Approached through attractive wooded hills in the lush, green Minho region of northern Portugal, Citânia de Briteiros is one of the most impressive archaeological sites in Europe and by far the largest and most thrilling fortified Celto-Iberian settlement in the country.
Entirely walled at one time, this well-preserved prehistoric site covers an area of 3.8 hectares and is situated just 10 km south-east of the Bom Jesus sanctuary near Braga.
Historians claim that Citânia de Briteiros was the very last stronghold of the northern Celto-Iberians against the invading Romans.
This rare archaeological treasure was discovered in 1874 and painstakingly researched and excavated over the next ten years.
It comprises more than 150 single-roomed stone dwellings, either round, rectangular or elliptical in shape, each with its original foundation miraculously intact, while a few consist of two or three compartments and even a forecourt.
Affording fine views of the surrounding Minho countryside in a prime location overlooking the pristine waters of the River Ave, Citânia de Briteiros dates back more than 2,500 years, although is very likely to have been abandoned by 300 A.D.
Straddling the slope of the boulder-strewn hill of São Romão, the fort is constructed of three lines of entrenchments up to 2m (7ft) thick.
It’s an absolute delight for visitors to be able explore its primitive urban plan, amble along one of Europe’s most ancient footpaths and examine the site’s prehistoric water system.
Reminiscent of ancient Mycenae in Greece, Citânia de Briteiros is the extraordinary remains of an Iron Age establishment with streets of stone slabs and buildings erected without any use of mortar.
Complete with conical thatched roofs, some of the buildings were faithfully restored and reconstructed by Martins Sarmento (1833-99), the locally-born archaeologist responsible for its discovery.
Besides a restored chapel and two round houses situated at the top of the hill, the settlement includes a larger building (about 11m/36 ft in diameter) presumably used as a meeting area, as well as an isolated building outside the perimeter that probably served as a crematorium.
Many of the objects, artefacts and ornamental portals uncovered during the site’s excavation are now on display at the Museu de Martins Sarmento in nearby Guimarães. Along with the many fragments of pottery (much of it painted), carved stones, weapons, implements and pieces of jewellery to be seen there, the star exhibit is without doubt the Pedra Formosa (meaning ‘beautiful stone’) which for so long puzzled archaeologists but is now known to have formed part of a tomb or shrine.
Clearly visible from Citânia de Briteiros, another prehistoric site called Castro de Sabroso is equally fascinating and dates right back to the Iron Age. Both had attained a considerable degree of the same Celtic culture and stand as monuments to the extraordinary wealth and importance of Portugal’s early settlements.