Covilhã is a small village on the edge of the Serra da Estrela National Park, easily accessible via the A23 motorway. From a distance, you can already see the mountain range behind Covilhã, and as you come closer, the anticipation of what's to come builds. The N339 is easy to find. Head towards the centre of Covillhã. There are lots of signs to the historical centre (in Portuguese: Centro histórico). Once you are on the main square, you need to find signs towards Penhas de Saúde and Torre. And bingo you are heading up into the mountains.
Initially, the road starts to rise gently as you leave Covilhã, but soon you are on a proper mountain road with bends and stunning views over the valley below. First, you will get to Penhas de Saúde, which looks like a slightly misplaced sky resort in summer. Well, it is but only in the few short winter months. It's from here that the road starts to become exciting. Like a premonition, you can see the road you are about to drive on carved into the impressive mountain range.
If you do this experience around midday, you could have a nice lunch in Penhas de Saúde in a small restaurant called Puro. It's right next to the road in a rustic wooden house that could be straight out of a Sound-of-Music Austrian location. The food is not super cheap, but it's excellent.
From Penhas de Saúde to Torre — it's about 20 kilometres stunning road — you can stop on well-built viewpoints overlooking the valleys carved by long-gone glaciers. The quality of the road itself is worth mentioning. Its layout is exciting, the views are mind-blowing yet — unlike other mountain roads — it's smooth and wide enough for any car. Compared to roads in the alps this one definitely can hold its own. You get it all: tunnels, 90-degree bends, long gentle curves, sharp rises, steep drops and as an extra a beautiful dam at the bottom of the valley.
That this place is very special is unexpectedly confirmed by previous travellers that felt compelled to carve an image of the Virgin Mary into the solid rock. The real story is: the sculpture was inaugurated in 1946. It's over 7 meters high and was designed by António Duarte, to pay homage to the holy protector of the shepherds, who have faced the storms of the harsh region for centuries. Quite amazing and worth another stop.
You can drive from Covilhã to Torre in about 30 minutes, but you should take your time and enjoy the experience. Once you get to Torre, you will be 1,993 m above sea level, and the destination is actually a bit of an anti-climax. It's true what they say: "it's not about the destination but the journey" — or something like that. There is basically a giant car park, a derelict observatory and a shopping centre selling local produce. It's not worth spending time there. The shops are tourist traps and sellers quite aggressive. Do have a walk around the mountain top though.
Despite the Serra da Estrela having its greatest number of visitors in winter — the few opportunities locals have to see and play in the snow — this road is to be enjoyed in summer.