Monday, June 26, 2017

Day 9 - Serra da Estrela

We left Porto on a quiet Saturday morning and headed inland towards Serra da Estrela.

When I was a child, my Portuguese teacher would talk about this place as if it were a magical land of legends (or so it sounded to my young ears).  It impressed upon me a desire to one day see it in person - how could you not want to visit a place that translates to "Star Mountains"?

The roads, like the ones in Gerês, were full of sharp turns and snaked increasingly upwards.  In certain parts they were narrower than we would have liked, but J is growing increasingly comfortable with Portuguese driving and we smoothly rose further up into the mountains.

In winter, the landscape would be covered in lovely snow caps, but summer brings its own treasures.  Our first stop at a viewpoint revealed not only a breathtaking landscape of jagged peaks, lush green plants of various shades, and a sparkling blue sky, but also delicate and colourful mountain butterflies that flitted everywhere we looked.  Buttercup yellows, white with intricate black streaks, and even tiny rainbow-coloured ones fluttered around us from flower to flower.  Entranced, I chased them around for a bit with my camera, trying to capture their ephemeral magic, before I reluctantly returned to the car.

Our accommodations for the night were in Manteigas, a small mountain town, so we headed there to drop off our bags and then continue on to one of the trails.

Poço do Inferno (a waterfall) was our target, so we acquired a trail map from the hotel front desk and were on our way.  The start of the trail was well indicated, so up we went - this time, with hiking boots... lest this be another flip-flop fiasco!  The terrain grew increasingly more challenging, and we straddled boulders, balanced precariously on steep inclines and tried in vain to find the trail.

We had read on the internet that Portugal is notoriously bad for trail markers, and we seemed to be experiencing it already.  No more than a few minutes into the hike and we were already likely off the trail and just wandering in the mountains.  I did hear the sound of falling water, though, so I persisted in forging some sort of path where there was none, and J followed cautiously behind me.

I stood up on a boulder to get a better view below.  And there it was - something that looked indeed like the Poço do Inferno.  The small waterfall tumbled over boulders and into a lovely clear, green-coloured pool.  We perched ourselves on some nearby rocks and enjoyed taking off our hiking boots and letting our feet dangle in the cool water.  We didn't really feel the need to go any further, and spent a good half hour just sitting in the mountains.  We felt very far away from the reset of the world.  Our secret little waterfall.

Later, we descended back down the way we came instead of trying to locate the non-existent trail markers, and explored a bit further down the road from the parking area.  We discovered the real poço do Inferno - very similar to what we had found, but a bigger version.  We took the stairs up for a better look.  There were large boulders around this one that made perfect seats, so again we set up camp on the boulders and just sat watching the water fall and enjoying the bright green pool it was pouring into.  Tourists came and went - snapped their photos, took their selfies, and moved on, while the waterfall remained ours.

We've found that if we wait long enough, we can wait out whoever is briefly visiting whatever spot we happen to want all to ourselves.  It gives us a slower, deeper appreciation for where we are.  Sure, we take the photos too - of course.  But there's more than that.  I want to memorize the sight of fluttering rainbow butterflies landing on pale lavender wildflowers; the sound of water tumbling from high in the mountains into a crystal green pool; the scent of pure mountain air.  I want to take more than a photo, I want to somehow capture the entire experience and take it home with me.  And the only way to do that is to immerse ourselves - so we do.

After this low-key afternoon just experiencing the mountains, we took the drive back to our accommodations in Manteigas and spent some time relaxing in the room before dinner.  We had a beautiful view from our windows; a fantastic landscape of jagged layers of grey and black rocks, white houses with red-clay roofs, evergreen forests on the hills, dancing butterflies, and the scent of fresh, crisp mountain air.  In my mind's eye, I try to go back in time and tell that small child who I used to be, that she will indeed get to visit 'Star Mountains' one day, and that it will be more wonderful than she could have imagined.

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