Getting Lost in Soajo, Portugal
Story & photos by Julie Maris/Semel
Get lost on Soajo’s ancient, stone cow-path to find traditional Portuguese warmth and hospitality. Follow the scent of wildflowers and mountain meadows or back-country road signs that lead to shepherds, roaming livestock, and welcoming cafes. This is northern Portugal, where sheer cliffs are matched only by the sheer beauty of this remote region and where lost tourists evoke smiles.
Getting lost is the best way to meet locals whose relatives inhabited the mountain villages that were incorporated into hilltop forts hundreds of years ago during regional wars by political factions.
Not only are the 360-degree views of the valleys with the region’s unique stone corn cribs breathtaking and eerie, but the quiet is disturbed only by bleating sheep and elderly women in black on doorsteps who invite you into their stone houses.
Men carrying freshly-baked village bread used walking sticks and followed belled-long-horned Barrosã cattle as they trod up the mountainside. Their surprise and “good day” greeted me as I realized that the short-cut and missed path with six-foot walls delineating the vineyards also hid the town, my destination. Walking downhill on the slippery and worn ancient stones belied the centuries of the region’s history.
Rustic Soajo is a different world four hours from the jazzy Lisbon metropolis with its clanging cable cars and tourists searching for pasteis de nata, the iconic egg custard tarts. It’s less than two hours from Porto, the destination of the local fortified wines shipped on the Douro River.
Soajo’s twenty-four granite espigueiros, or granaries perched on slabs, impress from a distance. Religious crosses that protect the harvests cap the constructions, built in the 18th century, when explorers imported corn from the New World. The village borders Portugal’s only national park, Peneda-Gerês with its rugged granite mountain range.
Parque Nacional da Peneda-Gerês massifs encompass one-hundred villages and Celtic fortifications that organically blend into the boulder landscape, etched by rushing mountain rivers and streams replenished a hundred days a year. Wild Garrano ponies freely roam along with the endangered Iberian wolves: the biodiversity includes golden eagles, the violet Gerês iris, and oak forests.
Villagers still cultivate crops and raise livestock but with the establishment of the park in 1971, sustainable tourism is preserving the delicate ecosystems and the traditional lifestyle. Medieval castles, waterfalls, and terraced fields form the landscape adjacent to the two-hundred mile Geira, the ancient Roman road connecting Braga, Portugal and Astorga, Spain.
Cars lost in narrow lanes attract amused locals running to assist navigating the original ox-cart routes. Their welcoming smiles invite us into hidden pubs or courtyards where returning cattle still barn in multistoried houses.
Located in the center of the park, Gerês’ thermal baths have been a therapeutic destination for centuries. Buildings from the 1800s line streets adjacent to springs with mineral-rich healing water.
The UNESCO Geopark Naturtejo da Meseta Meridional, 130 miles from Lisbon, is Portugal’s first network of protected regions and parks and incorporates 600-million years of evolution. History etched in its granite croppings, quartzite ridges, and geologic fractal formations result in infinitely varied and stunning landscapes. The geopark promotes sustainable, regional economic development and conservation of its geological heritage.
The park provides an extensive series of hiking and walking trails and contains a Roman gold mine, one of its geo-monuments. The Important Bird Areas (IBA) count 125 species such as the Griffon and Egyptian vultures, royal eagles, and black storks.
Monsanto, a traditional Beira medieval village within the park, with its granitic formations and castle fortifications, towers over agricultural plains. Enormous boulders not only line the narrow streets, but became the walls, floors, and roofs of the ancient houses. The Boulders Trail through granite giants and fractured rocks meanders to the12th century Romanesque Capela de São Miguel and rock graves.
An open-air museum, Penha Garcia’s 500-foot-deep quartzite gorge is a half mile in length and contains the world’s largest trace fossils of invertebrates almost 500-million years old. Cruziana, a trace fossil or track, was embedded in soft sediment substrate and made by trilobites, organisms with three-part segmented bodies.
Existing watermills and evidence of a Neolithic settlement and Roman ruins attest to the region’s continuing occupation. A climbing school and boating provide options to walking and hiking. Regional dishes in cafes promote the heritage of local cheeses and include the buttery Queijo da Serra made with thistle, wood-oven roasted goat, sausages, and sweet corn.
A short drive through granite boulders and outcrops from Penha Garcia to the overlooked and remote Parque Natural da Serra da Estrela, past the hiking trail of Poço do Inferno, encompasses Portugal’s highest continental mountain at Torre (6500 feet).
Zig-zag roads reveal the Zêzere glacial valley with steep slopes and the longest glacier tongue in the park with countless waterfalls and historic buildings. Late spring views from mountain passes reveal snow-patched hollows, cloud-shrouded villages, and cork forests –– a hiker’s dream.
Adjacent to the UNESCO Côa Valley Archaeological Park, the Faia Brava Natural Reserve is Portugal’s first private protected area and also classified as an Important Bird Area and a partner of Rewilding Europe, preserving its biodiversity for future nature tourism. Garrano horses wandering through aromatic fields of French lavender suddenly break into brief gallops when disturbed by the occasional hiker. Guided tours through olive groves and cork oaks, shepherd’s huts, and trails with multi-colored towering boulders frequently include sightings of Bonelli eagles and Griffon vultures soaring above rocky cliffs.
Côa Valley Archaeological Park houses one of Europe’s largest sites of Paleolithic rock engravings, discovered in the 1990s during dam construction. The Côa Museum reflects the UNESCO heritage of both the prehistoric art and the Douro wine landscapes. The museum offers three off-road tours to the well-preserved archeological sites that reveal thousands of engraved rock drawings from 22,000 B.C. to 10,000 B.C. Most of the motifs of horses, animals, and humans are located in schist with vertical smooth surfaces. Night visits to rock art sites offer better visibility of the superimposed motifs highlighted by full moons or with portable artificial lighting.
Nearby Castelo Rodrigo, one of Portugal’s twelve Historic Villages that includes Monsanto, is a historic fortification near the Spanish border. Its palace shell overlooks picturesque cobbled streets and the Douro River Valley. Four-wheel drive evening tours to Côa Valley Archaeological Park traverse remote olive groves and farms.
Portugal’s remarkable landscapes and history written in stone fill the horizons. Beyond those towering castles and valley trails, the nearby Douro vineyards (a UNESCO World Heritage designation since 2001) and wine tourism offer a different kind of exploration, one that also has centuries of history.
© Julie Maris/Semel 2019
If You Go:
For more than twenty years, Julie Maris/Semel has photographed adventure travel. Her work features people, landscapes, and wildlife from Asia to the Arctic. As a photojournalist, she has produced articles for national tourist boards and editorial clients. Her images have appeared in magazines and on Nikon’s website and reflect the challenges of capturing the brief second between subject and camera, as well as the quality of light and color.www.juliemarissemel.com