The very north of Portugal has two massive areas of protected countryside in the Peneda-Geres National Park and the Montesinho Natural Park. On the eastern boundary of Portugal with Spain is the Douro Internacional Natural Park. These are fabulous areas of wilderness hardly touched by man in some places and home to a wide range of wildlife, some of which are only found in the most remote places of Europe.
The way of life in these regions has changed little until the 20th century and the protection of the parks extends to the traditional lifestyle and farming culture of the region. If you're looking for a walking or activity holiday the natural parks offer walking and hiking trails, rivers and lakes for watersports and uncluttered roads from which to explore rural Portugal.
Parque Nacional da Peneda-Geres was designated a national park in 1971 to safeguard the wildlife, ancient customs and unique agricultural practices. It's a special place due to its geological formations, wildlife interest and the cultural heritage of the mountain peoples of the area.
The Peneda-Geres National Park is a fantastic wilderness made up of the wilder Serra da Peneda mountain range in the north and the Serra do Geres to the east. This is the only National Park in Portugal although it has many other natural parks. Parque Nacional da Peneda-Geres (PNPG) lines the Spanish border in the north west of Portugal in the Minho region and abuts the Tras-os-Montes region to the east. The Portuguese take their protection role very seriously and there are still many parts of the National Park that have not yet been touched by tourism and indeed not touched much by man at all. The protection extended to this area is not just to protect the important and rare wildlife; it aims to protect the traditional lifestyles and culture of the people of the region as well.
There are three sections to the National Park: the northern section from the Spanish border north of Lamas de Mouro down to Cabreiro; the central section from Soajo to Germil and the southern section from Campo de Geres across to Montalegre in the east.
This area of Portugal receives more rain than anywhere else in Portugal which gives rise to a much more diverse range of habitats and species than other parts of the country. The oak woodland is a typical example of this as it's often associated with Northern Europe, but here English oak grows side by side with Pyrenean oak, yew, alder and ash. Upland heathland and maquis cover the rocky mountains and in total contrast there are even wet, peatbog areas where cotton grass and the carnivorous plant round-leaved sundew occurs.
There are rare and endemic species of the mountains including the Geres lily, the Geres fern, the golden-striped salamander, the Iberian wolf, wild boar that still manage to survive in the wilder areas of the park, fifteen species of bat and more common species including lizards, pine marten, badger and the red squirrel.
Being such a vast area the Park can support a wide range of birds and 147 species have been recorded including golden eagle, chough, eagle owl, honey buzzard.
An integral part of the conservation of the PNPG is the agricultural practices of its population who have traditionally been engaged in cattle breeding ad farming. In the valleys the hillsides are terraced to enable farmers to live off the land that they can more easily cultivate in this form. Some of the oldest villages still use traditional methods where livestock is moved to high pasture for up to five months of the year. Farmers live in one roomed houses at this time dotted across the mountainous terrain. They then bring their cattle to more sheltered areas and move out of these houses when the harsh winters come. It is difficult for these traditions to be upheld as the populations of these old villages leave for bigger towns and cities but the Park and European funded initiatives are trying to support these communities. It could well be that tourism becomes an important economic support to the region with traditional buildings being restored.
Several particular primitive found here are the barrosa cattle and the small cows called cachena, bravia goats, garrrano ponies and the powerful Castro Laboreiro sheepdog that was used to ward off wolves.
One of the most striking structures that sums up the cultural heritage of the area are the antas tombs that were constructed from upright stones and topped with roof slabs then covered in soil. At Lindoso you can see the stone grain stores that are like small buildings on legs. Around the national park are all sorts stone circles and rock art of engraved symbols. The local information offices can give you more information on their locations and trails that taken them in (although they are marked roughly on the park s maps).
