Hidden between the cities of Aveiro and Coimbra, Beira Litoral is the town of Cantanhede. Since prehistoric times, there have been quarries in Cantan Head, where rich, high-quality limestone formations have been mined. There is a museum about this stone in the town centre, in one of several fine palaces from the 16th century.
In the 17th century, the first Marquis de Marialva left his signature on the Cantanhede, commissioning the town hall and the church that now houses his tomb. He is a member of the Menenses family, whose pantheon is located in a chapel in the parish church of Cantanhede. The wider municipality is extensive and has a coast that is home to the lovely fishing village of Tocha.
Let’s explore the best things to do in Cantan Head:
1. Pedra Museum
Cantanhede’s Stone Museum is housed in a restored 18th century palace with a beautiful loggia and has all the hard facts about Cantanhede’s quarrying heritage.
The town has been supplying limestone for so long that it takes its name from the Celtic word “Cant”, which means “great stone”. The museum approaches the stone from several angles: Fascinating paleontological fossils have been found in the town’s quarries and in statues unearthed at Roman ruins.
More recently are superb Renaissance statues used to adorn the interiors of churches and monasteries.
All the tools used to extract and shape limestone at different times are also shown.
2. Praia da Tocha
Tocha is a fishing village that started developing tourism in the late 1900s.
It has never lost its old-school essence, having just celebrated the Blue Flag 25 times in a row.
There are gridded streets next to the dunes, flanked by cute little weatherboard houses.
In most of these buildings, the ground floor is the equipment storage space, and the upper floor is the home.
The front rows of the dunes are particularly quaint because they are built into the sand on stilts.
As for the Blue Flag beaches, it’s everything you’d expect from Portugal’s Atlantic beaches, with roaring waves and kilometers of tantalizing white sand.
3. Igreja Matriz de Cantanhede
The parish church in Cantanhede, a historic landmark in the town, has been declared a “public interest”. It dates back to the Middle Ages but has undergone many reconstructions, mainly in the 16th and 18th centuries.
The outside is fairly sober, save for a small flourish at the entrance, flanked by columns supporting the gable.
Inside, the 16th-century chapel to the right of the nave should be your first priority.
It was dedicated to the Eucharist and was made by the Renaissance sculptor Jean de Rouen.
For the noble Menezes family, it was a richly decorated pantheon with coffered ceilings, tombs and a tabernacle between the images of the evangelist 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 of the Menezes family.
It can be visited from 08:45 to 18:00 on weekdays.
It looks ordinary from the outside, but the inner courtyard is worth seeing.
The lower level has an arcade with groin vaults and carved cornerstones, one of which has an inscription from 1533. On the upper level of the patio is the colonnade/loggia with magnificent Ionic columns.
5. Igreja da Misericórdia de Cantanhede
António Luís de Meneses, 1st Marquis of Marialva, was in charge of building the church, which began in 1675. It comes after the oath he made in Montes Claros’ battle with the Spaniards ten years ago.
Work began in the year of the Marquis’s death, and after the interior was completed, his body was placed in a tomb in the choir.
This is marked by marble dating back to 1713. The rest of the church was completed in 1733 and commemorated with a plaque in the alcove of the facade.
6. Terreiro do Paço de Ançã
The heart of Ançã in the same municipality is a maze of cobblestone streets lined with churches and elegant mansions.
But the postcard scene is this square in the center.
There are gas lamps, wrought-iron benches and carefully arranged plane trees.
On the north side of the square is the exquisite Palácio do Marquês de Cascais Ançã, a 17th-century building with triple arches and coat of arms.
Visit Ansa’s pillory, built in the 1700s and restored 100 years later.
7. Moinho da Nascente de Ançã
Also in Ançã there is a natural spring that gushes violently from the ground.
Water pours out at 20,000 liters per minute and is directed from the ground through historic pipes.
These have been around for over a thousand years and are the work of the Moors who also built factories powered by these fast-flowing waters.
The earliest references to the building date back to 937, and it is now owned and operated by the Diocese of Ançã.
The mechanism inside is a replica of what was here before, but in working order and continues to grind corn.
