Dodging Cows in the Peneda-Gerês In Portugal’s Minho Region
This Is part two of a four-part series on Portugal’s Minho Region. Read part one.
Exploring the wilds of northern Portugal, we drove along a single-track road, winding down to the River Lima, then back up a thousand feet. One blind curve, followed by another, and another—but fortunately little oncoming traffic. Our destination? On the rocks above us was the best-known sight in this otherwise little-known region. The espigueiros do Soajo are compact, elevated stone granaries, each topped with two crosses. The granaries have been used since the 1700s to dry and store corn out of reach of grain-stealing rodents. But perched like sentinels atop a scenic rocky ridge, the granaries look eerily like hilltop mausoleums.
There’s almost nothing else to see in the quiet village of Soajo. A shop, a restaurant or two, and a cluster of surprisingly modern houses, all perched high above the Lima River. Visitors come here to marvel at the espigueiros and explore the wilds of Peneda-Gerês, Portugal’s only national park.
Peneda-Gerês park is expansive, but sparsely inhabited. It is rough and rocky land to farm—a hard life for those who inherit plots of land here. Some of those who live in Peneda-Gerês help take care of the semi-wild beasts that roam the park. Descending the curving road from Soajo, don’t let the breathtaking views distract your driving. It’s not just other cars you have to think about.
The first watch out for cows sign got our attention. We had read about the beautiful Portuguese wild horses that make their home in the park. But cows? Our first cow encounter came as we left the granaries.
We drove out of Soajo behind a tiny “clown car” overloaded with five young men. It moved quickly—as fast as tiny cars full of large men can go—and then skidded to a stop in front of us. Everyone but the driver jumped out and ran up the road. Just ahead was a massive cow stretched out in the shade in the road. The beast wore a collar of brass bells the size of grapefruits and its horns seemed wider than the road. It’s worth mentioning that the warning signs failed to illustrate the cow’s horns. We suppose whoever designed them didn’t want to alarm tourists. Our planned thirty-minute drive from hilltop Soajo down to Arcos de Valdevez took a bit longer as we dodged dozens of cows and more than a few wild horses sharing the road.
Peneda-Gerês Park is a ruggedly remote region of northern Portugal, abutting a once-contested Spanish border. And in 1140, mass conflict seemed inevitable nearby at the Battle of Valdevez.
The history of Portugal can be a mystery to foreign visitors, whose knowledge often begins and ends with a vague notion about Vasco da Gama. We were lucky enough to have a tutor. The complex situation leading to the Battle of Valdevez was patiently summarized for us by local historian Nuno Soares. As he guided us through the Paço de Giela, a partially restored fortified manor house near the pretty riverside town of Arcos de Valdevez, Nuno simplified the story for us.
This was a battle between two cousins: Alfonso I of Portugal and Alfonso VII of León (northwest Spain). The armies of the dueling Alfonsos faced off here in 1141 and a massive conflict loomed. A clergyman who knew both cousins intervened and helped convince them to stage a jousting tournament instead of committing their armies to a bloody battle. The tournament was won by Portuguese knights and Alfonso I helped gain independence for Portugal.
In our next article, we visit Ponte de Lima and ponder the question: are we brave enough to cross the river?
Portugal, a Tale of Small Cities is available on Amazon.