The sight of two magnificent Cachena cows with enormous horns and long-lashed, tear-drop-shaped eyes, trotting down the middle of the road, literally stopped me in my tracks. Having only just arrived in Peneda-Gerês, I assumed they had escaped from somewhere and were testing how far they could get before their absence was noticed. I quickly realised they were almost as ubiquitous as the granite boulders that peppered the landscape. They were everywhere – grazing plateaus high in the mountains; lying in the sun beside the road; moseying through hamlets, wobbly calves in tow.
Less visible and more nervous than the cattle, herds of wild Garrano horses grazed amongst the trees high above the Cavado lake and in the Soajo mountains, and we sweated in their wake as they effortlessly climbed from valley floor to mountain meadow.
Right from day one of High Paths of Northern Portugal
, the walking in Peneda-Gerês surprised us with its diversity and beauty. After traversing the green Rio Grande valley, we climbed into the Peneda mountains where a lake lay sequestered amongst the rocks, a mirror oasis in a sea of stone. As the week's journey unfolded, the walking highs arrived thick and fast. A pilgrim's path that ascended the Soajo mountains with compelling views over the untamed landscape; a Roman road that descended alongside a river criss-crossed by ancient bridges and startled by cascading waterfalls; a steep descent along an old merchant's trail into the spa valley of Gerês, the views so attention-grabbing that we had to pause constantly to take them in.
North Portugal's deep-rooted religious legacy reveals churches and sanctuaries in even the humblest hamlets and stumbling across one or two of them is like finding secret treasure. Descending a cliff path, it wasn't until we reached the back of the sanctuary itself and walked down its wildly ornate staircase that we realised just what a spectacular setting the Sanctuary of Our Lady in Peneda enjoys – tucked into the cliffs directly below a 300-metre sheer rock. Walking from São Bento to Santa Maria do Bouro, the route descended through dense forest where, just peeking above the tree line, the stone spires of the beautiful Sanctuary of Abadia appeared like a mirage and we descended to walk directly through its extensive grounds.
Blending into the landscape, the lives of their inhabitants as hard as the rocks that built their houses, granite villages punctuated our journey, their narrow, cobbled streets echoing to the sound of Cachena hooves wandering freely along them. The lifeblood of the mountains, here, time has stalled. Women dressed in black from headscarves to shoes, carry cumbersome bundles of animal feed on their backs, held in place by a strap across their foreheads. Protected from weather and vermin, corn is still stored in the granite grain stores – or espigueiros – that have decorated the landscape for more than a century. In Soajo, 24 espigueiros stand silhouetted against the sky alongside a communal threshing floor on the edge of the village.
From simple village house to palatial pousada, the accommodation on this journey is as surprisingly diverse as the scenery and every bit as rooted in history and tradition. In Peneda the hotel stands alongside the stone staircase of the Basilica, at the foot of towering cliffs. The following day the same staircase leads south to Soajo and a traditional village house where fresh bread and croissants for breakfast are hung outside the door at 7:30am. The monastic exterior of the São Bento hotel conceals a contemporary interior and a surprisingly good restaurant while the magnificent Pousada Mosteiro Amares, set in a 12th-century monastery, springs one delightful revelation after another, from the mini-bar hidden behind a painting, to the swimming pool veiled in a glade.
Unspoiled & unexploited beauty
Despite being Portugal's only National Park, we encountered very few other people walking its paths. Most days we had the mountains and valleys all to ourselves, well, and the horses and cattle, and were constantly blown away by the drama of the landscape and how incredibly unspoiled it all is. Life goes on in these mountains as it has done for centuries with barely a nod to tourism developments elsewhere in the country.
I was aware that Peneda-Gerês is the last habitat of the Iberian Wolf, now a protected species having been hunted to near-extinction, but I knew the chances of seeing one were too remote to bother even looking. So it was, as we contemplated whether we should take one path or another, I looked up to see a wolf standing on the edge of a meadow just a few metres away, looking down at me and yawning his complete indifference to our presence. Surprises don't come much more special than that.
Article in association with the Portuguese National Tourist Board.