Hike to the Brandas of the Serra da Peneda

My last few hikes have been with my grandson, Ethan, so they have necessarily been of shorter distances and without high elevation changes. So, on Sunday, I headed out to the Peneda Gerês National Park for a challenging solo hike that would test me. There were times along the way that I cursed the trail – or more specifically, the lack of one!

The route that I followed was published on the Wikiloc site, by João Marques Fernandes. Whilst based on the PR10 AVV hiking trail, the route goes cross-country in several places, where it does not follow any discernible tracks or trails. It was therefore essential to follow the route using the GPS track in the Wikiloc app. Without it I would have been hopelessly lost. 

The route starts out in the small mountain village of Porta Cova and climbs up the slopes of the Serra da Peneda, connecting with many of the brandas that exist in the area. For the traditional pastoral existence in the region, brandas were temporary housing structures and enclosures that allowed farmers to move up into the mountain during the warmer months, to be with their herds and flocks as they grazed on the mountain. Whilst some of the brandas are now abandoned, others are still in use, maintaining this pastoral tradition.

I rode my bike north, for about 90 minutes, to reach the starting point in Porta Cova, a short distance beyond the village of Sistelo. 

Glorious landscapes abound in the area surrounding Porta Cova, with the agricultural terraces that have been developed over the generations. The hike heads down through the village, passing a grouping of stone granaries and information boards, before heading up a steep stone footpath. The views from the footpath are outstanding.

After the steep climb up the stone footpath, the route passes an old stone levada, with water cascading from it. Then the footpath reaches the first of several brandas. This first one is the abandoned Crastibô Branda, which once provided shelter for people and animals. The old stonework on several of the structures is now covered in vibrant green moss.

The stone footpath continues uphill, with trees providing welcome shade, until it reaches the Branda da Lapinheira, a smallholding that is still in use. There is a gate at the entrance to the branda, but I was able to squeeze through it whilst still wearing my backpack. There is spring water flowing through a pipe, for those who need to refill their drink bottles.

A short distance beyond the branda is an open area, that provides a sweeping view of the landscape below.

The trail continues uphill until it reaches a small river – the Rio de Porta Cova. In the summer, there isn’t a high water flow, so it was easy to cross the river using a series of moss-covered rocks. After crossing the river, a narrow dirt trail rises steeply from the bank, until it reaches another open area that provides more views. From that point, the clear trail disappears, so it becomes necessary to follow the app, or to head towards the mariolas (small piles of rocks) that have been strategically placed on boulders as traditional route markers. Off to the left is a large corral that is enclosed by dry stone walls.

Beyond the corral, the terrain flattens out at a grassy meadow, alongside the Branda Porta Cova. This marks the top of the first large hill of the route (about 1,035 metres elevation). It took me 1 hour and 38 minutes to reach this point. Moving on, the trail becomes difficult to discern, as it moves through a heavy growth of ferns, alongside a stone wall, until it reaches a small bridge, over an equally small river. 

Whilst still heading downhill, the route reaches another group of abandoned stone buildings, this time the Branda das Gémeas. Several of these structures feature rudimentary domed roofs, constructed by piling stones on top.

From the Branda das Gémeas, the route briefly retraces its steps and then turns off along a narrow path between two stone walls. Unfortunately, someone has taken the time to totally block the entrance to the footpath with tree branches. As a result, I had to climb over a couple of the stone walls to get to the footpath.  A short distance beyond the blockage, I came across a farmer and his wife, tending to their fields adjacent to the path. I assume that he was responsible for the blockage. He seemed surprised to see me walking along the path but pleasantly returned my greeting. The opposite end of the path was also blocked by large branches, but it was easy enough to clamber over the adjoining boulder.

Leaving the blocked section of footpath behind, the route continues downhill on a wide, stone footpath that enjoys panoramic views over the surrounding countryside. There was a group of wild Garrano horses on a hillside next to the footpath, so I detoured up the hill slightly to try to get a bit closer to them, to take some photos. Several cows were also scattered across the hillside. The footpath passes by some old stone shepherd’s shelters and then reaches a small stone bridge over a small river. The stone footpath continues for a short distance beyond the bridge, before the route turns back uphill.

