What To Do In The Peneda Gerês National Park
The Peneda Gerês National Park is in the very top of Northern Portugal. I spent three days exploring this mountainous region and have complied a list of what to do in the Peneda Gerês National Park. The park is as out of the way and undisturbed as you can get in Europe. Many areas are empty except for tiny stone villages and massive lakes squeezed between gorges. The culture of Portugal and Spain is strong and fascinating here. There are many unique experiences from nature to ancient history. The Peneda Gerês is for people looking for a different European adventure.
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My Experience of the Peneda Gerês National Park.
My husband and I spent three full days in the Peneda Gerês national park for my birthday in early October. It was a misty time of year with cold nights and fluctuating temperatures during the day. We are both Australian and were missing the wide-open spaces and solitude you can so easily find in Australia. The Peneda Gerês offered us this distance as well as a unique cultural experience.
We stayed in a dying stone village on the banks of a massive dam, that had once been a river. The young people had all left for brighter and more exciting experiences in the larger cities. The only people left were the elderly. Half the village was in crumbling ruins, and our converted stone barn was surrounded by the empty shells of stone cottages covered in overgrowth. Every fifteen minutes the tiny town church would ring an electric bell. It was such a power surge that our lights would flicker each time the electric tones would start ringing.
We bought Port and drank it straight from the bottle, listening to the absolute silence all around us (except for the church’s bloody ring tone). Goats and horses would wander through the laneways and the few inhabitants watched us with suspicion. At night another village across the massive gorge would flicker into existence, so similar to our village but situated in Spain with a different time zone and language.
During the day we drove winding roads that could barely fit two cars. We explored ancient stone castles and wandered through silent dripping woods. History was all around us, thicker than any modern-day memories. We accidentally drove down ancient Roman roads, explored a forgotten town and stood in the old remains of the Spanish and Portuguese boarders.
The Peneda Gerês National Park is fascinating and eerie. Vistas from mountain tops would take my breath away and then the same day I would be walking by myself down an overgrown road and have the most uncomfortable feeling of being followed, even though I was completely alone. Below you will find my list of what to do in the Peneda Gerês National Park in Northern Portugal. Hopefully, you’ll enjoy it as much as I did, the creepiness and the adventure.
Some Advice Before You Visit The Peneda Gerês National Park
Getting Around The Peneda Gerês National Park
You will need a car if you want to see as much as possible. The attractions are massively spread out and many are hidden or hard to find. The best thing to do is fly into Porto and drive up from there to the Peneda Gerês National Park. It also gives you an excuse to explore Porto.
Safety While Driving
The roads in the Peneda Gerês National Park are tiny. Many of them are in the mountains with sheer drop-offs and hairpin bends. Please drive carefully. The good news is that there are not many people here so you won’t encounter many cars, however, don’t become complacent. We had a very scary moment when we rounded a tight corner and a motorcyclist was cutting the corner from the other side. He almost ended up under our car and my husband had to almost swerve into the stone wall of the road.
The Portuguese and Spanish border is the border of the Peneda Gerês National Park. You will most probably drive backwards and forwards over it during your adventures. This is very easy, but just watch the time if your car has an automatic clock. There is an hour time difference between the two countries and every-now-and-then it would catch us out in our journey planning.
What To Do in The Peneda Gerês National Park
A fascinating and slightly quirky cultural aspect of the Peneda Gerês National Park are the historic granaries. These eerie grave-like boxes are common and you will see them in most villages. Some of the best places to see them are Lindoso and Soajo, but they are everywhere.
When we first drove into the park we went to Soajo to do some shopping (as it was the only place with a tiny supermarket). Driving into the town we passed eerie-looking stone boxes, which I assumed were graves or sarcophagi. I was shocked when my husband informed me that they were stone grain storage huts.
They are lifted above the ground on large stone legs and sealed once they are filled with grain. This keeps the food safe from rodents and away from any flooding or damp. Some of them are still used as the locals of the Peneda Gerês National Park grow a lot of their own food. Some are ruined mounds of brick and others have been modernised.
Lindoso Castle is one of the most popular places to visit in the north of Portugal. It’s a medieval castle that has protected the north for thousands of years, repelling border attacks from enemies. Little is known of its early history, but it has played important roles in several conflicts and has even fallen to Spain a few times. Modern times saw it fall into disrepair. You can wander parts of the walls and visit the battlements, the chapel and a medieval oven. Two tiny museums may or may not be open when you get there.
On the hill that surrounds the castle are the famous granaries of Northern Portugal. It’s worth it to give yourself some time to wander amongst them. I investigated some of them and found corn and hay remains, indicating what had been originally stored in them. The town of Lindoso is silent around the castle and granaries with most of the windows and doors locked up.
Visit a Dying Stone Village - Varzea
Varzea was where we stayed in the Peneda Gerês National Park. There’s probably a maximum of twenty residents still living there. It’s also part of the Portuguese Camino, which doesn’t seem to bring it any tourism. The village is crouched on the edge of a gorge. The river has obviously been damned and you can see evidence of old parts of the town that have been ruined and submerged on the banks of the river. An old paved road leads out from the town, but I never discovered where it went (this is where I felt like I was followed). No cars can fit on it, so it would have been made for horses or carts.
