The Dão river and valley measures a length of about 120 km and on the Caminho do Dão you can walk the valley in 6 days. The caminho is mainly set out on old paths and roads (caminhos) through the rural and forested landscape of the valley. Everywhere in Portugal the landscape is full of these old caminhos that have been used by the locals for centuries and lend themselves perfectly for experiencing the countryside of the interior of Portugal.
In setting out the trail the focus was on providing a varied experience of the landscape as well as of the act of hiking. This has resulted in a trail that weaves its way through the valley over, along, away from and back to the river. You get to experience all the qualities of a river valley from the shaded cool banks of the Dão to the vistas deep into the valley ahead and behind as seen from the valley rims.
The Dão river flows from east to west which means that one walks with the direction of the water and the movement of the sun. From the source to the mouth of the river, you ‘walk with the movement of the elements’. Walking days average at about 22 km per day and during the week you cross the Dão river 14 times.
The Dão valley is a rich patchwork of landscapes that tell the story of what is happening in and to nature in the entire Center/North region of Portugal. Along the 100 km length of the river valley you find everything from patches of the original endemic forests teeming with wildlife to burned swats of eucalyptus monoculture plantations with no topsoil left. For the hiker interested in this ‘story of nature in the 21st century’, walking through the Dão valley is an engaging experience of a landscape that changes throughout every single hiking day and the valley has enough nature left to breathe in deep gratitude along the way.
The presence of the river that is always there, either near or down in the valley, is like a partner on the hike. A partner that moves and changes along the way, a partner that soothes the feet and legs tired from walking and offers shady lunch spots on its banks. The Dão has carved itself a way through the granite bedrock of the Beira Alta and the granite rock formations that are scattered throughout the valley add an interesting feature to the landscape.
The fact that the Dão river shares its name with the ancient Dao philosophy (also know as the Tao) is a true gift for a walking route along this river. Dao (Tao) stands for ‘the way’ and ‘the path’. Dedicating yourself to experiencing and studying the Dao involves broadening one’s understanding of nature and it’s ways, in-order to pursue balance and harmony within yourself and in relation to nature. Walking the length of the Dão river is a very fitting way to dedicate oneself to experiencing ‘the Dao’ just by walking and being. During the first edition of the Caminho do Dão we had a practice to contemplate on one quote from Lao Tzu (the author of the Tao Te Ching) per day.
The Dão valley is rich in cultural heritage with countless roman bridges and stepping stones to cross the river. Some of the cultural highlights are: the rich living tradition of wine making, the pastoral use of the land, the terraced contours of the hillsides and the many small plots of land used for family agriculture. In terms of the ‘built environment’ the hiker will pass roman roads, remnants of medieval settlements, villages and towns with narrow cobblestone streets, granite houses and old town squares. A rural way of living – with the land – is still dominant in this region and it is interesting to see how nature and culture are ‘woven together’. Most human activity in the Dão valley takes place on the rims. That’s where most of the villages are and from there the agricultural lands reach down into the valley.
While walking the Caminho do Dão you meet many people working on the land or in the villages and small café’s. The experience is that hikers are always met with kindness and curiosity. Off course it helps to walk with hikers that also speak Portuguese so that you can have an actual conversation with the people you meet along the way. The conversations and contact with the locals is heartwarming and while walking you also get to know the ‘Boa Gente’ (Good People) of the Dão valley.