Crystal clear rivers, towering mountains, rolling vineyards, historic towns and mysterious archaeological sites. Gayle Ritchie explores Arcos de Valdevez…
Like many people, I’ve holidayed in Portugal but only in the “usual suspects” of Lisbon and the Algarve.
So when a friend suggested I visit Arcos de Valdevez, a little known corner along the northern frontier of Portugal and Galicia in Spain, my interest was piqued.
Jorge (my Portuguese pal) billed it as an area rich in natural beauty and wildlife and fantastic for fishing and hiking. As an outdoors lover and fan of discovering places off the beaten track, I couldn’t wait to go.
Fortunately, getting there is easy. Ryanair offers flights direct from Edinburgh to Porto in less than three hours and under £40. From Porto, it’s an hour’s drive north to Arcos de Valdevez.
My first day is spent fishing the crystal clear waters of the Vez, apparently the least polluted river in Europe.
My guides, cheery chaps Joao Azevedo and Pedro Lopes from Cavado Fly Fishing, show me some stunning spots and give me helpful tips on how to cast.
Amazingly, after a few hours, I land a decent sized wild brown trout.
The concept of “catch and release” is growing in popularity here, so I happily put my fish back and watch him swim free.
Cavado offers bespoke guided fishing tours in most rivers in the area, and whether beginner or expert, you’re guaranteed a memorable experience.
Fishing stirs the appetite and dinner at traditional O Pote in Arcos is worth waiting for.
It’s here I enjoy my first vinho verde (literally “green wine” but translated as “young wine”).
Codfish is everywhere and I instantly become a fan of deep-fried cod parcels.
Another scrumptious dish is cozido à Portuguesa – a boiled dinner prepared with carrots, potatoes, beans, cabbages, pork, poultry and beef.
Suitably sated, I enjoy a restful night’s sleep at clean-cut Luna Arcos Hotel.
Next morning, I meet with bearded hiking guide Miguel Rios who’s planned a 25-kilometre route along Eco Via do Vez to the postcard-perfect village of Sistelo and into Vale do Minho.
We stop for a picnic on a rock in the middle of the Vez and Miguel brings out coffee and a bag full of sugary cakes. Just wow!
Crossing a Roman bridge, we reach Sistelo. The village is classified by UNESCO as a World Biosphere Reserve and the area is steeped in history.
Strolling through the streets, we stumble upon churches, cute chapels and a 19th-century castle. Away from the crowds, in the twisty, narrow back alleys, old wooden buildings crumble and iron staircases rust.
Leaving the village, we climb into gorse-peppered mountains, with Miguel veering off course to point out views of dramatic hilltops, deep ravines and even an old wolf trap.
Reaching Vale do Minho, we stop for lunch beside a group of curious Hobbit-like stone ruins. These, Miguel reveals, are known as “brandas” and are where farmers brought livestock in summer.
Here, wild horses roam and it’s rather special to hear their soft whinnies echoing through the valley.
Once again Miguel digs out a feast of treats and, firing up a gas stove, marinades a giant stick of chorizo in homemade “agua aguardente”, translated as “fire water”. Accompanied with hunks of fresh bread and cheese, it’s sensational.
The highlight of the day for me – and there are many – is experiencing “little Portuguese Tibet”. This terraced landscape resembles a huge, green staircase descending to the bottom of the valley.
Cows graze the verdant slopes and ramshackle farmsteads sit topsy turvy. It’s truly magical – like something out of a fairytale.
After a day’s hiking, I’m hungry, so dinner at Sistelo’s laidback Cantinho do Abade tastes like manna from heaven.
It’s dark when I reach my accommodation, Quinta Lamosa, a stunning mix of country houses with outdoor pool and garden near Gondoriz.
The properties are owned by João Pedro Serôdio, a man who promotes ecotourism and arranges activities for visitors, whether horse riding, hiking, canyoning or cycle touring.
The following morning, I head deep into Peneda-Geres National Park (Portugal’s only national park), visiting Mezio Gate and pilgrimaging to remote Senhora de Peneda.
It’s worth the drive to see imposing cathedral Santuario de Nossa Senhora da Peneda, with its seemingly never-ending winding, grandiose staircases. Walking up and down gets the heart racing but you can pause to peek into the tiny chapels.
To cool down, Miguel suggests wild swimming and as luck would have it, there’s a river with a deep pool nearby. I watch as he dives in and, tentatively, dip a toe in and shriek. It’s freezing, but refreshing, to say the least.
Yet another highlight – and an absolute must-see – is Espigueiros of Soajo, standing proud on a huge rock in the village of Soajo.
A strange looking granite army with crucifixes dramatically facing the hills, you might imagine these stone buildings once housed ancient relics. The truth is, they’re granaries, used to store corn and grain.
In fact, these “corn houses” are sprinkled across the region, but Soajo’s are arguably the most majestic and best preserved.
My final night is spent in paradise – at Sobrenatura in the charming village of Gracao. It’s a remote location – the perfect hideaway to escape, rejuvenate and enjoy nature.
Here Rui Leal rents self-catered eco lodges. The view from mine is utterly breathtaking – of mountains, a lake and forest.
Sitting outside I hear church bells ring out across the valley while a swim in the outdoor pool is bliss.
Rui is a wonderful host and over dinner (he invites me to his home where I’m treated to a delicious spread and several bottles of Champagne), he tells me how he offers bespoke trips with activities including kayaking, paddleboarding, canyoning, cycling, or those focused on wine and gastronomy.
The next day, before heading to the airport, I hang out with Nuno Soares, director of the House of Arts and head of the Socio-Cultural Development Division in Arcos de Valdevez. In short, he’s THE culture expert in this neck of the woods.
He takes me on a tour of the town’s castle, Paco de Giela, and treats me to lunch at sensational Costa do Vez.
I’m sad to leave this magical corner of Portugal and can’t wait to return. It really is a hidden gem and a big part of me wants to keep it a secret. Ssh!
Gayle flew from Edinburgh to Porto with Ryanair, www.ryanair.com. Flights start at around £40 and take less than three hours.
Luna Arcos Hotel, www.lunahoteis.com, is from 54 euros a night.
Quinta Lamosa, quintalamosa.com/home/, is from 60 euros per person or 110/130 for the entire house.
Sobrenatura, www.sobrenatura.com is from 75 to 215 euros.
Fishing trips can be arranged with Cavado Fly Fishing, www.cavadoflyfishing.com/fishing/.
To arrange a guided hike with Miguel see liveoutlifelol.blogspot.com.
The trip was supported by Municipio Arcos de Valdevez. www.cmav.pt