In the Beira Alta region in central Portugal, Tondela is a placid town in pine coated mountains by the River Dão.
The town sprang up quickly in the 1700s, and has clutch of Baroque townhouses from this time, one of which is now a neat museum about the area.
ACERT in Tondela is a cultural venue that a big city would be proud of, and there’s always something interesting going on in its galleries and auditoriums.
But much of your trip will be spent in the countryside on the serene greenway that runs all the way to Viseu, or in Caramulo.
This used to be a sanatorium town in the 20th century and is replete with Art Deco architecture from its glory days.
Let’s explore the best things to do in Tondela:
1. Museu do Caramulo
The municipality’s trump card is a fleet of luxury cars, precious art and a trove of miniatures and antique toys.
Car-lovers will be riveted by the fleet of automobiles that counts some rare pieces like the personal Cadillac and armoured Mercedes for authoritarian leader António de Oliveira Salazar.
The art galleries have works by the likes of Salvador Dalí, Picasso and Vieira da Silva, while one of the marquee exhibits is a set of four Tournai tapestries.
These were woven in the 1500s and show Portugal’s epoch-making voyages in the Age of Discovery.
2. Sights in Tondela
The old centre of Tondela is a small network of cobblestone streets around the town hall.
A lot of the townhouses are from the 1600s and 1700s, when Tondela graduated from a small gaggle of farms to a centre of local government and commerce.
You could step out of the car and pass an hour or two on its streets and sleepy squares.
One sight that will tell you a lot about the town is the Fonte da Seria on Avenida Tomaz Ribeiro, an 18th-century fountain built to solve Tondela’s water shortage and with a grand Baroque pediment sporting the royal coat of arms.
The pillory in front of the town hall is a symbol of the town’s autonomy, and criminals would have been punished here in front of crowds hundreds of years ago.
If you’re wondering how all the museum’s precious invaluable items came to be in this mountain village in rural Portugal, the story goes back to the 1920s.
The doctor Jerónimo Lacerda (who was friends with Salazar) turned Caramulo into a sanatorium resort to treat wealthy people suffering from tuberculosis.
There were 19 sanatoriums in all, carefully positioned on the mountainside to receive optimal sunlight.
These were in the Art Deco style, and many of the buildings are still here, along with chalets from the same period for staff.
Caramulo was a cutting-edge model village in its day, with its own electricity grid and services like sewage, running water and rubbish collection that weren’t available elsewhere in Portugal.
4. Ecopista Do Dão
Weaving through Tondela, the 49-kilometre Dão railway line hugged the course of the namesake river, from Viseu down to Santa Comba Dão.
The track was laid in 1890 and after closing in 1988 the line reopened as a paved cycling and walking trail through blissful upland countryside.
You’ll cross the river on old industrial bridge and pass below wooded mountainsides coated with chestnut trees, cork oaks as well as orchards and vineyards.
Some of the stations on the line are now crumbling ruins, while others were refurbished and reopened as restaurants and cafes when the Ecopista was completed in 2011.
5. Museu Terras de Besteiros
In the noble confines of the Solar Casa de Sant’Ana manor house, this museum is about the culture, past and present of the Terras de Besteiros parish.
The permanent collection is spread over two floors, the lower recounting human development in this part of Portugal since prehistory.
There are examples of prehistoric rock art and tools, as well as later Roman artefacts and devotional art from the middle ages.
On the upper floor the museum has an ethnological theme showing rural life in Terras de Besteiros before industrialisation: You’ll browse displays of instruments for basketry, flax cultivation and the local black clay pottery.
6. Capela de Nossa Senhora do Campo
This chapel goes back to the 1400s, and was built after a Marian apparition in Terras de Besteiros.
The building as it appears now is from the 1616, as commemorated by a plaque above the pediment on the portal.
The shrine, Nossa Senhora do Campo (Our Lady of the Field) had a big following that continued to grow, so new decoration and fittings were installed over the centuries that followed.
The chapel’s marble-effect altars and frescos are in an ostentatious Rococo style from the 1700s, while the polychrome limestone image of Mary dates to the 1600s.
7. Serra do Caramulo
In Caramulo you have to strike out and see more of the mountainous landscapes around the village, and you can do this on foot, by bike or on horseback.
The Serra do Caramulo is a granite and schist range, with a light beard of heather and epic clusters of boulders on the highest peak.
