TRANCOSO is still largely contained within an attractive 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, not far from the town’s surviving main gate, the Portas d’el Rei, which is surmounted by the Trancoso coat of arms.
Like most planalto settlements, Trancoso grew up around its castelo – and like any town with a castle, trouble was generally to be expected from one quarter or another. Even once the Moors had been finally vanquished, there were still centuries during which armies came and went across the tablelands, using Trancoso as a base or a defensive position. It’s surprising that the walls have survived at all – never mind that they remain in such good condition – while its well-restored towers can be seen from afar as you drive towards town.
Medieval Trancoso had a large Jewish community, which enjoyed a relatively harmonious existence here (as in the rest of Portugal) until the late fifteenth century when Dom Manuel I ordered Jews to be expelled from the country. The former rabbi’s house in Trancoso is known as the Casa do Gato Preto (House of the Black Cat), its facade featuring a prominent Lion of Judah. Other buildings in the old town also display features that hark back to a prosperous Jewish community quietly going about its business until religion and politics stepped in. The oldest houses, for example, have separate doorways, one for business and one used by the family, while others are marked with carved crosses, ordered by the Inquisition (active in Portugal from the 1530s onwards) to show that the inhabitants were “New Christian” converts.