Dear fellow travellers
It is an odd experience to arrive in a small town before noon and find a local restaurant full of folk eating lunch. Heavens, what time do these people get up in the mornings that they cannot stay the pangs of hunger until a more respectable hour for lunch? Even Germans, famously early risers and early eaters, wait until the church bells have struck midday before tucking into lunch. Many years of travelling around Europe have taught us that spa towns work to their own temporal regime. Early rising and all those healthy massages clearly stimulate appetites.
Vila do Gerês, the town where spa clients eat before noon, comes as a surprise. It is a little town in northern Portugal, close to the frontier with the Spanish province of Galicia. Gerês is set deep in the hills, and is surprisingly stylish for a rather remote community. Faded, but still elegant, in the manner of a graceful dowager. It has the feel of a Matlock or a Marienbad, a town that is a shade too sedate for its surroundings. For the hills around Gerês are indeed very wild - so thickly clad in winter ice when we were last there that many roads were impassable. This rugged area is the Parque Nacional da Peneda-Gerês. It is Portugal's only national park.
Access versus conservation
Different European countries take varying views of what national parks are for and how they should be managed. In Switzerland, another country with just a single designated national park, the accent is on the conservation of pristine wilderness, so public access to the park is extremely limited.
Portugal, by contrast, espouses a more mixed agenda for the park at Gerês, emphasising conservation of a serenely beautiful natural environment while also encouraging controlled public access. For most of the patients following rigorous routines at spa hotels down in the town, access means no more than gentle walks along well marked trails through wooded valleys. Occasional mossy waterfalls, a seasonal profusion of lilies and ferns, and some handsome woods all add to the mix. There are lots of ancient yews, sturdy oaks and plenty of laurel and holly.
Head out onto the hills around and the terrain becomes altogether wilder. Eighteenth-century travellers through these mountains reported seeing bears. No longer. The bears have long since disappeared. So too have the wolves and the lynx. But the Parque Nacional da Peneda-Gerês is still home to golden eagles and, with peaks rising to about fifteen hundred metres, it includes some genuinely remote country. This spring the national park marks the fortieth anniversary of its creation in 1971.
Back in the town of Gerês, locals split into two camps. There are those who see national park status as a magnet for tourists. And others who argue that the funds invested in conservation and visitor management in the park might have better been used to refurbish some of the fading spa architecture in Gerês. Some of those striking buildings are urgently in need of attention. Vila do Gerês made a good living for two centuries from its mineral hot springs and many in the town's medical and hospitality industry see the waters as the community's principal asset. The town specialises in treatments for diseases associated with ageing, and civic leaders are talking about the democratic dividend that could well benefit Gerês. The Portuguese are not getting any younger, so it looks as though early lunches in Gerês are here to stay.
Nicky Gardner and Susanne Kries
(editors, hidden europe magazine)