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 area developed in its own individual way, characterized by unusual 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.
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You can get to the main towns more quickly these days, but there are still places where you might feel like the first foreign visitor to arrive, and traditional village life here 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, motorways zip up to the border towns of Chaves and Bragança, 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 acting as the jumping-off point for the magnificent Parque Natural de Montesinho. South and east of the Vila Real–Bragança motorway, 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 are worthy destinations in their own right, 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. 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.
As far as the eye can see
The Trás-os-Montes almond trees are explained in the legend of a Moorish prince who married a northern-European princess. Though happy in summer, she grew sad and wistful in winter, and ached for the snow-clad hills of her homeland. The prince hurried to the Algarve, from where he brought back the almond trees, so that from then on, every February when the trees blossomed, the princess beheld white as far as the eye could see.
Roughly sculpted granite pigs (known as porcas or berrões) are found all over northeastern Portugal and neighbouring Spain. Most date back a couple of thousand years, and their origins are obscure, though they are thought to have been Celtic fertility idols. The wild boar certainly holds sway in popular culture in these parts, so it’s not hard to see where the inspiration lay in the earliest carvings. The most famous example of a porca is in the small town of Murça, off the IP4, halfway between Vila Real and Mirandela, where it sits on top of a granite plinth above a flowerbed in the town centre. Pig and town, incidentally, give their name to a ubiquitous Douro table wine, Porça de Murça (made by Real Companhia Velha), while the pig is in profile on Murça’s adega cooperativa (wine co-op), the Caves de Murça. So there’s no excuse not to drink the health of Portugal’s pagan pigs.
Vila Real and around
VILA REAL sits on a high spur above the deep valley of the Rio Corgo, a tributary of the Douro. Founded and aptly named by Dom Dinis in 1289, “Royal Town” was once home to the largest concentration of nobility outside Lisbon, although today it has more of an industrial role, as well as being the home of the University of Trás-os-Montes. It’s the nearest base for visiting the small but interesting Parque Natural do Alvão, while other local attractions include the ancient site at Panóias and the Casa de Mateus – the country house featured on the Mateus Rosé wine label. Despite its noble heritage, there’s little of architectural interest in Vila Real save the odd surviving mansion, but it’s a bustling, likeable place of broad avenues, sunny squares and old-town streets filled with typical old-fashioned Portuguese shops. There’s a weekday market opposite the Rodonorte bus station: alongside the fruit and veg, look out for for local straw-work and the distinctive gunmetal-grey earthenware crockery (olaria) made in the nearby village of Bisalhães.
Parque Natural do Alvão
The Parque Natural do Alvão is Portugal’s smallest natural park, an area of eight thousand mountainous hectares set between Vila Real and Mondim de Basto to the northwest. A mere handful of settlements (with a total population of fewer than seven hundred) hugs the boulder-strewn terrain, with every centimetre of arable land between heroically terraced and tended, while other slopes are planted with pine whose scent carries in the air. Life, of course, has been hard and many of the villages are depopulated, but traditional agricultural methods (ox and plough, hand-scythed straw) cling on and some crafts (clog-making, weaving) have been revived. Drive-through visitors in a hurry don’t always see the best of Alvão – at first sight, many of the settlements seem moribund or disfigured by ugly recent construction, while there are hardly any facilities within the park, rarely even a place to get a drink. But with just half a day to spare, you can easily do one of the two official waymarked walks, while another half-day gives you time to drive around a circuit of the most interesting villages and visit the one standout natural sight, the Fisgas de Ermelo waterfalls.
Some 65km northeast of Vila Real, MIRANDELA is a neat provincial town on the Tua River that’s been making an improbable name for itself in recent years as one of the world’s jet-ski hotspots, hosting national and European championships. Otherwise, the town’s most striking feature is its pedestrianized Roman bridge, stretching a good 200m across seventeen arches. There are pleasant riverside gardens and lawns, and – up the hill – a (very) small old town with a few surviving Baroque townhouses. There’s also a proper, old-fashioned market building (walk up pedestrianized Rua da República; the market’s best on Thursdays), while grocery stores and delis throughout town sell Mirandela’s famed olive oil and olives (much of it biológico, or organically produced). The town is also known for its alheira sausages, draped across shop windows and served in every restaurant.
