With its broad avenues, large squares and a pleasant air of prosperity, Castelo Branco is an attractive town of parks and gardens and a very good base from which to explore the border region of central Portugal.
Of ancient origin, it was re-founded in the early 13th century by the Templars, whose walls still envelope the historic centre, itself a labyrinth of old streets embossed with architectural treasures in the shapes of ancient façades and a fine cavalry in the Manueline style.
Set fire to and looted by the troops under Loison during the Peninsular War in 1807, the town has been fought after so often in the past that few ancient monuments remain, including the castle (the original castelo branco) which now stands as a lofty ruin.
Occupying a low hill at the centre of flat lands just 18 km from the Spanish frontier, Castelo Branco has been known for its embroidered colchas or bed-spreads for well over three hundred years, a fine range of which can be seen in the local museum.
Castelo Branco’s top attraction is without doubt the extraordinary Episcopal Gardens adjacent to the former bishop’s palace and open to the general public. Laid out in the mid-18th century, the gardens feature well-trimmed boxed hedges, citrus trees and a host of profane little granite statues depicting the signs of the zodiac, seasons of the year, Portuguese monarchs and many of the most cardinal virtues.
The museum inside the palace houses 16th-century tapestries (most notably some sumptuous Arras colchas) and fine examples of Portuguese primitive art, including a rare portrait of Santo António dating from 1510 painted on chestnut wood and attributed to Francisco Henriques.
Dating back to the 13th century, and notable for its exquisite Renaissance interior with an impressive barrel-vaulted roof, the Church of São Miguel served as the town’s cathedral from 1771-1881 before the bishopric was extinguished.
A short drive to the north-east of Castelo Branco lies the charming granite village of Monsanto, which seems to sprout organically from the hillside. Squeezed up against a slope on an extremely steep hill below a square-built fortress, Monsanto was voted Portugal’s ‘most typical village’ in 1938 and is still one of the most picturesque places in the whole of the Iberian Peninsula.
Not far from Monsanto lies the ancient village of Idanha-a-Velha with its twin-arched gateway and original paved street. Once an important Roman centre, its focal point is the Tower of the Templars built on the foundations of a Roman temple.
Castelo Branco is also within easy striking distance of many of the Historic Villages (Aldeias Históricas), a collection of twelve beautifully-preserved fortified hilltop villages stretched out along the border with neighbouring Spain, comprising Almeida, Belmonte, Castelo Mendo, Castelo Novo, Catselo Rodrigo, Idanha-a-Velha, Linhares da Beira, Marialva, Monsanto, Piodão, Trancoso and Sortelha.