There are still a few places in Portugal that truly feel like the middle of nowhere, and the Parque Natural de Montesinho is one of them. Located in the far northeast, hard up against the Spanish border, the heather-clad hills, verdant grass plains and dense oak forests look much as they have done for centuries. The park itself – lying north and west of Bragança – covers 751 square kilometres, and has a dwindling population of 8000 distributed between ninety-odd granite-built hamlets and villages, many of which have had so little mainstream contact that they retain their old Roman or Visigothic names. In many ways it’s the same old story of rural abandonment, echoed by the similar desertion of many of the distinctive round pigeon houses (pombal, plural pombais), that are a feature of the region – the pigeons, it seems, like the people, prefer an easier existence in the cities rather than eking out a living in the countryside.
However, the park hasn’t been entirely bypassed by modern life. Villages substantially unchanged since medieval times are connected by new roads and show the unmistakeable signs of emigrante-funded brick-and-concrete construction, while a long line of wind turbines snakes across the northern mountains. More positively, the local councils and park authorities are trying to promote tourism that’s beneficial to the region. A flurry of brown signs points visitors towards aldeias preservadas (preserved villages), archeological and nature sites, picnic spots and local museums, and there’s also a good network of hiking paths.
With just a day, and your own car, the western loop from Vinhais to Moimenta would show you some of the best scenery (and has one of the finest short walks). Contrasting villages such as Gimonde or fascinating Rio de Onor are also easily seen from Bragança, while if you plan on staying overnight in the park the no-contest winner is Montesinho, with its boutique guesthouse and excellent walking.