Vila Flôr and around
VILA FLÔR – the Town of Flowers – is 24km south of Mirandela and worth a quick stop if you’re on your way into deep eastern Trás-os-Montes. It was given its name in the thirteenth century by Dom Dinis who, on his way to meet Isabel of Aragon, was clearly in a romantic frame of mind. Flowers are not so evident today, though handsome tree-lined squares and a striking twin-towered tiled church provide focus for a stroll. There’s also a rather eccentric municipal museum, the Museu Municipal de Berta Cabral (not always open), and a few cafés in the old-town streets. Weekday buses call here on the run between Torre de Moncorvo and Mirandela, but you’d hardly want to stay the night here – and in any case you need a car to see the more enticing surroundings, which primarily means the ruins of Ansiães, a twenty-minute drive southwest.
Castelo de Ansiães
Twenty-one kilometres southwest of Vila Flôr – follow signs initially for Carrazeda de Ansiães – lie the intriguing ruins of an abandoned, medieval walled town. It’s barely recognizable as such until you’re almost upon it, winding up the 900m-high hillside to a craggy outcrop signposted simply as Castelo de Ansiães. You park by the outer gateway and make your way up a stone track, flanked by bramble-covered ruins, to a twelfth-century chapel with a carved Romanesque doorway. Beyond is the main gate and a complete circuit of partially ruined walls, which provides a breezy walk with beautiful views – otherwise, all that remains are fallen boulders and broken stones. It’s hard to believe that five different kings, over a period of 500 years, made this their strategic base in the north – the last inhabitants of old Ansiães left in the mid-eighteenth century, when the nearby new town of Carrazeda de Ansiães was established.
Torre de Moncorvo
The 26km route southeast from Vila Flôr to TORRE DE MONCORVO is a dramatic drive, taking you into the steep mountains round the Douro valley. A network of narrow medieval shopping streets, granite-block walls and handsome mansions makes the small town a pleasant place to stop off for a few hours, with everything helpfully signposted, starting with the imposing sixteenth-century Igreja Matriz – the largest church in Trás-os-Montes, which took a century to build. A terrace here looks out over the distant hills, while following signs across the main square into the “nucléo medieval” takes you to the surviving town gate, the Porta da Vila. Aside from a couple of local museums, that’s basically all there is to see here, except for the annual burst of enthusiasm for the region’s almond trees, the blossoming of which draws crowds of visitors in early spring. The sugared nuts are available in any number of local groceries and “produtos regionais” shops, along with Moncorvo’s famed cherries and lots of good Douro wines.
Freixo de Espada à Cinta
The southernmost town in Trás-os-Montes is FREIXO DE ESPADA À CINTA, around 40km southeast of Torre de Moncorvo. The mouthful of a name translates as “ash-tree of the sword of the belt” and supposedly refers to Dom Dinis hacking at a nearby tree as he announced the founding of the town. Hidden in the folds of the undulating Douro mountains, Freixo was once considered so remote that prisoners who had been granted an amnesty were allowed to settle here in obscurity. It doesn’t feel quite so isolated any more, with a new town straddling one side of the main through-road (N221), and a small, surviving old centre on the other, dominated by a surprisingly grand Igreja Matriz with a retábulo of paintings attributed to Viseu artist Grão Vasco. There’s also a mighty keep, which affords great views from its bell tower, while beneath lies Freixo’s spectacularly sited cemetery. Follow the signs (“praia fluvial”) 4km east out of town, down a series of hairpin bends on the banks of the Rio Douro, and you’ll end up at the local river beach and swimming spot.
Parque Natural do Douro Internacional
The Parque Natural do Douro Internacional covers a long, thin 120km stretch of the Rio Douro as it flows along the border between Portugal and Spain. On the Portuguese side, the park runs from Miranda do Douro in the north, past Mogadouro and Freixo de Espada à Cinta to Barca d’Alva, the latter the point at which the Rio Douro officially enters Portuguese territory; there’s also a southern section that encompasses a stretch of the Rio Águeda, further south in Beira Alta (near Figueira de Castelo Rodrigo). The park is extremely dramatic in parts, known for its sheer canyon walls and Mediterranean microclimate, and this combination of mild winters and its isolation from large human populations has led to the preservation of a rich variety of animal species, including a few surviving wolves and wild cats, as well as boar, otters, bats and amphibians. It is also home to over 170 bird species, including rare peregrine falcons, golden eagles, black storks and, in summer, Europe’s largest concentration of Egyptian vultures.