The range is laced with walking trails to show you the strangest granite formations, waterfalls, prehistoric dolmens, citrus groves, on routes that were first plotted by the Romans.
Posted high in the mountains are also adorable villages like Fornelo do Monte and Covas, frozen in time for their isolation.
8. Cabeço da Neve
You won’t need to trek for hours to reach this lookout in the Serra do Caramulo: You can drive a circuitous mountain road to the top of this natural balcony almost 1,000 metres above sea level.
Park up and clamber over the granite boulders to soak up the mountain scenery.
The slope falls away very suddenly below Cabeço da Neve and you see the white flecks of villages embroidered into valleys hundreds of metres below.
The sharp drop suits paragliders and microlights and you can get in touch with ASA Livre, Caramulo’s paragliding club for a one-time tandem flight.
It’s a sign of Portugal’s love for the arts that even small, rural towns like Tondela have vibrant cultural centres like ACERT. This acronym stands for Associação Cultural e Recreativa de Tondela, and it’s a space for theatre, cinema, live music, photography and fine art, joint funded by the government and a non-profit theatre company.
There are three stages, one of which is a modern amphitheatre with 480 seats for open-air shows and film screenings in summer.
There’s also a bar, booking live musicians for smaller audiences.
If any of this takes your fancy, hit their website when you arrive to find out what’s on the schedule.
10. Parque Urbano de Tondela
While the town’s urban park is not a big-hitting attraction it ticks all the boxes for morning jogs.
Younger children will also be thrilled with the new adventure playground that has been put up.
In summer a big screen will show sporting events, and there are also movies in the park in the evenings.
At any other time it’s a stress-free sort of place to amble aimlessly, with plenty of foliage and constant views of the mountains.
The district’s capital has been inhabited since well before the Roman invasion, and has been a big cultural centre for all that time.
Portugal’s most revered Renaissance painter, Grão Vasco was born and began his career in Viseu, and his work takes centre stage at the art museum.
This is in a handsome seminary, and shares a square at the highest point of the city with the cathedral and a marvellous Baroque church.
The cathedral is the obligatory sight in Viseu with several centuries worth of architecture from Gothic to Mannerist.
There’s much to admire inside, but the Manueline ribbed vaulting really deserves a mention.
12. Caramulo Motorfestival
With winding mountain roads and a museum chock full of classic cars, Caramulo is the logical choice for a vintage car and motorbike festival partly organised by the museum.
This happens on the second weekend of September and organises rallies, a motorcade and a classic car fair.
Enthusiasts from all over Portugal and even abroad congregate in Caramulo on this weekend, and it’s possibly the biggest event on Tondela’s candela.
There are aerobatics demonstrations, fairground amusements for kids and live music in the evenings.
13. Dão Wine Region
Tondela is a useful jumping off point for oenophiles as it has a profusion of wine estates, producing mostly reds under the Dão DOC. There are three wineries in this municipality alone: Quinta da Sernada, Quinta das Camelias and Quinta da Reguenga.
All three invite you to come and look around, chat with vintners about growing and making wine, and taste it of course.
In the past the hot continental climate and long maceration periods yielded very tannic reds and full-bodied whites.
This is still the case for a lot of Dão wine, but newer techniques are changing the profile of the region.
Reds tend to be a little lighter now, while whites are fresher.
14. Molelos Pottery
If you’re hunting for a souvenir there’s something very out of the ordinary in the village of Molelos.
For as long as anyone can remember artisans have been crafting clay pottery that has a captivating black sheen.
In the past this was achieved by burying the finished bowl, vase or jar in a pit with smoking charcoal, lending it that black finish.
Today they simply use ovens to achieve the same results, and have producing a whole assortment of decorative items, from candlesticks to teapots to decorative plates with arabesque patterns.
15. Typical Cuisine
The same wood-fired ovens that bake the captivating black clay pottery in Molelos are put to use for some traditional dishes.
The classics are roasted veal and roasted goat with roasted potatoes, as well as rice with goat.
Cured sausages like alheira, morcela and chouriço are tasty whether you have them hot or cold.
The Dão and the profusion of streams springing from the Serra de Carmulo are a constant source of trout and other freshwater fish, which are pan-fried, grilled or baked.
And if you need something to take home Caramulo honey is so good it has earned the epithet “O Oura da Montanha”, “Gold of the Mountain”.