Frosty Christmas Eve in Gerês National Park

The forecast had suggested temperatures around 5C (41F) but, when I reached the highest elevation of my hike, the cold wind was brutal! My fingers were numb – inside my gloves. There was frost in shaded areas and even some ice in shallow puddles. It was the closest I’d get to a White Christmas this year!

On Christmas Eve morning, I set out to hike in the Peneda- Gerês National Park (Parque Nacional da Peneda-Gerês). Leaving home about 8.15am, I encountered some chilling conditions on the bike as I covered the 114km from Porto to the Parque Porta do Mezio, one of the five official entrance gates to the national park. A reasonable morning temperature of 7C when leaving Porto soon dropped to 5C, and even down to 3C (37F) along some stretches. I was very thankful to be wearing my new Gerbing heated gloves!

I wouldn’t normally leave home so early for a hike, but the distance and projected completion time for this route forced my hand. The hiking route was expected to take 8 hours. Arriving at the start point at 9.30am meant that I could be finishing around 5.30pm – and it’s almost dark at that time. I packed a head-lamp in my backpack in case I had to come down off the mountain in the dark!

Parque Porta do Mezio is just inside the boundary of the national park. It includes an Information Centre, a Biodiversity Park, an Interpretive Centre of the Archaeological Area Mezio / Gião, a Rural and Ethnographic Museum, a restaurant, a viewpoint, a fitness park, a picnic park, a pool, children’s spaces, a Bird Watching Observatory and an Adventure Park where you can practice tree climbing, slide and climbing. Lots of options but, even if I had the time, it was closed.

There are ample parking spaces at Porta do Mezio, and some information boards for visitors to the area. Before heading up the mountain, I paid a quick visit to a megalithic dolmen (aka anta) that is located next to the visitors centre.

Within a few minutes of setting off on the hike, I came across the first of several groups of wild Garrano horses. This trio was quite close to the road, but didn’t let me get too close to them.

Here is a short video clip of the Garranos.

The route initially followed a marked hiking trail through a wooded area with a small river running through it. On exiting the wooded area, I came across more wild horses.

The route detours to visit the Mezio Swing (Baloiço do Mezio), a tourist attraction that was only installed in July, 2020. In doing so, the trail passes one of the six Astrospots that have been established within the national park. The park recognises the importance of preserving and recognising dark skies as a valuable resource. These six spots seek to provide high quality star-gazing locations.

After visiting the swing, the route followed a variety of dirt roads until it reached a bridge over the Ázere River. At this point, I mistakenly followed the wrong direction for a while. I wrongly crossed the bridge and continued walking along the dirt road until the app told me that I was following the trail in reverse – this is because the route comes back down this road later on. Having turned around, I walked back to the bridge but the app suggested that I turn right and follow the wooden boardwalks alongside the river, to the Lagoas da Travanca. This was the second mistake, as the app now thought that I was getting close to the end of the route. Realising my error, I returned to the bridge and took the trail to its right-side, heading upstream alongside the river.

A short while after regaining the correct route, I came to the first river crossing. This was a small river, but fairly wide at the crossing point, but there were some strategically placed rocks to enable a crossing. I couldn’t walk over the rocks, but with some care I could scramble over using my hands and feet. This was only a taster of what was to come.

Further along the trail, the route headed down the steep river bank to reach a location where I could cross. I knew about this in advance, from reading the hike description, and expected that it might provide a challenge. Knowing that we have had several weeks of rain that would have swollen the rivers, I came prepared with some plastic trash bags, in the event that the water was too deep to wade across in my hiking boots. As you can see from this video clip, I’m glad that I was prepared.

Getting across the river with dry feet

As it turned out, getting across the river was not the most significant challenge. Getting up the steep river bank on the opposite side was much more demanding. João, who created the route, warned of this in the description. He wrote “the slope on the right bank is extremely pronounced, also presenting very dense vegetation, which requires physical dexterity to overcome. NOT ADVISED TO PEOPLE WITH LITTLE EXPERIENCE.”

The app suggested that I turn right, after crossing the river, to locate the trail up the steep bank. However, as I followed the river, I could not see any type of clearing in the vegetation in the location indicated by the app. I could only see one vague opening amongst the gorse bushes and other vegetation that might possibly lead up the hill, so I began to climb. The higher I went, the more dense the gorse bushes became. It didn’t look passable (without a machete to hack my way through) and the app was telling me that I was off-track. I decided to climb back down to the level of the river and try another location.

Unable to find a suitable option in the area indicated by the app, I moved back along the river bank, to the left of the crossing point. In that area, rather than thick gorse bushes and shrubbery, the terrain comprised large rocks and bracken, suggesting an easier climb up the hill. That proved to be the case. Whilst the hill was just as steep as it was to the right of the crossing point, it was much easier to negotiate, despite the absence of any kind of path or trail. I took comfort from seeing piles of horse droppings. If the wild horses could get down that far, I could surely get up! I made my way up the hill and kept going until I met up with the GPS track on the app, finally getting to some level ground. In the process, a lot of time was spent getting up from the river below. As João indicated, this is a challenge that should not be taken lightly.

