Hill walking in Peneda-Gerés National Park

These wild granite uplands offer exhilarating solitude amid magnificent scenery, and an encounter with an age-old way of life

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.

Hiking above Sistelo

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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.
Summer hiking high in the Serra Peneda

PILGRIMAGE ROUTES AROUND PENEDA VILLAGE

The village of Peneda has a truly spectacular setting beneath a huge cliff. The village itself is dominated by an imposing religious sanctuary - to this day it is the focus of September pilgrimages from surrounding villages. Some of the pilgrim routes across the mountains have been waymarked for walkers (they are collectively known as the Romeiras da Peneda). Most are linear, but there is a good circular waymarked walk from Peneda, too, which involves a steep 400-metre ascent to uplands with imposing craggy summits. The final descent into Peneda on an old granite stairway is not to be missed. Another rewarding walk follows the Rio de Tieras downstream past the ‘Mistura das aguas’ (meeting of the waters) to Lindoso.

Local resident, Serra Amarela
THE SERRA AMARELA
The Serra Amarela offers some wonderful walking and glimpses of the traditional transhumance system of summer villages, where local shepherds travel with their flocks to higher pastures in the warmer months. There are various walks in and around the village of Ermida including one to the summer village of Bilhares. You will come across few other walkers up here, but the scenery and distant views down to the west are breathtaking. The drive up to Ermida is an adventure in itself as the narrow mountain road climbs up the spectacular Froufe river valley.
 
Lindoso and its castle
Another good centre for walking the Serra Amarela is Lindoso. There is an information centre here as well as the opportunity to visit the castle with its adjacent granaries (espigueiros).

AROUND CAMPO GERÊS
Campo Gerês is at the heart of the National Park's tourism industry, with many recreational activities available. The downside of this is that it can be uncharacteristically busy during weekends and in midsummer. Nevertheless, good walking is to be had in the area, especially the 7km hike through to Leonte, leading through the very heart of the wild and rugged Serra do Gerês and passing the peak of Pé de Cabril.

This is a linear walk and so a full day is required to cover the return walk. Near the village of Campo is a museum dedicated to the village of Vilarinho das Furnas and its communal way of life that was destroyed with the building of the nearby dam in the middle of the last century.

THE FAR EAST
The easternmost section of Peneda-Gerés National Park lies between Tourém and Pitões das Júnias villages. This area is the least influenced by Atlantic maritime climate, and is prone to extreme continental characteristics of harsh winters and hot, dry summers. The scenery is stark, with rugged peaks protruding from rolling uplands.
Wolf trap near Germil
Following the well-marked trails will reward the walker with a fascinating insight into remote rural communities and the ‘living landscape’ that they have created. The Mourela Plateau has wonderful granite trails linking these isolated communities barely changed over the past hundred years. Here, more than probably anywhere else in the park, traditional farming techniques remain alive.

TOP 5 EXPERIENCES

1. 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.

2. 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.

3. Lindoso Castle

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.

4. 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.

5. 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.

WHEN TO VISIT

Best times to go:

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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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