Glimpses of rural northern Portugal

By Philip Wagenaar

(First of two parts, click here for part 2)

The scrawny dog was sunning itself on the warm pavement in the center of the narrow highway. Despite my approaching car, the creature refused to budge.

Within moments, four more animals had spread out on the road deck, the sides of their heads touching the comfortable asphalt.

I honked. No luck. The dogs remained where they were.

I stopped my vehicle.

After one long minute, the dog in front of my wheels lifted up its head in slow motion and leisurely looked around. Satisfied with her surroundings, she finally got up, allowing me to conquer a few more inches of the hotly contested highway.

This turned out to be a common occurrence as we were wandering the rustic byways of northern Portugal.

We had started 2½ days before in Amsterdam, Holland, and had finally reached the ZA-295, a narrow and steep, divinely scenic rural road leading from Sanubria in Spain to our destination, Bragança, a town of 20,000 in the Portuguese province of Trás-os-Montes. It was early May 2006.

The only hint of the now-defunct Spanish-Portuguese border post on this highway was a giant marker specifying the speed limits in force for all of Portugal.

We looked forward to our days of hiking and sightseeing ahead.

Hiking and sightseeing

Our being outdoor people, the goal was to visit a number of Portugal’s recreation areas. To that end, we chose a comfortable hotel in a town near each park and used it as our base for several days. After obtaining information from the local tourist and park offices, we took a hike in the morning and spent the afternoon roaming the countryside to soak up the exquisite scenery.

Regrettably, as is common in Portugal, many of the trails we looked for were hard to find or turned out to be nothing more than paved roads. On the other hand, we often were able to ferret out our own paths.

To decide where to drive, we scrutinized the Michelin map of Portugal No. 733, 1:400,000, for green lines that paralleled the roads (a green line designates a scenic road). There were so many choices!

As the map, because of its scale of 1:400,000, doesn’t show the smaller municipalities, we always bought either from the hotel or the local tourist office a regional map at a cost of €5 ($6).

Throughout our trip, we traversed centuries-old communities where rundown, thatched or slate-roofed, gloomy, wooden houses stood side by side with attractive, modern-looking, red-tile-roofed stucco villas, many with lovely gardens full of multicolored flowers.

Incongruously, we saw many an expensive-looking car parked in front of a rickety dwelling. We found out that each vehicle belonged to a guest worker who had returned to his homeland after prospering in one of the richer countries of Western Europe.

We passed old women, in traditional black attire, who were busily crocheting on a bench outside their homes, and dark-suited men, their hoes slung over their shoulders, who were struggling up the steep roads.

“Shall we have one?” we frequently said to each other as we passed another small café where locals were imbibing our all-time favorite, a cup of bica (espresso).

Invariably, during our traversing of numerous villages and towns, the highway’s smooth asphalt would give way to bone-rattling, gut-wrenching cobblestones.

We soon found out that, in rural areas, road signs frequently were lacking, necessitating us to ask the way. Smiling and patient, we waited each time while ear-splitting arguments between family members would erupt, each one claiming to know the most accurate directions.
In case you want to follow our pursuits, you will find details on the parks and towns that we visited below.

Parque Natural de Montesinho (near Bragança)

Our first destination, only a short distance from our hotel, the 4-star Hotel Turismo São Lázaro in Bragança, was the Parque Natural de Montesinho in the province of Trá­sos-Montes — meaning “behind the mountains” — a predominantly rural area in northeast Portugal. For years, its villages and towns were isolated from the coast and forgotten by the Lisbon government by the absence of decent roads.

While the area has cold and long winters and short and hot summers, the thinly populated park, which has 88 far-flung tiny settlements, is blessed with microclimates, resulting in heather-clad hills and thick oak forests.

To get directions to the start of our walk, we stopped in the ancient village of Montesinho, where the traditional way of life has not changed for decades.

As we rambled under a blue sky, in 70°F weather, on the picturesque river road skirting the isolated Barragem (reservoir) de Serra Serrada, surrounded by a profusion of gorgeous deep-purple heather and white-yellow and orange-pink flowers, we felt that life couldn’t be any better.

In the late afternoon we returned to our Bragança hotel, where our spacious, modern room with a bar and a large bathroom awaited us (€75 [$95] double including breakfast).

