The Serra d’Arga in northern Portugal gets few visitors, least of all foreign ones. Which is a shame, because these mountains are really rather beautiful and easy to get to if you’re staying in the western Minho area. Venture into them and you’ll find traditional villages, rural agricultural practices, wild horses and stunning views across to the coast and the mountains of Peneda Gerês National Park.
Oh, the views from Serra d’Arga!
Heading uphill from the town of Caminha, it’s worth stopping briefly to see it, the River Minho and the hills of Spain from above. While this view is impressive, it’s nothing compared to the ones from higher up in the mountains. If you can ignore the unattractive collection of buildings at Nossa Senhora do Minho Miradouro and concentrate on the vista, you’ll be able to see Viana do Castelo, Vila Praia Âncora, Ponte de Lima, Corno do Bico and the Serra Amarela. This is also a fabulous spot for watching sunsets. You could walk downhill from here to the village of Espantar.
Do take a moment to say hello to Our Lady of the Minho inside the modern church, or in the old stone chapel that was her original home. This Mary is special in that she’s wearing traditional folk dress and carries cobs of corn, illustrating how important corn is to people in these parts. It’s still an important crop and villagers still use corn flour to make broa, traditional Portuguese corn bread.
Wild Garrano horses
I was lucky enough to encounter a group of Garrano horses grazing under some trees near Our Lady of the Minho. This small, sturdy but endangered breed is native to northern Portugal and bears a striking resemblance to paintings of horses found in caves that date back to Paleolithic times.
The horses used to come in handy for rural farming practices and transport but have long been usurped by tractors and cars so people stopped encouraging them to breed. Getting picked off by wolves didn’t help either and the population dwindled until they were in danger of extinction. Action has since been taken to reverse this but they are still a protected species. Some are truly wild but those that have a clip in their ear have been claimed for breeding purposes.
Arga de Baixo
The first of the mountain villages that my guide, Agostinho, took me to is Arga de Baixo. Baixo means low and relatively speaking, I suppose it is, since the landscape slopes upwards beyond the cluster of houses and cobbled streets. Although there are less than 70 people living here, it was a hive of activity when we visited. The chestnut harvest was in progress in some areas while there was plenty of work to be done to tidy up the corn crops and prepare for winter.
Sheep seem very popular here and we were met with wary stares from munching ewes as we passed. I asked why there weren’t more goats, a more common sight in central Portugal where I live. “They’re too fast!” Agostinho told me. Apparently, when it’s necessary to take the flocks higher into the mountains for grazing, it’s easier to control docile sheep who like to stick together. Goats are more wilful and liable to run off.
As we walk around the village, I find myself drawn to the shiny schist stone that’s used to make everything from cottages to grain stores, walls, fences and even gates. It’s full of minerals, which give it the colour and sheen. Before leaving, we stop for a coffee at Taberna do Horacio, the only café in the village and the place to come to catch up on local gossip if you live here.
Serra d’Arga Interpretation Centre
The nearby Serra d’Arga Interpretation Centre has some great specimens of the various minerals found locally and an exhibition of the wolfram mines and extraction plant that was in operation years ago. This is also the place to come to find out more about the local flora and fauna and see examples of local crafts, tools and farming equipment.
Monteira, Serra d’Arga
Agostinho comes from an area called Monteria, which means hunting ground, on the other side of the Serra d’Arga mountains. Within Monteira there are 3 villages, Espantar, where I learned to make corn bread, Transãncora (across the River Âncora) and Pedrulhos. Each have their charm and customs, which he shared as we explored them.
River swimming spots
Away from the villages, we encountered a section of the river with a series of turquoise pools. Agostino and his friends used to spend summers playing in them and I can see how tempting they would be on a hot day. To get to the footpath that runs along the river, we clambered past the former wood-cutting mill where hydro-powered saws used to cut wood for the community. Its roof collapsed long ago and it lies in ruins but it, and others like it were once extremely important to the self-sufficient local communities.
São João de Arga Monastery
Former self-sufficient communities included the medieval monks, who certainly knew how to pick idyllic spots to build their monasteries. The one in Serra d’Arga is dedicated to St John the Baptist and dates back to the 13th century and there are still traces of its original Romanesque architecture.
The views down the valley and across to the River Minho are inspiring, if you overlook the electric cables installed to help the pilgrimage party go with a swing. For most of the year, this is a tranquil place, with a pine forest next to the church and restored dormitories. On 28th and 29th August, during the Romaria de São João (St. John’s pilgrimage) it’s a completely different story. Thousands of people from miles around make their way up here. When they reach the monastery, pilgrims walk around the chapel 3 times before making two donations, one to the saint (John) and one to the devil to keep him at bay. They then camp out for the festivities and the battle of the bands that takes place on two raised platforms separated only by a tree. A quieter celebration takes place on 24th June and attracts local families.
Visiting Serra d’Arga
If you have your own transport, you can follow the signs and drive up into the Serra d’Arga mountains for spectacular views. Once there, you could try one of the marked walking trails although some of the signage needs improving so take plenty of precautions and water. To be on the safe side and get a deeper understanding of the history, nature and culture, it’s probably better go on a guided walk with a company like Descubra Minho. They can also provide transfers from nearby towns so you don’t have to drive.
Agostinho, co-founder of Descubra Minho, was born and raised in the Serra d’Arga but it was only in recent years that he stopped taking his natural playground for granted and realised that others would appreciate the opportunity to explore the mountains. He and his brother decided to help others discover the nature and heritage of the Minho region through walking and cycling tours.
They also persuaded their neighbours and nearby villagers to share their traditions and crafts through workshops. These fun events serve not only to satisfy visitors’ curiosity but also to value and preserve local customs in rural areas where the young have left hoping for work in cities or abroad and such skills and practices are literally dying out as the population decreases.
If you do decide to book anything through Descubra Minho, you can save 5% by using JULIE as a discount code.
Where to stay
The Serra d’Arga falls under the jurisdiction of three neighbouring municipalities, Caminha, Ponte de Lima and Viana do Castelo. All three of these towns have a lot to offer as a base for exploring the area depending on whether you’d rather be by the coast or inland. I visited while staying as a guest of Rinoterra Minho just outside Caminha, but there are plenty of accommodation options if that doesn’t suit you.
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