2017 was a year full of travels and discovery: I’ve explored the Irish mountains and cliffs, learnt about almost unexplored islands in Galicia (Spain), got lost through the Japanese Alps, went on a trip with my niece for the first time, heard of mystical places in Burgos (Spain again) and followed the steps of Ulysses at enigmatic Tunisia…
The end of the year couldn’t be less spectacular. A couple of weeks ago I ventured through the “Magical Mountains” of Portugal, between rivers Douro and Vouga, so close to Porto and Aveiro but with a completely different landscape. ¿Our goal? DIscover one of the lesser known secrets of Portugal.
I’ve come back wanting more, which is guarantee enough that the destination has a lot to see and live. So, while I get my next escapes through Portugal ready, here you have… the 12 best kept secrets of the magical mountains (of the 12 top spots near Porto for nature and culture lovers):
1.-The highest waterfall of Portugal
The highest waterfall in continental Portugal is called Frecha da MIzarela and is over 60 meters high. Located at the fault system of Arouca Geopark (natural heritage by Unesco), was the first waterfall we saw on this trip and, although almost at night and after the summer drought, the fall and the sound of water falling is truly impressive.
At day, they say you can see falcons, eagles and owls, but we couldn’t see any (things of the time and cold, I guess). But we did see a herd of sheep crossing above the road, and the shepherd “bleating”, trying to get their attention over our cameras.
The pictures above are from one of the viewpoints of the waterfall and from the valley across, next to the “Pedras Parideiras” visitor centre.
2.-The”Pedras Parideiras” or stones that give birth to stones
If you’ve been following me on Instagram through this trips, you sure got intrigued by the “stones that give birth to stones”. Not a joke! At the Arouca Geopark there is a singular phenomenon that only happens here: nodular granite. The granite rocks of the area release pieces of black mica (mineral) of rounded shape, just as if they were being born from the grey mother stone.
Here you can see two pics of these black mica stones forming which haven’t fallen yet but will end up releasing because of the cold and heat effect and the erosive agents of weather. One is from inside the Visitors centre, because this weird phenomenon happens even when the rocks are inside houses.
This is probably one of the most impressive things you will find at the Geopark, but not the only one: from the biggest trilobites in the world to fossils, waterfalls, unique plants, etc.
Plus, my recommendation for you is to add a visit to the Visitor’s Center – Casa das Pedras Parideiras at Castanheira village, where you will see the mica stones released (you can’t take them home, they are cultural heritage) and they will explain how this works and why. Just because you won’t see the rocks falling down again and again… (it’d be a bit scary, I must add.)
3.- Passadiços do Paiva
If you have been browsing through Instagram stories this summer, you sure have seen the Paiva walkways and the “Cascata das Aguieiras” waterfall. The “passadiços”, some wooden structures that opened in 2015 and go along by the river Paiva (one of the less polluted in all Europe and famous among white water rafting addicts) are about 8 kilometers long and take you down (about 500 meters) to the river beaches.
When we got there it was cloudy and we couldn’t see a thing for a while. Then, when the clouds disappeared, we got a chance to see the river and the waterfall. Im-pre-ssive
By the way, the top of this post is from the passageways too. You will need to book online to access this area, or contact the Arouca tourist office. Ticket price is 1€, free for kids up to 12 years old.
4.- Gralheira village (Aldeia de Pai Natal)
Portugal lovers, we are a few over here, won’t be surprised when I tell you that Santa Village is located here, at Gralheira village. A must stop during Christmas season for all of you that travel with kids (my niece is too small now) and a very interesting spot for everybody else all-year-round.
The village of Gralheira (aka Aldeia de Pai Natal) is one of the highest towns in the country and one of the traditional villages of the Montemuro mountain range, with that look of stone walls and some thatched roofs. During Christmas times, the neighbours of the village transform it on a mini themed park where kids find story tellers, characters from their favorite fairy tales and movies (from the three piglets to Pirates of the Caribbean) and activities all around. Oh, and Santa, of course.
This recommendation might be a bit late for this year, but for Christmas 2018, check out their Facebook page, they post everything there.
5.- Eiras da Laje at Bustelo
From traditional village to traditional village, but now at Bestança river valley, you must check Bustelo town. Famous for its “Eira” (threshing floor). But, why? Well, this one was not “built”. The floor is a big granite stone surrounded by the traditional “palheiros” (haystacks) of Bestança valley and the traditional Portuguese “canastros” (a typical construction used to keep crops, similar to Spanish hórreos).
Well, and because of the views of the mountain range and the sunsets.
6.- Fragas of Penavilheira
Going back to the waterfall landscapes, not far from the spot above and still at Bestança valley, you will find the traditional forest of Penavilheira. This “fragas” grow around another geological phenomenon called knickpoints, that create a series of waterfalls with old watermills and channels that take the water to the surrounding cropfields.
The walk through fragas de Penavillheira is dramatically leafy and, although the ground was a bit slippery here and there, it was worth walking to reach the waterfall.
