Portugal is in the news: Top 10-lists, best values, best new hotels. But inside this emerging destination there are whole regions that are undiscovered – and well worth exploring. Today, we take you beyond the mountains to the northeastern corner of Portugal known as the Trás-os-Montes, or “land beyond the mountains.”
Talk about unique: imagine a place with its own tongue. The Mirandês language is recognized along with Portuguese as an official language for this region. Here, at Foz Côa, you can find some of the best prehistoric cave paintings in Europe. And, the wines of the region are part of the celebrated Douro region, as the Douro River flows through the Trás-os-Montes.
Dotted with tiny, medieval towns, the countryside of the Trás-os-Montes region is wild and marked by the Montesinho Natural Park, home to wild boar and other wildlife. The ancient inhabitants of these remote lands worshiped the wild boar, and they still thrive in the numerous valleys that dot the mountainscapes. Ancient granite pig statues are found in many towns, including the main city of the region, Bragança. Set inside the ancient castle, the pig stands not far from the oldest town hall in the nation, dating back to the 12th century, where the council of good men met to decide the affairs of the city.
Here, on the Douro River facing Spain, stands the 14th century town of Freixo de Espada à Cinta. This name could mean “an ash tree with a sword at its belt.” It might be named after an ancient, and perhaps mythical, Celt warrior, Freixo. Some say the name is Visigoth in origin, based on the word “Espadacinta.” Most likely, it is named by King Dinis, as a warning that the town was well defended.
But that isn’t all. There are the bagpipes, kilts and tartans, with stick dancing in this Celtic heartland. The Trás-os-Montes has numerous natural parks that are wild and beautiful.
The Trás-os-Montes Celtic past dates back to 2000 B.C. and is still alive in the culture today. Here, the Celtic influence remained strong because of its isolation of an area bordered by sharp mountains and mighty rivers on all sides. In fact, the Trás-os-Montes has retained its own language, Mirandês.
In Miranda do Douro, a monumental town perched on the Douro River on the frontier with Spain, festivals are staged to showcase traditional bagpipers who play instruments called gaita-de-fole transmontana. The pipers might be accompanying singers in the Celtic musical tradition. The Dança dos Pauliteiros is a dance of Celtic origins related to fertility rites with male dancers dressed in white linen kilts, black waistcoats, and bright scarves, dancing while clacking short, wooden sticks.
Vila Real – Royal City and home to Mateus
Vila Real rises on a hill between the Corgo and Cabril Rivers with its elegant houses harmoniously descending the slopes. The royal city prospered between the 17th and 19th centuries, and many aristocrats built their manors in the town – including the famed 1745 Mateus Palace from the label of the wine of the same name. The palace’s baroque architecture and majestic are reflecting on a pond in front of it. It is open to tours. The town began as a walled town, then grew into a park filled city with palaces bearing coats of arms.
Parque Natural de Montesinho = Wild
The Parque Natural de Montesinho is remote, wild and wonderful. Located in the top half Portugal’s northeast along the Spanish border, this is a magical place of sharp hills, bright fields and ancient oak forests that cover some 500 square miles. A few dozen towns here are home to more than 7,000 residents, in places whose names sound more Celt than Portuguese, such as Gimonde and Rio de Onor. And, Montesinho is a charming overnight point with a stylish guesthouse. The walled city of Bragança is not far way, either.
OH! It is a Pigeon House!
Trás-os-Montes’ pigeon houses are scattered across the landscape in the northeastern corner of Portugal where there are more 3,500 of these horseshoed-shaped structures. Introduced in the early nineteenth century as a way to capture the pigeon manure for agriculture. As a way to conserve cultural heritage, the International Douro Natural Park began in 1997 to preserve the “pombais” with the creation of PALOMBAR (word meaning “loft” in Mirandês) – an association of traditional pombal or pigeon houses owners with the goal of restoring, preserving and revitalizing these great buildings.
Posta Mirandesa, Feijoada and Chestnuts
If there were a trinity of Trás-os-Montes cuisine it might be the posta miradesa, feijoada and the chestnut.
Local Mirandesa meat is produced in the natural pasture land of the Northeast, called “lameiros.”
The dish “posta mirandesa” is a recipe for grilled steak, served with grilled potatoes and Portuguese kale. Made from beef in the region, posta is one of the popular (and tasty) local dishes that quickly reached spread beyond borders of the Trás-os-Montes. The recipe may be from the cattle fairs in Bragança, where fresh meat was seasoned with salt and cooked on a hot grill.
Feijoada is also a local selection. This mix of red beans, meats and cabbage is often called Feijoada Trasmontana – and is a tasty mix of sausages, meats and fresh vegetables. Of course, this dish immigrated to Brazil, where it became the national dish.
The hills of the Trás-os-Montes come alive each November with the fruit of the chestnut harvest. Chestnuts have been cultivated throughout Portugal for centuries, and until the potato arrived from the New World, they were a staple of the local diet. Chestnuts are still grown throughout the country, but in the fertile lands of the Trás-os-Montes they still celebrate the ancient rite of the chestnut harvest. The S. Martinho Festival is in mid November in Mirandela.
The tale of Trindade Coelho and the Castle of Mogadouro
The life of José Francisco Trindade Coelho is tied to the rugged Trás-os-Montes. This Portuguese writer was born in 1861 in the town of Mogadouro. The town first became part of Portugal in the 13th century. The land was ceded to the Order of the Knights Templar, who founded a castle here, and it still stands in ruins. As Trindade Coelho wrote, the best time to visit this region is in February/March, when the almond-trees are in blossom and the fields are covered with a blaze of white. These beautiful landscapes are best admired from the hilltops of the Serra da Castanheira or from the nearby castle of Penas Róias. Trindade Coelho was also a judge and a politician. His books chronicled the rural life of his childhood in Trás-os-Montes. He was a strong voice for the end of Portugal’s monarchy.
In 1891, he wrote this of the Castle of Mogadouro, in Tipos da Terra – Os Meus Amores
Up high, dominating the dark chimneys of the rooftops, the ancient castle,
Roman in origin, was saddening with its fallen defenses, and vast walls in ruin.
To its side rose stubbornly
an old clock tower,
In a primitive style.
It was 11 p.m., and it still read 7,
That damned thing never got it right!
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