Facing Spain across the deep gorge of the Rio Douro, the fortified heights of MIRANDA DO DOURO played a key role in all of the country’s wars, starting with Afonso Henriques, future first king of Portugal, and his victorious sweep across Lusitânia at the beginning of the twelfth century. After valiant service in the Independence, Spanish Succession and the Seven Years wars, the town ended its fighting days when an explosion during a Spanish attack in 1762 destroyed the castle and killed 400 inhabitants.
After the explosion, Miranda remained a neglected outpost for nearly two centuries – sufficiently remote for a distinct language, Mirandês, to flourish. It is still spoken today and even taught in schools: local street and town signs are usually in both Portuguese and the Mirandês equivalent. What changed the character of Miranda completely, however, was the building in 1955 of the huge Barragem de Miranda, just below town. It’s one of the largest hydroelectric dams in the country and the last before the Portuguese Rio Douro becomes the Spanish Rio Duero. With the dam wall and border just a couple of kilometres away, there’s now a constant stream of Spanish tourists, who come to view the staggering gorge scenery, take a river trip and poke briefly around the handsomely restored old town. Stay the night, and you can also see a bit more of the Douro river gorge by driving out to the magnificent local viewing point – or even hiking there on one of the region’s finest one-day walks.Read More
The gorge at São João das Arribas
The gorge at São João das Arribas
The circular walk (20km, 6hr) from Miranda to São João das Arribas is the best use of a spare day, though you can also drive there (partly on dirt roads, in good condition) for a picnic. The walk is waymarked with red-yellow paint stripes, and though many are faded they are still all (mostly) visible, making route-finding fairly straightforward. There is also a leaflet available in the park office showing the route; be prepared for barking dogs at farms all the way round.
The route starts by the turismo, where you follow the brown “Castros de Vale de Águia e de Aldeia Nova” sign – the road through the shops and buildings soon turns to a dirt track and the waymarks begin. At Castro de Vale de Águia (2.5km) are the first amazing views over a double bend in the river; at the rustic-in-the-extreme hamlet of Vale de Águia (4.5km) follow the “Aldeia Nova” sign along a tarmac road to Aldeia Nova (6.5km), where there’s a bar (probably closed) and a sign for “São João das Arribas” and “Castro”. Down this track, at the small chapel of São João das Arribas (8km), are simply extraordinary views of the Douro gorge, plus remains of the Iron Age, later Roman, castro. It’s a great place for a picnic.
The no-risk return is to go back the way you came, though the actual waymarked route runs west through Pena Branca (12km) and then south to the Fresno River where you cross the low bridge (16km) and then head up past farms until you crest a hill and see Miranda (20km) ahead.
Miranda is well known for its famous stick dancers, the Pauliteiros, local men in traditional outfits who prance around clattering wooden sticks together rhythmically. Like many such manifestations in the north (the stone pigs, the bonfire celebrations, the masked revels), it probably dates back to Celtic times – and there’s more than a passing resemblance to English morris dancers, both in dress and stick wielding. It’s a performance that is more often seen at large nationwide festivals than in their home town, though the Pauliteiros make a special appearance every year during the Santa Bárbara festa (starts the Sunday following August 15). At this time you will also hear the local folk music, a tradition maintained at the town’s Casa da Musica Mirandês (music institute), by the ruined castle on Largo do Castelo.