Since my husband is working for an organisation called Rewilding Europe, we are exploring parts of Europe that we didn’t know existed. Did you know… That you don’t have to go to Africa to get a proper wildlife experience? Europe is still perceived as much more a culture than a nature destination but you will be amazed by the pristine nature you can still find here!
One of the first tourism projects of Rewilding Europe was a star camp in the Coa Valley of Portugal. We asked two friends to join us, and jump on a plane to Madrid. An easy three hour drive from Madrid we found ourselves in Portugal where the adventure started. The drive to the little village where we spent the first night took us through Almeida. We had to conquer small archways and tunnels, surrounded by history.
From Almeida, we could see the village of Castelo Rodrigo in the distance. A beautiful old-tiled wall told us we arrived in the village, and finding the guesthouse we were staying at was not too difficult as the village exists of just a few streets. At Casa da Cisterna we received a warm-hearted welcome. I didn’t know what to expect, but certainly not this! The level of luxury and personal service is comparable to five-star hotels. We lingered at the pool (with a view!) and enjoyed sipping our G&Ts before we showered and changed to enjoy a superb dinner on the veranda, served by Ana, the owner.
Portugal, the land of good wines and port. And so we enjoyed a glass (or actually a few) of port as a nightcap. It made me fall asleep before my head hit the pillow, or was it the clean air and beautiful surroundings?
The next day we decided to explore the little settlement of Castelo Rodrigo. It has history! The village was founded by Alfonso IX of Leon, in order to be given to Count Rodrigo Gonzalez de Giron – who gave it its name. It became into possession of the Portuguese crown in 1297. The ruins on top of the hill can tell you many stories about revenge, annexation and all past glories. When the village was still on the route to Santiago de Compostela, it’s said that St. Francis of Assisi spent the night here – and we can now only agree on his decision…
One thing that you’ll notice while traveling this part of Portugal is that there are hardly any ‘young’ people around. They left the small villages behind to find a job in the city, or study. You’ll meet a lot of old, friendly people who live their lives the way they did 50 years ago. As if you are being thrown back into time.
After discovering Castelo Rodrigo we drove to our next stay; the Starcamp! We stopped for lunch at Casa Irene, a small family-owned restaurant with delicious local specialities. We enjoyed pulpo and goat, I can guarantee you that we didn’t leave anything on the plate. After lunch, we decided to do a bit of walking and exploring in Almeida – we got curious on our drive in and it was time soak up some more history.
Forward and onward, off to the Guesthouse where owner Miguel was taking us to the star-camp, built by Rewilding Europe. In the beautiful and remote Faia Brava Reserve, where you can still encounter wild horses, free roaming cattle and lots of other smal(ler) animals, you’ll find three (soon to be four) luxury safari tents, on a raised wooden platform with privacy and views as the most important assets.
We arrived just as the sun was setting, and were sipping on some Portuguese bubbles while overlooking the Coa Valley. And after the sun disappeared behind the last mountain, we headed to finally have a look at our hideaway for the night. How amazing was that! The tents are completely open from the front (you can close if you wish, but that would be a waste of the view!) and there is a very comfy bed with a bathroom (including shower, with hot water) plus a nice seating area. Every tent will also get it’s own patio under one of the trees in the future, where you can just sit and read a book or enjoy a private dinner.
We basically enjoyed a private dinner, as we were the only four in the camp. The location for the dining table was chosen carefully by Miguel and by the time we went up the hill the night was slowly falling and darkness was setting in. The dining room table was surrounded by solar-jars (they recharge during the day by sunlight, and give you light in the evening) and dinner existed of a yummie cheese and pear combination for starter, a chicken-stew for main and a divine home-made rice pudding for desert. After dinner, Miguel packed up and left us all alone in the reserve. What an experience!
We returned to our bush-suite for a game of cards together with some port and all slept like babies that night. My wake-up call was done by a little curious fox, scratching on the back of the tent and curiously examining us from the veranda. We got up early, and took off to ‘the hide’. The hide is at about a rough 30 minute drive from the star-camp. It was time to see some vultures!
In the Faia Brava reserve, there are two different vulture species called the Egyptian Vulture and Griffon Vulture. The extremely rare Black Vulture has also been seen already, which is a very good sign. Our guide told us to be very quiet while in the hide and be patient, sometimes the vultures tend to circle long to check out the surroundings before landing and feeding on the bones and meat put on the ground.
Patience was not necessary. As soon as the meat was being put down, the vultures flocked down and feasted on their meal. We didn’t know where to look, there were so many of them! The size of these birds is amazing, and to see them communicating, protecting their own meals and checking out the surroundings was a first class wildlife experience.
After spending an hour in the hide, the meat was gone and we were starting to get hungry ourselves. Time for breakfast! Breakfast was served at ‘the pigeon house’, an amazingly cool spot overlooking the valley. From there, we had an amazing view on a nest of little vultures, and the stunning nature surrounding us.
Unfortunately it was time to leave the Faia Brava reserve after breakfast, and continue our journey through the north of Portugal. My opinion? This was a once-in-a-lifetime experience, and such a ‘reset’. The one night felt like having been on holiday for weeks; just nature and good company, what a lucky girl I am!
Tip: Combine this with a night or two in Madrid and a few nights in Salamanca. If you crave some luxury, throw in a stay at the Six Senses in Portugal. Don’t forget to book a spa appointment if you do!