The hidden wonders of Gerês National Park, Portugal
Portugal is mostly known for it's robust nature in the South of the country. Amazing cliffs, rock formations and long sandy beaches make it the ideal location for a sunny holiday. And you should have Albufeira, Lagos or Faro on your bucketlist, they're wonderful! But the best kept secret, the pearl of the country is hidden in the North, near the Spanish boarder. Time for a little road trip into the mountains of Portugal and Spain!
WARNING: It became a long read ;-)
Our journey starts in my so beloved Porto. I have been here many times, despite the fact that it's not the best place for a Digital Nomad. The city has much to offer for a short break full of culture, loving people and cheap, delicious, western food. Read all about my experiences in Porto here.
We, me and my best friend, start our roadtrip in Porto city. We stayed here for one night, since we already knew the city pretty well. For those who haven't been yet, you can best stay here for 3 to 4 days. Check out the porto wine houses, wander the historical streets, take a boat down the Duoro river. You're gonna love it! We just wanted to hit the road asap, so we picked up our rental of Auto Europe (because they had the cheapest prices), prepared for a warm AND cold trip, and left for Amarante and Vila Real.
If you want to have amazing views on the road, I suggest you take the N108 a little more South from the A4. This road lays next to the Duoro river and serves you breathtaking views on the vineyards and river valley. But considering you're going to see WAY better views up in the mountains, and it's an 80 km/h road, you might just want to go with the A4. Up to you!
On our way to Vila Real we crossed the small town Amarante. We were certainly impressed by the natures beauty of the nearby Serra do Marão mountain range, which rises up with impressive landscapes next to the Tâmega River. But what really caught our eye was the solid bridge over the water. This pass is known for the heroic resistance of the population against the troops of Napoleon who invaded Portugal at the beginning of the 19th century. The army met fierce opposition from the inhabitants of Amarante, who were able to defend themselves for 14 days, but eventually had to surrender to the French.
So far that history lesson! We had an amazing lunch at Largo do Paço, wandered around a bit and went on.
3. VILA REAL
The capital of the province Trás-os-Montes, rises on a 427-meter outcrop, which forms a watershed between the rivers Rio Corgo and Rio Cabril. On both sides of this valley you'll find beautiful houses watching over the river. And at this wonderful location we will spend our second night in Portugal. We're staying at the Duoro Village Hostel, that gave us a warm welcome with coffee, tea and our favorite Portugese snack: Pasteis de Natal.
After a short baggage drop and fast coffee (and the Portugese coffees are FAST), we walked into town to check out the medieval city centre. Vila Real is a great city to explore if you're into historical architecture and a peaceful quiet surrounding. We walked a bit up to Calvário and had a lovely view on the city and mountains during sunset! After a perfect glass of wine and yummy dinner at Tralha, we danced the night of at bar Xots. Crazy Portugese nights!
4. GERÊS, NATIONAL PARK
When I speak of the pearl of Portugal, I talk about Gerês. It's one of the most wow-ing parks I have seen so far in Europe! It's insanely huge, it covers around 72.000 acres and is the oldest park Portugal and Spain host. Why we seriously wanted to go here: hot springs and hidden waterfalls.
Four wild mountain ranges run through the park (Peneda, Soajo, Amarela and Gerês), which mainly consist of granite. They are not really high; only a single top is above 1500 meters. The mountains arose between 380 and 275 million years ago (!!), the time that the continents on earth "drifted" and eventually would be compressed into one supercontinent: Pangea. Due to the enormous pressure, glowing magma rose up and solidified on the surface. When the matter came to rest, the erosion began. There was a landscape of mountain ranges cut through deep river valleys and rugged rock formations. And that's how the hot springs came to live ;-) HOW AWESOME IS THAT!
Even better: the park is not that well known by tourists (or just so super huge) that there's a big chance that you will be the only one who's enjoying the view, waterfall or hot spring in that very moment! Private pools in the wild nature of Portugal, hell yes that we wanted to find out more!
We set our navigation to Barraló, Spain, which is a 2 hours drive from Vila Real IF you take the main roads. Of course we didn't go for the highway this time, cause the interior of this park and winding roads are way more adventurous, PLUS you get to stop at a lot of great viewing points. Absolute must do!
