The Caminho Português Interior (CPI) is a little-known Camino de Santiago route in north-central Portugal that combines gorgeous scenery, historic cities and that rare combination of an off-the-beaten-track pilgrimage that surprisingly offers a vast albergue network.
Not to be confused with the Portuguese Central from Porto, the Portuguese Interior route traditionally begins in the city of Viseu, although the trail has now been extended about 110km southwest to Coimbra.
From Viseu, the CPI heads north for 208km, crossing into Spain on the final day and finishing in the Galician town of Verín. From there, an alternate route of the Camino Sanabrés continues to Ourense, where it joins the main route to Santiago de Compostela – 387km in total from Viseu.
If the opportunity to walk a friendly, welcoming camino and discover a lesser-known region of Portugal while avoiding the crowds of the standard Caminho Português sounds appealing, check out our CPI highlights below.
Street Art in Viseu and Beyond
The cathedral and other churches in Viseu’s old town are worth exploring, as is the city’s homage to the ancient, proto-Portuguese Lusitanian warrior Viriatus, but it’s more recently created attractions that might form your lasting memories of Viseu.
The city is full of street art from some of Portugal’s most famous artists, including an instalment of Bordalo II’s Big Trash Animals series, featuring monkeys. Other well-known street artists such as AKA Corleone and Frederico Draw also have murals in Viseu, as does Mario Belém, whose delightful style also adorns a building in the town of Crato on the Caminho Nascente.
Beyond Viseu, there is plenty of other street art to discover on the CPI. Among the more striking examples, a fabulous camino-themed mural decorates Vila Meã’s new bandstand-albergue, while a large tiled mural showing rural scenes adds a splash of colour to a fountain in Vila Pouco de Aguiar.
River Hopping like a Local
As with almost all Camino de Santiago routes, the Portuguese Interior offers its share of old bridge crossings, notably the Roman-medieval bridge near Vila Pouca de Aguiar and Trajan’s Bridge in Chaves.
But the most appealing river crossings on the CPI are stepping-stone bridges, in which pilgrims-turned-gymnasts gingerly and timidly hop from stone to stone, while marvelling at how quickly and adeptly local farmers perform the same task.
The most picturesque of the stepping stone bridges – and the trickiest to cross – is the one over the Rio Paiva on the stage between Ribolhos and Bigorne.
There is another stepping stone bridge shortly afterwards, and another in an unusual setting in the city of Chaves near the end of the camino. On this last bridge, urban school kids take the place of farmers in casually zooming over the stones.
Wildflowers are a highlight of many spring caminos, and the Português Interior is no different. Red poppies, purple bellflowers and many other flowers give colour and life to the trail, but none more so than yellow broom flowers.
The broom shrub is so called because its twigs were once used to make up the brush part of a broom. But the yellow flowers are what sets the broom apart on the camino, as they provide a spectacular explosion of colour across the landscape.
The broom shrub, known as giesta in Portuguese, is so common in the region around the CPI that it has become part of the local culture. In Bigorne, a village that often serves as the overnight stop on the third day of the camino, the only restaurant in town is named A Giesta, with photos of the shrub adorning its walls.
Medieval Heritage in Lamego
Situated almost halfway throughh the CPI, after the early hilly stages and on the doorstep of the Douro Valley, Lamego is one of the highlights of the route.
The entrance to the city is a spectacular one, as the trail passes the hilltop Santuário de Nossa Senhora dos Remédios, an 18th-century Baroque and Rococo church. From the church, a famous and ornate staircase or a wooded park are the options for descending into the city centre.
While the shrine is one of Lamego’s most photogenic spots, the city’s medieval heritage is what really transports pilgrims back to the golden age of the camino.
The cathedral retains some Romanesque elements, but more impressive attractions await a short walk away in a picturesque neighbourhood. There, the 12th-century castle keep soars towards the heavens, while underground, a cavernous 13th-century cistern demonstrates how water was accessed hundreds of years ago.
Finally, the early Middle Ages are brought to life at the Capela de São Pedro de Balsemão, which dates from the sixth century and is a rare example of Visigothic architecture in Portugal. While later medieval modifications are evident, some original aspects remain, including Visigothic column capitals. The church is outside the city centre and off the camino, but a detour is possible by following signs on the way out of Lamego.
Douro Valley Vineyards
The spectacular terraced vineyards of the Douro Valley provide the most extraordinary scenery of the Caminho Português Interior. In Portugal’s most famous wine region, perfectly aligned rows of vineyards stretch as far as the eye can see, interrupted only by the occasional olive tree.
At Sande, about 5km beyond Lamego, a way-marking sign points left for the CPI and right for the Camino Torres, which also passes through the Douro on its path from Salamanca (Spain) to Ponte de Lima. The two paths rejoin before the footbridge over the Douro river, meaning either route can be taken through the valley.
The Torres path affords the most spectacular scenery, given its descent into a rugged and rocky gorge dominated by olive trees, and the panoramic views back over the vineyards from the other side of the gorge.
Whichever path you take, the stage in the Douro Valley is likely to be among the top echelon of highlights not just of this camino, but of any of the ways of St. James.
La Belle Époque, Abandonnée
The most unlikely yet potentially most curious attraction on the Caminho Português Interior surrounds the natural springs area of Pedras Salgadas on the northern section of the camino in the region of Trás-os-Montes (Beyond the Mountains).
During the Belle Époque era of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, when balneotherapy was in vogue, several enormous hotels were built in the area to service those who came to the springs looking for the cure to what ailed them.
These days, the hulking structures are completely abandoned and have long since been overrun by nature. They are now fascinating ruins that can be seen right from the path.
Though Pedras Salgadas’ golden era is long in the past, part of the area has been revitalised and turned into an eco-park where visitors can stay in ‘tree house’ cabins and sample the naturally fizzy spring water that brought visitors here a century ago.
In the Footsteps of the Romans in Chaves
The CPI saves one of its biggest attractions for the end: the historic city of Chaves in the far north of Portugal. Chaves is famous in Portugal for being one of the endpoints of the 1940s-era Estrada Nacional 2 highway, which stretches all the way to Faro on the Algarve coast and is now a nostalgic secondary road in the vein of the USA’s Route 66.
For pilgrims, however, it’s Chaves’ Roman heritage that is likely to have more appeal. Entering town, the camino crosses the Tâmega river via Trajan’s Bridge, an impressive arched structure which dates to the Spanish emperor’s rule (AD 98-117) and contains two Roman markers with still-legible inscriptions.
Near the bridge, one of the CPI’s newest attractions is also one of its oldest: the Roman baths that were destroyed by an earthquake in the fourth century, rediscovered in 2005 and finally opened as a free museum in late 2021.
The bath complex, the largest in Iberia and one of the largest in the entire Roman Empire, is very well presented and shows that the Belle Époque wasn’t the first time that the area’s natural springs were put to use. Unlike most Roman baths, these ones were primarily for therapeutic – rather than hygienic – purposes.
After walking up and down the hills of the Caminho Português Interior, however, pilgrims – medieval and modern – could probably do with both types of bath!