The north of Portugal is a truly beautiful and varied destination that never fails to enchant its visitors. If you’re looking for somewhere that combines beaches, vineyards and mountains with ancient villages and historical towns that are full of tradition and regional flavours, this is it. And perhaps the best way to feel into the region’s unique charms is to explore on foot.
Walking holidays are an amazing way to really get to know a new place and you could easily spend a week or more hiking in each of the distinctly different parts of Northern Portugal. However, if you’re short on time and want to get a taste of the richness and variety that this region has to offer, it’s possible to spend a few days exploring each of these on a combined Highlights of Northern Portugal programme.
Walking the vineyards and valleys of the Douro
The Alto Douro is not your average wine region; not only does it produce world class port, muscatel, sparkling and still wines as well as flavoursome olive oil, honey and almonds, it also happens to be one of the most beautiful wine regions in the world.
And that’s not all!
The unique terroir of the Alto Douro wine region, mostly composed of steeply-terraced vineyards in schistose soil, relies on manual labour to produce and harvest grapes. Its combination of natural and manmade landscapes and the wine-making traditions and history that date back to Roman times have earned it classification as a UNESCO World Heritage cultural landscape.
The best way to get a sense of how diverse the microclimates and landscapes within the Douro wine region are is to hike from Alijó, a town on the outer perimeter that’s surrounded by rugged mountains, and along a ridge that offers spectacular views of the Pinhão and Tua Valleys to reach one of the world’s most magnificent viewpoints, according to the BBC. When you see for yourself the extensive views across the Douro River and the endless terraced hillsides, dotted with wine estates and small villages, you’ll understand the claim.
After walking down through the vineyards to the Douro River, you could take some time to visit a winery or two and sample the fine wines of the region. We also recommend taking a trip upstream on a traditional wooden boat which was originally used to transport barrels of wine to the port wine cellars in Vila Nova de Gaia, just across the river from the city of Porto.
Remote mountain villages in Peneda-Gerês National Park
The wild, rugged mountains that surround the ancient villages of Lindoso and Soajo stand in stark contrast to the intricately patterned, undulating slopes of the Douro Valley. You’ll see them from various perspectives as you explore the forests around Lindoso and on your hike to Soajo.
On these walks, take time to peer over the edge of an impressive feat of engineering that has created a source of electricity for the region, namely the Lindoso Dam, and over the battlements of the 13th century Lindoso Castle.
The way of life and small-scale agricultural practices in these remote settlements remains unchanged in many ways. As you explore the Peneda-Gerês mountain villages on foot, you’ll see the former communal watermills, ancient stone shepherds’ shelters, community bread ovens and the laundry tanks where women would exchange stories as they washed the family’s clothes and linens.
You may even meet some long-horned Cachena cows grazing freely during the day before returning to their barns in the villages at night. There is something special, almost magical in certain lights, about the clusters of granite corn stores in both Lindoso and Soajo. In both villages, they are scattered around a smooth rock surface that is still used to dry and thresh crops.
By eating local produce in your lodgings, packed lunches and at village restaurants, you’ll have plenty of opportunities to enjoy the delicious sheep and goats’ cheeses, smoked meats, home-made jams and hearty traditional dishes. Meat-eaters should try the quality meat from those free-ranging grass-fed Cachena cows.
Coastal towns, fishing communities and pristine beaches
As well as an abundance of mountains, vineyards and rivers, Northern Portugal is home to some of the country’s best unspoilt beaches, known as the Costa Verde, which means Green Coast. After exploring the delightful historical centre of Caminha, a pretty town that sits at the mouth of the Minho River with views of Spain across the water, you’ll begin to understand how the Costa Verde got its name.
The beaches along this stretch of the Atlantic Ocean are naturally beautiful and there are no flashy resorts or high-rises to block the views of the nearby verdant mountains. At Vila Praia de Âncora, the Âncora River runs right across the vast expanse of golden sand and in most of the beaches you’ll encounter between Caminha and Afife, greenery backs onto the dunes.
The local fishing communities are still going strong in Caminha, Vila Praia de Âncora and Viana do Castelo so you’ll be able to tuck into the freshest of grilled fish and lovingly-prepared seafood. You’ll see plenty of colourful fishing boats bobbing in the water or on the harbour ramps and you might even catch the fish market in Vila Praia de Âncora.
As evidence of a turbulent past, there’s no shortage of fortresses along this stretch of coastline – one was even built on an island to protect Caminha and the mouth of the River Minho. Windmills are another common feature as you make your way south to the beautiful small city of Viana do Castelo.
Viana de Castelo is an ideal place to end a walking holiday in the beautiful countryside of Northern Portugal. It’s big enough to be interesting yet small enough to easily explore on foot without feeling overwhelmed, although you may wish to take the funicular to the hilltop Santa Luzia basilica!
There are several other interesting sights, including the Gil Eanes Hospital Ship and the Costume Museum where you can see many examples of the colourful embroidered clothes and the gold jewellery that the city is famous for.