Nature rediscovered at Peneda-Gerês

By: Manuela Perkins

Photo: Pedro Alarcão

Essential Algarve headed up north to discover the beauty of nature with Ecotura

The trip has been long, but the owners of Ecotura gave me specific instructions: “We are inside the Peneda-Gerês National Park, near the village of Castro Laboreiro.” I must confess, their description of the Park made me curious.

Throughout the trip, the passionate words they used to describe the region echoed in my head: “It’s really close to the Spanish border and it’s a biosphere reserve,” Anabela told me on the phone. “It’s a region where you can still see the oxen pulling the plough or Castro Laboreiro Dog guarding the cattle that graze freely on the mountain.” Is it really possible to find a place like this in modern-day Europe? It was with this and many other questions in mind that I arrived on a quiet spring afternoon to the area of João Alvo. A paradise in the middle of the mountain, where the aggressive granite lines contrast with the sweetness and the green tones of the fresh oak woods. These were my first impressions.

Arriving at the area’s centre square, I shut down the engine, whose rumbling kept me company for many kilometres, and opened the door. I was met with silence. A deep silence that I had not “heard” for a long time and that made me think. The small rural settlement of Ecotura, from the early 20th century, has now been restored by the owners. I am amazed at the beautiful constructive simplicity of the typical granite houses that now surround me. The pattern of the walls is intricate; the stones, once juxtaposed by the experienced and calloused hands of local artisans, tell the story of a rural world where survival was an art.

A smiling couple walks through a door. Anabela and Pedro Alarcão, two journalists who left Lisbon in 2004. Working on a documentary at the time titled The Secret Life of Wolves (A Vida Secreta dos Lobos), they fell in love with the local beauty and decided to stay. They invite me into the village’s common room. On the ground floor of the house, I found a space where granite meets wood in a tastefully decorated living room that quickly made me feel at home. But it wasn’t until I got to the rooms that I realised just how different Ecotura was from many of the other places where I had stayed.

“Have you seen how patient my wife is?” Pedro asked me, with ease and pride. “Everything you see in wood was made by her.” I looked around and was amazed by a series of unique pieces in chestnut and oak woods. The furniture, made with care and know-how by the owner, brings nature into the house. As an unconditional lover of natural beauty, Anabela makes her pieces with woods that show faces not carved by machines, as if the trees she found fallen in the woods could come to life again, and, this time around, just to delight my eyes.

On the walls, I can see a different passion. Canvases from Pedro’s studio on winter nights showcase the driving force behind most of the rooms available in the village — horses and equestrian tourism. Pedro and Anabela have based their lives here on organising equestrian and yoga holiday programmes along with a series of other thematic pedestrian activities. The calm retreat environment provides Yoga and Nature programmes that combine yoga practice with nature walks and meditation on the banks of the Laboreiro River, famous for its crystal-clear waters.

This week there was a Yoga for Riders programme. The day started with a quiet morning dedicated to doing yoga, followed by lunch in the outdoor gardens, a combination of gourmet and healthy food. From here we left for the Equestrian Center. Upon arrival, I came across animals that live in semi-freedom. They spend most of their time in the pastures and only at night they gather at paddocks or boxes, so they are protected from the wolves. Today they had to work. Pedro and Anabela, along with the clients, went to pick them up from the fields and started preparing for the activities.

Everything is done calmly and softly. Lusitano, Arabian, Luso-Arabian and also some Garrano horses are at ease as they are prepared to depart. The trail begins through paths surrounded by stonewalls and into the area of the Castrejo plateau, at an altitude of 1,300 metres. The view is breathtaking: A green plateau sprinkled with pink and purple from heather and yellow from carqueja and tojo. From the top, you can see Spain to the north and the whole mountain range that forms the Peneda-Gerês National Park. In the valley, small villages surrounded by oak trees complete the landscape. Along the way, we came across several herds of wild horses — Garranos, a breed that has survived in this area since the last glacial periods and has always lived in freedom. 

Pedro also told me about the other programmes they run. Equestrian weeks for experienced riders, which combine full-day tours on horseback with smaller tours complemented with visits to the region. In addition, they hold educational weeks for those who are just getting started in the world of horse riding. The day ended with a dinner served in the house, with a succession of traditional Portuguese food, accompanied by the famous Alvarinho wine. From the starters, through the soup and the main course, to the dessert, everything excelled in taste and presentation.

I finished the day with my spirit, mind and body comforted. As I laid down, a feeling of peace enveloped me. A sensation that lasted until the morning, when I woke up with the chirping of the birds.

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