For centuries the interior of Centro Region has been Portugal’s western frontier with Spain. The high mountains form a natural frontier – and this line of ancient fortifications is as breathtaking and as impressive at the castles were when built almost 900 years ago.
Today, a line of walled villages and cities define this amazing region with every major town and village having some form of fortification. And, the idea of hiking, biking, or even driving between ancient towns is catching on. With new tours, inns, signage and museums, the visitor will find majestic Serras, 1,000 year old villages, some of the best cheese anywhere, but very few tourists.
The Interior area of Centro is the most mountainous part of the country, with the Serra de Estrela range reaching to almost 6,000 feet above sea level. This is where you will find Portugal’s only ski area, the famous Serra da Estrela cheese, the Cão da Serra dog breed, and a new Pousada. Hiking, hang gliding, and rock climbing are all found in and around the Serra da Estrela and Serra de Malcata natural parks. The line of castles, granite landscapes, and friendly folk make it a wonderful off-the-beaten-path adventure that is about as unique as it comes!
+ Portugal’s highest city: Guarda
Guarda: the guardian. Walled, it is Portugal’s highest city. The towers of the city are still mostly intact, still guarding the frontier. Inside the city’s wall is the impressive Gothic Cathedral with an enormous stone altarpiece, created by the 16th century master mason João de Ruão. The old city spreads around the Cathedral, with a 16th century arcaded building surrounding the main square. Inside the battlements, a Jewish community once thrived. In Guarda’s Jewish Quarter, the symbols of the Jewish faith still grace the walls of the stone houses. The city is surrounded by traces of Jewish communities, and a new Portuguese Network of Jewish Quarters helps visitors learn more and explore:
+ Centro’s historic villages
Along Centro’s mountainous border with Spain run green and granite mountains with a unique landscape. Here, ancient Celt tribes flourished and revisited the Romans. Roman towns thrived, but after the fall of the empire, Moors and Christians, and later Spaniards and Portuguese all fought over these lands.
Today, dozens of fortified frontier villages share a past of the heroism, epic battles and the tale of Portugal’s struggle to become a nation. Each village has a fascinating tale of its own to tell. Thanks to these walled towns, Portugal boasts the longest-standing border in all of Europe. And while we will visit a few here – there are plenty more: places like Monsanto, Trancoso, Celorico da Beira, Linhares, Pinhel, Castelo Rodrigo, Penedono, Meda, Castelo Bom, and many others!
In these rural villages, ancient rituals and religious festivals remain popular. Visitors can sample them and enjoy traditional foods such as cheese, bread, sausages and mountain honey.
The town in a star-shaped line of walls: Almeida – In the fortress town of Almeida, a walk through the narrow cobbled streets can lead a visitor to the preserved ruins of a once mighty 12-pointed star shaped fortress. The mighty walls saw fighting from the Reconquista to the Napoleonic Wars. In the town of Castelo Rodrigo, a memorial stone marks the place of a fierce battle in 1664, and visitors can explore the remains of the castle, its tower and a palace. The town has a small, Gothic church.
Marialva: The lost villages – One of a handful of abandoned walled villages in Portugal, what remains of Marialva are roofless houses and an empty square with a pillory. Marialva predates the Roman invasion, and was later taken by the Visigoths. After the 711 Moorish invasion of the Iberian Peninsula, the area around Marialva was abandoned until conquered by the Portuguese in the 12th century. But neighboring Castile also claimed the lands of the Côa River, and only in 1297 did Portugal gain full title to the area. The castle was rebuilt and expanded. Marialva fortunes were aligned with the powerful Távoras family, whose feud with the powerful minister, the Marques de Pombal, in the 18th century led to the end of the village. Today a new inn lets guest explore the villages and retreat to luxury.
Sabugal: The only 5-sided castle – “A castle with fives sides is not to be found in Portugal,” says the old song, “If not on the banks of the Côa, in the village of Sabugal.” And true to its word, the keep of the castle of Sabugal is uniquely pentagonal. As the first walls rose in the 12th century, the town became a battleground. A legend has it that the kings of both Portugal and Spain met in the castle in 1224 to work out the disputed border. Almost a century later, the lands were still in dispute, leading King D. Dinis to expand the castle, adding an unprecedented five sided keep, a solid new ring of walls, and a message to the Castilians: this was a Portuguese town. Sabugal retained its importance in the 15th century when King D. Manuel I ordered it repaired, adding elegant balconies with murder holes, and cross-shaped archer’s loops. The town played an important role in the 1640s during the War for Independence from Spain. Today, the restored castle retains its ancient might with well preserved rings of circular, delicately castellated walls, and a five-sided keep that still says to all who view it: this is Portugal!