8. Cruzeiro da Póvoa da Lomba
Under a small pavilion in the village of Póvoa da Lomba, there is a beautiful Renaissance cross.
No one knows exactly when this monument was built, but to match it with other crosses in this style, it may have been from the late 1500s or early 1600s.
It’s a cross and you can still make out the image of Jesus.
The structure protecting the cross is not new, with a dome above the cornice supported by four columns.
9. Casa Municipal da Cultura de Cantanhede
On the side opposite the palace with the Museu da Pedra is the cultural center of Cantanhede.
This elegant venue hosts temporary exhibitions of sculpture, painting, ceremonial art, graphic design and photography.
If there is a show that suits your taste, please pick up a flyer at the tourist office.
But you can also check out more 16th-century buildings, and the lobby has elaborate coffered ceilings and beautiful blue-and-white tile panels.
10. Praia Fluvial dos Olhos da Fervença
In case you find the ocean a little rough, there are several outdoor pools around the city, including one in Cantanhede and Ançã.
But swimming in natural springs can only be enjoyed in Fairwensa.
Small green voids around the pool have been layered to make room for drying or lounging in the sun, all accessed via wooden stairs.
These lead through the pine trees to the bar, patio, changing rooms, and then on the walking trail into the woodland.
The water is an attractive turquoise color that keeps you cool even on hot summer days.
11. Clube de Golfe de Cantanhede
The town’s golf course is special because it was the first publicly owned golf course in Portugal when it opened in 2009.
The idea is to open up the game to everyone, regardless of age or income.
It is located in the Complexo Desportivo de Cantanhede, northwest of the town.
The club has a 9 hole and putting green, a driving range and a practice green.
Since this is a putter and putter, novices and casual players need not be intimidated! The course is IPPA compliant (International Putting Association) and all greens on the course have natural turf.
There is also a clubhouse with a bar and a balcony overlooking the training area.
Praia da Tocha is a surf spot still under the tourist radar.
There is a left and right beach rest area, where swells form hollow waves up to two meters high.
If you’ve ever wanted to learn how to ride the waves, this is manageable for beginners.
Ticket2Surf in the village is a surf camp with a lot of options: you can come for the whole week and have classes twice a day combined with yoga classes.
Or, if you’re just passing by, you can book half-day and full-day one-off classes.
There are “surf guide” services that can take you to other surf beaches in the area, as well as stand-up paddleboard tours.
A contender for the most beautiful city in the country, Coimbra was the capital of Portugal in the 12th and 13th centuries.
It’s a UNESCO World Heritage Site and somewhere you can learn about medieval stories 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, founded by famous students of the university.
Dating back to 1290, the institution is the target of any sightseeing trip: the best buildings border the square in the highest part of the city.
The Joanina Library above is an empty library where a colony of bats live in baroque gilded wood, preying on any wood-burrowing insects at night.
14. Wine Tours
You’ll know from the vast number of vineyards around Cantanhede that wine is an integral part of the region’s identity.
This is Bairrada DOC, whose climate is softened by the Atlantic Ocean.
The soils near the coast are sandy, but once you get to Cantan Head they become rich in clay.
Under these conditions, the Portuguese Baga grapes performed well.
Baga produces acidic, high-tannin red wines that age well and are a great companion to Bairrada’s meat dishes.
There are three more in-depth establishments nearby: Cantanhede Cooperative Winery (Adega Cooperativa), Quinta de Baixo Winery and Cave Symposio Wine & Friends.
If you’re the kind of tourist who can’t visit town without trying the local specialties, there are a few things you can try.
Nothing is more precious than leitão assado à Bairrada, a Bairrada-style roast suckling pig.
The dish has enough appeal across the country to be named one of the seven gastronomic wonders of Portugal.
The piglets are seasoned with salt and pepper, then skewered and roasted on a wood over low heat for two hours.
On the coast, you can try fish stew (caldeirade de peixe), sardines grilled on terracotta (sardinha na telha) or grilled sea bass with baked potatoes.
Where to Stay: Best Hotels in Cantahead, Portugal
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