“Only first class tickets left”, said the man at the Coimbra train station.
To the budget traveller, these are never welcomed words.
The annoyance soon subsides when you step onto the air-conditioned carriage. Especially when you start tucking into your complimentary food and drinks! We’d already had to pay for a taxi in the morning when we tried to walk a 4 km journey to the station in 40 minutes. A difficult job in the baking heat and when you don’t know the direction! After jogging for first 3 km we gave up with 10 minutes left to catch our train and jumped in a taxi. Station please! Grudgingly we forked over the money for the first class tickets and found our seats.
Happily accepting the free teas I pulled out our guidebook and found our destination – Peneda-Gerês National Park! This was one of our last stops in Portugal and we were going out with a bang. We’d heard this place was great for hiking so we’d planned 5 days of non-stop adventuring! As with most of our travels, things didn’t go quite according to plan!
Ranked the ’17th best thing to do’ in our guidebook, Peneda-Gerês National Park was the top of our list! Bordering Spain, this was the only National Park in Portugal and was meant to be a behemoth for hiking and the outdoors. Off the beaten track with multi-day hikes, waterfalls and supposedly the chance of spotting wolves. This place ticked all of the boxes! The journey was meant to be simple. A three hour train from Coimbra to Braga and then a two hour bus from Braga to Peneda-Gerês.
“Today is National Teachers Day”, said the man at the Braga bus station
“What does that mean?”
“It means the bus not come”
Bloody hell. Twice in one day? I’ve always been messed around by teachers.To our luck the bus did come, but five hours later than expected. Not one’s to let a national holiday hold us back, we quickly switched on the wifi and typed in ‘vegan food Braga’. To our surprise there were a lot of options! We decided on Gusto Superior as it was only a few kilometres walk from the station. What a find! With our bellies beautifully filled and 5 hours flown past we boarded the bus. Two hours later we arrived in Gerês!
Campo Do Gerês is nothing short of breathtaking. Hidden in the Gerês mountain ranges, the town is nestled in the bottom of a valley. With rivers running through the town leading to an emerald blue lake at it’s base – as soon as we arrived we both wished we’d come earlier and could spend more time in this incredible spot. Dense green forests, high valley peaks and better yet loads of hiking routes on Maps.Me!
Thanks to National Teachers Day we’d arrived quite late, so sticking to what we do best we headed to the local market to get some ingredients for a tasty dinner. I looked high up to the side as we walked to a fruit and vegetable stall and noticed clouds of dark smoke coming from the behind the valley top. The smoke was very clear to see but the locals seemed to paying no attention to it. As we were surrounded by farmers fields, I assumed it was a controlled burn used to clear the ground of old crops and thought nothing else of it.
The next morning came and we’d planned a whopper of a 23 km hike! Travelling up the valley side to the top through thick oak forests, we would then reach the valley top, see some majestic views and carry on through shrubland to an ancient stone village. We’d then make our way back in a loop through sun blazed forests and granite formations. It was incredibly hot already at 7 am but with our vegan lunches in the bag we were ready to go!
The first few kilometres crossed through Gerês, walking over river streams and past elderly locals. The first trail marking was sun scorched and discrete but we soon found it (Maps.Me doing us proud!). From here the only way was up! A 3 km climb, zig-zagging to the valley top through eerily quite oak forests. The forests were stunning, with a dense canopy shielding us from the sun. Within 15 minutes you’ll feel a million miles away. No sounds of human life, just your heavy breathing, wildlife and the wind blowing through the trees.
As soon as we started moving through the oak trees you could see the effects of this hot summer. All moisture and life in the vegetation had been sucked out by the sun. We walked to the sounds of dried leaves and twigs crunching underfoot. As we walked further and further up the valley side I remembered the articles I had read about forest fires in Portugal and how they had caused devastation over the summer. The sighting of smoke yesterday didn’t register, but I remember thinking ‘shit, if you dropped a cigarette this place would go up in an instant!’.
Starting to make our way out from the shade of the forest, we were slowly starting to make a dent in the hike. You could see the habitat changing, with the landscape opening and the winds picking up as you reach higher altitude. After about 1.5 hours, for the first time we saw signs of the valley top with a lookout point 500m ahead. A hop, skip and a jump and we were at our first checkpoint. And it was beautiful! with a view along the valley for miles and miles. It’s views like that which make every hard part of hiking completely worthwhile.
Our break was cut short as wasps had nested in the wooden structure and were chasing us around. Taking two minutes to absorb the view, have some water and shield from the sun and we were off again. Now reaching the valley top, we knew the climbing had finish and we started our dusty 7 km journey towards the shepherds villages. 5 minutes after setting off you could clearly notice large patches of shrubs that had been blackened by fire. Not that i’m an expert but it didn’t look like controlled fire marks. There was no structure whatsoever, just waves of burn’t areas which had been burnt indiscriminately. We both commented on the burn’t areas in interest and continued marching forwards.
