The Parque Natural do Alvão is a protected cultural landscape near the town of Vila Real in the Trás-os-Montes region of north-east Portugal.
It comprises 72.2 sq km of mainly granitic mountain. Because the farming practices are traditional, the land still supports a wealth of plants, birds, invertebrates and mammals.
Best to visit in the spring or autumn, when the weather isn’t too hot or too cold!
Trás-os-Montes – “Behind the Mountains” – is the name given to the north-east corner of Portugal. Long isolated by the mountains, it is probably one of the least-developed areas of the country.
The Peneda-Geres National Park creeps into the extreme north-west, the Montesinho Natural Park lies in the north, the International Natural Park of the Douro lies along the River Douro in the east, and the Natural Park of Alvão lies in the south-west. In between are ancient towns and cities, dating back to Roman times, vineyards, olive groves, chestnut groves, almost orchards, and generally low-intensity agriculture.
Three of us from Pembrokeshire visited Vila Real for a workshop at the University in October 2013, then stayed on for a few days intending to visit at least Alvão. The weather was against us. Sunshine during the workshop gave way to mist and rain. Alvão was sometimes just visible from the hotel window, sometimes not.
The park information centre in Vila Real gave us little information – a glossy guide-book to the exhibition area which was closed for the season. Yes, the park was good to visit, and yes, there were places to walk, but there was virtually no public transport (one bus a day through the park). We would have to use a taxi, or a hire car. The tourist information centre didn’t add much of use – just a few snippets of information here and there.
With the weather showing no signs of improving, we decided our best bet was to find a guide who could show us the park in one day – our final full day. The Tourist Information Centre found us Antonio Lagoa and Ana Noga. Antonio was the naturalist, while Ana spoke excellent English and had a car. We squeezed in and out of this small car, and learnt far more about the park than we would have by going it alone (even if we three naturalists had managed all three days there) despite the mist and drizzle.
Landscapes within the park are a mixture of woodland, moorland, rock and water, with a small amount of cultivated land and ancient villages. Of the broadleaved woodland, Pyrenean oak dominates (86% with 13% English oak, and 1% cork oak). Antonio stopped here to show us some fungi – but villagers must have got there first, as he didn’t find what he had hoped to show us.
The local Maronés breed of cattle is quite distinctive with its dark brown coast, white-edged nose and lyre-shaped horns. It is hardy, being adapted to the mountains, and has been used for pulling carts and ploughs as well as for meat and milk. It also has a ceremonial place, being dressed up and decorated for local festivals.
Lamas de Olo
At 1000m, Lamas de Olo is the highest village in the park. Most of its traditional thatched roofs have been replaced with pantiles. The utility cables and satellite dishes add to the sense of mixed modernity here. The houses are small – one or two rooms above the barn at ground level.
Within the park, there are about 486 plant species, of which 25 are Iberian endemics, 6 are Portuguese endemics, and 23 species have a conservation status – meaning they are rare or vulnerable. Highlights include the paradise lily Paradisea lusitanica, heath spotted orchid Dactylorhiza maculata, an endemic germander Teucrium salviastrum, Arenaria querioides, and the carnivorous common sundew Drosera rotundifolia. October isn’t the best month for flowers, so we saw only a few species, including the marsh gentian Gentiana pneumonanthe (see Alcon Blue below) and some autumn-flowering bulbs.
The upland pastures are permanently wet, with distinctive vegetation of high conservation value, and a variety of invertebrates too. Lameiros are irrigated upland meadows – a distinctive form of land-use in the Portuguese mountains. A network of ditches carries water to provide moisture in summer and keeps the water moving in winter to prevent it freezing. The meadows have a high biodiversity that includes several of those species of plant endemic to the Iberian peninsula – such as the Paradise Lily (which flowers from May-July so we didn’t see it). The hay from these meadows is needed to feed the cattle in winter. Where crops are grown, they follow a two-year cycle. Rye is grown in year one, fodder crops in the winter and spring, potato and maize the following summer. This preserves the soil fertility, soil moisture, and fits in with the availability of irrigation water.
A bush-cricket prowls through the scrub, looking for food. This is a Uromenus species – one of several similar species found in Iberia.
