Walking in the Penedo Branco above Vilar do Monte

Saturday, June 20, 2020, 03:28

A view of Vilar do Monte from the hillside above

Come with me to a village at the end of a long, winding road, which climbs ever higher up the mountainside from Ponte de Lima. The first time I went to Vilar do Monte was some 10 to 15 years ago when it looked run down and half empty. Indeed, it probably was since in 2011, the last date I can find for a census, the population numbered only 106 people. Up to 1970, there had been over double that figure but hardship and lack of opportunity had driven the young and adventurous to the cities or overseas.

Today, new red roofs and the occasional posh house with a swimming pool have transformed the appearance of the village. Maybe returnees from abroad have invested, as they so often do, or perhaps some weary city banker or entrepreneur from Porto has bought a hideaway here.

For us, it's where we shall park the car and start a splendid walk. Later we'll return for a glass of good vinho verde or a coffee in the shopcumcafé opposite the church.

To read more of the walk to the roof of the world from the end of the world, click here.

Walking through head high broom in flower

On our walk through the deciduous woods in one of my previous blogs, (http://www.me-n-youinportugal.com/index.php?p=1_5&nid=101) I said that the broom had bloomed early and that by May most of it was gone. However, higher up the mountain, where it is cooler, May saw the broom still in full flower so come with me through a sea of gold, which towers above our head, as we begin our ascent of the Penedo Branco. (The start of the walk is all uphill and, on a fine day such as this one, much of it in is full sun so a hat and a bottle of water are very seriously advised.)

The view over the Serra d'Arga ti Viana and Praia de Âncora

As we emerge from the broom on to a more open hillside we will come across tall white spikes of flowers edging our route and views over the Serra d'Arga to the blue line of the ocean - sadly not clearly visible in this photo - at Viana do Castelo and Praia de Âncora some 20 odd kilometres away.


The track continues upwards through tumbled granite boulders, green sward speckled with dark centred yellow flowers and more broom till we reach a wide plateau at the top of the mountain. It has been a relentless but satisfying climb, though you are almost certainly all feeling hot and bothered now. Well, you're in luck! At the top there's a limpid brook in a shaded dell. If we'd brought a picnic, this would have been the perfect place for it. Instead, let's imagine sitting on a boulder, opening our bottles and taking a good long draught of cool water. In fact, the stream here is so clear that you could probably drink from it instead but.... let's play safe.

A possible picnic spot with a limpid sprig

I say 'let's play safe' because there are wild horses around here and they must drink from these streams too so who knows what might get into the water?

Anyway, we have cooled off and are now continuing towards a nearby grove of oaks and pines... and look! Right on cue, there in the distance is a herd of those very same wild horses that I mentioned above, amongst them several foals and their dams. But beware! There's also a frisky young stallion, whose coat is a dark chestnut brown and shining as if it has been brushed for a show. He's certainly making his presence felt. Although the mares are not in the least interested in his amorous intentions - I expect they feel they've got enough on their plates with a foal each in tow - he's not taking 'No' for an answer. Here he comes, chasing them down the track, and any minute now they'll be crossing our path at speed. Mind you don't get sent flying. Those hooves could hurt! For all his handsome looks and bravado, though, I think the stallion is going to have to be patient!

Wild horses by a pond at the top of the mountain

So far, the herd has been distracted by the stallion's histrionics ... but now they've spotted us and they're all off to find somewhere quiet where they won't be disturbed. That leaves us free to walk in peace by an unexpectedly large pond. The vista is verdant with short cropped grass in the foreground and scattered clumps of trees behind. There is even a large granite stone, placed conveniently for the traveller to sit on and contemplate nature.

A pond in 'park land' at the top of the mountain

This is a spot to linger in, a place of unspoiled beauty where the landscape resembles the kind of natural parkland found around English stately homes. Though the sun is high and hot, there is welcome shade in the dark green shadows thrown on the grass by the poolside trees. It almost looks as if a Portuguese Capability Brown had been at work a couple of centuries ago.

As we circle the pond, we are assailed by the chirruping clamour of myriad tiny frogs, who make a quick getaway from the grass at the edge by leaping with a satisfying plop into the water. Ah, what's that turquoise, iridescent flash just above the surface? It's a ceaselessly patrolling dragon fly.