Sortelha: Massive walls, endless views – Few granite towns seem so ancient as Sortelha. Rising as the tip of a granite mount, Sortelha, with its few hundred inhabitants, is a magical place. Not only is the original town still enclosed in 1,000 year old walls, but also the houses have barely changed from the 14th century. It is a place of timeless beauty. In 1228, D. Sancho I ordered the town refortified. It was repaired over the centuries, but eventually lost its military significance and the castle was abandoned. Yet, it remained standing, and today is a wonderful example of an early Portuguese castle. The village’s partially ruined town walls and gates welcome visitors. Many houses are now weekend homes, and the town has all the charm of Obidos, without the tourists. The castle itself lies at the center of the town and is ship-like, built of square granite rocks with a square keep.
Idanha-a-Velha: From city to village – At its height, the Roman garrison town of Igaeditânia boasted a population of 200,000. Idanha-a-Velha was in its day so important that it became a diocesan seat in 599 AD, with its own bishop until 1199. Idanha even had a center to mint gold coin. Today, Idanha-a-Velha has about 350 inhabitants. It began in 16 BC, when fertile and gold-rich soil led the Emperor Augustus to order the town built. In the 4th century barbarians took the town. A Visigoth King Womba was born in Idanha-a-Velha’s walls, and he had a great cathedral built. By the 8th century, the Moors had arrived, and Idanha-a-Velha found itself in a no man’s land between Christians to the north, and Moors to the south. D. Sancho I finally claimed Idanha-a-Velha for Portugal in the 13th century, but it never recovered its past glory. Today Idanha-a-Velha (Idanha-the-Old) is a national monument with archaeological significance because of its landmarks and ruins.
Belmonte: The lost tribe of Israel – The fortified town of Belmonte was once home to a community or “crypto” of Jews, a people who, for centuries, practiced their religion in secret after the Inquisition had banned it. Judaism was abolished in Portugal in 1496, but some Jewish people kept their rituals and faith alive in secret for centuries. As generations died away, the origins of these rituals were lost until a connection was made between the traditions practiced in Belmonte and Judaism. Jewish communities around the world helped the Jews of Belmonte rediscover their roots. In 1993, the community welcomed its first rabbi in more that four centuries and, soon thereafter, Temple Bet Eliahou was built. Today, there are more than 180 Jews living in Belmonte, many of the Jewish families still live in the town’s charming Judiaria, or Jewish Quarter, called the Bairro de Marrocos. The town produces a kosher wine, and has a small Jewish Museum that tells the story of this centuries-old community. Belmonte is dominated by its 13th century castle that also served as a fortified manor in the 15th century to the family of Pedro Alvares Cabral, the discoverer of Brazil.
+ Eats: Queijo Serra da Estrela and Dão Wines
Serra da Estrela (Queijo Serra da Estrela) is a creamy cheese made in mountains of the Serra da Estrela region, which has been granted PDO status by the European Union.
The region where the Serra da Estrela cheese can be manufactured is limited to the towns of Celorico da Beira, Fornos de Algodres, Gouveia, Mangualde, Manteigas, Nelas, Oliveira do Hospital, Penalva do Castelo, Carregal do Sal, and Seia.
The Dão wine region is located primarily on a plateau that is sheltered by the granite mountain ranges of Serra da Estrela, Serra do Caramulo and Serra da Nave. This helps the region maintain its temperate climate away from the effects of the Atlantic. The region experiences abundant rainfall in the winter months and long, warm dry summers leading up to harvest. The region’s vineyards are planted on sandy, well-drained soil on top of granite rock. Cold winters and dry summers make the wine special.
+ New Pousada of Serra da Estrela: Standing on the top of the mountain, almost 4,000 feet high, the former retreat is now a brand new Pousada of Portugal. This retreat was developed by Eduardo Souto Moura, Pritzker Prize winner, that restored the historic clinic building of Penhas da Saude to the sophistication and splendor of old times. It opened in April 2014. The Pousada of Serra da Estrela represents a new concept in bigger dimension Pousadas with 92 rooms, spa, pool, meeting rooms and restaurant. The project embraces the style of the original building from the early 20th century. Cottinelli Telmo designed the initial project in the 1920s.
+ Culture: Poet of a King
Few nations can claim poets among their leaders, but in Portugal’s case, many of its kings were both poets and men of culture. In fact, the second king of Portugal, D. Sancho I (1154-1212), wrote the first known poem in the Portuguese language. Inspired by the poetry of Provence, and laying the foundations for the mournful sounds of Portugal’s traditional Fado music, King Sancho wrote the following poem to a friend he missed, back in Guarda, which Sancho founded. The king wrote numerous poems and also sent Portugal’s young men to study in European universities, using the royal treasure. His dedication to literature and culture helped lead to an early Renaissance in Portugal.
Oh! Poor me, living in such a worry
For my friend, who is far off.
So long I must wait, for my friend in Guarda.
Oh! Poor me as I live
With a great desire
For my friend
Who is tardy, and whom I do not see
So long I must wait, for my friend in Guarda.
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