Situated in the extreme north of the country, Peneda-Gerês National Park is far away, both geographically and scenically, from the popular concept of Portugal as a destination for ‘sun and sand’. Local walking guide Paul Burton describes the appeal.
Up here in the rugged north you will find remote uplands reaching over 1,500 metres, deep wooded valleys and remote time-warp villages. The National Park is criss-crossed by paved granite trails that link villages to their upland summer pastures where temporary summer settlements bear testimony to the harsh conditions endured by the local farmers and shepherds.
These trails now provide wonderful opportunities for walking and experiencing first-hand this little-visited area. One can easily spend a whole day walking without meeting anyone, apart from possibly a shepherd with his flock. And at day’s end you will be able to enjoy the warm hospitality that local people are so pleased to offer.
Browse trips run by our local travel partners
Paul Burton is a staffer for On Foot Holidays and runs their Northern Portugal: Walking the wild hill country self-guided walk, acting as a local contact for walkers as and when needed. He designed the walk, and has lived in the area for the past 30 years.
On Foot Holidays was established in 2005 and now has a range of 21 different self-guided routes throughout central and southern Europe. It...
Peneda-Gerês can be divided into three distinct areas, forming a horseshoe shape along the border with Spain: (1) the rounded granite uplands of the Serra Peneda in the north; (2) the Serra Amarela in the middle; (3) the Serra do Gerês to the southeast, the most rugged part of the park.
Within this broader divide, there are five prime walking areas.
CASTRO LABOREIRO PLATEAU
The high plateau of Castro Laboreiro, in the far north of the park (Serra Peneda) has ample evidence of man’s early occupation in the area, with some of the most impressive dolmen (megalithic burial tombs) in the Iberian peninsula. This wild upland is also home to several wolf packs.
Walking here is generally easy and there are several waymarked trails starting from the village of Castro Laboreiro itself. Some of these cross the border into Spain where the contiguous Spanish protected area (Baixa Limia – Serra do Xurês) offers seamless continuation of walking. Also worth visiting is the castro (hill fort) just outside the village.
Nossa Senhora da Peneda festival
Apart from its spectacular setting, Peneda offers a colourful encounter with local life at the beginning of every September when the annual celebration in honour of Nossa Senhora da Peneda takes place. Thousands of locals make the pilgrimage over the hills on foot from surrounding villages. The climax is the final night when hundreds of concertina players gather in the square in front of the sanctuary trying to outplay each other.
Terraced hillsides near Sistelo
The village of Sistelo, some 10km north of Arcos de Valdevez, has some of the finest examples of hillside terracing to be found in Portugal. From this village one can explore the remote valleys towards the source of the rio Vez, where there is evidence of glacial activity. Also to be found are examples of wolf traps, converging stone walls up to 500 metres long, into which the locals would drive an unfortunate beast to its death.
Lindoso boasts an impressive castle dating back to the 11th century, overlooking the border with Spain and the valley of the Lima river. From its ramparts one can get a fine view of the sixty or so granaries (espigueiros) clustered under its protection.
Pitões das Júnias
The attractive village of Pitões das Júnias retains many of the region's traditional agricultural activities and methods. There is also nearby a partially ruined monastery (Santa Maria das Júnias) dating back to the 12th century, set amid a wonderful rural landscape.
Via Nova Roman road
Running through the heart of the park is the Via Nova, a Roman road that once linked Braga with Astorga - a total distance of some 320km. Significant stretches of the original pavement, built in the 1st century, can be found between Chourense and Covide as well as through Portela do Homen and into Spain. This old route provides easy walking as it contours around the hillsides. The original milestones, clusters of granite columns, are still in place along the way.
Best times to go:
The overall best time for a visit is either April-June (spring flowers, colourful countryside) or September-October (autumn agricultural activity, grape harvests, golden light).
July and August coincide, of course, with the peak local holiday period and so accommodation becomes more difficult: having said that, it's still perfectly possible to have a great time walking here in these months and you have the best chance of avoiding rain. It can be a bit too hot for some, however.
Winters offer occasional (but unpredictable) periods of still, clear weather, wonderful walking conditions, but much of the time there's cold rain, drizzle and damp, with snow higher up; to be avoided!
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