When we go out for rides, I usually try to visit historical locations or places with great scenery. Sometimes, we manage to include both. That was the case with our latest ride to Castro Laboreiro, in the Peneda-Geres National Park, located in the north-west corner of Portugal, close to the Spanish border.
In planning the ride, my primary focus was the six old stone bridges that can be found near the village. The bonus was a historic castle that sits at the top of a steep rocky ridge, overlooking the village. Marco and Patricia joined us for what turned out to be a very enjoyable Sunday outing.
We rode north from Porto, towards Valenca, and then turned east on the N101, shadowing the Minho River and the Spanish border. We then joined the N202 towards Castro Laboreiro, entering the Geres National Park along the way. The roads were a pleasure to ride with beautiful scenery on both sides.
Ponte de Assureira (aka São Brás Bridge)
As its name suggests, the Ponte de Assureira (Assureira Bridge), is located in the village of Assureira, a short distance south of Castro Laboreiro on the M1160. It is visible from the roadway, alongside the stone-built São Brás Chapel and an old stone watermill.
The bridge was built in the medieval period on the site of an older Roman bridge. Material from the Roman bridge was re-used to build it. It has a single, circular arch and spans the narrow, slow running Barreira stream. The top of the bridge is made using uneven large slabs and there are stone guards on each side.
The adjacent mill looks to be an old construction, made of large slabs of granite that are now covered in moss. There are a couple of old mill stones inside the structure. Sadly, the presence of multiple piles of paper indicate that it is used frequently as a toilet.
Ponte da Cava da Velha (aka Ponte Nova)
The Ponte da Cava da Velha is located about 150-200 metres from the Ponte de Assureira. You can park your vehicle in one spot and walk to both bridges.
Ponte da Cava da Velha is a more impressive bridge, being larger and featuring two arches of different sizes, crossing the Laboreiro River. The top of the bridge features large, uneven stone slabs with stone guards on either side. The bridge is surrounded by nature and there is a marked hiking trail that crosses it.
A sign located next to the bridge states that it is not a medieval construction but reveals formal and technical characteristics of that era. However, an official site of the Portuguese department of culture identifies it is a Roman bridge that was extended and upgraded during the 12th – 13th centuries. The existence of two arches of different sizes is attributed to this later work. The bridge has been classified as a national monument since 1986.
Ponte de Dorna
Continue south on the M1160 for a short distance and you’ll find the Ponte de Dorna on the left side of the road, just before reaching the village of Dorna. There is a newer concrete bridge that is visible from the road. The old bridge is visible from the newer bridge.
This low, single arch bridge crosses the Laboreiro River and presents an idyllic scene, as it is reflected in the still water. The top of the bridge has uneven stone slabs of varying sizes and there are no guards on either side.
There is also some confusion over the origins and age of this bridge. Whilst is has been referred to as having Roman origins, this Department of Culture website reports that the bridge did not exist in the parish records of 1758. It is estimated that the bridge was constructed in the 19th century.
After visiting the first three bridges, we returned to the village of Castro Laboreiro for lunch. Many others had the same idea, so the village’s restaurants were busy. We managed to get an outdoor table at the Hotel Miracastro Restaurante, where we enjoyed a tasty lunch of oven roasted cabrito (young goat) and bacalhau (codfish).
One of the village’s claims to fame is the Castro Laboreiro dog, an ancient livestock herding breed that is also known as the Portuguese Cattle Dog. Unfortunately, we didn’t get to see any during our visit.
Castro Laboreiro Castle
After lunch, I wanted to visit the local castle but the rest of the group were not too keen on the idea. The castle sits at an altitude of 1,033 metres, at the top of the steep and rocky Monte Castro Laboreiro. I confess that it does look quite daunting when looking up to the top of the mount from the village. With the others preferring to rest in the village, I pushed on up the hill alone.
The route starts out as a steep dirt trail but, as it gets higher, it incorporates several sections of steps that have been cut into the rock, with a handrail for assistance. It is a steep hike and not for the weak of heart, but there are lovely views along the way. The walls of the castle do not come into view until you almost reach the summit. As I made my way up the steep incline, I imagined what it might have been like for a soldier in an attacking army, having to trudge his way to the top, only to be attacked once he got there.
Having reached the castle, there was a single, narrow door to gain access, after passing between two large rocks – presumably a choke-point to thwart would-be attackers. After passing through the door, I found myself in the first, and smallest, of two enclosed areas. This area formerly included a keep and a water cistern and was the most protected part of the castle. The larger, adjacent area would have been used to hold the local cattle that would be herded into the castle in times of a pending attack. Whilst most of the original castle is missing, the ruins of the defensive walls still remain. What remains is sufficient to be able to imagine it as a formidable defensive structure, located at the top of such a steep and rocky location.