Here you have a vídeo on Instagram where you can see another spot of the river. Plus, we also visited the Visitor’s Centre of the Bestança Valley, where kids (and adults) can see how the valley changes throughout the year. Plus, it has some great views from the roof top.
7. Sunrise at Porto Antigo
Following the way of Bestança river towards Douro river, you find the “bay” of Porto Antigo. An old stop for ships that used to transport the wine of Porto towards Vila Nova de Gaia, now it is a great spot to enjoy the beautiful landscape of the Douro river and… why not? wake up next to cormorant birds and grey herons (there is a hotel with the same name on an old mansion house with its own harbour and all the comfort of a 4star hotel.)
They are not the only species of fauna and flora that you will find here, just saying.
8.- Vinhos verdes and “socalcos” with a view to Douro
The “socalcos” are those terraced crop fields that you can find at places like Peru, Vietnam, Ribeira Sacra or Douro river. They are easy to find at the Montahas Magicas (Magical Mountains), but they are best spotted at Douro.
They are a great excuse to test the local wines, produced at these terraces and known worldwide #justsaying
9. The island of loves (Ilha dos Amores)
Ilha dos Amores has its own story of forbidden love (something you could expect of a place with the name of island of loves) and some old building remains, including an old church from XV century. Although the most interesting thing over here is probably the short trip by boat to the island, which allows you to see the Douro valley from the water.
The Island was not an Island until 1985 when the Crestuma-Lever dam raised the water level and, maybe, is not a true “must-visit” given all the other spots on this list, but it does make an interesting visit for anyone who enjoys free camping by the river (camping is free at the island, no services provided.)
10. The fresh market of Castelo de Paiva
It’d be a crime to go to Ilha dos Amores and ignore the artisan fresh market of Castelo de Paiva. This small portuguese city hosts once a month a market where local producers sell traditional and regional products. These producers can join free, just as long as they are located at the Aveiro region.
This takes place every last sunday of the month at Largo do Conde, the main square of the village, surrounded by the most important buildings in town, such as the old jail (now Tourism office and regional products shop), the town hall, the Igreja Matriz church and Cruzeiro da Independencia.
11. The petroglyphs of Trebilhadouro
Trebilhadouro is another cute traditional portuguese village, now at Serra da Freita, at the Vale de Cambra area. It is one of the “Aldeias de Portugal”, a project that is trying to recover traditional portuguese villages through rural and “traditions” tourism. But, although it is a joy to walk around this village, we didn’t come here just to walk (a couple of hiking routes going through), but to see the petroglyphs.
The petroglyphs of Trebilhadouro are part of the Atlantic Rock Art and date back to the neo-Chalcolithic age (oh, the things we learn by traveling…) and the Bronze age. They are only 1 kilometre away from the houses and show different details like spirals, lines and weapons. Of course, nobody knows what they mean, but they prove that this place has been inhabited from long, long ago.
12.- The Portuguese gastronomy of the high mountains
And at last, but not least… you cannot skip the food of this region (portuguese rice and fish you already tried at Porto and Aveiro… Here we enjoyed testing this and that and all we found, but we won’t forget a surprising “cozido” cooked inside bread we ate at Mira Freita restaurant, at Felgueira town.
Of course, Arouca’s meat grilled we tried at Parlamento in Arouca. And stewed traditional style at Castelo de Paiva’s Casa Amelia, where we also had octopus (we didn’t expect octopus here but was a great choice too.)
We also had room for convent sweets, including sweet chestnuts (made with egg yolks, almonds and sugar) that we tried at Arouca. And the “real” chestnuts we tried at Gralheira because it was cold and we needed something warm.
Or the “best pao de ló from the Universe” (fact hasn’t been cross-checked) that we enjoyed with great views, also at Casa Amelia.
Where to sleep in Montanhas Magicas
For this trip we’ve stayed at Quinta de Novais in Arouca, a restored traditional house with views over a small river and swimming pool (for summer) and at Douro Hotel Porto Antigo, a modern hotel at Douro water level with amazing views of the Douro valley.
More info about the Montanhas Mágicas of Portugal:
The “magical mountains” are located at Center-North of Portugal, less than an hour away from Porto and Aveiro. It is an extense territory that includes the mountain ranges of Freita, Arada, Arestal and Montemuro, which includes 4 Red Natura 2000 places and one Unesco Geopark (Arouca Geopark.)
Inside Montanhas Magicas, the route through Water and Stone, which is the one we followed, includes up to 114 must-see spots (impossible see them all in just a weekend), so you have a lot more to do here, with and without kids. But you will need a car to move around from one place to the other (pro: you can stop at more places and there are some breathtaking ones.) Here you can find a small map with all the spots above 😉
This article has an origin on an invite from the Adrimag, Porto e Norte and Montanhas Magicas teams to discover the area of Arouca, Castelo de Paiva, Cinfães and Vale de Cambra. As always, you will find here my real experience and honest opinion about the trips I do and the services I try around the world. All comments and questions welcome! 😉