The northeastern region of Trás-os-Montes (literally “Behind the Mountains”) was once Portugal at its most remote. Cut off from the mainstream over the centuries – beyond the peaks of the Gerês, Marão and Alvão serras – this isolated region developed in its own individual way, characterized by strange traditions, harsh dialects and hard lives. Many fled to the cities in search of better things, and emigration was high; meanwhile others came to hide, such as the Jews who escaped here from the terrors of the Inquisition. Change came slowly, if at all, and Trás-os-Montes remained a land apart until as late as the 1980s and 90s, when fast new highways started to make inroads into the northern wilds. Investment in agriculture, industry and urban renewal has also done much to change perceptions of the region as backward and conservative, though those views still persist in much of the rest of Portugal.
You can get to the main towns quicker these days, but there are still places where you might feel like you are the first foreign visitor to arrive, and traditional village life continues as it has done for decades, if not centuries. This is especially true of the extreme north, hewn from dark granite, which has a challenging climate of long freezing winters and short boiling summers – hence its rather forbidding nickname of the Terra Fria (Cold Land). In contrast, the southern region – the Terra Quente (Hot Land) – covers the fertile hinterlands of the Douro, Corgo and Tua rivers, and presents a more pastoral landscape of olive groves, vineyards and orchards.
From the Douro and the south, the attractive town of Vila Real is the obvious starting point for a tour; it’s also handy for access to the dramatic granite scenery of the Parque Natural do Alvão. Beyond Vila Real, fast highways run up to the border towns of Chaves and Bragança, which are the only other two places in the region of any significant size. Between them they hold the bulk of the historic and cultural interest, while each is also well placed for the great outdoors, with Chaves offering access (via Montalegre) to the eastern section of the Parque Nacional da Peneda-Gerês and Bragança being the jumping-off point for the magnificent Parque Natural de Montesinho. South and east of the Vila Real–Bragança highway, the landscapes are gentler for the most part but the journeys take longer, on winding routes through far less visited towns and villages. Some places, such as dramatically sited Miranda do Douro, above a dam on the Spanish border, the Roman bridge over the Rio Tua at Mirandela, or the small historic centre of Torre de Moncorvo, are worthy destinations in their own right. But often, it’s simply the journey that counts, notably the tremendous backcountry route through the fringes of the Parque Natural do Douro Internacional, through unheralded towns such as Mogadouro and Freixo de Espada à Cinta.