With its remote beauty and strong, independently-minded people, Trás-os-Montes (meaning ‘beyond the mountains’) is one of the most isolated and genuinely unspoilt parts of southern Europe.
Dented by the last spurs of the Pyrenees, the region is characterised by deep river valleys and broad plateaux upon which a solid chain of castles exists all the way from Mogadouro to the spa town of Chaves.
Its climate can be harsh with blankets of thick snow in winter and scorching heat during the summer months, but the air is pure and the vistas delightfully wide and majestic.
Four mountain ranges, namely the Serras de Barroso, Cabreira, Alvão and Marão, separate this high, barren province from other parts of the country, including the densely-populated coastal strip of north-west Portugal.
Trás-os-Montes is the bastion of ancient beliefs and traditions, with the devil a common figure at festivals which tend to be more pagan than religious.
Many of the habits and customs of the Trásmontano people have their roots firmly set in the antiquity and mysticism of the Middle Ages.
Everything in Trás-os-Montes seems to have a character all of its own, more vigorous, darker and denser than anywhere else in Portugal.
In this extreme corner of the country, many people’s lives remain unhindered by the so-called ‘conveniences’ of modern society as families busy themselves tending their small plots of land, often with hoes and mule-drawn ploughs, as their ancestors did for centuries.
With the purest of landscapes and pockets of what many people nowadays would consider to be primitive dwellings, it’s a land of vast rocky plains splintered by streams tumbling down from the surrounding mountains.
An imposing solitude and peaceful silence awaits visitors to Trás-os-Montes as they meander through the many tightly-clustered pastoral villages, some of which are precariously perched on rugged mountain slopes or along the muddy banks of rivers and streams, with houses of rough stone walls often topped by charming rye-thatched roofs.
And there’s much to see in the region, most notably the proud provincial capital of Bragança (indicated on the map below), a city founded by Neolithic Celts. Its robust hilltop fortress became a site of immense strategic importance in the many battles for control of the Iberian peninsula over the centuries, captured in turn by the Romans, Visigoths, Moors and Christians.
During the early period of the country’s independence, the Dukedom of Bragança assumed enormous power and by 1640 had become the royal house of Portugal, with Catherine of Bragança becoming the Queen Consort to England’s King Charles II. Still today, the Braganças are the pretenders to the Portuguese throne, which was abolished in 1910 in favour of a republic.
And the duke who founded Portugal’s first dynasty also planted vines from his native Burgundy and the grapes continue to find subsistence and thrive to this day to produce some of the finest wines in Portugal.
Beginning in the environs of Bragança, the Parque Natural de Montesinho forms a stunningly scenic border with neighbouring Spain. Covered with dry lavender, juniper and many other fragrant species, this wild expanse of fertile moorland is richer in wildlife than anywhere else in the country.
Clinging to the slopes of Mount Penude, the ancient episcopal town of Lamego was the meeting point of the first Cortes of the kingdom of Portugal and the place where Afonso Henriques was officially declared as the country’s first king.
Hanging like a balcony from the edge of the surrounding mountains, Vila Real is a very old town with a wealth of richly decorated façades featuring Renaissance windows and doorways proudly portraying the family’s coat of arms. With its white stucco walls and extravagantly carved stonework, the Solar de Mateus nearby is the home of the world-famous Mateus Rosé wine.