From my tent, the views of the reserve’s steep granite cliffs were staggering. On my first evening, I watched the setting sun bathe them in an ethereal pink light, as a steady breeze sharpened the refreshing effect of my gin and tonic. The next day I drove south to meet a young naturalist named Filipe Martins. The hills, ribbed with centuries-old crop terraces, were a reminder that the Coa Valley has been inhabited for more than 20,000 years. My GPS was useless in its compact stone villages, and my rental Peugeot barely squeezed through the narrow cobblestoned streets. A white-haired matron hung laundry; older men sat chatting idly. It felt as if little had changed in the past few centuries—other than the disappearance of many residents.
Martins and I strolled a four-mile segment of the Grand Route, a 125-mile walking trail and wildlife corridor that opened in 2014. “In America, one finds wilderness,” he explained as we tramped past short Pyrenees oaks and clumps of Spanish broom. “In Europe, though, there are basically no places that can be considered pristine.” As we followed the Coa River, we passed disused irrigation canals that ran from decrepit water mills. Nearby, pumpkin patches were still being neatly maintained. Later that evening, after a long chive on unpaved switchbacks, I found myself enjoying an aperitif of white port with tonic, goat cheese, and garlicky alheira sausage on the terrace at Quinta de Ervamoira, a vineyard in the rugged region of Tras-os-Montes. My hosts were Joao Luis Baptista and Mafalda Nicolau de Almeida.
Both work in the region’s wine-making business, and together they run Miles Away, a travel company specialising in food and drink. Last summer, they launched Fly Camp, a mobile-lodging outfitter that offers wildlife adventures in the Coa Valley. With us was Mario Reis, an excitable archaeologist who works in the nearby Coa Valley Archaeological Park.
After a dinner of creamy cod casserole, he drove me there to see the Paleolithic rock art that serves as a record of what this region was like in prehistoric times. The faint etchings were best seen after dark, he said. When we arrived, he trained a spotlight on a mittenshaped slab of rock. I could make out an aurochs, an extinct ancestor of the cow. There was a horse, too, rendered with its head turning back, as if it were evading pursuit. “The main pail of the artistic culture of this period was depicting animals,” Reis explained. “And remember, all of these are wild animals.”