Peneda-Gerês National Park. Portugal
Right up in the far north-west, bordering Spain’s Galicia, is Portugal’s only national park of Peneda-Gerês in the district of Braga. Rugged and dramatically wild, depending on the weather conditions up there, the area was granted national park status in 1971 to protect its indigenous flora and fauna and historical origins.
The majestic granite mountains tumble down into crystal clear lakes and reservoirs, making this area a paradise for hikers and horse riding. Some trails follow pathways which date back to Roman times and without knowing it you will be trekking back and forth across the Spanish border as it is only 6kms away.
Gentle Garrano wild horses can be seen grazing in these mountains and are the oldest breed that mankind has ever known.
Iberian wolves also live in this area although you would be lucky to see one. Shy of people and nocturnal hunters, you might just hear them howl at night. Golden eagles, instead, are quite a common sight soaring overhead in the thermal updrafts.
Garrano wild horses
All the villages in the park area have strong connections to agriculture and animal husbandry but one village in particular has a curious and interesting history.
Villarinho da Furna was an ancient settlement which, up until 1972, nestled into the southern slopes of Serra Amarela. The Portuguese electricity company wanting to create a hydroelectric plant in this area in 1967, built a dam with a reservoir which meant that, due to its position, the whole village was flooded. There were 57 families occupying 80 houses at the time and each family was offered 5 escudos per square metre (the equivalent today of 2 cents in euros) as indemnity. This was even less than the electricity company was actually paying to build the dam workers’ accommodation. Political pressure was stronger than local protest and the last member of the village left in 1971. The following year it was flooded.
Today for most of the year there is no trace of the old village but if there is a particularly dry summer and water is low, the houses eerily emerge from the depths to form a ghost village. Just the walls remain as the villagers took the roof tiles with them.
The remains of the village and the mountain it was built upon are still owned by the villagers and there is an Ethnographic museum in São João do Campo to commemorate its history. It was built with the stones from 2 of the houses and contains a fascinating collection of clothes, furniture, household and agricultural equipment depicting the daily life of the village. There is also an Association of Former Inhabitants of Vilarinho which aims to defend and promote the cultural, collective and communitarian heritage of the people of the old village. They are also helping to develop an underwater museum.
Characteristic espigueiros (granite granaries) can be seen in the village of Soajo. The name Espigueiros refers to the ears or spikes of the grain which are stored in these buildings. Supported on granite slabs from the surrounding mountains, they were used by the whole community. The method of building them using the round slabs was deliberate. This way rodents like mice and rats cannot climb inside and ruin the harvest.
Food and drink are all special too. Broa de milho bread is made with maize flour in this area. Bacalhau com Broa is a local specialty where the Broa is crumbled into the dish.
Aguardente de Medronho fruit brandy is the local firewater made from the Medronho tree, or Strawberry tree as we know it.
It’s not a drink you can buy in the supermarket as there are no commercial plantations of this tree. Normally it’s the farmers and land workers who pick the fruit so the liqueur is homemade. The authorities turn a blind eye to the clandestine distilleries. Locals are said to drink it in the morning at breakfast to wake up the ‘spirits’!!
It’s about 48% proof so the Portuguese drink it in shots. Good on a cold day as it clears your sinuses!
Another pleasant pass time in this area are the hot springs. In the town of Gerês itself there is a spa in Termas do Gerês. Obviously when the Romans were here they discovered and exploited the beneficial properties of the hot springs for their health. It wasn’t until the 17th century, however, when the first spa was built and was frequented only by the gentry in those days.
Another thermal area is just 6 kms over the border into Spain. Lobios Caldaria on the Rio Caldo is a natural spa where you don’t have to pay to enjoy the gloriously warm water on a cold winter’s day.
Being a protected area makes Peneda-Gerês particularly suited for developing sustainable tourism. Well-run campsites and a youth hostel give you the option of pitching your own tent or renting chalets and rooms. Otherwise recommended hotels are in Gerês.
Author Bio: Marian Watson-Virga -
Marian lives on the island of Sicily in Italy. British by birth and origins she enjoys writing about the island of Sicily as well as places visited around the world. An intrepid traveler, she prefers trekking through the mountains, tasting the local foods and wine and trying to speak the local language. Portugal is one her latest discovery projects.
She collaborates with a friend on a sustainable tourism project in Sicily and writes the blog for Sicilian Experience Blog