Ancient and Modern in the Peneda Geres

Sunday, April 24, 2016, 22:52

Casa de Mezio

"What on earth is THAT?"

From Paredes do Vale, where we were staying, we had taken the long route to Soajo. It had been a couple of years since our last visit to this part of the National Park and so, as we climbed out of the village, the new building dominating the skyline at the top of the hill came as a surprise – or rather as a shock. Where once there had been nothing but tumbled granite slabs and boulders, gurgling waterfalls and butter-yellow gorse, now there was a long low building. Why was it there? What indeed was it?

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Two tumuli

Though there's no sign of ancient habitation there now, Mezio was once a prehistoric burial place with tumuli rather like the the clusters of burial barrows in rural Wiltshire in Britain. It may have been a ritual centre too as there are petroglyphs on the rocks not far away. We didn't manage to find the carvings because it was pouring with rain when we were there and, though we were told at the visitor centre that we could reach them by car, the adviser must have meant in a 4X4. We did have a shot at finding them but, as the surface of the track alternated between skiddy wet rock and mud, we decided that, after all, discretion was the better part of valour and left it for another day.

Moss and lichen on the trees

When you look around, you can only marvel at the energy and resilience of our forebears. Mezio, high up in the granite mountains, clothed in oak woodlands and subject to inclement weather - note the moss and lichen on the tree trunks and the infertile ground beneath - was never a very obvious place for early settlers to choose. They may have herded sheep, goats, cattle and horses but what about growing things? The fertile river valleys could, of course, have been farmed but if the people lived in the uplands, they would have made an arduous trek up and down every day. Maybe, then, Mezio was just a burial place, chosen because the spirits of kings and warriors could watch over the villagers from on high.

huge stone slabs and lintel

The men – probably all men though maybe there were high status women too – who once lay in these tombs must have been well respected, loved even, for the people to go to the lengths of of building the tumuli. The slabs of rock used are huge, weighing tons. Imagine the time and effort that must have been expended in simply lifting the lintel into place. If there was no local village they must have camped nearby while building them.

Fortunately for us, we don't have to hunker down in cold, damp shelters if we want to enjoy the Peneda Mountains. We can go to the building that so startled us as we drove up the winding road from Soajo. Just opposite the first tumulus at the side of the main road is a sign that reads, "Casa do Mezio", which, despite being called 'casa' – house - is actually a hotel.

Tourism is well catered for in the south of Portugal. In fact, people seem to think that the Algarve and Portugal are synonyms even though it is only around a tenth of the country. The far north, however - arguably one of the most beautiful, interesting and historic parts of the country - is relatively little exploited. Most of me thinks, "And a good thing too!" but this is selfish. The Minho is an area which could bring wealth to Portugal and where people who love the outdoors could come to have fun.

If you did visit the Peneda Geres National Park, where would you stay? The Casa do Mezio, "an aromatic and nature hotel" – whatever that means – is one possibility. It is trying to be eco-friendly with batteries of solar panels and good insulation. From a distance the outer walls look like stone, perhaps the brownish granite found in the north, but it turns out to be cork blocks.

Cork wall

And just look at the outstanding view! Every room, including the dining room, looks out over ranges of mountains and tiny villages receding into the hazy distance. This was the one from my room. The horses, incidentally, are wild. They are called garranos, and they roam where they please, even up to your window. These two belonged to a small group with foals but the mothers saw me coming and led their offspring away so I couldn't photograph them.

View from Casa do Mezio

You may also see foxes or even wolves. Sadly, I saw neither, only those horses and some Minhoto cattle with their lyre-shaped horns, but the receptionist told me she had seen a wolf. In her opinion, it looked wary rather than aggressive, lowering its head and glancing at her from under its eyelashes. Perhaps it wasn't hungry?

Another reason to stay here could be that you would like to relax in the sauna or visit the infinity pool after a hard day's hiking. How would you like to glide effortlessly into those blue mountains?

Casa do Mezio swimming pool

A further, perhaps trivial, thing is the décor. Often hotels have pictures that are so dull that no one could take exception to them and, besides, you can feel pretty sure that they can be found on the walls of hotels all over the world. The pictures, panels and sculptures at the Casa do Mezio are, perhaps, institutional but they are all original. Have a look at some: see what you think.

Artefacts in the Casa do Mezio

For Portugal, this is an expensive hotel and it has pretensions. It hasn't been open for very long and I got the impression it was still having a few teething problems. The receptionists, as always in Portugal, were willing and helpful but they couldn't tell me where or how far away the rock carvings were; the waiter seemed at times a bit overwhelmed and the food took some time to appear. The dishes are international, rather nouvelle cuisine in fact, and perhaps not ideal for someone who has taken one of the many demanding walking trails and been out in the fresh air all day. However, if you fancy something more substantial, local and less dear, then you could pop down to a restaurant in Soajo.

For us, this stay was a treat just before we left for a trip to England so we didn't sample any of the activities advertised at the reception but, if you wanted to do more than just tramp around on your own two feet, then you could take a land rover trip with a guide, hire a mountain bike and cycle to remote villages – you do need Tour-de-France -strength thighs for this! – or go canoeing on the Rivers Lima or Vez.

If you like the outdoors and are not phased by rain and wind, then Mezio could be the place for you.

Do have favourite places for outdoor activities in Portugal? Why not write in and inspire us to visit them? If you are Portuguese, please feel free to write in your own language. You don't have to write in English. (O que é importante não é a língua mas a contribuição.)

jeremy pickard wrote:
Monday, April 25, 2016, 12:14
Hi Margaret. I think you exaggerate the appeal of the river valleys in pre-roman times. The rivers were wider and less controlled, surrounded by swampy, dense forests and devoid of roads. Some (but probably not the Lima or Vez this far up) may have been navigable by canoe on a good day, but not easy to grow things. Controlled use of fire probably produced small temporary fields in the drier, upper, reaches. On the whole the open pasture above the tree line may have been a good bet for iron age people.
Margaret wrote:
Monday, April 25, 2016, 16:41
Hi Jeremy, You clearly know much more about mesolithic times than I do! And you're certainly right about the Lima flooding as witnessed by the markers on one of the stone towers in Ponte de Lima. There are also fascinating photos of Ponte de Lima under water in the Alameda restaurant. All the same, even in those days, there will have been fertile land between the swollen river and the forest edge. Even with burning, I find it hard to believe that the land round Mezio could have been farmed. The rock lies just below the surface. It's fine for gorse, broom and heather but crops? What is certain is that early peoples did like to build high up. There are settlements I've been to on bare hill tops in Northumberland which are reminiscent of the citanias you see in the Minho. I guess you could see your enemies coming from up there - especially when the Romans came. They seem to have chased the Celts from northern Portugal and Galicia.
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