There’s something about sitting in a flimsy cabin heading into a thick shroud blotting out the landscape that sends a thrill skipping down the spine, especially as there was no one else making the trip into the unknown on such a dreary day. I thought the cable car journey would be the most exciting part of the trip up Mount Penha…I couldn’t have been more wrong, or more unprepared for what awaited us inside the mist.

An overcast morning had given way to sunny breaks leading to the remark. “It’s starting to clear up. Tomorrow will be better for taking the cable car to the top of Mount Penha.” –  Famous last words.

For three days Mount Penha overlooking Guimarães had been playing hide and seek, occasionally peeking out from behind the clouds to give us a tantalising taste of what lay at the end of the cable car trip (the lazy way up the mountain). For three days we’d held our nerve, hoping for a clear day when we could test if the claim that you could see the Atlantic Ocean from the summit was true. With one day left before we departed the European Capital of Culture 2012, things were starting to brighten up.

However, Mother Mature was teasing us. The following day dawned with the cloud lying lower and heavier than in all the time we had been in Guimarães. It was so low that wispy, misty fingers could reach out and flick my nose as if to mock ‘Ha…you should have gone yesterday.’

The weather was abysmal; not only was Mount Penha shrouded, but the cable cars disappeared into a Silent Hill fog long before they got anywhere near the summit. It did not look appealing. But if we were going to write about it, we had to see what lay at the end of the 7 minute trip to the invisible summit 613 metres above sea level.

The cloud completely concealed the area around the upper cable car station which was tucked like a bunker into the side of the mountain. When we emerged into an eerily silent and foggy Jurassic-like landscape it was as though the cable car had transported us back in time rather than up a hill.

We expected a mini natural theme park with camping area and a couple of restaurants. What we found was a dank, moss covered terrain littered with gigantic granite boulders that created a confusing maze that was both exciting and borderline spooky to explore and where slightly panicky cries of ‘where are you’ were stolen by the cloud. What we found was the Penha Sanctuary, a Mary Celeste of a temple on a plateau devoid of life except for the sound of haunting carols floating eerily on the mist. It was a horror movie setting without the zombies. What we found was a complete and unexpected treat.

That this was a place of worship was in no doubt. You didn’t have to see the tiny chapels or religious sculptures set into the rocks to realise that fact. Mount Penha has a presence. To find the mount’s various relic filled nooks and crannies, you have to negotiate paths through the huge rocks; some so narrow that you have to turn sideways to make progress; some so dark that you can’t see what awaits you in the blackness. Paths invariably lead to treasure; a shrine to the Senhora de Lourdes tucked into the monolithic boulders, a small cave dedicated to the Senhora do Carmo or even an Elven fountain (that’s what it looked like). Almost every path rewarded with a surprise before converging at the summit of Mount Penha where a statue of Pope Pius IX lorded it over a valley he couldn’t see.

Instead of being a damp squib, a trip up Mount Penha on a dreary, cloudy day turned out to be one of the highlights of our trip to Portugal. Ironically, given the poor weather, I believe we saw it at its atmospheric best. The views on a sunny day may be the pay off and you might even get to see the Atlantic Ocean but if you ask me, wait until the cloud descends before you visit this mysterious and enchanting mount.

Fact-file – Teleférico cable car operates every half hour daily from 10.00-17.30 Nov-Mar, 10.00-18.30 Apr, May & Oct, 10.00-20.00 June – Sept; Adults €2.65 one way, €4.30 return, children (4-11yrs) €1.75 one way, €2.15 return.

The scene on Mount penha is very different in summer months than winter. It’s somewhat of an adventure playground when the sun shines warmly and that exclusive mountain to yourself experience is an unlikely prospect.

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