August you’ll be grateful for it.
There’s a new platform above the water for sunbathers, and one snack bar and one restaurant in the complex.
12. Serras de Aire e Candeeiros Natural Park
If you want to get the adrenaline pumping there’s a mountain biking centre at Pia do Urso, with instant access to cross-country trails and with washing and repair facilities you can use.
The northern part of the Serra de Aire has a host of show caves, including Mira de Aire and Moeda, which we’ll come to next.
The range’s soft calcareous stone is riddled with underground chambers to enter on a guided caving trip.
Above ground you’ll have 16 official signposted trails to hike, as well as riding centres organising outings on ponies or horses.
13. Grutas da Moeda
On the other side of Fátima is arguably the essential show-cave in the region, which is saying a lot for the Serra de Aire.
The system was uncovered in 1971, when two hunters chased a fox down a hole and stumbled upon a network of chambers that seemed to never end.
Being close to Fátima, most of the chambers have names evoking Christian themes, like Virgem, Presépio (Nativity) and Pastor, which is the first one you enter.
About 350 metres are accessible to the public and there are tons of outlandish clay and calcite formations to dazzle you.
14. Vinho Medieval de Ourém
“Vinho Medieval de Ourém” is a designation to safeguard a way of making wine that began more than 800 years ago with Cistercian monks on lands granted to them by King Afonso Henriques in the 12th century.
For a wine to carry the “Medieval de Ourém” label it has to have been picked by hand in certified vineyards that follow rigid guidelines.
One is that whites can only be made with the Fernão Pires grape and reds with Trincadeira.
If you like the sound of this, there are a couple of open wineries moments from the town, at Divinis and Quita do Montalto.
15. Food and Drink
In an upland town some distance from the ocean, meat and locally grown vegetables take centre stage.
Cured meat in particular, where sausages like chouriço, morcela (made with blood or rice) and farinheira can come cold, fried or added to stews.
Local Queijo de cabra, (goats’ cheese) is made with milk from goats that graze the hills in semi freedom.
For a starter you could order soups with local greens, salted cod, chicken or beef.
Old-school main courses are migas de broa com couves, which is leftover bread soaked in water and fried with cabbage.
A typical casserole will have pumpkin and local smoked sausage, while lamb stew is also delicious.