Located deep in the heart of Trás-os-Montes, between the city of Bragança and the Spanish frontier in northern Portugal, the Parque Natural de Montesinho remains one of southern Europe’s best-kept secrets.
Featuring some of the wildest terrain in the whole of the Iberian Peninsular, its vast granite landscape covers 185,000 acres (750 square-kilometres) and is populated with Iberian wolves (an endangered species), wild boar, foxes, black storks, royal eagles and a host of other animals.
Altitudes range from 438 metres in the east to 1,481 metres in the Montesinho mountains and the area is blessed with an abundance of rivers and streams running from north to south, as well as a series of country roads passing through some delightfully old places seemingly lost in time.
Dubbed the Terra Fria (Cold Land) by the locals, it’s a place where communal life and pre-Christian rituals still endure in places like Rio de Onor where some of the townsfolk (particularly the more elderly) still believe in witches, fairies and what is commonly referred to as the ‘evil eye’!
Much of the local population resides in small, self-contained stone villages nestling in deep valleys where life hasn’t changed that much since the invention of the automobile. Comprising little more than a small cluster of granite houses roofed in slate, they retain an irresistible charm for the modern traveller, particularly in springtime when the cherry and chestnut trees are in full blossom.
Capital of the enchanting Trás-os-Montes region, Bragança is the perfect base from which to explore the Parque Natural de Montesinho. Oozing with centuries of history, the city is most notable for its 680-metre-high hilltop citadel harbouring a 12th-century castle surrounded by whitewashed houses linked by labyrinth of old cobbled streets and narrow stairways.
The journey from Bragança westward towards the high peaks of the Montesinho and Corôa mountains passes dense forests of ancient oaks and sweet chestnuts interspersed with the occasional trout farm, horseshoe-shaped dovecote (pombal) and herds of cattle grazing on steep slopes.
Overlooking a deep valley, the enchanting little town of Vinhais is worth visiting for its 14th-century castle, monastery and old churches, as well as the annual smoked ham and sausage festival (the Feira do Fumeiro) held every February.
A short drive west of Bragança off the road from Vinhais lie the remains of the 12th-century Benedictine monastery of Castro de Avelãs, complete with the church’s original triple apse which is still intact.
Montesinho itself (very much the heart of the surrounding natural park) is one of the best-preserved old stone villages in northern Portugal. It is also the natural starting point of a wonderful hiking trail that leads walkers across the hills to a nearby dam, passing some head-spinning scenery en route.
For the ultimate transmontano experience, head for the lovely little town of Rio de Onor situated in the eastern part of Montesinho Natural Park (indicated on the Google map below) which is spliced down the middle by the border, meaning that half of it is in Portugal and the other half in Spain!
Other villages worth visiting include Dine (home to a fascinating archaeological museum) and Moimenta, an enchanting little place to the north-west, between which a scenic road passes over a remarkable single-arched medieval bridge.