It feels good to finally be back out on the trails again. During the many months of Covid lockdown, two of the things that I missed the most were hiking and taking long motorcycle rides. When the restrictions were lifted in early May, I was contending with chronic knee injuries, that prevented me from resuming hiking activities. My knee reacted well to last week’s 8km jaunt, so I jumped back in with a bang on Saturday, to combine a few hours of riding with six hours of solo hiking.
My starting point for the hike was the small village of Fiães do Rio, located in the Barrosa region, close to the edge of the Peneda-Gerês National Park, in the northernmost section of Portugal. In 2018, the Barrosa region was classified as a United Nations World Agricultural Heritage site. Getting there necessitated a ride of almost two hours from our new home in Gaia. The segment of the ride to Braga was on the Auto Expressway (motorway), but after that, the N103 provided a more interesting ride, until I crossed the dam at Venda Nova and enjoyed some beautiful mountain views as I rode the winding road to the village.
With my bike parked alongside the road in the village, I grabbed my walking poles, donned my backpack, and set off on the hike, following a trail using the Wikiloc app. The app indicated a completion time of 8-9 hours and a distance of over 25km, so I was ready for a long slog. The weather was dry and sunny, with a forecast high of 21C (70F).
The village of Fiães do Rio has a population of about 76 persons. Its most notable occupant was Bento Gonçalves, a communist activist and revolutionary who became the leader of the Portuguese Communist Party. Born in the village in 1907, he died in 1942, whilst imprisoned in a concentration camp in Cape Verde. There is a monument to Gonçalves at the starting point of the hike.
Initially, the route follows a side road through the village and passes the church, with its neat little cemetery (which currently appears to be in the process of enlargement).
Beyond the church, the route leaves the cobbled road and follows an old trail made with boulders. It then crosses the Cávado River, via a bridge that has recently had a new wooden floor installed.
The bridge over the Cávado River is at the lowest elevation of the route (819 metres) and signals the start of the steepest climb of the hike. That climb follows narrow trails with sweeping views over meadows to the nearby mountains. As the climb levels off for a while, the route reaches the village of Paredes, with its own 18th century church and cemetery, as well as a lovely group of old watermills with cascading water passing from one to the other. The route takes a short circuit around the village to see each of these mills, before continuing on. There is also a long, low stone building with a thatched roof, located in a field to the right-side of the road. The building is now an eco-museum that displays its heritage, from the days when it harnessed the power of water to operate a saw, an electricity generator and a mill.
Beyond Paredes, the route resumes its climb until it reaches the highest elevation of the hike (1,072 metres). I reached that highest point in 1 hour and 25 minutes. Whilst on the climb, the route follows dirt trails through wooded areas with oak trees and some open countryside. On the descent, it passes by a water tank that feeds a levada where, as I passed, several frogs jumped from the surrounding grass into the tank. Cattle were grazing inside a stone-walled enclosure, with wind turbines visible on the hills above. There was an abundance of wildflowers, with one particular meadow standing out due to the proliferation of yellow flowers.
The dirt trail gave way to another cobbled road, signalling my arrival in the village of Covelães. One central feature of the village is a covered concrete communal laundry area with a telephone and a mailbox. Beyond that is the village Church of Our Lady of Assumption.
Continuing on, the trail leads through a nice shaded area of oak trees and reaches a point where it crosses the Rio Mau. Whilst it is a small river, some caution is required. There are rocks in place to use as stepping stones, but they are slippery and spaced quite widely apart, requiring either a leap of faith or more careful placement of feet and poles. I opted for the latter!
On my approach to the fourth village – Travassos do Rio – I found myself sharing the route with a trail-running race. Alongside the village church, a refreshment tent had been erected for the runners, who were passing by in ones and twos, with some of them reduced to a walking pace.
A notable feature in Travassos do Rio is a large stone bell-tower called Torre do Boi (Bull Tower), that was erected (about 1933) from a prize earned by a champion bull from the village. The tower includes a bas-relief image of a bull’s head. Another feature of the village is a sundial, mounted on a cross at the top of a stone pillar, alongside the communal laundry tank.
Not long after leaving Travassos do Rio, the terrain became more open, with less shade offered by trees. The open views revealed the town of Montalegre, with its castle, in the distance. Continuing on, I reached another small village – Frades. Again, the village had a small church, with a clock and bell-tower.
Moving on, through more open countryside, the trail crossed a modern bridge over the Cávado River, where a couple of men were fishing. Down to the right of the modern bridge was a lovely old single arch stone bridge, that is thought to have Roman origins.
By this point in the hike, there were no shade trees, but the lack of trees meant that I could enjoy panoramic views, including the mountains of the national park. The trail skirted the Cávado Dam reservoir, crossed the Galegos Bridge and brought me to the edge of the scenic reservoir. At this point, I was about 18.8km into the hike.
Upon leaving the reservoir, I commenced the final ascent of the route. Whilst moving along the grassy trail, I was treated to a variety of birdsongs, as you can hear in the video clip below.
Towards the end of the climb is Vilaça, the final village of the route. Ahead of me, a local farmer was walking his cows through the village, accompanied by the ringing of their bells.
The top of the final ascent has an elevation of about 1,001 metres, and is about 20.7km into the hike. I reached this point after 4 hours and 55 minutes. The remaining 5.5km would be mostly downhill.
On the descent, I passed fields containing sheep, a donkey, and these cows with their melodic bells.
In places, the final leg of the route encountered narrower trails. In one section, it was almost totally overgrown by bushes that I had to push my way past, hardly able to see the actual trail. But there were still segments that afforded beautiful views over the Peneda-Gerês National Park.
I had carried 2 litres of water with me in my backpack. With 3km left to go, that water ran out. I had passed several water fountains in villages along the way, but hadn’t topped up my water reservoir. The fountains were not marked to certify that the water was drinkable, but I saw that the trail runners were being supplied with water that had been collected from those village fountains, so I assume that it is safe. I had additional water in the trunk of my bike, so I was able to hydrate again as soon as I ended the hike.
I completed the 26.18km course in 6 hours 14 minutes, having maintained a good steady pace throughout. For those with a slower pace, it could easily take 8-9 hours. It was the longest hike (by distance) that I have done so far, but it was not the toughest. The most difficult hike was the ‘Porta do Mezio to Cabeço dos Bicos’ route, that I did on Christmas Eve 2020. Whilst a shorter distance (22.09km), it involved steeper climbs and took me 6 hours 53 minutes to complete.
I enjoyed this latest hike. It was great to get back out in nature, to enjoy the scenery and to visit the various villages along the way. The most challenging aspect of the route is the distance, as the trails themselves are generally easy to manage, with the exception being the slippery rocks at the river crossing. I’m pleased to say that my injured knee did not suffer any set-back as a result of the long hike, so I’m looking forward to the next one.
After a brief rest, some water and some trail mix, I was back on the Goldwing to enjoy the ride back home. The amazing views continued as I made my way back to the Venda Nova Dam. Whilst the forecast had suggested a high of 21C, my bike’s thermometer revealed a high of 26C around 5.00pm.
Hopefully, I’ll be back out on the trails soon.