Hello everyone! This is Rita & André here. Welcome to our first official blog post! Before we start packing our blog with yummy vegan recipes, we'll tell you all about our past travels and adventures. It might seem a little late to publish a blog post about our NYE from a year ago. But hey, better late than never, right? So, here goes! Even though we've both been born and raised in Faro, the southernmost city of Portugal, half of Rita's family (her dad's side) is from one of the northernmost cities in the country, Viana do Castelo (we'll soon write a blog post on that one too!). So she's always been to the North of Portugal several times a year to spend time with her family and occasionally explore what the nearby regions have to offer. It didn't take long for us as a couple to decide we wanted to pay a visit to the Peneda-Gerês National Park, one of the most magical places in continental Portugal.
We'd been there before with our families (separately, of course) when we were younger. And we'd also spent a day there early in our relationship, when we were in Viana do Castelo during the Easter holidays to introduce André to his in-laws. Since our Christmas holidays always include a 700km roadtrip to our northern second-home, last year we decided we'd stay a bit longer, visit Gerês again, spend a few days and celebrate New Year's Eve there.
So we woke up early one morning in late December, at Rita's grandparents' house in Viana do Castelo, and packed our bags. We jumped in the car and drove all the way to Gerês through the national secondary roads. We ditch the highways whenever it is reasonable, this way our roadtrips become a lot cheaper and we get to know our country's beautiful scenery. We had booked a room in the charming Pousada do Gerês back in September, so we got an awesome deal for 3 nights during one of the highest seasons (big yay for booking ahead!). Rita had already stayed there once with her mother and sister when she was 12yo and she was keen on returning ever since.
We got there after about 4 hours on the road (we took our time and stopped a few times to visit some villages along the way) and went straight to our inn. It is located way up in the mountains so it has one of the best panoramic views to the national park. Our room was everything we could have hoped for, small and cozy, with a little stone balcony facing the mountains (which we ended up not using... average temperature of 4ºC guys!).
The inn is located a few kilometers away from the village of Gerês, so on our first night we decided to stay put and make the most of the fireplace after a quick drive to the nearest supermarket to get some bread and fresh fruit. Quick note: it's not easy being vegan/vegetarian in the north of Portugal. They basically live off sausages, portuguese chorizos and smoked meat and frown upon whoever refuses to eat such things. Luckily for us, bananas are everywhere these days and we have no problem eating 5 or 6 a day each! Throw in a few apples, some bread and a mix of roasted nuts and seeds and we've got our snacking covered.
On our first morning we got up early (ain't nobody got time fo' bed), had breakfast with a view, quickly jumped in the car and started wandering around the national park. We soon realized what we thought were mountains were actually... Piles of goats. Heh. Honestly, there are goats everywhere. So after getting stuck in goat-traffic for a few minutes (during which Rita could not stop squealing with joy) and saving a little goat that had gotten stuck on a wire fence, we got to the Vilarinho das Furnas Dam. It is a concrete arch dam built between 1964 and 1972, it is 94 meters high and contains the waters of river Homem (literally translates to Man river).
What's exciting about this dam is that it brought attention to an ancient self-sustaining community village as old as time, after which the dam was named. No one seems to have reached any conclusion as to how old it actually is. The earliest written document dates back to the 17th century, but historians estimate it to have been built around the year 70 AD, at the same time the nearby Roman roads and bridges were built. The thing is, the village is actually submerged by the river waters contained in the dam's reservoir. The water level lowers during the dry season (particularly during draught periods) and the village's ruins are exposed. This obviously attracts a lot of visitors. But, as you can imagine, walking 11 kms to look at some submerged ruins is not what most people might plan on doing on December 30th. We're not most people — and that's just what we did.
So we gladly walked the trail and crossed paths with no one but goats (SO MANY GOATS) only to find that the ruins were almost TOTALLY submerged. But no regrets are held whatsoever. The truth is you can really feel the energy exuded by that place. We'd have done it a thousand times again. If our story-telling has sparked your curiosity but our photo of a few rocks barely sticking above water-level do not suffice, here you go. It is quite magical.