There are a number of these ancient stone villages scattered throughout the National Park. If you’re going to visit them you want to be polite and not disturb the inhabitants. It’s sad and fascinating to see a way of life fading away. Many of the older ladies will be dressed in the traditional black robes worn in Northern Portugal if you are a widow.
The Sanctuary of Senhora da Peneda
Hidden in a valley in the Peneda Gerês National Park is the Sanctuary of Senhora da Peneda (The Lady of the Snows). This temple is huge and surrounded by the large pines of the forest. The major church has a monumental staircase spreading down the hill and at the bottom multiple chapels to the life of Jesus. It is quite the sight, surrounded by the dark forest with the dark grey of stone and the white paint. We were there early in the morning and had the entire place to ourselves.
It is a popular pilgrimage site, especially in the first week of September when there is a holy celebration. The parking lot has been built for multiple buses and there are a small café, souvenir shop and quite a large restaurant next to the church.
Castro Laboreiro Castle
The amazing ruins of the Castro Laboreiro Castle sit high on a hill above the town of Castro Laboreiro. I really enjoyed exploring this castle and believe you should add it to your list of what to do in the Peneda Gerês National Park in Northern Portugal. The castle is an ancient ruin and dates back as far as the 9th century. It has been occupied by the Spanish, Moors, and Portuguese over many centuries and has been captured and destroyed multiple times.
All that remains of the castle are the walls and outlines of rooms and complexes within. You must walk up to the castle by one of the two walking tracks. They are not very well made with dirt and rocks as the path. Once you reach the top you can see why they chose this location for the castle. The views go for miles and some walls of the castle have precipitous drops down the side of the mountain.
Ponte de Misarela
Ponte de Misarela is one of the famous Devil’s Bridges found throughout Europe. A Devils Bridge was named because of the unusual design. They are held up by the stacking of the stones and many people in medieval times attributed this to dark magic. The Ponte de Misarela is a must-see in the Gerês National Park, even though it is on the outer edge of it. The bridge has a mysterious history. There is no record of who built it, and local legend attributes the construction to the devil.
Getting to the Ponte de Misarela is quite an exercise. The roads are very narrow, so narrow in some parts that if you met a car coming the other way you would have to reverse to let them through. There is a small parking area at the end of the road, just above the bridge, which is lucky, as I was starting to worry about how we would turn around. The bridge was renovated in the 1900s, so it’s safe to explore.
The Misarela bridge is a beautiful arch across a bubbling stream. There are rockpools and swimming pools further down from the Ponte de Misarela. In summer it is an unofficial hang out for the youths of the Peneda Gerês national park.
Drowned Town In the Peneda Gerês National Park
Vilarinho da Furna is a drowned town in the Peneda Gerês National Park in Northern Portugal. In 1972 it was intentionally submerged by the construction of a dam. 300 people were living in the village when the dam was finished. The Portuguese government bought their land for the cost of a tin of sardines per household. The village still belongs to the villages and there is a sign asking you to respect the towns resting place.
Finding the village can be tricky as there are no signs. You want to be on the Brufe side of the Homem River dam. Park at the road with the boom gate across it. You then walk down the dirt road beside the water for about two kilometres. Eventually you will reach a picnic area and the submerged ruins of the town.
It’s an interesting, but also eerie place. The town is said to date back as far as the Romans, as it sits on an old Roman road. The best times to visit are when the dam isn’t full. If you visit in Spring the town can be completely submerged. End of Summer into Autumn and Winter can be the best time to see the town. Some ruins will be in the water and others out on the bank depending on the level of the water.
Spanish / Portuguese border
There are multiple areas where you cross between the Spanish and Portuguese borders in the Peneda Gerês National Park. The most fascinating and most historic is the one located near Portela do Homem. The old border and immigration buildings still stand, reminding us of an era when crossing between Portugal and Spain was much more difficult than it is now. Surrounded by dark forests, and covered in graffiti it’s a fascinating place to explore.
Roman Ruin A Ponte Nova
The Ponte Nova is a roman ruin just across the border in Spain. It is the beginning of a Roman road as well as a stopping place and small travellers shrine. All that remains are large stone pillars and some paving stones. There is also a bridge with a swimming hole next to it.
The Roman Road – Mata da Albergaria
The Roman road is fascinating and definitely something you should do in the Peneda Gerês National Park in Northern Portugal. You can walk to it from the Portela do Homem. You’ll also see some very pretty waterfalls along the way. You can also drive it. Put into your maps Mata da Albergaria and you will be directed onto a road that follows the old Roman road. There’s quite a large Roman waypoint with large stone pillars and a few flagstones almost halfway down it. It’s a dirt road and quite thin, so drive slowly. A lot of people do walk it, so watch out for pedestrians.