When it comes to great outdoor vacations, one could hardly do better than escaping to the European wilderness areas overseen by PAN Parks. The PAN Parks foundation provides support to 11 parks in Europe, encompassing some of the continent’s most spectacular natural habitats, from mist-shrouded bog lands, thunderous waterfalls and raging rivers to towering snow-capped peaks.
One of the most strikingly beautiful and undisturbed of these parks lies in Portugal’s extreme northwest, just four hours from Lisbon by car and a stone’s throw from the Spanish border. Dominated by ancient granite massifs, the vast expanse of Peneda-Gerês National Park was established as Portugal’s only national park in 1971 and now welcomes more than 250,000 visitors annually, all eager to spend time exploring its deep woodlands, ancient archaeological sites and wide open spaces.
“There are ancestral trails from the Camino de Santiago de Compostela, you can enjoy all the animal species in their wild ecosystem and the landscape, as you can see, is very peculiar,” says David Marques, product manager of Waypoint, a certified local business partner of PAN Parks and licensed ecotourism company. “Portugal has some more natural reserves with great experiences, but Peneda-Gerês is crystallised in time and you feel surrounded by this atmosphere that you can’t reproduce anywhere else. It’s a big, overwhelming, wild landscape and it’s only two hours from Porto airport.”
Formed by glaciers more than 300 million years ago, the Soajo/Peneda, Amarela and Gerês mountain ranges are a natural barrier between the park’s eastern plateaus and the seashore plains to the west. Within this space of more than 700 square kilometres are high windswept plateaus, old growth forests and majestic mountains.
Along the park’s horseshoe-shaped valley and upland granite landscapes, visitors will encounter a wide range of microclimates and ecosystems that shelter an incredible diversity flora and fauna. Some of the most common trees and shrubs include oak, holly, yews and silver birches, as well as several endemic species of lily and fern. This all provides ideal shelter to wild goats and a large population of otters, not to mention roe deer, golden eagles, peregrine falcons and some of the continent’s last surviving indigenous wolves.
One native animal that deserves special mention is the garrano, a wild pony of Celtic origin with an ability to travel across steep and rocky terrain. Their profiles can be found on many ancient rock carvings. Due to domestication, however, the breed was nearly extinct by the mid-20th century. Fortunately, a successful program has reintroduced the breed into today’s national park.
As one of the wettest areas in all of Portugal – there are more than 130 rainy days per year in certain areas – the park has a real abundance of rivers, reservoirs and waterfalls. One of the most spectacular cataracts lies near the old frontier station at Portela do Homem; others include the waterfalls of the Ribeira de Campesinho along the eastern edge of the park.
“What I liked about the part of Peneda-Gerês I visited was the untouched nature, which in some areas gives the feeling that very few people have been there yet,” recalls Virginie Grimault of Saga Travel, a local tour operator in Lisbon. “You’ll get beautiful panoramic views as you drive up and down into the forest and have a glimpse of a lake which appears from time to time.”
Whether your interests lie in bird-watching, rock climbing or a cool relaxing dip in a clear mountain stream, the natural scenery of Peneda-Gerês has much to offer in the way of outdoor pursuits.
For hikers, although the central and northern parts have better access and a greater diversity of terrain, as well as more agricultural activity, one can choose from among 31 reasonably well-marked trails that range from short day hikes to treks lasting several days. The popular hiking season is in the months of April and May, when the park’s meadows are teeming with blooms of colourful wildflowers, although April to mid-June is a particularly rewarding time of year to visit for anyone. Hiking maps are available for download and can also be picked up at park offices.
For cyclists, popular and scenic rides are to be found along the giera – an old Roman road complete with ancient mileposts and several crumbling Roman bridges. The road once connected Astorga, Spain, to present day Braga, Portugal, and long stretches along the Homem River are still remarkably well preserved.
Anyone drawn to water should head right to park’s scenic lakes – Canicada, Salamonde, Lindoso and Touvedo – natural gems where windsurfing, kayaking and boat rental are possible. Near the spa town of Gerês in the park’s central region, the Barragem da Caniada (Caniada Dam) is a popular spot for canoeing and fishing.
Early signs of human history within the area of Peneda-Gerês date from around 3,000 to 4,000 BCE. Dolmen graves and megalithic monuments can be found along the Castro Laboreiro plateau, in Portela do Mezio and Chã da Serra Amarela or in the high plateaus of Mourela Mezio, Paradela, Cambezes and Pitoez. Many historians believe that more prehistoric settlements have yet to be discovered.
Evidence of the medieval times can be found in the castles and churches located throughout the park. Some of the most picturesque include the Castro Laboreiro, the Santa Maria dos Pitões monastery and the Castelo do Lindoso. Espiguerros – corn granaries – dating from the 18th and 19th centuries, like those near the towns of Soajo and Lindoso, are topped with a cross symbolising God’s protection of the harvest.
The park’s rustic hill towns and mountain villages with cobblestone streets are also a throwback to another time. The very highest lands were once cultivated as summer pastures in which small summer brandas (villages) were constructed for people accompanying their cattle, sheep and goats. Today these remote settlements are largely abandoned, as are the simple abrigos (shelters) used by past generations of herdsman. That being said, and even though the pastoral way of life is slowly fading as younger villagers head into the cities, within the park, are rural communities where oxen are still used to plough the fields.
“One of the best times to visit the park is in the spring – there will still be snow on the highest peaks but the weather can be excellent for walking and climbing to the remoter areas,” says Paulo Almeida Lopes from Oficina da Natureza, a tourism company that leads guided treks within the park and throughout the north of Portugal. “It is a time as well to find, even today, the occasional herdsman walking out to the uplands with his flock, an isolated speck, lost in the huge backdrop of wide open spaces, wild country and remote views down to the Atlantic some 50 kilometres to the west.”
Although plenty of areas in the park can be explored on one’s own with a good hiking map, several local outdoor outfitters and area guesthouses offer all sorts of guided adventures and excursions. PAN Parks has also launched an 11-week-long online competition giving travellers an opportunity to win prizes each week with questions designed to test your nature knowledge. The grand prize is a guided outdoor holiday in PAN Parks’ Majella National Park, Italy, where 740 square kilometres of pristine parkland offer phenomenal hiking in the Italian Abruzzo region. Other weekly draws include bags, binoculars and various types of camping gear.