Senhora do Salto means Lady of the Leap, an intriguing name for a picturesque gorge and natural park in northern Portugal. There is, of course, a story behind it.
Legend of the Lady of the leap
According to the legend, a knight on horseback was being chased by the devil in the form of a deer. Upon reaching the precipice at the mouth of the gorge, the knight managed to stop his horse before they careered into what locals call the Boca do Inferno (Mouth of Hell). Faced with a choice between demons or certain death, he invoked the Virgin Mary and begged her for help. She appeared and told him it was safe to jump. I’m not sure which was greater, his fear of the devil or his faith in the saint but either way, he grabbed the reins and commanded his horse to leap into the empty space.
Miraculously, both horse and rider landed safely. The large rock in the river bed had briefly become as soft as wax and to this day it bears the dents made by the horse’s hooves and muzzle as it touched down. Now I understand the horseshoes that adorn the chapel of Nossa Senhora do Salto (Our Lady of the Leap). The saintly saviour is also venerated with a festa on the first Sunday in May, procession, mass and fireworks.
I was unaware of the legend before visiting and the description of the gorge and the promise of a walk was enough to make me to want to investigate the Parque Natural da Senhora do Salto.
Senhora do Salto Natural Park
Luckily for me, I didn’t get chased by demons or deer, although I did find an unexpected lunch companion. I thought I was the only one up perched on a rocky outcrop high above the river until I glanced behind me. I was almost as surprised as the goat that was staring at me from a little further downhill.
The place I’d chosen to eat my sandwiches wasn’t a marked viewpoint or picnic area. I just followed the dirt track uphill from behind the chapel then followed a tiny sheep trail to a cluster of grey slabs. With my back to the ugly road bridge, I looked past flowering eucalyptus trees and magenta heather to rocks that looked like uneven piles of lumpy stone pancakes, some oozing yellow, others covered in furry green mould.
Swifts darted around chirping brightly and in the distance, a cockerel crowed intermittently, alternating with the occasional rumble and clatter of traffic on the main road. The swoosh and tumble of the waterfalls down in the ravine mingled with the whisper of leaves to produce a constant soundtrack.
All in all, a refreshing spot for lunch and my soul.
Boca do Inferno
On my way back down to the river, I spotted a path leading to some overhanging rocks. After cautiously making my way to the edge of the cliff, I was rewarded with spectacular views into the Boca do Inferno faced by the legendary knight. Frothing white water surged down small waterfalls around a former mill house and I don’t think I’d jump even with the devil at my heels.
Alvre walking trail
Safely back by the river, I went to explore its banks. I imagine that in summer, the rocks where the knight’s horse landed are a great place for sunbathing and frolicking in the water. In April, after heavy rains, the water was too powerful to tangle with. The riverside path leading towards the gorge was blocked by a landslide so I tried the other direction and found the Trilho de Alvre (PR2) walking trail. Having spent so much time clambering over rocks and goat spotting, I knew I wouldn’t have time to do the full walk but decided to see how far I could get with an hour to spare.
This side of the river is like a different world. Instead of rugged rocks and roaring torrents of white water, the water is calm and the river broad. There are plenty of spaces here for chilling out by the river, despite an overall scarcity of picnic benches. Once you get past the weir, the path leads through eucalyptus trees to a smaller stream and an almost hidden stone water mill. I crossed the river here using the concrete bridge and in the absence of obvious signs, took the path to the right. Suddenly, the landscape changed again with a stone walled path taking me through shrub-covered openness with small cultivated fields among the trees by the river.
Not long after this change of scenery, I found myself in a small patch of pine trees with several paths to choose from. The one I took led me to the river but with no way to cross it, I retraced my steps and picked a different one. That went into a village but by this point, my time had run out so I headed back to the car, using the eyesore of a bridge as my reference point.
Tip: If you go, park opposite the first café and walk down to the river. I think there are two cafés and a couple of barbecue stalls and picnic tables but I don’t recall seeing any toilet or shower facilities. Here’s Senhora do Salto on Google maps.
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