Having climbed up out of the river valley, about 25% of the route had been completed. There was still a lot of uphill walking ahead. But, for the next segment at least, there was a defined trail to follow and then a dirt road, with beautiful mountain views. From one of the dirt roads, I could look down and see a group of brandas arranged in the open ground below. There was another group of wild horses grazing around these brandas.

Brandas were summer settlements that were used by the local population for centuries, as a way of managing the climate and its effect on their lifestyles. During the colder months of the year, people lived at lower levels in their village homes, where nowadays they tend to stay all year round. Once the snows melted and the warmer weather arrived, whole villages would take their necessities and livestock up the mountains to their summer settlements, called brandas. From these simple dwellings, they would sow wheat, cultivate corn and allow their livestock to graze freely on fresh grass (source). Nowadays, the remains of the brandas mainly consist of dry-stone walls, often circular, with a very basic shelter.

After passing the brandas, the dirt road continued ahead, but the GPS route veered off-piste to the right and up a steep hill without any defined trails. Initially, this was waterlogged ground, with water flowing over it and into a roadside drain. It was a steep incline that felt like being on a stair-stepper machine. But the climb was about to get steeper as I headed towards the peak of Cabeço dos Bicos. As the climb got steeper, and more strenuous, the terrain became more and more rocky.

I had commenced the hike wearing gloves and my down jacket, but I took them off after 50 minutes, as the walking had warmed me up. However, although walking up this steep incline was strenuous activity, there was a strong wind blowing that was numbing my fingers. I had to stop to put on my gloves. When I reached the peak of Cabeço dos Bicos, I was fully exposed to the strong, freezing wind.

Cabeço dos Bicos is one of the highest points in the Serra do Soajo. It is reported to have an elevation of 1,292 metres, but my Wikiloc app (erroneously) recorded the elevation as 1,388 metres. By comparison, the highest peaks in the Peneda-Gerês National Park are Peneda (1340 m), Soajo (1430 m), Amarelo (1350 m), Gerês (1545 m) and Altar dos Cabrões (1,538 m) [source]. The peak of Cabeço dos Bicos is marked by a small concrete geodetic marker, placed atop a boulder. The wind gusts up there were very strong – enough to move me when I was standing still. The associated wind-chill was brutal and I’m assuming that it brought the temperature below the freezing point. There was frost in shaded areas and ice in small puddles. When I went to remove my backpack, I struggled to release the clasp, as my fingers were numb inside my gloves. Strangely, my upper body did not feel cold, despite only wearing a T-shirt and my Rab Nucleus hoody. But I realised that I needed to raise my core temperature in order to reduce the numbness in my fingers. I put on my down jacket, but it took a while before my fingers warmed up. The peak of Cabeço dos Bicos was not an enjoyable place to be under those conditions. I just wanted to get down from that exposed peak and get some shelter from the biting wind.

As I began my hasty descent from the peak, I stopped briefly to take some photos of a pseudo-stratified block of granite. But it was a case of a few quick snaps and keep walking! But there are no established trails up there. The route was crossing open mountainside so, in order to stay on course, I had to keep my phone open on the app, so that I could carefully follow the GPS track.

The next waypoint on the route was a panoramic viewpoint looking towards Ramsical. When I realised that the route was taking me to another wind-exposed position, I chopped off that short extension and headed towards the next waypoint – Branda de Bicos. This branda consists of some circular stone enclosures and two igloo-like stone shelters. I was still in a somewhat exposed location, so took some quick photos and moved on.

Next up was the Calçada dos Bicos (Bicos sidewalk or pavement). It is amazing to see that someone took the time and effort to build a stone footpath halfway up a mountain. This remarkable feat of rural engineering was conceived centuries ago, to provide a footpath for pilgrims between the western slope of the Serra do Soajo and two pilgrimage sanctuaries: São Bento do Cando and the Nossa Senhora da Peneda Sanctuary [source]. At this point, I was about halfway through the hike and had descended enough from the peak to be out of the punishing cold wind. I took off my gloves but would keep my jacket on for the rest of the hike. I could relax again and enjoy the views. As I headed downhill on the stone footpath, there was a small herd of cattle off to one side, grazing on the mountainside.

I had packed my camera back into its pouch and was continuing down the stone footpath, as I reached a grassy clearing to my left. Suddenly, an animal darted away from me, running ahead of me, on my left. It turned left into the bracken and paused for a moment to look back at me, before running again and disappearing from view. As it ran away from me, I was fairly sure that it was a fox. But when it turned to look back at me, its tall, erect ears caused a little doubt. However, having now looked at online photos of the Iberian Fox, I am sure that is what I saw. It was a fleeting, but special moment in the hike. I did not have time to get a photo of the fox – so I am attaching some photos of an Iberian Fox that I obtained online, for illustrative purposes.

Still buzzing after the fox sighting, I continued down the stone footpath, enjoying views over the surrounding countryside. In the distance was a circular wolf-trap that I would reach a little further into the hike. At the end of the stone footpath, I came across another group of wild horses, as well as some cows and a long-horned bull. The bull didn’t seem too concerned with me taking his photo – but I kept a respectable distance just in case.