Another hour into the journey and we began to notice dark clouds above and a thick smell of smoke in the air. By this point we were surrounded by high rocky formations, with the only long distance possible to see being from the way we’d come. No fire over there. You could definitely see and smell smoke in the air but seeing it’s source wasn’t so easy. After another 500 m, coming around from the rock outcrops and you could finally see further ahead. That’s where the fire is!
Now very clear to see about 5 km away huge clouds of black smoke were billowing into the air. We couldn’t see the fire but we could see the smoke rising and drifting towards our location. Neither of us had ever seen controlled burning and although it’s not great environmentally, at first it was quite exciting to see it. Clambering on top of a rock we tried to get a better view. Hypnotised by the flashes of red, plumes of smoke and the incredible landscape, we sat and watched for an unknown amount of time.
As the excitement subsided we noticed helicopters flying around the fire and also that the trail path was going straight in the direction of the fire. After huddling together and having a pep talk, it was decided that it would be safe to continue! Our logic was that we’d been at the tourist office in the morning and told them our hiking route – surely they would tell us if there was a controlled fire which might affect the path?
From this point on it was hard to think of anything but the fire. The smoke had now grown blindingly thick in the distance and the flames were towering in the air. You could now notice ash falling from the sky and we were shocked to ash covering our shoulders and hair. Looking around at the crispy surroundings it wouldn’t take Bear Grylls to realise it was not a great situation to be in.
We continued walking cautiously but noticed the wind pick up the fire ahead spreading quickly towards our path. Stopping again, we checked the map and looked for alternative routes. Four hours away from the hostel, the fire had now spread directly in the way of our route! The other option was to take a path along the valley ridge. However, again the fire was slowly spreading in that direction. A quick change in winds could have us cut off so that didn’t seem like a good idea. Thinking I was an outdoors expert I surveyed the situation. Besides the 5 m wide path we were on, we were surrounded by fields of waist high bushes and the odd tree. Everything was dried to a crisp. As the ash rained around us and and both our options ahead seemed scorched, we decided to retreat!
I’m glad we turned back when we did, the wind had really started to pick up and it was hard to tell which way the fire was heading. Black smoke was now drifting all across the valley and it was noticeably harder to breathe. Watching the smoke rise and the ash fall I remembered the 3 km of oak forest we had to return through. With the floor carpeted in dried leaves and thistles and the trees ready to fall for lack of moisture, I thought it would be a good idea to pick up the pace. Whether Sarah with her unshakeable calm noticed it or not, I was a bit nervous. We started to scamper back towards the hazardous oak trees but the journey seemed to take an age. We crossed back past the already blackened fields and I thought to myself ‘they’re pretty chilled with these controlled burns’.
4 km later, as we approached the forest I was pretty certain I wasn’t the only one nervous. Brushing the ash off my shoulders, I pictured us running through the woods being chased by flames. Fortunately, as we began our descent down the valley side we bumped into another hiker from our hostel. She’d also seen the fires and decided to turn back. She claimed to be relaxed about the situation and we headed back down together. That being said, she did go incredibly fast so perhaps she just had a good poker face.
Back at the hostel and the staff were standing in the car park looking towards the smoke covering the valley. The fire that was originally 7 or 8 km away was now casting clouds all over the region.
Speaking to the staff in my broken Portuguese, I asked if it would be a concern. I learned that it was actually a wildfire which had been burning for the last 4 days. Although they told me it probably wasn’t anything to worry about. Telling them that we’d been hiking and the fire had cut us off and again they seemed quite relaxed. As the fire had been going for 4 days, we were surprised the tourist information hadn’t warned us. We had showed them our map and planned route right through its path. With a smoke covered village filled with super chilled locals, it was only the tourists who seemed concerned.
Now back in the safety of the hostel, we felt slightly reassured by the staff. Sitting down, we had lunch under a parasol and watched the ash rain down for the next few hours. A very surreal experience! I thought of what would’ve of happened if we didn’t turn back and tried to make it past the fire. Again, I imagined us being chased down the valley by a raging inferno. No point in stressing now I thought, if the locals weren’t locals weren’t worrying then neither would I. Fortunately, waking up the next day the smoke had cleared from the sky and the smell was fresh again. The only lasting evidence was the odd bits of ash left on the floor and a picture I took from when we could first see the fire.
Looking back, it was a pretty amazing experience! I’ve learnt that in the North of Portugal the locals are quite laid back when it comes to fire. I also learned not to assume that fires in farming areas are controlled! My only frustration is that we weren’t able to finish the epic hike. Besides the fires, Peneda-Gerês was absolutely amazing! We barely scratched the surface of some of the hiking opportunities. We’ll definitely be going back to discover some of the other trails but maybe after its rained for a few days!
Have you been to Peneda-Gerês?
Do you have any exciting travels stories? Send them in and we’ll feature them!