The main problem for visitors is getting any sense of the park as a whole, since it’s so elongated and necessarily remote from anywhere you’re likely to be spending much time; you’ll see the periodic brown park signs as you drive between Beira Alta and Bragança, but it’s not immediately clear what there is to see or do. To make some sense of it, it’s best to visit a park office and buy the official map (there are offices in Mogadouro, Miranda do Douro, Freixo de Espada à Cinta and Figueira de Castelo Rodrigo). Armed with this, you can at least drive to the various spectacular viewing areas, to gaze down from the canyon-like cliffs into the Douro far below – that of Penedo Dourão is between Barca d’Alva and Freixo; there’s another superb vantage-point at Lagoaça, 25km from Mogadouro; while close to Miranda do Douro is the magnificent São João das Arribas. There’s also a brown-signposted “Rota dos Castros” driving route, along minor roads linking a series of ancient fortified border posts.
The old frontier fortress of MOGADOURO lies on the fringes of the Parque Natural do Douro Internacional. With the winding journey here from north or south half the attraction, it’s hard to escape the impression of a town caught between past and present, ready to embrace tourism but not quite sure what it has to offer. Its main sight is the restored keep of a twelfth-century castle, set on a hill with extensive views over a patchwork of tilled fields, traditional pigeon houses and an imposing grain elevator – as well as the municipal swimming pool and stadium and a spreading line of suburban development.
Miranda do Douro and around
At MIRANDA DO DOURO, you arrive at an eastern Trás-os-Montes town with a certain presence. In part, this is due to its location – across from Spain, and set above a magnificent gorge of the Rio Douro – but there’s also history and tradition here in abundance. The border town was always at the forefront of fights with the Spanish, and was fortified to the gills in earlier times – until an apocalyptic explosion in 1762 destroyed its castle, killed hundreds and sent Miranda into a gentle decline. After the explosion, Miranda remained a neglected outpost for 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.
Modern Miranda might be small – with just a couple of thousand inhabitants – but it still retains the status of a city and boasts an outsized sixteenth-century cathedral and a charming old-town area from its glory days. What changed the character of Miranda completely, however, was the building in 1955 of the huge Barragem de Miranda, just below town. With the dam wall and border just a couple of kilometres away, there’s a constant stream of Spanish tourists, who come to view the staggering gorge scenery, take a river trip and wander briefly around 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.
Bagpipes and stick men
Trás-os-Montes is the heartland of the Portuguese gaita-de-foles (bagpipes), the main melody instrument of Trás-os-Montes traditional music. It’s similar to the Scottish Highland war-pipe in shape but closest to the gaitas of Spanish Galicia and Asturias, all of which are drawn from the Moorish tradition (ghaita being the Moroccan word for a pipe). The old tradition of the pipes survives principally in Miranda do Douro, kept alive by Mirandês gaiteiros who play regularly for the Pauliteiros, local men in traditional outfits who prance around clattering wooden sticks together rhythmically (rather like an English morris dance). Like many such manifestations in the north (the stone pigs, the bonfire celebrations, the masked revels), it probably dates back to Celtic times. It’s a performance which 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 Música Mirandês (music institute), by the ruined castle on Largo do Castelo.
Barragem de Miranda
Down the vertiginous hill below town lies the Barragem de Miranda hydroelectric dam and border – the road runs over the dam wall into Spain and on towards Zamora. It’s one of the largest hydroelectric dams in the country and marks the point at which the Portuguese Rio Douro transforms itself into the Spanish Río Duero. Boat trips through the gorge are an obvious attraction – they run year-round from the quay (cais) at the dam, near the municipal swimming pool.
São João das Arribas gorge
The circular walk (20km; 6hr) from Miranda to the gorge at São João das Arribas is the best use of a spare day in Miranda do Douro, though you can also drive there (partly on dirt roads, in good condition) for a picnic, or take a lovely boat trip through the gorge. The walk is waymarked with red-and-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 town's 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.
BRAGANÇA is the historic capital of Trás-os-Montes, settled since the very earliest times but acquiring a regional, and later national, importance from the twelfth century onwards. It’s this medieval period that gave Bragança its distinctive hillside profile of a well-preserved old town and soaring castle keep, sitting inside a complete circuit of forbidding granite walls. Known as the Cidadela (citadel), it’s the embodiment of the town’s dynastic history under the sway of the dukes of Bragança – the extended family of Portuguese kings and emperors who ruled from 1640 (following independence from Spain) until the advent of the Republic in 1910.
