After what felt like a long hibernation, a couple of weeks ago we got an invitation from Rewilding Portugal to hit the tracks and explore some areas they are currently working on as part of their Greater Côa Valley rewilding project. This vast area in central Portugal is now one of the less populated regions in the country, as a result of decades of land abandonment and a significant loss of population caused by emigration to other countries and the younger generations searching for better opportunities in the big cities like Porto and the capital Lisbon.
With the fields not being farmed for years, nature gradually started reclaiming its original domains creating the ideal conditions for the rewilding of this region along the Côa river, a tributary of the mighty Douro, some 140 kms north of its source up in the Serra das Mesas, located on the “raia”, (border line in English), just a few hundred meters away from the border with Spain.
These unique conditions enabled this region to become the homeground of Rewilding Portugal, the team representing Portugal in the Rewilding Europe network, whose aim is to contribute to nature conservation through rewilding, letting nature take the lead to restore natural habitats.
The briefing for the day was simple and yet exciting: to explore some of the best and wildest places in the Greater Côa Valley. As locals, we thought we had a generally good knowledge of the region, but little did we know what was about to unfold as we went along the day. We started our journey at the medieval village of Vilar Maior, where even birds of prey clearly out number the human residents.
After leaving the vehicles at the main square, we took a walk to the top of the hill where the old castle is located, and got rewarded with a stunning 360º view as far the eyes could see, with the Côa valley and two of its smaller tributaries just in front of us showing the most verdant color we had seen in a long time.
From the top of the castle walls we could see the snow tipped mountain tops of Serra da Estrela to the West and the Sierra de Gata already in Spain to the East. It was now much clearer why these lands were so important to King Dinis of Portugal for him to sign the treaty of Alcanizes in 1297 with King Fernando IV of Castille and Leon.
Next, we hit the trails heading to the area where the Rewilding Portugal team will soon be introducing a herd of semi-wild horses to keep the fields clean of fire prone bushes. Only this time we would do it on foot, as the tracks were to narrow for the Defender and the whole area too precious and delicate for us to leave any signs of passage.
We were already happy with the monuments and the many places of sheer natural beauty, but on the second part of the day we hit jackpot the moment we looked up and put our eyes in the sky. After driving a few kms on a dusty, winding track, we put on the hiking boots again and went up the hill through fields covered in wild lavander and brooms before reaching the top of a huge granite bolder. The view was sublime and verywhere we looked, we could not believe the ruggedness of the landscape and the number and diversity of bird species flying over our heads.
At the end of the day the page on the notebook was full with a list that included Red Kites, Griffon Vultures, Buzzards, Short-toed Snake Eagles, Booted Eagles, Montagu’s Harriers, Bee-eaters, one Golden Eagle and a rare and always illusive White-throated Dipper!
Before the day was complete, time to see an old wolf trap, luckily no longer in use. This simple, rough construction consisting of a 2 meter high circular wall was used to hunt down the wolves that wondered around these lands many years ago. This is another project the Rewilding Portugal team is working on, but that will have to wait until we go further north, where these amazing creatures still survive the attacks from their human predator.
Amazing what nature can do on its own and offer its lovers, just by traveling a few miles from home. And what more could we ask for on an opening day after so many months stuck in front of the laptop? One day was insufficient to know the area as it deserves, so we’ll be back soon to continue the discovery of this unknown part of Portugal for our future trips.
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