Pedras Salgadas - a retreat
At the end of November 2020, we needed to stop for a few days and spend some quality time together. It was unusual, given how close we were to the Holidays, the limitations imposed by Covid-19, and the cold, rainy winter. We decided to go for it anyways.
Taking time off at this time of the year, even if just a couple of days, helps me prepare for Christmas. Not just gifts and decorations but also, and most importantly, allows me to find the peace of mind required to live my favorite season focused on what really matters.
As we only had room for a quick getaway, we decided to go to Pedras Salgadas Spa & Nature Park – we had heard good things from friends, it was a short drive from Oporto (1,5 hours) and it had plenty of outdoor space, ideal to get some fresh air in times of forced seclusion. The individual houses, with a fully equipped kitchen and all modern amenities, offered great comfort and warmth in the middle of the park, which helped us feel safe and somewhat isolated (in a good way).
Winters can be rainy and greyish in Northern Portugal – we packed a good waterproof jacket for hiking, and warm and comfortable boots. The park gets plenty of mud when it rains despite having excellent access to the houses, so make sure to bring comfortable clothes. Scarf and gloves can be useful but umbrellas are on the house (each house has a set of 1 or 2)
For smart and easy meals, we packed pre-cooked food from a homecooked catering/takeaway service – D. Alzira de Cristo Rei, in Oporto) We also brought a set of pastries from Padaria Ribeiro, to eat with fresh salad… and voilá!
Breakfast is included but, envisioning rainy afternoons spent on the sofa, we also brought cheese, yogurts, fruit etc. If you have no time (or patience) to pack with such detail, the Pedras Salgadas village has a small but organized supermarket, with wide variety of products and groceries. It is a short 10 minutes’ walk from the park. We bought chestnuts to bake at home!
We stayed at Casa do Castanheiro, a quite spacious Superior Bungalow, which included:
Casa do Castanheiro could comfortably accommodate a couple with two small children, taking advantage of a large and comfortable sofa bed with duvet and two pillows – ideal for long, cozy naps.
The kitchen is very well equipped – we brought the meals ready to go, and didn’t use most of what was available but unlike what we have seen in similar accommodations, this has everything you will need, including blender, dishwasher tablets, kitchen cloth, a perfectly new sponge, detergents, etc
The modern bathroom, with heated towel racks and fragrant toiletries, called for warm, relaxing showers, after which a fluffily bathrobe awaits.
Breakfast was served, after prior booking, at Casa de Chá, one of the many buildings of the park, rebuilt to become the Park’s main dining space. Due to Covid-19, breakfast was different on both days – in the first, à la carte; in the second a buffet, served upon request by diligent staff. We highlight:
We will need to return to try other regional specialties. With Covid-19 at its 2nd wave, we stayed mostly at home for homecooked lunch and dinner.
The most disappointing thing for us was how hard it was to have a nice expresso with a sweet delicatessen, after a walk in the park, mid-morning or after lunch. We tried to find a local and friendly pastry shop or café, where we could spend time reading but we couldn’t find more than a cold, bright café that had just standard, colored pastries. We drove to visit the bar of the Vidago Palace Hotel, but unfortunately (and hopefully only because of the pandemic) it was open exclusively to guests. Back on the sofa at Casa do Castanheiro, we ended with a large bag of roasted chestnuts and some sweet chocolate American cookies.
Walk the talk
We struggled to find the Park’s entrance, which is made through a gate that can get easily unnoticed. Behind this gate, you can see the old Garages, rebuilt to host small local shops, but never used with this purpose. Check-in takes place on the right side of the garages, and the car is parked next to the reception. A buggy takes guests (and luggage!) to the Bungalow or Tree House where they will be staying. This service is again available at check-out – until then, take time to enjoy the outdoor walks.
The Park, not being too big, has a lot of history and some mystery – enough to make you wonder for a while which stories may have taken place here. Make sure to visit the Museum to learn the truth behind this magnificent place.
For an exploratory walk through the Park, start on foot at the Reception, facing the promenade sided by majestic trees. Walking along it, you will pass by 3 fountains (Fonte Pedras Salgadas, Fonte Grande Alcalina and Fonte D. Maria Pia), ending at Fonte D.Fernando. On your way, you will also see the Lake, the Tea House, the Spa, and the Museum. With a total area of 20 hectares, the eight kilometers of park paths are an excellent way to get a general idea of its extension and the main key points of what was once one of the most famous Portuguese thermal resorts.
In the 19th century, the water of Pedras Salgadas was already well known for its benefits to the digestive tract. In 1875, the creation of a company to formally explore its benefits gave the are new momentum and in 1879, the Pedras Salgadas thermal resort opened to the public, becoming a summer site for the courts of the kings D. Fernando (1884) and D. Carlos (1906).
The grandeur of the park and the ancient thermal baths, visited by the most important personalities of each time, is felt at every step – from the splendor of the Fountains to the diversity and richness of the Park’s flora; from the small, mystical Chapel to the magnificent, opulent Casino, inaugurated in 1910 and rebuilt in 2013 to continue hosting parties, weddings and conferences. The minigolf, sadly filled with yellow autumn foliage, seemed abandoned to us, remnant of other times.
But nothing suggests the park’s role as the center of social life like the amazing Grande Hotel ruins. In front of the decrepit building, we wondered the fate of such grand and appalling construction. Unfortunately, the recovery projects that have been on the table have not yet advanced. For some, and at first glance, it may seem strange, almost frightening, to have an abandoned hotel in the middle of the Park. For us, it triggered curiosity around the history of the place, and prompted a thorough investigation on the internet.
Near the Grand Hotel, and behind the Tree Houses (the Park’s biggest attraction, where 1 night can be up to 250€) a strange hill catches the eye – it is the site of the former Avelames Hotel, another demolished building that reinforced the relevance of the thermal park to the society of its time. Today this is a service area, hidden beneath the now called Avelames Hill.
As we visited Pedras Salgadas Spa & Nature Park in the middle of a rainy, pandemic winter, we didn’t dive into the outdoor pool nor bravely attempted an afternoon of Tree Climbing, but the activities offered, on sunnier days, is interesting.
We did visit the museum, which divided in two wings:
The museum is quite enlightening about the mysterious park, in a well-achieved effort to preserve memory. Organized chronologically, visitors are invited to walk through recollections of many years of Park’s history: old photographs, well-preserved curious objects, as well as furniture from the old hotels. In the wing dedicated to the Brand Pedras Salgadas it is possible to admire old advertising posters and make the personalized label of the bottle itself.
With no schedules for anything during these days, we ended up not exploring any of the treatments available in the Spa. The recovery project of the old thermal building, authored by Siza Vieira, would in itself be plenty of reason for the visit, but the laziness of days in the comfort of the bungalow made us push everything for later. A next visit was promised!
Pedras Salgadas Spa & Nature Park
Restaurant - Vidago Palace
Vila Pouca de Aguiar Turism
Takeaway Cristo Rei – Alzira Maia