Snow is possibly the last thing you expect to find when you visit Portugal, renowned for it’s 3,000 odd hours of sunshine a year and soaring summer temperatures.
However that’s exactly what we found when we ventured high into the Serra da Estrela mountains in central Portugal. Admittedly it was half way through February and as we were en-route to the country’s only ski resort at Torre, snow wasn’t that unexpected.
In fact our trip to the Serra da Estrela (Star Mountains), in our reliable old motor home, was with the express purpose of checking out the ski resort and trying out two snowboards we’d acquired.
Our journey to the base of the mountains at Covilha wasn’t long, arduous or in fact in snow. It was only when we navigated through the town, which appears to cling to the side of the mountains in places, did we spy our first fall of snow.
The road narrowed significantly and the twists and turns tested Mr H the driver to his limits. Visibility dropped the higher we climbed; a combination of cloud and a snow storm blowing in from the east.
We’d arranged to meet our travelling companions half way up the, what was becoming tortuous route, to Torre from where we would travel to the top together to try out the boards.
However by the time we made it to our friends’ location – a conveniently placed lay-by, large enough for two motor homes – afternoon had turned to evening, snow was falling rapidly and there was a wild easterly wind. So on the advice of the friendly and helpful snowplough driver, returning home downhill, we decided to stop the night.
The road he said was inaccessible, but would be in the morning at around eight o’clock. All night we pondered his prophetic abilities until that is, 7.30am, when he not only honked his horn loudly, but also knocked on our motor home doors.
If we wanted to beat the traffic to the top then we’d best follow quickly. You see the mountain road from Covilha to Torre, which even in the best of weather can be described as dangerous, closes over night in winter to reduce the number of accidents.
The road isn’t illuminated and is quite narrow in most places. Craggy rocks jut out on one side of the road and steep, seemingly bottomless drops are on the other.
By morning the snowstorm had blown itself out and the sun poked through fluffy white clouds providing us navigators with spectacular glimpses of rocky slopes swathed in snow, which are the Serra da Estrela in winter.
The ski centre looked magnificent as we crested the peak; puffs of snow billowing off the yet unskied/snowboarded runs in the early morning breeze and there was not a person in sight.
We parked up the motorised homes and set out to purchase passes, but found everything closed and would be until 9am. So we parked up the vans, spent a little time photographing the snow, the view and anything, which moved.
When we turned round there were cars everywhere, disgorging old, young, middle aged, all dressed for the weather and ready to ski – salopettes, gloves, hats, goggles and suitable jackets.
The Ski Parque at Torre, which is Portugal’s highest location at 1,993 feet, isn’t the largest of resorts in the world. There are only nine runs – one black diamond for advanced skiers, four red runs for intermediates, two blue for novice skiers and two green runs for absolute beginners.
There are four ski lifts for ferrying you from bottom to top and it’s a great place to go if you’re new to skiing or snowboarding. Mr H and I are no strangers to skiing. He’s skied in Europe and I’ve been lucky to do so on several continents.
I like to think I can slalom like the late Sarah Burke, but having sustained a broken wrist and thumb on my last outing and as we’d never attempted snowboarding before, we decided the sledging run was a safer option – for us and other serious skiers and snowboarders.
You see aside from the snowboards we hadn’t really come equipped for this snow related sport. None of us had the first clue on how to snowboard and weren’t really dressed for the sport or the weather - flimsy fleeces, jeans and inappropriate footwear.
Snowboarding is, I found out very quickly, completely different to skiing. Instead of being able to control where you go and how fast with each individual leg, now they had to be in sync, something I found impossible to master, even on the relatively none existent incline of the sledging run.
Having both of your feet tied to a board when you’re used to controlling movement by individual legs, is very difficult, especially when you have your own personal support team on hand to comment and laugh when you land face first in the snow.
For several hours we surfed (more over fell in all different forms while snow board was attached to feet) down the slopes, eating more snow than is probably healthy, though dusting ourselves down after each sporadic spurt.
However when the sun began to sink behind the snow covered peak we headed indoors to the conveniently located bar adjacent to the tower, which provides the location with it’s name après-ski, Portuguese style.
We opted to try the local, alcoholic aperitif, Ginjinha de Serra da Estrela. It’s mighty fine drink, created by fermenting locally grown cherries in equally locally distilled firewater (Aguardente). Shot glasses were filled on more than one occasion, as we had no need to drive and we settled back to enjoy the spectacular view of the sun setting and skiers departing for the day.
I can wholeheartedly recommend visiting the Serra da Estrela as a place to go, especially during the short ski season it experiences. If not to marvel at the magnificent views, try out some of the trails through the rocky granite peaks but for the warmth of the welcome you receive from the locals.
And if you’re in Portugal in the next few days (9th, 10th, 11th March 2012) it’s a good idea to head to Torre to see some real snowboarding experts in action when the Roxy Snowgirls Snowboarding Championship slides into town.
The event showcases some of the best snowboarding, female talent around and it’s an opportunity to learn to snowboard with people who know what they’re doing.
For more information on the Roxy SnowGirls visit: http://www.purofeeling.com