There are National Park offices at Braga, Terras de Bouro, Arcos de Valdevez and Montalegre: Braga: Avenida Antonio Macedo, Braga 4704-538, Portugal. Tel: 351 253 203480. Fax: 351 253 613169. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org. Directions on our Braga page - link opposite. Arcos de Valdevez: R Pde Manuel Himalaia, 4970-462 Arcoa de Valdevez. Tel: 351 258 515 338. Fax: 351 258 522 707
Terras de Bouro: Centro de Educacao Ambiental do Vidoeiro, Lugar do Vidoeiro, no 99 4845-081 Geres. Tel: 351 253 390 110. Fax: 351 253 391 496.
Montalegre: R. do Reigoso, 5470-236 Montalegre. Tel: 351 276 518 320/1. Fax: 351 276 518 322.
In addition, there are National Park Gateways which have the full range of maps and leaflet information as well as permanent displays explaining different aspects of the park at: Lamas de Mouro, Concelho de Melgaco - accessed from EN 202 road. Mezio, Concelho de Arcos de Valdevez, - accessed from EN 202 road via Cabana Maior. Cabril, Concelho de Montalegre, - accessed from EN 103-8 road.
Montesinho Natural Park stretches for 70,000 hectares from the extreme north east of Portugal abutting the Spanish border across to the north west of Vinhais. Mountain range reach 1,481 metres in altitude. The main access points into the Park are from Braganca along the N103-1 road and Vinhais along the N316 road.
The eastern section of the Park is the only bit that is accessible by public transport. Buses run north from Braganca along the N103-1 to the quiet village of Franca and on to Portelo. Before reaching Portelo you can take a divert to the west to the spectacularly sited Montesinho on the border with Spain. Another regular bus service runs northeast from Braganca to the medieval village of Rio de Onor.
If you have your own transport you can explore the whole park, including the more remote western section, which is crossed by several scenic routes.
From the traditional Montesinho village of Vinhais you can see spectacular panoramic views of the Park. Horse-riding and mountain bike hire can be organised locally.
The area was designated a natural park to protect the wildlife of this mountainous region but also the traditional culture of its inhabitants that have meant this landscape has survived into the 21st century.
It is one of the wildest regions in Europe that has meant a range of rare species are still able to survive here including wolves, wild boars, otters, wildcats and around 150 species of birds including eagles. The granite topped mountains are covered in heather with the lower lying areas cloaked in oak forests and grassland through which several rivers flow through the mountain valleys. The mountains are made up of both calcareous rock and granite outcrops at the highest elevations. The woodlands dominated by Pyrenean oak and chestnut are some of the most extensive woodlands and best conserved of its kind in Europe. You can see the best examples of this woodland type in the central area of the park. Alder, willow and ash are more dominant in the low lying riparian areas and birch is most commonly found at the higher altitudes. Holm oak dominated woodland is also found in the lower altitudes of the park with rare plants such as wild jasmine, white willow, peony (Paeonia broteri) and mock privet (Phillyrea angustifolia).
The geology of Montesinho includes slate and areas of chalk in the mountain plateaus with granite in the higher zones of the Serra de Montesinho. This varied geology together with the extremes in climate gives rise to a particularly diverse range of habitats and plants.
The area has changed very little since medieval times and ancient villages that house a population of around 9,000 people are dotted throughout the Natural Park such as Franca and Montesinho, whose traditional stone houses and cobbled streets are typical the region. Many of the paths date from the Visigothic Empire and some of the villages such as Fresulfe and Sernande still bear distinctly Germanic names.
Both the border villages of Rio de Onor and Miranda do Douro have been the subject of anthropological studies that provide a fascinating insight into the local way of life. The people of Montesinho Natural Park have developed their own dialects mixing Portuguese and Spanish. Ancient Celtic traditions still flourish with some similarities to Scotland and Ireland such as the playing of bagpipes in folk songs. It is also not uncommon to see women washing clothes in the rivers or donkeys being used as a means of transport.