When my wife, Flory, and I went down to dinner and scanned the bill of fare, our eyes fell on the ementa turística, the mouth-watering, 5-course tourist menu consisting of appetizer, soup, salad, fish or meat and dessert, including wine, mineral water and after-dinner bica, all for €15 ($19) per person, including tax and service. The food was outstanding. However, the portions were so large that we could not finish our meals.

The next night, now wiser, we shared the menu by ordering “meia dose” (half-serving), a practice that is common in Portugal. As a result, both the portions (although still unbelievably large) and the bill were cut in half. No extra charges for split entrées in that country!

Parque Nacional da Peneda-Gerês (near Bom Jesus do Monte)

Scenic N103 led us from Bragança to our second destination, Bom Jesus do Monte, a handsome mountain resort with a lake, numerous hiking trails and attractive flower gardens, which is situated on the hills high above the town of Braga in the southern Minho province.

The area is a magnet for tourists, who congregate there mostly on weekends, as well as for pilgrims, who climb the 250-step-long ornamental, tiered, baroque staircase, the Escadaria do Bom Jesus, which, interrupted by decorative fountains, statues or chapels at each landing, leads to a 19th-century church on top.

Three 3-star hotels, do Parque, Elevador (arguably the best) and Templo, owned by the same company, provide shelter for the weary visitor.

A medley of heavenly smelling pine forests interspersed with vast areas of never-boring, yellow-flowered gorse and bright purple heather greeted us upon entering the Parque Nacional da Peneda-Gerês’ rolling and curving asphalted main road, which stretches from Vila do Gerês at the southern end of the park to Homen at the Spanish frontier.

Unable to get hiking information on the weekend and with a parking prohibition in effect on the main road, we were lucky to find a trail near the now-defunct Spanish border station at Homen, where we left the car.

As we trod the narrow, dark, winding path, surrounded by soaring pine trees, we came by an abandoned stone house. We tiptoed inside the deserted building, wondering who had been living there and why they had left.

The next day, we took the N201 to Ponte de Lima (a 33-kilometer drive), where easy and delightful hikes abound. The helpful receptionist at the tourist office directed us to the nearby Área Protegida das Lagoas de Bertiandos e S. Pedro de Arcos (the Protected Lagoons Area; follow the signs “Lagoas”), where a booklet describing the many excellently signposted hikes is available at the recepção (reception).

The lovely short and long loop trails, many on boardwalks, which crisscross this area make for delightful walking and fantastic bird-watching.

Parque Natural do Alvão (near Vila Real)

Next, it was on to the quiet town of Vila Real with its attractive, modern, centrally located Hotel Miracorgo. Breathtaking is the only word for the view from our room, which overlooked the rushing Rio Corgo as it coursed through the striking, steep, rocky ravine underneath us. I repeatedly went out on our balcony to watch the spectacle below.

Walking a few hundred yards on the road beyond the hotel, you can get into the ravine by descending a few concrete steps. From there, you can join other hikers and joggers on the narrow, undulating path, flanked by small vineyards, which continues for several kilometers.

Driving the charming roads of the Parque Natural do Alvão’s mostly paved roads with their grand vistas of distant mountains, steep rocky cliffs, meadows filled with large granite blocks and ancient villages was an undivided pleasure.

Visit the village of Lamas de Ôlo, with its very old mill and thatched houses, in the eastern part of the park. Also call on 800-year-old Ermelo with its old stone granaries and its row of slate-roofed houses, whose exterior walls are made of uneven stones stacked in a seemingly precarious fashion on top of each other. I could not tell whether any mortar was holding the stones together.

Finding the beginning of the only two marked paths in the park was challenging. Because of the paucity of road signs, we kept making wrong turns. Despite helpful assistance from the locals, it took an hour (instead of five minutes) before we found the small community of Agarez, where the official trail to Arnal starts.

Uninspired by the looks of the trail, we drove on to Arnal, a hamlet of a few houses at the end of the road, where we climbed the rocky path to the remote Escola Ecológica (ecological school), a bare-bones mountain building. Although the trip wasn’t very inspiring, it was great exercise.

To my regret, I must conclude part one of this travelogue.

(Continue to part 2)