Ancient Portuguese archeological sites don’t come more mysterious or dramatic than the Citânia de Briteiros, an Iron Age hilltown that lies roughly halfway between Guimarães and Braga. It’s one of dozens in the Minho region, large and small, most dating back to around 500 BC, although some are considerably older still. Home to a people known as the “Bracari”, the extensive site at Briteiros, straddling a boulder-strewn hill, probably made a last-ditch stand against the invading Romans and was eventually abandoned by around 100 AD. Its significance is enormous – the hillside ruins may appear obscure today, but Briteiros is one of the earliest sites on the Iberian peninsula that could reasonably be described as an urban settlement.
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The citânia was first uncovered by Guimarães archeologist Francisco Martins Sarmento in 1874, who showed evidence of habitation here going back several thousand years, though what’s visible today dates mainly from around 200 BC. This era of the so-called Cultura Castreja (Castro Culture) probably saw Briteiros at its peak, home to as many as two thousand people, living in circular huts in family compounds – Sarmento rebuilt two of the dwellings to give an indication of the settlement’s feel and look. There’s a fair amount of guesswork involved when it comes to interpreting the foundations of more than 150 separate huts, but there are obvious cooking and sleeping areas while the central stones, it’s thought, would have provided support for poles holding up thatched roofs. A few of the foundations are more extensive, including a building with stone benches, which may have been a meeting house, as well as two bathhouses – these had their own water supply and separate steam- and cold-water rooms. It displays a surprising level of urban sophistication for the Iron Age – including a clear pattern of streets and defensive walls – and the entire site is a hugely evocative place for a stroll, along rough cobbles and past ancient cork oaks.