A beech grove just beyond the pond

Reluctantly we must move on but we are still in luck as we are exchanging open land for a beechwood copse. I can't remember seeing another such around here. The landscape is normally one of pine, eucalyptus and oak with the odd cork tree scattered amongst them. I think the climate in Portugal is normally too hot for beech but here, on the top of the serra, it is just temperate and wet enough to support them as you can tell from the mossy coverings to the boles of the trees.

We often forget how extraordinarily well mapped the UK is; we look upon it as natural to have very detailed maps. Portugal has nothing like the Ordinance Survey. Maps on the whole are very general, mostly made for motorists to find their way around. People can buy more detailed maps, drawn up by the army during the days of the dictatorship in the middle of the last century but they are way out of date and were never intended for the use of walkers. Of late, however, many local authorities have laid out trails for mountain bikers and hikers, by painting way marks on stones and nailing arrows to trees.

Here in the woodland on top of the serra, however, the local youth – or so I imagine – have thought it amusing to turn them round so some arrows point into the thickest brush and others tell you to climb trees. Are you worried about getting lost? Fear not. Use your common sense and carry straight on along the track and you'll soon leave the copse behind and come out again on to open heath. From there you have views over huge swathes of countryside. Look for the River Lima and the so-called Roman Bridge over it and head for that as you come down the mountain. As long as you make your way south, which you can tell most days from the position of the sun, and keep the river in your eyeline, you will be in no danger of straying. Though we already know the way, this, essentially, is what we are doing

detail of the view from the Penedo Bramco with Ponte de Lima in the background

In this much cropped photo you can spot the river flowing through Ponte de Lima and you might just make out both the Roman bridge and the new vehicle one. So even if you were new to the area, seeing this you would know where you were and where to head for. 

Following the track down, we see many granite outcrops. each with its own beauty and interest. Over to our right, however, is one about which everyone has their own ideas. To me it looks like a Viking or possibly Anglo-Saxon helmet. To others it is an owl, a mountain gorilla or even a Neanderthal with his heavy brow ridge. What does it look like to you?

A rock which looks like a Viking Helmet 
And so, descending through head high broom and past pretty babbling streams of magically clear water we came full circle and back finally to Vilar do Monte with its typical low, white church whose tower has only one bell.

The church in Vilar do Monte

After a glorious walk on a perfect sunny day we are just a bit hot and bothered so before we drive home let's relax in the café overlooking the church. Each of us takes something different; a glass of light vinho verde branco for one, chocolate milk for another, and a milky coffee, known here as a galão, for a third. But you could always have an ice cold, sparking spa water called Água das Pedras Salgadas (salty stones water), a coca cola or maybe a sprite.

As we drank, we chatted to the hostess who told us about one daughter who kept goats and made cheese, another who worked in Barcelona and her son, who sounded entrepreneurial, turning his hand to construction, farming and wine making as well as pursuing hobbies such as scuba diving. It turned out that she herself had worked abroad, in Spain.

"I was a cook in Biza," I thought she said. I assumed Biza was a nearby town, perhaps in Galicia. "When Rui came to visit we went out in a boat. I stayed on top while he and his friends went diving."

As it was clearly by the sea, I asked if Biza was on the the Galician or Asturian coast.

"Good Lord no!" said the landlady, "It's an island in the Mediterranean. You must have heard of it! I was employed as a cook in a hotel. There were lots of English guests."

The penny dropped! Biza was Ibiza! I just hadn't imagined a woman, now in her sixties, setting out years ago from such a far-flung village as Vilar do Monte to become a cook in Ibiza! Neither had I expected her son to travel there to scuba dive given that the Portuguese coast is only 20 or so kilometres away. One should be careful of one's prejudices! After all the Portuguese have been travellers and adventurers for centuries. Being far from the sea never stopped people from going on voyages of exploration: Pedro Álvares Cabral came from the east beyond the central mountain chain. And what has age to do with anything anyway?

But it's been a long day. Time to pay up, say goodbye and turn for home.

Are there any favourite walks that leave you feeling invigorated? Do you too relax in a café afterwards? Please write in and tell us your special experiences. (If you are Portuguese, please feel free to write in your own language. You don't have to write in English. Lembre-se: o que é importante não é a língua mas a contribuição.)


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