Despite its historical weight, hit Bragança out of the short summer season and things can seem a bit dreary. Nowhere else in the north will you see just how down on its luck Portugal is, with derelict buildings and long-deserted shops dominating every street. On these days retire to the citadel, the main museum and riverside gardens, the most compelling reasons for a visit. Just to the north broods the Parque Natural de Montesinho, though you’ll need your own wheels to visit as public transport is threadbare.
The walled Cidadela is the obvious place to begin, and lies a fifteen-minute walk up the hill from the modern city centre. The hill above Bragança has been settled in one form or another since prehistoric times; the Romans probably had a small fortification here; and the current walled town and castle have stood since at least the twelfth century and formed the strategic base of the early Bragança dynasty. You can get up onto the walls any time of day, but don’t let small children run around freely as there are long drops and no handrails.
Walk up through the main gate of the Cidadela, and at the very top of the cobbled street stands the curious, pentagonal, multi-windowed fifteenth-century council chamber known as the Domus Municipalis. Its meetings – for solving land disputes and the like – took place on the arcaded first floor; below was a cistern, where springwater was kept. Next to the Domus, the Igreja de Santa Maria features a fine painted ceiling, while the terrace of the café opposite offers great views of the Domus courtyard.
Torre de Menagem and the Museu Militar
Completely dominating the citadel is the restored castle keep, the Torre de Menagem, which now houses a skippable Museu Militar, although it’s worth paying the entrance fee for the fine views from the top. At night, the whole fortification is floodlit and imposes itself even more dramatically upon the entire city. Round the other side of the keep, meanwhile, you’ll find an ancient granite pig that forms part of a rather odd pelourinho (stone pillory).
Museu Ibérico da Máscara e do Traje
A few steps down the hill from the Torre de Menagem, there are many reminders of the pagan ways of the wild north in the modern Museu Ibérico da Máscara e do Traje, which highlights the extraordinary ritual masks and ribboned costumes habitually seen in local festivals held between December 25 and January 9. For anyone who has travelled in other mountain areas of Europe, especially in central Europe and Eastern Europe, these costumes made out of anything from strips of newspaper to horsehair will be strangely familiar. The weird-and-wonderful garb displayed at the museum hails from both sides of the border, with one floor dedicated to the Bragança area, another to the region around the Spanish town of Zamora.
Bragança’s major festivals include the Festa de Nossa Senhora das Graças (Aug 12–22), featuring lots of cultural events and traditional music, and the Romaria de São Bartolomeu (Aug 24), an annual religious celebration involving solemn processions and rather wilder concerts and night-time festivities. The Feira das Cantarinhas (May 2 & 3) is a crafts fair dedicated to the clay water jug (cantarinha) which was once used to store the gifts given to a bride on her wedding day.
Parque Natural de Montesinho
There are still a few places in Portugal that truly feel like the middle of nowhere, and the Parque Natural de Montesinho is one of them. Located in the far northeast, hard up against the Spanish border, the heather-clad hills, verdant grass plains and dense oak forests look much as they have done for centuries. The park itself – lying north and west of Bragança – covers 751 square kilometres, and has a dwindling population of 8000 distributed between ninety-odd granite-built hamlets and villages, many of which have had so little mainstream contact that they retain their old Roman or Visigothic names. In many ways it’s the same old story of rural abandonment, echoed by the similar desertion of many of the distinctive round pigeon houses (pombal, plural pombais), that are a feature of the region – the pigeons, it seems, like the people, prefer an easier existence in the cities rather than eking out a living in the countryside.
However, the park hasn’t been entirely bypassed by modern life. Villages substantially unchanged since medieval times are connected by new roads and show the unmistakeable signs of emigrante-funded brick-and-concrete construction, while a long line of wind turbines snakes across the northern mountains. More positively, the local councils and park authorities are trying to promote tourism that’s beneficial to the region. A flurry of brown signs points visitors towards aldeias preservadas (preserved villages), archeological and nature sites, picnic spots and local museums, and there’s also a good network of hiking paths.
