Named after the two mountain ranges it encompasses, Peneda-Gerês National Park (Parque Nacional da Peneda-Gerês) is an area of outstanding scenic beauty in the extreme north of Portugal.
Covering more than 70,000 hectares between the Spanish border to the north and the River Cávado to the south, this vast protected region is a tossing wilderness of imposing boulder-strewn granite peaks, translucent lakes, rivers brimming with trout, waterfalls, thick forests and rocky ridges rising to over 1,500 metres. It also shelters more than a hundred picture-postcard granite villages, few of which have changed much since the founding of Portugal in the 12th century.
A paradise for botanists and bird-watchers, not to mention fell-walkers, the park shares around 80km of frontier with Spain and was originally established in the 1970s to protect the soil, water, flora, fauna and landscape of one of the most unspoilt ecosystems in southern Europe.
Peneda-Gerês National Park is a natural habitat for roe deer, wild boar, golden eagles, wolves and wild Luso-Galician horses gracefully grazing on the emerald-green slopes that cascade down to lush, deep-cut valleys abloom with Gerês iris and many other brightly-coloured indigenous plants.
The park receives up to 2,800mm of rainfall annually, the highest on mainland Portugal, allowing a profusion of plant species to flourish, whose origins range from the Mediterranean and subtropical regions to Euro-Siberian and Alpine zones. While the slightly drier, eastern side of the park lies in the Trás-os-Montes province, the rest (and majority) of it exists in the green Minho.
Mostly covered in snow during winter, this magnificent horse-shoe shaped wilderness is divided into several valleys by the Soajo, Peneda, Amarela and Gerês mountains and Lima, Homen and Cávado rivers. Between the peaks are forested valleys with glens of silver birches, oaks and evergreens and verdant mountain pastures, while higher up you’ll find moorlands draped with heather and gorse.
Vestiges of human habitation dating back 5,000 years have been found there, such as the Stone Age dolmens and megaliths at Pitões, Mezio, Castro Laboreiro, Paradela, Cambeses and Tourém. And still bearing its original milestones, a large part of the old Roman military highway that once linked Braga with Astorga in Spain can easily be traced alongside the River Homem.
The further east you venture, the more remote and rugged the landscape becomes, especially as you approach Outeiro, an ancient village lost in time where the land rises majestically to a plateau of wild moorland, rocky outcrops and occasional patches of cultivation.
Idyllically located surrounded by mountains at the park’s base, the charming little town of Caldas do Gerês has been one of the most popular spa centres in Portugal since Roman times and the local mineral water contains more fluorine than the famous waters of Karlsbad, providing relief for sufferers of liver diseases and obesity.
Situated high above the River Lima, the pretty village of Soajo has a high concentration of very photogenic stilted stone granaries known as espigueiros, plus it’s a popular place to stop and appreciate the panoramic views of the surrounding countryside. Dating right the way back to 1147, the well-preserved monastery of Santa Maria das Júnias in Pitões das Júnias is a remarkable monument of romanesque origin in the far north-eastern corner of Peneda-Gerês National Park.
Centred around the ruins of a medieval castle, the little village of Castro Laboreiro is best known for the breed of sheepdog to which it gives its name. Another good place for visitors to get a real taste of traditional life in northern Portugal is the old border town of Lindoso, which is also notable for its impressive 13th-century castle.
To visit the park, the best approach to the northern Peneda section is from the towns of Monção or Melgaço on the River Minho. The main point of access for the eastern part is Caldas do Gerês, although a longer but more interesting route begins from the Roman spa town of Chaves near the Spanish border in Trás-os-Montes.