The Montesinho Natural Park, in the northwest of Portugal, in the Trás-os-Montes region, is one of the largest natural parks in Portugal. The schist and granite mountains form deep valleys and the clear river water flowing through them provides the perfect habitat for wide range of plants and animals
But there is more to the park than just its natural beauty. You can also admire the man-made constructions. There are various villages in the park, such as Montesinho, which gives its name to the park, Rio de Onor and Guadramil. The local residents have learnt to blend in well with the landscape and built their houses with schist or granite walls, fitting in nicely with the landscape.
You will be surprised at how these villages are the perfect example of community life. The common facilities are shared by the locals, for instance, the wood-fired ovens used to bake bread, the blacksmith’s, the threshing floor, the mill, the wash-house, the fields, the pastures and the village bull are used and managed by the population, a tradition that hasn’t changed in centuries.
It doesn’t matter how many villages you visit, Rio de Onor is a must-see. Although this community village is the best preserved in the entire park, there’s more for you to learn. This land is crossed by the border between Portugal and Spain – the Spanish part even has a different name - Rihonor de Castilla – but the family and friendship ties between the two populations almost makes the border between the two countries disappear.
You can try the Trás-os-Montes smoked sausages and the local excellent quality beef in almost all the villages of Montesinho Natural Park, accompanied by a local red wine. For those with a sweeter tooth, desserts are made with eggs and the honey produced by the bees in the park. Try adding a tablespoon of this honey to a glass of hot milk. What a wonderful treat!
Over valleys and mountains
The two highest points in the Montesinho Natural Park are Serra da Coroa (to the west) and Montesinho Mountain (to the east). You can explore them on foot, by bicycle or car.
If you choose to go by car, start off from Bragança and drive to Montesinho, through Rabal and França. In França, you can see a mill that has been renovated and is now used by the locals. Or you can start in Bragança and drive to Gimonde, where the rivers Sabor, Onor and Ribeira do Frio intersect, crossed by three bridges. From here, go off and explore the villages of Babe, Palácios and Caravela. Visit their rural museums and learn more about the cycle of linen and the traditional Trás-os-Montes cuisine.
To quietly enjoy the beauty of the region, follow the walking or off-road-terrain bicycle trails suggested by park officials, of varying degrees of difficulty. The “Serra do Montesinho” off-road bicycle trail, a little over 40 kilometres long, begins from Montesinho and runs through Cova da Lua, where you can see the traditional pigeon lofts and houses. The trail runs through the park and along the River Sabor.
The “Termas do Tuela” walking trail is about 8 km long and runs along some parts of the Quintela stream, Tuela River, and the villages of Fresulfe and Dine. You can see the lime kilns in Dine, the mill in Fresulfe, and the Tuela River thermal spa, with its springs and four man-shaped bath tubs, two small tanks, and a water drainage system.
If you feel like an extra buzz of adrenalin, you can try climbing or testing orienteering skills across the beautiful landscape. If you love water sports, you can practice canoeing or canyoning in one of the rivers that cross the park.
Observing the fauna and flora
One of the greatest riches of the Montesinho Natural Park is its flora and fauna. Plant species include the extensive forests of Pyrenean oak and other trees such as poplars, alders, willows, chestnut oaks and holm oaks.
The park is home to about 240 species of vertebrates, 150 of which are birds. In the rivers you will find otters and in the mountains and valleys there are wolves, wild boars, foxes, and bucks and deer. For birdwatching, go to Lama Grande, on the Montesinho Mountain plateau between the villages of França and Montesinho, the only place in Portugal where the Water Pipit lives and nests. Focus on the sky to see the Golden Eagle, White-Wagtail, and Crag Martine, and, occasionally, a Grey Heron or Common Sandpiper.
If you want to make sure you do see the animals, visit the Biology Park of Vinhais, near the village with the same name. The park covers about four hectares and serves as an interpretation centre of fauna, flora, geology and heritage of the Montesinho Natural Park. Here you can see deer and wild boar, and learn more about the local birds and flora.
There are several direct connections to Porto. If you choose to fly low cost, you can fly from London (Stansted and Gatwick), Birmingham, Paris (Beauvais, Orly, Vatry and Charles de Gaulle), Marseille, Dole, Lille, Strasbourg, Tours, St. Etienne, Bordeaux, Lyon, Nantes, Madrid, Barcelona El Prat, Valencia, Milan Bergamo, Roma Ciampino, Brussels (Charleroi and Zaventem), Eindhoven, Maastricht, Amsterdam, Geneva, Basel/Mulhouse, Dortmund, Frankfurt Hahn, Karlsruhe Baden, Nuremberg, Hamburg Lübeck , Munich Memmingen and Dusseldorf Weeze.
In the summer, low cost companies fly from Liverpool, Dublin, Bologna, Toulouse, Clermont Ferrand, Carcassonne, La Rochelle, Limoges, Rennes, Las Palmas, Palma de Majorca, Tenerife and Bremen.
Traditional airlines fly to Porto from London (Gatwick and Heathrow), Madrid, Barcelona, Munich, Frankfurt, and Paris Orly, Caracas, Geneva, Luxembourg, Amsterdam, Milan Malpensa, Zurich, New York, São Paulo, Rio de Janeiro, Brussels Zaventem, Rome Fiumicino, Toronto, and Luanda. In the summer, you can also fly from Montreal, Brest and Brive.
If you’re leaving Porto by car, take the A4 to Bragança. From there, it’s easy to reach the entrance to the Montesinho Natural Park, which is about 230 kilometres away from Porto.