With just a day, and your own car, the western loop from Vinhais to Moimenta would show you some of the best scenery (and has one of the finest short walks). Contrasting villages such as Gimonde or fascinating Rio de Onor are also easily seen from Bragança, while if you plan on staying overnight in the park the no-contest winner is Montesinho, with its boutique guesthouse and excellent walking.
Walking in the Parque Natural de Montesinho
There are currently a dozen waymarked hiking trails (pecursos pedestres) in the natural park, mostly short (half-day, from around 8km), and well marked and maintained, though you should always expect changes and variations over time. There are free, glossy foldout brochures for each, available from the park information offices – they are in Portuguese but the route maps are useful. Boards at the starting points (usually in village centres) also show the routes; the waymarks are the usual red and yellow stripes and arrows. The walk at Moimenta provides a good introduction to the scenery, though if we had to pick just one route it would be that at Montesinho, which is a higher, more dramatic rock-and-reservoir circuit. The Vilarinho route is also interesting, winding through the serra’s characteristic heather hills and oak woods, though the route-marking is less than perfect on this – you have to be prepared to cross a river or two and not panic when you lose the waymarks at times. The park has also marked out a two-day trail (55km) that loops around Vilarinho and Montesinho (where you’d stay the night) – this uses red and white paint markers (which sometimes duplicate parts of other trails) but there’s currently no walk brochure for this. Finally, if you were really keen to see more of the park on foot, consider staying at the Lagosta Perdida in Montesinho, which has prepared a series of self-guided hiking trails for guests that fan out from the village.
The historic frontier town of MONTALEGRE is the entry point to the eastern stretches of the Peneda-Gerês national park – though you’d really need your own transport as there are no onward buses into the park. Even if you go no further, it’s worth making the trip – 45km west of Chaves, and a ten-kilometre detour off the N103 – not least for the sudden looming of its dramatic medieval castle as you approach town, lording it over the surrounding plains. You can walk up to the surviving keep and ruined walls (always open; free), and then saunter through the few immaculately restored old-town streets below, and while this takes just twenty minutes, Montalegre is charming enough to stretch your visit to take in lunch. There are half a dozen restaurants in town, most near the dinky pelourinho square, just below the castle. All are big on the local Serra do Barroso produce, namely its huge steaks, smoked meats (fumeiros) and ham (presunto). There’s even a whole festival dedicated to the products, the annual Feira do Fumeiro e Presunto (fourth week of January).
Around 8km south of town, a road leads to the huge Barragem do Alto Rabagão, around which you can pick up signs to swimming spots, old villages and walking trails.
Montalegre is one of the Serra do Barroso settlements where you’ll come across the so-called Vinhos dos Mortos – Wines of the Dead; try asking in local bars and restaurants. This is basically wine that matures in bottles buried underground, a practice that originated in 1809 when villagers, keen to protect their wine stocks from the invading French hordes, hid their bottles. When they dug them up again they were delighted to find that the contents tasted considerably better.
Into the Parque Nacional da Peneda-Gerês
The easternmost parts of the Parque Nacional da Peneda-Gerês lie in Trás-os-Montes, cut off from the main section in the Minho region by the Barragem de Paradela and the towering Serra do Gerês mountain range. Drivers already in the main park can approach from the south on the stunning mountain route from Cabril, but from Trás-os-Montes it’s much easier to drive via Montalegre, from where the park and its villages are well signposted. Montalegre has both park information office and turismo, where you should be able to pick up walking leaflets, but even without them you’ll be able to find the trails, since for once they are properly signposted. The best walk is at Pitões das Júnias, which is itself the single best target in this section.
Pitões das Júnias
It’s a terrific drive to PITÕES DAS JÚNIAS, 25km northwest of Montalegre, and set in one of the wildest corners of Portugal. The clustered brown-stone, red-tile buildings of the village are framed by the most extraordinary jagged peaks (pitões) of the Gerês mountains, and the surroundings simply beg you to get out of your car and walk. Happily, there’s an enjoyable waymarked trail (4km; 1hr 30min) that descends a stone path into a hidden valley where a gloriously sited, twelfth-century monastery and plunging waterfall await. Follow the brown signs for “Mosteiro” and “Cascata” and then the paint marks, which take you first to the monastery, then along a stepped boardwalk to the waterfall viewing point before looping back to the village. Pitões may be isolated, but it expects visitors: there’s a car park at the top of the village.