Called the Route of Rivers and Levadas (traditional irrigation channels or aqueducts), this section of the PR1 hiking route is seldom far from water. It was possibly the most beautiful hike that we’ve done in Portugal. It was certainly the most challenging, as there are many steep and technical uphill and downhill segments that had to be negotiated. Several of them have ropes in place, to hold onto for support.
Our intended starting point was the newly renovated Praia Fluvial de Virela, located a little south of the village of Virela. Unfortunately, Google Maps does not know about the new road that directly accesses the river beach location. As a result, the navigation took us to the closest point it was aware of, which turned out to be a rough, narrow road that eventually became a dirt track. Realising that we were some distance away from our intended starting point, Paul parked the car and I used the Wikiloc app so that we could join the trail at the nearest point.
After initially trying one footpath to join the trail, we had to reverse course and try another direction. When we did join the route, it was at a wooden bridge that is some distance along the trail from the intended starting point. But from that location, we were able to follow the trail markings and the app directions.
Once we were on the trail, we were immediately in awe of the natural beauty. The shallow river was flowing through a lovely forested area. So serene! The cameras were out and clicking away every few metres.
After following the river for a while, we came to the first of many segments that required some level of climbing. Sometimes there were wooden steps, sometimes a steep hillside with an assist-rope and other times just a bank or rocks that had to be negotiated. Often, we had to climb up above the river only to descend back down a little further along the trail.
Along the next stretch of the trail, there were a number of ruins of old watermills, with moss growing on the stonework and overgrown with trees. Some of these structures were located above the level of the river and would have been fed water via the network of levadas, in order to operate the mill.
After crossing another wooden bridge, the route deviates for a short loop in order to visit a couple of points of interest. The first is an old Moorish well (Poco dos Mouros) and then a Moorish mine (Mina dos Mouros). There is no indication what the Moors were mining here, but there was tin mining activity in Iberia from the Bronze Age to modern times. The loop in the trail also passed another couple of watermill ruins.
After completing the deviation loop, we continued along the trail, passing an old stone bridge and a small waterfall. The trail became narrower and less defined in places, requiring more caution.
In the next segment, the trail continues to gain in elevation, as it took us up above the river. We had a short stretch of a dirt forestry road before returning to narrow single-track trails, where we tried to dodge the hanging brambles that seemed determined to scratch us. The trail climbs to an interesting rock feature that I have seen referred to as a Moorish cave. But is isn’t a cave. It is a narrow passageway between two large, vertical rocks that have a third smaller rock wedged between them, forming a roof of sorts. After the obligatory photo stop there, we climbed the steps on the other side and emerged onto a paved road, leading into the villages of Vila Cha and Porcelho.
It is chestnut season and, as we walked through the village, there were containers of chestnuts placed out to dry in the sun, along with the laundry. The roadside was brightened by grape vines in their autumn colours. As we approached the highest elevation of the route, the trail wound its way through garden plots and the village picnic area, where we stopped to eat our lunch and rest our legs.
After lunch, we began the downhill stretch of the route, along the outskirts of the village and back to the river, with its rock pools and waterfalls. There were large patches of stinging nettles along some parts of the trail, so I caution against wearing shorts.
After walking along trails with lots of tree cover, we suddenly found ourselves in an opening, standing on a large rock with views over the trees towards the distant mountains.
From the big rock, the trail began a steep descent, back into the forested area with the river and more waterfalls. One particularly steep part had a safety rope and the ladies opted to go down backwards for added safety.
Whilst we were generally going downhill, there were still a few uphills to contend with along the way. But the glorious scenery continued. We were immersed in nature and I was loving it.
As we neared the lowest elevation of the hike, we returned to paved road and passed through the village of Fornelo. It is a small village and we were surprised by how many old derelict buildings there were, with ‘for sale’ signs on some of them.
Leaving Fornelo behind, we continued along the paved road, passing the scenic Vouga Reservoir, with low water levels after the dry summer that we have experienced.
After another brief stretch of dirt trail, we arrived at the bridge next to the Praia Fluvial de Virela. This is at the bottom of the descent and would have been the end of the route, had we found our way here for the starting point. However, as we joined part way along the route, we had farther to go.
As we continued along the trail, we were once again enjoying the beauty of the Gaia River as it flowed gently through the forest. We reached a point where the trail crosses the river, but there is no bridge, just a guide-rope alongside some boulders. We clambered over safely and continued along the trail on the opposite side.
We reached the bridge where we joined the trail. We had successfully completed the route. By the time we had walked back up the adjacent dirt track to the car, we had covered 13.97km. It had taken 6.5 hours since we left the car to start our hike, but we had only been moving for 3 hours and 55 minutes. A lot of time was spent taking photos, admiring the views, eating lunch and pausing at the various obstacles that we had to deal with. We had transitioned from a low elevation of 146 metres to a high of 371 metres.
Prior to this hike, I had never used hiking poles, but I found them to be helpful in the more technical sections of this route. The extra grip provided by hiking boots was also appreciated. The route should only be tackled in dry weather, as the ground and rocks could be treacherous if wet. I give this route a rating of ‘difficult’ due to the many technical sections.
An interactive map and a GPS track of this route can be accessed at Wikiloc, using this link.
However, because we started ‘in the wrong place’, if anyone is considering following this route, I recommend using the GPS track that was provided by João Marques Fernandes at this link. That is the track that begins at the river beach park.