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The Makings of an Old Flame: Portugal’s Peneda-Gerês National Park

This is a guest post by Keith Savage. If you want to guest post on Go Backpacking, please read more here.

A bridge in the Peneda Geres

A bridge in the Peneda Geres

More than 400 miles north of the sun-drenched beaches of Portugal's Algarve region stands one of the world's few temperate rainforests and Portugal's only national park: the darkly beautiful Peneda-Gerês. The park, part of Portugal's Minho region, curls around a large section of the border with Spain. Its peaks and valleys are drowned in thick woods and slashed by the icy violence of white water rivers. Mankind has made only shallow forays into this wild and extreme landscape, though there's no shortage of aorta-bursting, pants-wetting roads. Peneda-Gerês extracts a physical toll from those who seek its wonders. And it hates cars. With a passion.

Last June, my wife Sarah and I spent three weeks traveling Portugal from tip to tail. I remember our time in the Peneda-Gerês National Park as sparkling moments: ragged shreds of clouds drifting past our hilltop pousada…drizzle rolling off leaves into engorged streamlets…the view of Albufeira da Caniçada's placid waters from the precariously-perched patio.

Scenic view

Scenic view

You get the feeling that Portuguese civil engineers laid eyes upon this vast wilderness and sheepishly declared that it'd make a great green space.

Nevertheless, there are roads and you'd be doing yourself a disservice if you didn't make at least a cursory tour. The joy I felt upon surviving the near-vertical ascents and winding switchbacks is truly indescribable. Oh we felt that joy and sweat our cold sweat, expecting the sound of a shorn driveshaft or the shrieking of tortured engine belts. And yet, the wind at the crest of each hill and peak always greeted our shaken selves, and the beauty of verdant vistas falling away through clouds proceeded to shake us a little more.

The park harbors countless viewpoints like the Miradouro Velho (altitude 824m) with its ledge that juts into empty space. Here, the car was a godsend for us, though many people prefer to make the hike. The infrastructure within the park is pleasantly minimalist; in many places I was a spartan handrail away from plunging off the slick rocks of miradouros to an ignominious death far below. It was this seemingly half-finished handiwork that increased the sense of our trespassing upon nature.

We spent one wet day driving through the park to Portela do Homen, a little outpost on the Portugal-Spain border, so we could briefly set foot in Galicia. The empty guard station at the border looked threatening, but it didn't interfere with our border hopping. The drive was gorgeous despite the weather. The road runs beneath a canopy of old-growth tree boughs, crosses gushing streams, and skirts the edges of cliffs hundreds of feet high. Our maps, hiding their filthy lying selves, showed this as a straight shot from the main town of Caldas do Gerês. The road was, in reality, positively intestinal. Friends, if you're prone to motion or car sickness, take a side order of Dramamine with your breakfast.

It seemed that time, like man, struggled to penetrate this wilderness as we passed through the antiquated towns of Ermina and Fafião. We parked the car and continued on foot to Pedra Bela, which gifted us with expansive views of the Gerês range. Nearby, a rutted dirt road led us to the Arado falls where after a short hike we were assaulted by a deafening roar. Boulders lay strewn along the hillside like the ragged edges of some massive earthen wound.

The authorOn the way back to the car, we saw a daub of red paint that denoted one of the many trails criss-crossing the park like the lattice-work topping of some giant pie. Campsites punctuate the trails, and with sufficient planning you could spend days hiking your way around the park's 400 square miles.

After a brief stay, we were headed south to Port country and away from Portugal's beguiling temperate rainforest. Days earlier, the proprietor of our guest house in Porto gushed with excitement when I told her our plans to visit the park. Too many visitors skip it, she said, but it's where many Portuguese go to get away from it all.

Peneda-Gerês will test your resolve and reward your perseverance: a wild tranquility captured as an ember in the clouds of your memory.

About the Author: You can follow Keith at Traveling Savage as he writes his way out of the office and around the world. Soon, Keith will split time between experiential travel and his wife and home in Wisconsin. Find him on Twitter @travelingsavage.

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