The castle of Castro Laboreiro is said to be one of the most emblematic national military monuments, particularly due to its geographical location to the Galician highlands, and its importance to the Portuguese military in defending against the Spanish. Excavations at the site found artefacts from the High Middle Ages (1000 – 1250AD). Elements of the existing castle are believed to date back to the 12th century or earlier [source], whilst a sign outside the entrance door claims the 13th century. A contemporary description in the 16th century showed that the castle had five quadrangular towers, including the keep. It would have been an impressive sight, towering over the village below.
Today, it is classified as a national monument and gives an interesting insight into Portugal’s history, as well as a gorgeous view over the surrounding countryside.
Ponte Velha de Castro Laboreiro
Back on the bikes, we headed north out of the village on the M1160. Just beyond the village, the road bends as it crosses the river. That is where the Ponte Velha (Old Bridge) is located, within view from the road.
At this location, there is a bit of a gorge, where the Laboreiro River has cut into the rock over the ages. The old bridge spans a narrow section of the gorge with the river below. It is a single arch granite stone bridge with no guards on the top. It isn’t as impressive or scenic as some of the others, but is certainly worth a visit.
At some point downstream from the bridge is a waterfall (cascata) as well as some watermills. We didn’t follow the trail far enough to see them. The bridge is understood to have been built to serve the watermills, with construction estimated to have occurred in the 18th century.
Ponte de Varziela
Located at the edge of the village of Varziela, this bridge was the farthest from the road, compared to the other bridges that we visited. There is a road that passes through part of the village, but it is a narrow road of cobbled stones with a lot of loose dirt. A car could traverse it but we opted not to take the Goldwings on it. Instead, we parked on the roadside (M1160) next to the village and walked to the bridge.
Varziela was an interesting village to walk through, as it contains many traditional buildings made from granite blocks. Many of them are used to hold livestock but some are also residences.
Upon our initial approach, the bridge seemed difficult to photograph, except from on top. However, there is a narrow track down to a watermill ruin, alongside the bridge. By walking behind the mill, access is possible to some large boulders that act like stepping stones in the river. At least this is the case in the dry season of early September – perhaps not in the winter when the river is running higher. However, I was able to step onto the river boulders to get a side view of the bridge. It was a lovely, peaceful moment as I stood on the rocks with the river burbling past me. The trees and vegetation partially obstruct the view of the bridge’s structure, but it is certainly worth the effort to enjoy the view.
There are strong indications that this bridge dates back to Roman times, when it was crossed by a Roman road that connected Portela do Homem to Castro Laboreiro. A nearby gold mine is also understood to have been operated by the Romans. The bridge may have been enhanced between the 12th and14th centuries. [source]
Ponte das Cainheiras
The sixth and final bridge for the day turned out to be the least attractive and most difficult to photograph – but it could be one of the oldest. The bridge is located to the north of the village of Cainheiras, at the point of a bend on the M1159 road. The view is largely obstructed by trees and foliage, but it is partially visible from the roadside.
The old stone bridge has two arches, although one of them was almost completely obstructed by foliage. The top is paved with uneven smooth rocks and there are side guards.
It is said to have been built during the Roman Empire, probably between the 1st and 2nd century. It was on the Roman route that connected Castro Laboreiro and Porto de Cavaleiros [source]. Another source suggests that it was built in the Middle Ages, but concedes that it is possible that it was reconstructed or transformed using apparatus from a Roman bridge that already existed at the site. Either way, it is a shame that it is being obscured by foliage.
Having concluded our visits to the six bridges, we began our journey towards home. Our home-bound route took us through Spain so that we could enter another section of the Peneda-Geres Park.
Whilst we were having lunch in Castro Laboreiro, we had seen smoke passing overhead from a wildfire. I’d also seen distant smoke whilst visiting the castle. As we rode through Spain, the location of the fire became more apparent. Part of a mountain in the national park was on fire!
As we began the climb up the OR-312, on the Spanish side of the Geres Park, we could clearly see the fire that was emanating a lot of smoke. Aircraft were flying over the fire to drop loads of water and people were sitting on chairs at the roadside, watching the spectacle.
As we reached the top of the hill, and the Spain-Portugal border, there was a group of tired-looking firefighters who were taking a rest at the side of the road.
We rode down the other side of the mountain and stopped for refreshments next to the Cavado River, where groups of people were enjoying their Sunday.
After our refreshment break, we hopped back on the bikes and rode the rest of the way home. We’d been out on the road for 10.5 hours and had covered a total of 220 miles (354km). Another excellent day out with friends on the Goldwing!