5. JUST BEFORE THE SPANISH BOARDER
Somewhere in the middle of a long road, right before the Spanish boarder, a few cars were parked a side of the road. At a spot where we at first didn't see anything of interest. Why would they all stop here? No signs of a viewing point, hot spring or anything. What's here? We decided to park the car and find out for ourselves. While walking at the cliffs' side of the road, we found a steep stairs down. Without seeing what was at the end, we went down. We could hear people laughing and talking in a distance, so it would be fun probably! Halfway down the stairs we could also hear the rustling sound of falling water: YESSSSSS! This is what we came for: waterfalls!! All the way down at the stairs was a small lake between enormous granite rocks. People were sunbathing on the sides or waiting on the edge of the lake: the beginning of a long series of cascades. This wasn't just one waterfall, it was a very long rough landscape with untouched nature and the spring of the Rio Lima. Do not mistaken this water with the water in the hot springs! As you can imagine, this is ice water from up in the mountains: ICE COLD.
We went back up to the car, clumsy changed to our bikini's (yes, I know I just mentioned it's ice cold water) and went back down stairs. We dropped our towels at a nice sunny spot (we now know why people we gathered there) and walked to the edge. With our feet already in the ice cold water, we were a bit shaky about jumping down. I think the first fall was about 2 meters high, not high at all... but it was the cold was scaring us. The lake below us was another small one with a bigger slide at the end. We agreed on that we at least had to take 2 waterfalls before we could decide it was too cold. If others can do it, so can we! We counted down and took the leap! JUMP!
Man, it was cold, but so totally worth it! As fast as we could we got out of the water and into the sun. Up to the next cascade. This time a bigger one, maybe 3 times bigger! This would be a big jump, but again, if others can do it, so can we! So we did it.
The crystal clear water, the sound of birds and the rustling water around us were in deep contrast with our adrenaline rush, cold skin and laughter of joy. It made the moment insanely beautiful. From the second waterfall we had to hike a bit over the rocks to find the next. This magical place was even more fun than expected. The further we got, the quieter and more alone we felt. Enclosed by the high mountains it was overwhelming. We could have gone on and on, but knowing it was an endless and dangerous trail we would have chosen (still in bikini), we went back to our starting point. The climbing of our way back up kept us warm, and when back we dried up in the sun, chatted with a few other tourists and locals and headed back to the car for the last bit of route for today.
6. BARALLÓ, SPAIN
Our end location is Baralló, just across the boarder. We are on our way to 'chill' at hot springs, which aren't easy to find up here. And we know why when we check in at our rural (and amazing!!) hotel Casa Baralló. The receptionist, a lovely lady with heavy Spanish accent, wasn't really willing to tell how to find the nearest hot spring. Moreover, she just pointed us to Balneario de Lobios, close by, because that is the one for tourists.. FOR TOURISTS! So the locals are protecting their treasures. The more reason to find one!
Fortunately, it was my friends sharp move to go chitchatting with some other guests arriving in a campervan. And voilá, they knew where we would find the magic! Thanks again Craig and Megan! We prepared ourselves with food and dry gear and left of.
After 30 minutes we found the very weird and random landmark besides the road. If we didn't know, we indeed would have just drove by. Exactly at that point we found a steep small road down. At the parking area we saw a few campers and cars, so (unfortunately) we're not alone. But we also saw a wide area with many baths! Literally baths made out of granite rocks. Story is that these are created for/by the Roman armies when they rested during their long journeys.
This time we we're really well prepared for a swim. So we took our towels, bottle of wine and plastic cups and flashlight (it was already late in the afternoon) to find ourselves a nice spot for the evening.
I can tell you that this location is like a fairytale. I can tell you how amazing it is and how small you can feel in such a moment. But words won't describe this experience. We were drinking sparkling wine under the stars, while bathing in natural warm water and watching the steam blurring our view on the lake. I really can't tell you how relaxing this was and how rich I felt in that moment.
We just didn't want to leave this place. And by the time we finally got out of the water, it was already past midnight. People were still in the water and, as the locals told us, would stay there till they fall a sleep.
Funny thing is that we spoke with a few of them locals and they asked us not to tell anyone about the location, because it's a small spot and not suited for many campers. Keep the secret alive. Tourism would kill this little natures wonder. We promised not to tell, so I won't tell you where it is either. Sorry! But by my description up here you can almost figure it all out by yourself. And I do have to say that the search for this spot, our journey and experiences before getting there, made the location more worth it finding. So if you want the same experience as me, do it in the same way as I did. But do rent a camper / van / motorhome cause you're gonna want to spend a night under the stars while bathing in a Roman hot spring! Happy camping!
7. REST OF OUR ROAD TRIP
Still not tired of reading this all? From here our journey brought us to Cova, Guimarães, Braga, Ponte de Lima and Viana do Castelo. You can read about it here!
Planning your own roadtrip in Portugal? Don't forget to bring this Lonely Planet Travel Guide with you!