Circular medieval dovecotes, called pombal, are dotted across the hillsides throughout the area with characteristic horseshoe shaped roofs. These were purpose-built to house doves that were reared for food, their droppings were collected and used to fertilise crops. Between Braganca and Vinhais are the ruins of the 12th century Mosteiro de Castro de Avelas that once held the main religious power in the region.
There are two offices for the Montesinho Natural Park. They can provide you with leaflets and maps of the park with information on the flora and fauna of the area and walks including circuits around Moimenta and Quintanilha:
Head office in Braganca; Bairro Rubacar, Rua Conego Albano Falcao, Lote 5, Apartado 90, 5301 - 901 Braganca. Tel: 351 273 300 400. Fax: 351 273 381 179. Email: email@example.com
Vinhais Office: Rua Dr. Alvaro Leite, Edifcio da Casa do Povo, 5320 - 332 Vinhais. Tel: 351 273 771 416. Fax: 351 273 771 416. Open: Tues-Sat 9.30 am-12.30 pm and 2-5.30pm
The Douro Internacional Natural Park stretches for 852 square kilometres Miranda do Douro in the north down to south of Figueira de Castelo Rodrigo in the south. It abuts the Spanish border which is marked by the River Douro itself.
Miranda do Douro in the north of the Park and Mogadouro in the middle are the easiest places to get to and visit the park. Both are reached via the IP4 motorway and then turning off on the EN317 and EN218 for Miranda do Douro, and the EN216 for Mogadouro.
Buses and coaches will get you to the two towns mentioned above and Santos runs more local services to a variety of the towns within the natural park. Check the links right for more information.
For total freedom to explore the wonders of the Natural Park you'll be better off with a car which you can hire - check the link right for a quick quote.
This great rocky landscape is home to a wide range of wildlife including an impressive array of birds of prey including Egyptian vultures, griffon vultures, golden eagles, Bonelli's eagles, short-toed eagles, booted eagles, eagle owls and boring old peregrine falcons! No wonder it's heralded as the best place in Portugal to see birds of prey.
Black storks, alpine swifts choughs, wolves and wild cats are some of the other attractions if you can take your eyes of the raptors. Other notable species include the Pyrenean desman, Schreiber's bent-winged bats, Cabrera vole, otters - what a fantastic array of exciting and rare species.
There are forty six small communities within the park area and it is their traditional way of life that the park is trying to protect as well.
Many of the inhabitants originate from the unfortunate and persecuted as convicts were banished to the region in medieval times and Jews fled to northern Portugal after the persecution of the Spanish and Portuguese inquisitions. The mirandes is an ancient dialect of the region that is still spoken here and you might even see it on the road signs. It is now officially recognized as Portugal's second language.
Pigeon is part of the traditional diet of the area and you'll see the circular medieval dovecotes, called pombal, that are dotted across the hillsides. These were purpose-built to house doves that were not only reared as food for the locals, but their droppings were collected and used to fertilise crops.
There are four offices for the Douro Internacional Natural Park. They can provide you with leaflets and maps of the park with information on the flora and fauna of the area and walks including Ribeira do Mosteiro to Calcada de Alpajares, Miranda do Douro to S. Joao das Arribas, Almofala to St Andre das Arribas and a driving route from north to south of the Natural Park. To date the majority of these are only available in Portuguese.
The main office is in Mogadouro: Rua Santa Marinha, 4, 5200-241 Mogadouro. Tel: 351 279 340 030. Fax: 351 279 341 596. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org
Other offices are at: Miranda do Douro office: Rua do Convento, Palacio da Justica, 5210 Miranda Do Douro. Tel: 351 273 431 457 and 273 432 833. Fax: 351 273 431 457.
Freixo de Espada a Cinta office: Largo do Outeiro, 5180 118 Freixo De Espada A Cinta. Tel: 351 279 658 130. Fax: 351 279 658 131. And Figueira de Castelo Rodrigo office: Rua Artur Costa, 1, 6440 Figueira De Castelo Rodrigo. Tel: 351 271 313 382. Fax: 351 271 313 382