A metal gate marks the turning point, where the route leaves the well defined stone footpath and once again heads uphill. Once through the gate, the route heads up a grassy track and over another metal gate. The track then passes through a wooded area of oak trees where there is a small drinking fountain. This is the last opportunity to obtain water before tackling the largest climb of the route. I still had a litre of water left in the bladder reservoir in my backpack, but I filled up a 0.8 litre bottle as a back-up. The route continues upwards through a stand of pine trees. Beyond the pine trees, the trail becomes less defined. Then, it takes a left turn and goes straight up, completely cross-country. From this point, there is no physical trail to follow, just the GPS route on the app, walking through ground cover of fern and gorse. It was a case of taking a general bearing from the app and then walking uphill, before stopping to check the app periodically, to ensure I was heading in the right direction. After slogging through the ferns for a while, the route reaches an elevation where the ferns disappear and the ground is more rocky, interspersed with gorse. I thought I had reached the top when I found a group of cows sitting around, but then I saw that the hill continued higher, with a pile of rocks (mariola) giving me a focal point to head towards. Beyond that mariola was yet another, marking yet further to climb. But I was rewarded for my hard work when I discovered another group of wild horses at the top of the mountain. And this group allowed me to get a little closer, before they walked off into the bushes. I had reached the highest elevation of the hike (1,202 metres) and it had taken me 4 hours and 8 minutes to get there.

A short distance after leaving the peak and beginning my long descent, I came across the carcass of a Garrano foal. It had been mostly cleaned out by predators and/or scavengers. There is a likelihood that the foal fell victim to Iberian Wolves, as they are known to predate on the Garranos.

I had hoped that I would be able to maintain a reasonable pace on the downhill segment of the route, but that was not the case. The route continued cross-country, with the absence of any visible track or trail. For this section, I had to keep my phone in my hand, with the app always open, so that I could continually ensure that I was staying on the route. This slowed down my progress. Progress was slowed even further as the route approached the Branda do Arieiro, as the GPS trail had me trying to pick a winding route downhill, through thick ground cover, passing stone shelters and structures along the way. Thankfully, by the time I had descended to the Branda de Lamelas (around 935 metres elevation), the route rejoined an actual path that I could comfortably follow. 

Continuing downhill, the route passed another branda, with a loose grouping of stone structures. Then the joy of being on a marked footpath ended. The route once again led through a section of dense ground cover of ferns and gorse, where there was a barely definable narrow trail. Then, suddenly, the trail seemed to disappear. The GPS track implied that I was on-route, but trees were blocking my way. I had to bushwhack my way through until I could reunite with an actual trail, before reaching another small stone bridge over a small river. In the process, my arms were slashed by blackberry brambles!

After crossing the small river, I was relieved to find that the route followed an actual footpath for the rest of the hike. When I reached the Branda de Rio Cova (at 799 metres elevation) I got my closest encounter with the Garrano horses. A small group of them, including a foal, were standing in the branda, and one of them walked close to me as it passed by on the footpath (video clip below).

Wild Garrano horse

The route passed through a wooded area and then followed a cobbled road, as it descended towards the end of the hike. After the cobbled road was a stone footpath, that led to the village of Padrao and then back to Porta Cova. Along the way, there were gorgeous views of the villages and terraces. A truly beautiful way to end what had been a challenging hike.

The hike covered a total distance of 20.89km with an elevation gain of 1,108 metres. It took me 7 hours and 20 minutes to complete, which is testament to the difficult nature of some sections of this route (I have covered similar distances previously in 5 hours). 

This is a difficult and challenging route and cannot be achieved without following the route using the Wikiloc app. A suitable powerbank will be required to maintain the phone battery for the duration of the hike. Good walking boots and poles are highly recommended.

A GPS track for this route can be located at the Wikiloc site using this link

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