Just beyond the horses and cattle was the area of Chã do Brialho and a small, stone shepherd’s shelter. This shelter is reported to be quite modern, having been built in the 20th century.

From there, the route continued downhill on established trails until it reached the circular wolf-trap that I had seen from a distance earlier. On a previous hike, I have visited an old wolf trap that was designed to gradually funnel a wolf between two converging walls, until it was trapped in a pit where the walls came together. But the design of this wolf trap is entirely different. Called a Fojo do Cabrita, it is a circular stone enclosure in which a goat was staked as bait. The wolf would be captured once it entered the stone enclosure. These days, the wild horses are clearly frequenting the enclosure, evidenced by their droppings and hoof-prints.

From the wolf trap, the route followed the PR22 Trilho do Fojo do Cabrita, until it reached the Branda de Bostochão. The trail included a semi-flooded grassy track, a rocky trail and a dirt road. The branda comprised several stone enclosures and some stone shelters.

Moving on from the branda, the trail looped downhill to the final river crossing of the hike, and the bottom of the longest descent. The established trail reaches the river and then does a U-turn on the opposite side. I looked at the river at the obvious crossing point, to decide how I was going to get over. Whilst quite narrow, the river was also quite deep in places, and was flowing quickly. One option was to take the plastic bags out of my backpack and use them to wade across, as I did earlier. Alternately, there were two sizeable rocks, one on each side of the river. They were close enough that I could jump from one side to the other – but the rock that I would land on had water flowing over it at a depth of a couple of centimetres. I had no doubt that I could make the jump, but had no idea how slippery the surface of the landing rock was. I would be risking a slip and fall on the other side if I jumped.

Looking for another option, I walked along the bank, upstream. I found a spot where a large whitish rock was sitting in the centre of the river, with the branches of a nearby tree reaching over it. I was able to hold onto a tree branch for balance and support, whilst stepping up onto the big rock. From the rock, I was able to jump off onto the grassy bank on the opposite side. It was a much safer option and I remained dry.

After crossing the river, the rocky trail went uphill for a while, offering wide mountain views and an overlook of yet another branda. Then the trail turned right, through a wooded area to an abandoned forest guard house.

I was about 75% of the way through the hike as I headed uphill from the old guard house. But after that hill, it was mostly a downhill stretch to the finish. It was mid afternoon, the sun was sinking in the sky and the moon was already visible. This next segment of the route was on a dirt road, making progress easier and quicker. There were more mountain vistas to enjoy and another herd of wild horses. As I headed down the dirt road, I could see the wooden walkways alongside the opposite bank of the Ázere river, where I’d taken the wrong turn a few hours earlier. For the second time in the hike, I crossed the bridge over the Ázere and followed the walkway. Whilst climbing up the wooden steps at the end of the walkway, my leg muscles protested, reminding me that they’d already worked hard throughout the day.

After climbing the steps, I was on a paved road and getting closer to the finish line. A couple of cows were also making good use of the road, as it passed through a wooded area.

The route left the paved road briefly, to follow a dirt track, but then popped back out onto a paved road that led directly to the Porta do Mezio and the end point of the hike. The late afternoon sun was casting long shadows as it neared sunset. I was glad to see my bike there, waiting for me.

The route should have covered 20.8km. However, because of the wrong turns that I took, I ended up walking for 22.09 km and completed the hike in 6 hours 53 minutes. It was about 4.30pm when I finished. By 5.30pm it would be twilight. This route could easily take someone more than eight hours to complete, so anyone who contemplates following it has to be mindful of the available daylight during winter months, when the sunset arrives early. It is important to start early in the day.

I have rated this hike as difficult. Whilst there are some easy sections, walking on paved and dirt roads, there are some other sections that are particularly challenging or risky. With the amount of water flow that existed at the time, none of the river crossings were easy and two of them posed an element of risk. Had I not carried plastic bags with me in anticipation of such a problem, I could not have crossed the Ázere river without getting wet feet. The steep climb up the river bank, after crossing the Ázere, was particularly challenging and should not be taken lightly. Further, the steep climb to the peak of Cabeço dos Bicos was quite strenuous and requires a reasonable level of fitness. The potential for fierce winter winds in exposed areas should not be underestimated and hikers should have warm clothes for such an event. Boots and walking poles are highly recommended due to the terrain that will be encountered. Finally, as this route does not follow marked trails and goes off-piste in some places, it can only be completed with the assistance of the app and its GPS track. It is a long hike, so carrying a powerbank to recharge a phone is a necessity.

A GPS track for this route can be downloaded from the Wikiloc site, using this link

2 Comments

  1. Hi Craig, a challenging and strenuous, but marvellous, hike! As you say, requires experience, judgement, and the right gear given the little-used trails and locality. Noticed the rocks in the river covered with moss and lichen – dangerous in any attempt to use them as footing to cross the river, and not the place to break a leg or ankle! What a wonderful and rare moment to see the Iberian Fox! Great account and photos, thanks Craig.

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