Located on a 1,075-metre-high plateau on the north-east flank of the Estrela mountains in central Portugal, Guarda is a city of great historic interest and the highest place in the country. Rising like a sentinel on its rocky base, it shares with Avila in neighbouring Spain the distinction of being the loftiest in all the Iberian Peninsula.
Forte, farta, frio, fiel and formosa (strong, abundant, cold, faithful and beautiful) say the Portuguese of this high point founded by King Sancho I in 1197 to ‘guard’ against the Moors.
Its name reflects the important role the city once played in the defence of the country’s eastern frontier.
Once encircled by steep walls, the origins of this former stronghold go way back to beyond the Roman occupation (according to certain remains found in the city’s environs), while its people can boast of having long defied the legionaries, eventually yielding only to Julius Cæsar himself.
Long abandoned, Guarda regained its prosperity thanks to the vigilant protection given to it by the first Burgundian kings, who were anxious to preserve this prominent watchtower on the borders of their realm.
Many stretches of Guarda’s original walls are still standing, including three of the main entrances, namely the Sun Gate, Blacksmith’s Gate and the King’s Gate, the latter named after King Dinis I and his young wife had passed through following their honeymoon in nearby Trancoso.
Their marriage was arranged in 1281 when Elizabeth of Aragon was just 10 years old, with the towns of Óbidos, Abrantes and Porto de Mós forming part of her dowry. It was only in 1288 that the wedding was finally celebrated when Dinis was 26 years-old and Elizabeth had just turned 17.
Fresh in summer, the air of this mountain city is particularly brisk and rich with the balsamic perfumes of the Estrela mountains, while in the winter months the historic centre is white with snow, in stark contrast to the rough bareness of its granite façades.
Rich in Manueline furnishings, the most remarkable monument in Guarda is its striking Gothic-style cathedral, the construction of which had begun in 1390 during the reign of João I and completed in 1550. Fortress-like in appearance, and modelled on the vast Monastery of Batalha, this immense granite building features a lofty vaulted roof of admirable proportions carried on curious pillars twisted like cord, between which is set a large Renaissance retable.
Leading down from the cathedral, Rua do Comércio brings you to the 17th-century Misericórdia church with its fine ornamental portal and Baroque altars, while the church of São Vicente just north of the cathedral has sixteen elaborate azulejo tiles depicting the life of Christ.
Nearby are two very old houses reputed to be the actual cradle of the Bragança family, since one of them was once occupied by the rich Jewish shoemaker, Barbadão, and the other often had the honour of receiving King João I.
History records that on one of those visits, the king became smitten by Barbadão’s daughter, Inês, and from their liaison Afonso was born, upon whom the title of the first Duke of Bragança was bestowed. Two hundred years later, his descendant would take the throne as João IV, the first of the Bragança monarchs.
Extremely picturesque with arcaded houses in many of its streets, all of different shapes and sizes, Guarda contains many other aristocratic mansions built in granite, some bearing coats of arms and others the Maltese Cross.
Overlooked by the cathedral, the city’s impressive central square, Largo de Camões, features a large statue of King Sancho I, who led the charge against the Moors in the 12th century.
On display in the nearby museum are various paintings, artefacts and archaeological treasures, as well as a section dedicated to Guarda’s own poet, Augusto Gil (1873-1929), who today remains one of the most celebrated poets in Portugal.
On the way out of the city, the 12th-century Romanesque Chapel of Mileu was dedicated to the cult of the Virgin Mary and is widely believed to have been a Christian place of worship during the Moorish occupation.
The historic village of Belmonte, just 27 km south of Guarda, is the birthplace of Pedro Álvares Cabral, the intrepid Portuguese explorer who discovered Brazil in 1500.
25 km north-west of the city lies Celorico da Beira, an old fortified village with some ancient houses and an imposing granite castle.
Guarda is also within comfortable striking distance of Serra da Estrela, the highest and most imposing of all the mountains on the Portuguese mainland.