My day in the Peneda-Gerês National Park didn’t go according to plan and I ended up seeing more of its rugged landscapes than I’d expected to. It was still only a taster and I’m keen to return and explore it in more depth.
In a bid to whet your appetite for travelling to Portugal’s only national park, I’ll show you some of the highlights and give you tips for finding the information you need to plan your own adventure.
Unfortunately for me, the weather was grim. I wasn’t the only one who was reluctant to start hiking in the rain though. My guides, Paulo Lopes and Isabel Sousa from Portugal Green Walks, were also concerned about the weather conditions on the mountain tops. We decided to ditch our planned walk to the top of Peneda in favour of a driving tour of the park with shorter walks and scenic stops.
Short walking trails near Parada
Peneda-Gerês National Park forms a wobbly M shape around Portugal’s border with Spain. Because of its size, there are several entrance points but as we were coming from Ponte da Barca, our first stop was Parada. The village itself is worth a wander; it was once a very important village in the area and you can still see the former jail and council buildings.
It’s also the starting point for a couple of walking trails. We walked part of the Trilho dos Moinhos (Path of the mills) along rock-lined trails and over wooden bridges.
Isabel and Paulo had lots more they wanted to show me so we stopped at Poço da Gola, one of the many lagoons in the park, and turned back. The complete walk is 6 km (just under 4 miles) and looks like this. The shorter (4 km) Trilho do Penedo Encanto (Charming Boulder Path) takes you to some ancient rock art.
Lindoso used to be the ‘capital’ of the area and still has the remains of a castle. It’s more famous these days for having the largest collection of stone espigueiros (corn storage houses) around. Most of its 54 espigueiros stand around the communal eira (threshing floor) and some are still used by the villagers.
The round stones at the top of their legs are a cunning way of keeping mice out of the corn store; mice can’t defy gravity! Each espigueiro has a cross on top in order to encourage divine protection.
The other reason to stop in Lindoso is because it’s one of the five Park Gates. You should come here (or one of the other gates) to buy maps of walking trails and/or check on their current status if you’ve already downloaded a PDF version. Some park centres sell locally made handicrafts and all have information about the flora, fauna and geological features of the park. They also have toilet facilities.
Alto Lindoso Dam
We left Lindoso behind and took the scenic route to the other side of the valley, stopping briefly to peer over the Alto Lindoso Dam. Recent heavy rains meant that the reservoir was full so the force of the water being purged through the dam into the river below was mighty and impressive.
The reservoir supplies the hydroelectric power station and it’s possible to go inside the dam for a tour (in Portuguese) if you reserve in advance.
Senhora da Peneda Sanctuary
After driving through dramatic and constantly changing scenery, and passing several cows grazing at the roadside, we arrived at the sanctuary of Senhora da Peneda. Thankfully, we didn’t have to climb the hundreds of steps leading up to the church. The sanctuary is a hub for pilgrims from the region who follow well-worn walking routes from the mountain villages and larger towns such as Monção and Arcos de Valdevez.
Our next stop was Soajo, a large village that has its own collection of espigueiros perched on large boulders below the castle.
There are various footpaths from Soajo connecting it with Lindoso, Peneda and surrounding villages. We set off on the Caminhos do Pão e do Fé (Paths of Bread and Faith). Faith because it’s one of the pilgrimage routes to Senhora da Peneda and other religious sites. Bread because it leads to the grain mills at the top of the village. Plural because the routes merge.
The stones have deep grooves worn into them from years of ox-drawn carts transporting corn from the lower fields to the series of water-powered mills and making the return journey with sacks of flour. Away from the main road, the footpath passes traditional stone cottages and walls. Looking back downhill, the views are of terraced, cultivated fields with wild mountains in the distance.
Walking without a guide
It’s possible to do most of the shorter walks without a guide if you look out for the yellow and red route markers painted onto rocks. Some of the ancient shepherds’ routes are marked with piles of stones known as mariolas (cairns).
If you intend to do any of the more remote trails, you should get hold of a leaflet or a PDA (see below) and always check with the park staff what the current state of the path is. Maintaining such a vast park is a massive job and the weather takes its toll.
Some of the trails have been put onto hand-held devices (PDAs) which you can hire from Park Gates. For these PDA and GPS routes, it’s also possible to download a PDF of the route which is better quality than the maps on the leaflets. Look for the link that says ‘Letter from the Route’.
Why a guide might be a good idea
Walking with someone who knows the terrain and the history of the park has several benefits. Not only do you get the peace of mind of knowing you won’t get lost in the mountains and eaten by wolves (I’m joking but there are still some around), you also learn more about the traditions and culture of these remote villages. If you have a leaflet, you’ll get some information but frankly, the English translation will leave you confused in many cases.
A guide would also be able to tailor routes specifically for your group. If you arrange your walk in advance with a tour company, they can organise picnics and even traditional music or workshops en route. If you’d rather explore Peneda-Gerês by horse, they can take care of that for you, too. They can even sort out your accommodation if you want.
Driving tours of Peneda-Gerês National Park
You don’t have to miss out on the natural beauty of the park just because you’re not into walking. You could do a self-guided driving tour of Peneda-Gerês that includes detailed route descriptions and handpicked accommodation.
Whatever you do, make sure you have a full tank of fuel well before entering the park as there aren’t any petrol stations inside.
Accommodation in Peneda-Gerês National Park
Peneda-Gerês is huge and beautiful and needs as much time as you can spare to fully appreciate it. You can camp, stay in traditional stone cottages in some of the villages, or choose one of the more modern hotels dotted around the park.
If you’re staying in Soajo, the village with the most accommodation and eating options, try Saber ao Borralho restaurant for traditional Portuguese food. Make sure you stock up on provisions before leaving Soajo as there’s little else around.
Getting to Peneda-Gerês National Park
Unfortunately, there is very little in the way of public transport to Peneda-Gerês so you’ll either need your own transport or the services of a tour company to get beyond Soajo. You’ll find information about routes, airports and public transport here.
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