After the hike, we stopped by the village of Gerês for lunch (which was soup, the safest vegetarian option around for miles), drove around the surrounding mountains and wandered through a few hiking trails. We went back to our inn and sat by the fire, watched the sunset and enjoyed a few beers. We stayed at the inn for dinner. We treated ourselves to an expensive bottle of wine and went for the chef's mushroom risotto.
The morning after, we got up even earlier, faced the freezing temperatures outside and didn't take long to get to one of the most visited places in the national park — the Pedra Bela (aka Beautiful Rock) Viewpoint. It's got one of the most breathtaking panoramic views we've ever gotten the chance to admire (cahem, doesn't beat Trolltunga's though). You can see the mountains, the lagoon, the confluence of two rivers and all that green. Lots of green. It was particularly special with the morning light peeking through the trees.
Looking back on this New Year's Eve we realize we did not stop for a second. So after basking in the glory of the Pedra Bela's panoramic view, we drove to another sought-after place in Gerês, parked our car and hiked to the Arado Waterfall, the biggest of its kind in Gerês. Here we swore we would come back. IN THE SUMMER. So we can skip about and splash around in those crystal clear river waters. We'll let you guys know when we do!
Clocks kept ticking away and we wanted to make the most of our last full day in Gerês, so we drove through the nearby mountain village of Ermida where, guess what. WE MET MORE GOATS! Ermida is one of the loveliest villages we've visited and to this day, we still daydream about setting up a tent there and living the rest of our lives next to the friendliest and cutest of neighbours, pygmy goats. We were in awe at the simple, natural lifestyle people still live up in those mountains. No shopping malls, no parking lots, and absolutely no need for any of that.
Right about now is where our little horror story fits. We still had a couple of hours of sunlight when André thought we could still drive up to another hiking trail that leads to the (literally) legendary medieval bridge of Mizarela. It crosses over a cliff through which the Rabagão river runs through and legend tells it was built by the Devil himself. The place is packed with stories and mysticism so we drove up to the point where we thought the trail began (it didn't). Rita wasn't too convinced of this whole idea but an old man who lived nearby told us all we had to do was follow the ancient Roman stone-paved road, walk past the cemetery (creepy much?) and we'd quickly get to the bridge. The sun had already hid behind the mountains and we had about an hour before darkness hit, but it was only 4 km total. So there we went. We lasted about 20 minutes before we turned around and headed back to our car. There was no roman road whatsoever, just a muddy path where we found a series of scary clichés that pointed to the fact that we were about to become the lead characters of a horror movie. Dead birds on the ground. A house in ruins with a hanging noose creepily swinging. And a creepy, blind elderly man who seemed to show up out of nowhere. He was actually nice and said hello, but SERIOUSLY, A BLIND OLD MAN?! Alright, we turned around and walked as fast as we could back to our car. Met that old man who had told us we were in the right place again only to get even more freaked out. He asked us whether we'd gotten scared and started telling us how "the evil eye had taken down all the trail signs". He then proceeded to show us what he kept in his front yard: an ancient stone the Romans used as a weight when they hung the traitors who defied their laws. Right before he started fighting with his witch-sounding wife and threatened her with a beating. Erm, yeah. We shat our pants, got in the car and thanked the universe we were still standing in one piece when we got back to our inn. Maybe some other time, Mizarela Bridge. Maybe some other time.
About the actual New Year celebrations. Our inn had organized a dinner party entertained by a portuguese folk music live band which cost a mere 100€ per person. Even if we did have the chance of paying 200€ for a meal (almost as much as we had booked our room for), every single course included meat, dairy, or eggs. It simply wasn't an option for us. After realizing the inn could not serve us a simpler vegetarian meal for less than the total price of the dinner, we quickly drove back to the village, stuffed our tummies with affordable warm soup, veggie pizza and french fries. We bought some bread, crackers, fruit, roasted cashew nuts and a bottle of wine and headed back to our room where we watched cheesy TV shows. At the stroke of midnight, we went outside, where the panoramic view presented us with 7 or 8 different fireworks in different villages. Sounds pretty simplistic. But it was nothing short of spectacular.
The morning after, we got up, packed our things and drove around one last time. We said 'See you soon' to the beautiful view and headed home. If you ever get the chance, we urge you to visit the Peneda-Gerês National Park. Surely it will not disappoint you. We're saving up for trips to some new and exciting places, but we'll make sure we don't take too long to go back to Gerês.