The magnificent Parque Nacional da Peneda-Gerês – Portugal’s first and only national park – was established in 1971, and helps protect a natural world and a way of life that’s all but disappeared from the rest of Portugal’s mountain regions. In the lush valleys oak and laurel line the riverbanks, replaced by holly, birch, pine and juniper at higher elevations; a total of eighteen plant species – including the Serra do Gerês iris – are found nowhere else on earth. Shepherds and farmers inhabit remote granite-built villages, tending primitive domestic animals – cachena and barrosa cattle, bravia goats, garrano ponies and the powerful Castro Laboreiro sheepdog – that are long extinct elsewhere. In distant forested corners, remnants of the wildlife that once roamed all Europe still survive too, from wild boar to wolves.
If it sounds like a back-in-time backwater – well, parts certainly seem so, and there are high roads across boulder-strewn uplands where you’ll rarely see another vehicle (and where goats very definitely have the right of way). But look closely at some of the beautifully kept villages, with their ancient customs and traditions apparently intact, and it’s clear that tourism is playing its part in the park’s preservation. Restored stone cottages and rustic houses are available for overnight guests in even the most remote of hamlets, while the unmade roads and dirt tracks of twenty years ago have acquired a layer of tarmac and a flurry of brown signs pointing out local attractions.
The park divides into several distinct regions, with the southern area easily seen from the spa town of Caldas do Gerês, while mountain-, forest- and water-based activities are centred on nearby settlements like Rio Caldo and Campo do Gerês. In the centre lie the traditional villages of Soajo and Lindoso – beautiful places to stay, if you fancy a quiet week hiking or touring – while the wild Serra da Peneda, in the north of the park, is one for real mountain aficionados. Here, you’ll often have the steep forested valleys, and wind-blown planaltos dotted with weird rock formations, entirely to yourself. There’s also a far eastern section of the park covered in the Trás-os-Montes chapter.