“ National park in Portugal. „
The further north you travel in Portugal the greener the landscape becomes. The Parque Nacional da Peneda-Geres is a fantastic swathe of mountains situated right in the north eastern corner of the Minho. It is also the wettest area of Portugal so if you enjoy fell walking remember to take a good pair of walking boots and some waterproofs. The four mountain ranges that form the National Park are; the Serra da Peneda, Serra do Soajo, Serra Amarela and the highest of all which peaks up to over 1, 500 metres above seal level is the Serra do Geres.The whole area covers 72,000 hectares and it has been protected as a nature reserve since 1971.
This really is a magical region. Between the mountain tops, on the very high ground are wooded valleys and mountain pastures. The Park's moorland is carpeted in heather and gorse. Sparkling water is everywhere; several reservoirs, rivers, waterfalls and a multitude of springs.
The western part is used for cultivation of maize and rye and also as a grazing pasture, with approximately 15,000 people living in the villages and hamlets scattered over the hillsides. Old thatched stables still remain in use as do the very strange looking espigueiros, little granite grain stores on stilts. These are used to dry cereals and maize and look a strange sight but very pretty dotted over the landscape.
Vegetation thrives up to about 1, 200 metres but beyond that the skyline is dominated by wild rocky peaks. No one lives in the highest reaches except in the summer months, when flocks of ragged sheep and goats, and herds of cattle move up to the high pastures, and some of the most elderly shepherds move with them to summer houses known as brandas.
Megaliths, Roman milestones as well as Romanesque church ruins are testimony to a rich cultural past stretching back thousands of years. The eastern side of the Park has become a haven for some cherished species including golden eagles, wolves, wild boar, wildcats and foxes. Wild ponies, goats and brown long haired cattle can be seen roaming around. Some rare plants have gained a foothold here too. Around Pincaes and Sao Lourenco the remains of primeval oak forests can still be found.
Information for visitors can be obtained from the tourist information offices in Oporto, Braga, Caldas do Geres and the park access points in Lamas de Mouro, Terras de Bouro and Mezio (Geres). The highlands are not very adequately mapped and maps that are available are not very accurate. A compass and proper equipment is essential.
The wild beautiful Iberian wolves were once endangered but their numbers are now on the increase through conservation schemes. Unfortunately, the human population is fading in these parts, even in the more lower and accessible areas of the Park. Young people leave the mountains for the cities.
Small mountain villages that have stayed in a time warp are beginning to open up to tourism. Towns like Ermelo, Ermida and Lindoso are all delightful in their own way as are the villages of Soajo, Lamas de Mouro and Gracao, which have already gracefully adapted to the new world of visitors.
In the inhabited areas, the footpaths are better marked than in the highlands: informative walking leaflets are available from the office at Adere-PG in Ponte da Barca.
Mountain trekking can be organised by the Centro Hipico do Mezio. Horses used for this past-time are a very strong and sturdy breed known as Garrano's.
Wolf observation is another activity that can be organised either by foot or by horseback.
Access to some of the highest land is restricted by the National Park authorities for reasons of conservation but it is possible to rent some of the small mountain houses. Branda da Aveleira is a small group of individual old mountain cottages, once used by shepherds when transferring their animals in Spring.
I can't think of anywhere more magical than spending a few days in this wonderful region being cut off from the rest of the world. What's a few showers of rain in such beautiful surroundings?
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