North and east of Guarda stretches a rough and barren-looking territory known as the planalto – tableland – of the Beira Alta. Villages are spread far apart, with much of the boulder-strewn land between untamed by agriculture. Even potatoes found it hard to take root – in bygone days, roast or dried chestnuts were used as a substitute, plucked from the shady trees lining the approaches to most villages. Winters can be harsh – hence the proverb “O frio almoça em Penedono, merenda em Trancoso e ceia na Guarda” (the cold lunches in Penedono, takes tea in Trancoso and dines in Guarda). In medieval times the region’s many Jewish settlements prospered, though their merchant trade went into decline from the Age of Discovery onwards as business moved to the coast. The restored town of Trancoso, especially, is still full of interest, while the region’s erstwhile wealth is clearly evident in the harmonious squares and mansions of now somnolent Sernancelhe. In successive centuries, the planalto towns became closely associated with Portuguese independence from Spain, and in particular with Afonso Henriques’s march south down the length of the country. Today, their castles are the highlight of the region, most notably the spectacular star-shaped border fortress at Almeida, the site of the penultimate battle in the Peninsular Wars against Napoleon. Other castles and fortified settlements of particular interest are those at Castelo Rodrigo, to the north of Almeida, Castelo Mendo to the south, and Penedono and Marialva to the west.Read More
Forty-four kilometres north of Guarda, just off the N102, TRANCOSO is still largely contained within a circuit of medieval walls. It’s an uncommonly atmospheric little town, full of cobbled alleyways, well-kept gardens, shady squares and restored churches, all of which represent a tangible civic pride. It was here that Dom Dinis married the 12-year-old Isabel of Aragon in 1282, and later gave her the entire town as a gift; the wedding was solemnized in the small Capela de São Bartolomeu, by the side of the dusty avenue leading up to the town’s surviving main gate, the Portas d’el Rei, surmounted by the Trancoso coat of arms.
Within the walls on the north side of town is the castle, with its squat tower a distinctive silhouette visible from many kilometres away. The Moorish design is a reminder of the Saracen domination of the town in the tenth century, though the following two centuries saw frequent siege and battle, and Trancoso was also involved during fourteenth-century Castilian troublemaking and the nineteenth-century Peninsular War – on the central Largo Dr. Eduardo Cabral, look out for the charming corner house with an open stone stairway, tellingly known as the Quartel do General Beresforde (and used as Beresford’s HQ).
The presence of a large Jewish community during the Middle Ages is apparent from the facades of the town’s more ancient houses. Each has two doorways – a broad one for trade and a narrow one (leading to the first floor) for the family – and some have clumsy crosses, inscribed by the Inquisition to indicate the family’s conversion to Christianity. The most striking is the former rabbi’s house – known as the Casa do Gato Preto – which is decorated with the Lion of Judea; it’s on Largo Luis Albuquerque next to the restaurant São Marcos.
The most impressive of all the fortified border towns is ALMEIDA, 45km northeast of Guarda and within cannon-shot of Spain. It’s a beautifully preserved eighteenth-century stronghold in the form of a twelve-pointed star. A three-kilometre walk around the walls – now overgrown with grass, and grazed by horses – takes in all the peaks and troughs, though you can only really appreciate the shape by looking at the aerial-shot postcards sold around town. Almeida played a key role in the Peninsular War. The Luso-Britannic forces were besieged here in 1810 by the Napoleonic army, and they held out for seventeen days until, on July 26, a leaky barrel of gunpowder ignited and began a fire that killed hundreds. The survivors gave themselves up, but Wellington, on his victorious return from Torres Vedras, subsequently took the fortress with no bloodshed as the French army scuttled away during the night.
The main entrance is still through the original two consecutive gates of the Portas de São Francisco – long, shell-proof tunnels with a wide, dry moat between inner and outer walls. Immediately inside the gates, to the left, are the long infantry barracks, while a right turn, past the gardens and along the walls, leads to the Casamatas (opposite the fire station), an underground storage area with a capacity for five thousand men and their supplies. The layout of interconnected rooms explains how Almeida withstood lengthy sieges, with water supply, rubbish chute, escape routes, munitions chamber and dormitory space.
The town walls enclose a warren of cobbled lanes and whitewashed houses, punctuated by airy squares. You’ll easily find your way up to what’s left of the castle, blown up in 1810, the foundations now exposed under a modern walkway. Behind here, in one of the star-points, is the picadeiro, the restored cavalry barracks and horse-training area, whose stables offer short riding lessons and horse-and-buggy rides around town.