I love a card And the map of northern Portugal is good: a seemingly impenetrable whirl of densely packed contour lines and point elevations that is as alluring as it is frightening. Here I am now, amidst the landscape represented by those swirling lines, glass of Vinho Verde in hand, basking in the glow of satisfaction that comes with knowing this is a well-deserved drink.
For the past few days, my husband Ludo and I have been exploring these mountains on foot. Although we covered a lot less distance than we would have done by car, this immersive introduction to a part of Portugal that we didn’t know at all but had long wanted to visit gave us so much more than some pretty photos of great views. At walking pace, you don’t just see a place: you hear it, smell it, interact with it. Now, when we look back at the map, not only can we reconstruct our journey, but we can also recall small details and events that make us feel like we’ve actually been here, rather than just passing through.
We started our hike on the slopes above the pretty town of Arcos de Valdevez and taxied down a trail into Peneda Gerês National Park. The vegetation was familiar—bracken, gorse, and heather. Little brown butterflies fluttered across our path. A buzzard circled lazily in the cloudless sky. As we rounded a bend, the faint tinkle of bells alerted us to a small herd of cows grazing on a slope above us. They were particularly beautiful; Cachena cattle, local to the region. They look like Jersey cows – small, copper-colored with big, kind eyes and enviably long eyelashes. But their spectacular horns, shaped like the handlebars of a 1970s chopper bike, give them that aura of superiority that some people feel when they’re wearing a fancy hat. There were also herds of wild horses, nose to tail, darting for flies while their lanky colts hovered in the shade of the adults or sprawled on the close-cut grass from the heat.
Because it was hot. Like Great Britain and large parts of Europe, Portugal was also hit by a heat wave. Not ideal hiking weather, but at least our itinerary for the week would take us through a scenic mix of sweeping high country; canyons and valleys; cool, deeply shaded forests of pine, oak and mimosa; and through small villages. Here vines laden with grapes grew over trellises that arched down the narrow lanes between houses, casting welcome mottled shadows.
And every time we hit water, we got into it. As we neared the end of our first day and approached the village of Soajo where we were to spend the night, our path led us down a slope to a bridge that crossed a small stream. The water was clear and flowed over large, rounded boulders. Almost hidden by the bridge, there was a gap between the stones that looked large and deep enough to duck under. It was heaven. I’m amazed we didn’t hiss like hot pans running under a cold faucet.
It is a sad truth that many villages are dying in this region of Portugal. Beautiful old stone houses have fallen into disrepair; the small fields and terraces that surround them, the result of unimaginable hard work, are now overgrown and deserted. But Soajo is different, thanks to the combined efforts of residents like Rosa and Pedro.
Generations of Rosa’s family have lived in Soajo. She grew up there and runs a small restaurant with her husband. Rosa cooks the food of her heritage: bacalao and cachena beef, cooked long and slow in the oven and served with rice and beans — more stew than pilaf — and so full of flavor you’ll purr when you eat it. Her aunt left her one of the old granite village houses typical of the area and Rosa and Pedro restored it and converted it into two self-catering apartments, one of which we occupied. It was full of traditional furniture and ornaments, comfortable and homely. Rosa had left breakfast and the ingredients for a picnic for the next day’s hike in the fridge, and the next morning bread was delivered to our door from the village baker.
Granaries for storing corn
PAULO COSTA/GETTY PICTURES
The house was right next to the small village square. Soajo has a long, somewhat royal history and although fewer than 1,000 people live there permanently today, it is a ‘living village’ with a supermarket, a working church, a small but brilliant museum and one of the best hardware stores I’ve ever visited. The gardens and terraced fields are cultivated and grazed; There are pots of colorful flowers, sleepy cats and barking dogs in the yards. Stacks of firewood await the winter. And on an exposed granite outcrop on the outskirts of the village are 24 sarcophagus-like granaries — small stone buildings used to store corn, topped with crosses for divine protection.
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We returned to Soajo the following night after walking part of the Via Mariana, a pilgrimage route that led us to the village of Peneda. It was a nice walk – probably my favorite of the week. We emerged from Soajo on a trail of granite boulders, sunken into the earth and so old that the stones bore the scars of decades of cart wheels passing over them. As we gained altitude, the landscape opened up before us; a dizzying vista of towering cliffs, deep ditches down to unseen rivers and tiny villages scattered among the trees. We ate our picnic by a hilltop shrine, shaded by pine trees and in the company of dragonflies and flycatchers, and gazed in the distance at Peneda, with its huge 18th-century Santuario de Nossa Senhora da Peneda towering over the houses . A few hours later, after climbing the hundreds of steps to the church, we swam in a spectacular hidden pool, thanks to a local who let us in on the secret. We celebrated the end of a glorious day with a beer and waited for the taxi to take us back to Soajo.
That is the great luxury of a hiking trip like this one. I’ve done a few long-distance hikes, usually alone, with a tent and on dehydrated rations, and while I enjoy doing them – both for the challenge and for the feeling of being completely self-sufficient – they don’t do it for many, including Ludo, consider a relaxing holiday. I try to do more than 20 miles a day; Personal hygiene is rudimentary, food is basic, sleeping arrangements are spartan, and pathfinding is a bit of a back-and-forth. I’ve also done group hikes with a guide, and while it’s infinitely easier to let someone else take care of the logistics and not get lost, I’m not sociable or patient enough to enjoy them.
Here we got the best of both worlds, trekking between overnight stays in places ranging from village houses to a really nice hotel in an old monastery. Meanwhile, our luggage was seamlessly transferred between them, allowing us to carry the few things we needed each day. And although we went alone – so we could travel at our own pace, stopping when we wanted, bird and bug spotting (me) and poking around in archeological and ecclesiastical curiosities (Ludo) – we had a guide in the form of meticulous stepping – step-by-step notes and background information. They guided us unerringly from one shower, a crisp bottle of Vinho Verde and a comfortable bed to the next.
The routes weren’t long either – never more than ten miles a day – although in this hill country we had our legs stretched properly, our hearts were racing and it was quite panting and panting. But the rewards were undeniable. This is a scenically stunning part of the world but surprisingly we saw very few other hikers. Not once did we sweat to a lookout point and find it packed with people sulking into their phones.
And now, via the resort of Geres, the valley of the Rio Caldo and the pilgrimage site of Sao Bento, we are at the end of our journey, looking back at the lines on the map, no longer daunting but pleasantly familiar, inviting us to wonder where we are going could go next.
Kate Humble has been a guest of Inntravel, which offers seven nights bed and breakfast from £925 per person, including transport and some extra meals (inntravel.co.uk). Flight to Porto
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