Alcon Blue butterfly Phengaris alcon
The Alcon blue is a medium-sized blue-brown butterfly that is widespread across Europe, but only in localized colonies. Its full range isn’t well known yet, so the Collins 1997 field guide doesn’t show it is being in Portugal. However, there are now known to be several colonies including here in Alvão.
Like some other species of Lycaenidae (blue butterflies), its caterpillar stage depends on support by certain ants. Here, the butterfly lays its eggs onto the Marsh Gentian Gentiana pneumonanthe (in some other areas, a different species of gentian is used). The caterpillars eat no other plants. The eggs are laid on or near the flower bud, sometimes singly, sometimes a dozen or more on a clump of buds.
The eggs are tiny – look for the white dot below the centre in this photo. Alcon larvae leave the food plant when they reach the 4th moult, and wait on the ground below to be discovered by ants. The larvae produce chemicals (allomones) similar to those of ant larvae, causing the ants to carry the Alcon larvae into their nests and place them in their brood chambers, where they are fed by worker ants and where they devour ant larvae. The larva pupates, and as soon as it hatches, the adult must escape the ant nest. The ants recognise the butterfly as an intruder, but when they go to attack it with their jaws they can’t grab anything more than the abundant loose scales that protect the butterfly.
The Alcon larvae don’t have it all their own way, though. They are sought underground by the Ichneumon eumerus wasp. On detecting an alcon blue larva the wasp enters the nest and sprays a pheromone that causes the ants to attack each other. In the resulting confusion, the wasp locates the butterfly larva and injects it with its eggs. On pupation, the wasp eggs hatch and consume the chrysalis from the inside. Our guides explained that this particular field in Alvão was managed specifically for the Alcon blue. Butterfly Conservation Europe had organised work parties of volunteers to cut the scrub back. The farmer had only three cows to graze the field. The ideal conditions for the butterfly require plenty of vegetation on damp soils, but not so much vegetation (especially scrub) that the soils become too cold and wet for the ants.
The weather got worse during the day. We had an excellent lunch at the Tasquinha da Alice in Bilhó (Tasca da Alice in Bobal – to give the anglicised version of the name) – it’s just outside the park, and provides great local cuisine). Visibility was almost non-existent. Bilhó is a small parish – with less than 600 inhabitants – but I was surprised to see later on the aerial map that there were houses near the Tasquinha. All we saw was this tiny Ermita (hermitage) and Celtic cross by the roadside. It looked hardly big enough to stand up in, and possibly the slit in the side suggests it was more of a confessional (or perhaps a prison) than anything else. But you get the idea about the weather!
Five or ten minutes of driving took us to the Bilhó Cascade – the main attraction for the village. The River Cabrão cascades down a steep slope, then through a culvert under the road before continuing down and out of sight – at least, we couldn’t see anything more of it.
Annual rainfall in the area is around 1200mm (46 inches) so there is usually plenty of water around. Summers, though, can be hot and dry.
Fisgas de Ermelo
Another 15 minutes or so of driving along roads that switched back and forth along the hillside brought us to another waterfall. Actually, it was several hundred metres in the distance, and we had to wait for breaks in the mist in order to see anything. The Fisgas de Ermelo is not directly accessible by road, but you can hike there from the village, or from the viewpoint.
There was little else to see, but the delight of the day was a brief glimpse of a wall-creeper flying past the overlook.
Ermelo itself is further along the narrow mountain road. This 800 year-old village has many buildings with traditional slate roofs – but the slates are huge and irregularly shaped. While some of the buildings are clearly in a state of disrepair, others are well-maintained. Points of historic interest are marked, with some information boards too.
Here are a couple of video about the Parque that I found on YouTube. The narration is in Portuguese, but you can just enjoy the visuals if you don’t understand the language.
Lots of useful information on the Parque Natural do Alvão website
The Portuguese flora website is useful for checking the distribution, flowering periods, etc of the wildflowers of the country.
Click on covers for more information. Books about the butterflies, dragonflies and other groups seem to be out of print, so general books about these groups in Europe are the only ones I know of.
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