This land used to be underwater, “home” to mysterious, gigantic animals from the Palaeozoic Period. Today, the park has fossils dating as far back as millions of years, which are one of the many prizes of the Arouca Geopark.
There are various tours that can take you to explore the traditional villages, waterfalls, herds of goats and sheep, and Arouca cattle – one of the most coveted meats in Portugal – roaming free on the mountains. Be adventurous and raft down Paiva River in a canoe or kayak. Recharge your batteries and indulge in the local cuisine and convent sweets.
Adventure on the river or on dry land
The Arouca Geopark is part of UNESCO’s European Geoparks Network, and is located in the north part of Arouca district, covering an area of 327 km2. It contains 41 geosites, places of geological interest. This is a true geological museum surrounded by the Freita, Arada and Montemuro mountains.
You won’t be short of options to explore nature: mountains, rivers, and breathtaking views. There are a number of walking trails that combine the pleasure of walking with the discovery of places of geological and historical interest. On your way, you will find villages built on the mountain terraces, with thatched and slate roofs (with names like Alvarenga, Noninha, Janarde and Meitriz); schist and granite houses; barns, threshing floors and mills; villages where the houses have thatched and slate roofs; steep slopes and deep valleys.
At the height of World War II, many miners carrying their pickaxes came here to look for the “black gold” – tungsten –easy-earned money – in a sort of a “gold fever” in the Arouca style.
For those wanting to explore historical and scientific aspects of the land and, at the same time, build up their stamina, there is the Rota do Ouro Negro, visiting the old tungsten mines, and the Rota do Xisto (a 16 km circuit trail), overlooking the Aguieiras waterfall.
If you’re looking for extreme emotions, there are plenty of offers from the various extreme sports companies operating in the area. You can choose to go to the River Paiva beach, the fastest-flowing river in Arouca, and the more daring can always leave firm ground and experience the sensations of its whitewater.
The River Paiva is one of the least polluted rivers in Europe, and is very popular among rafting, canyoning, canoeing and canoe-rafting fans. The Paiva rapids are sure to bring you an unforgettable rush of adrenalin.
Freita Mountain is the source of a large river system consisting of several rivers and streams. The region has a lot of rain and dense fog as it is close to the sea –30 km away in a straight line – and the altitude of Freita Mountain (its peaks rise above 1,000 m).
This microclimate feeds the rivers and the streams of Freita Mountain, making it the place in Portugal with the most river water sports.
The Geopark offers unique conditions for off-road tracks, orienteering, mountaineering and arborism (tress adventures).
If you’re lucky, you will see the cattle returning to the villages by themselves at the end of the day. You can also see rare flora and fauna species: the Iberian wolf, the wild boar, the wild cat, among others, and trees such as holly.
The geological heritage of Arouca is extremely rich: fossils in Vale do Paiva, “Pedras Boroas” in Junqueiro (they take their name from their aspect – two granite blocks shaped like corn bread).
In Canelas, you will find fossils from some of the largest and rarest – or even unique – species in the world.
Trilobites lived on earth for more than 280 million years until they disappeared 250 million years ago, before the dinosaurs. They lived in deep or shallow waters and dominated the animal life on the planet during the Paeleozoic Period.
The Canelas Geological Interpretation Centre, which you will come across along the Rota do Xisto, is a museum housing an important collection of giant trilobite fossils, including the largest trilobite fossil in the world.
There are some other geological phenomena have turned Arouca into a unique attraction. The “pedras parideiras” (procreating stones) “give birth to” other stones. In fact, the encrusted nodules flake off from the main rock due to erosion. They are found on Freita Mountain, near Castanheira.
The belvedere in Castanheira offers a view of the enormous waterfall on the River Caima. The Frecha da Mizarela, drops abruptly from a height of 60 metres, making it one of the highest in Europe and is a must-see when you are visiting the Arouca Geopark. The Mizarela cliffs are worth climbing!
Continue your trip through history and stop at the 10th century. See the Church (with its carved pews and the pipe organ), the Nuns Choir, the cloisters and the rich Sacred Art Museum – housing objects of worship, vestments, furniture, jewels, liturgical manuscripts and rare items.
The secrets of the Monastery
Arouca is famous for two particular dishes: Arouca beef and Gralheira kid, roasted in a wood-fired oven. The local Vinho Verde wine combines perfectly with these dishes.
The meat typical from this region is from the Arouca cattle breed, which has protected designation of origin and is certified.
The cattle is raised free range on the mountain slopes, feeding on the pure mountain vegetation, which is essential for its quality beef that is tender and a good reason for travelling to Arouca.
Roasted veal, Arouca steak, Arouca ribs and Alvarenga steak are some of the traditional dishes found in the many quality restaurants in Arouca.
But there is more to local cuisine than just the main course. The nuns from the Arouca Monastery left a legacy of delicacies to the region – the recipes are still a heavily guarded secret. Sweet chestnuts, manjar de língua, barrigas de freira, roscas and charutos de amêndoa, morcelas doces and bolas de S. Bernardo are all part of the convent sweets of Arouca.
Local desserts are quite enticing too: pão-de-ló (a sponge cake), cavacas and melindres.
How to get there
There are several direct connections to Porto. If you choose to fly low cost, you can fly from London (Stansted and Gatwick), Birmingham, Paris (Beauvais, Orly, Vatry and Charles de Gaulle), Marseille, Dole, Lille, Strasbourg, Tours, St. Etienne, Bordeaux, Lyon, Nantes, Madrid, Barcelona El Prat, Valencia, Milan Bergamo, Roma Ciampino, Brussels (Charleroi and Zaventem), Eindhoven, Maastricht, Amsterdam, Geneva, Basel/Mulhouse, Dortmund, Frankfurt Hahn, Karlsruhe Baden, Nuremberg, Hamburg Lübeck , Munich Memmingen and Dusseldorf Weeze.
In the summer, low cost companies fly from Liverpool, Dublin, Bologna, Toulouse, Clermont Ferrand, Carcassonne, La Rochelle, Limoges, Rennes, Las Palmas, Palma de Majorca, Tenerife and Bremen.
Traditional airlines fly to Porto from London (Gatwick and Heathrow), Madrid, Barcelona, Munich, Frankfurt, and Paris Orly, Caracas, Geneva, Luxembourg, Amsterdam, Milan Malpensa, Zurich, New York, São Paulo, Rio de Janeiro, Brussels Zaventem, Rome Fiumicino, Toronto, and Luanda. In the summer, you can also fly from Montreal, Brest and Brive.
If you’re driving from Porto, take the A1 and leave the motorway when you see the signs for Arouca/Feira/S. João da Madeira/Vale de Cambra. The road then takes you through Nogueira do Cravo, Carregosa and Chão de Ave until you reach Arouca.