PORTUGAL - THE MOUNTAINS
In many of the villages of granite and black schist rock perched on the mountainsides, the people still practise a form of communal life. Throughout the region, families produce their own wines and cured ham and smoke delicious sausages over their fireplaces. You can sample these tasty specialities to the sounds of folk music at the many colourful festivals.
One of the most fascinating places is Braganca, which has a 12th century five sided town hall, known as Domus Municipalis, within the walls of a beautifully preserved castle. The Abade de Bacal Museum is installed in the former Bishop's Palace and houses a fine collection of sacred art and displays of local costumes. Head south to Miranda do Douro, where the river has cut a deep gorge into the rock, and it's easy to imagine how the town was virtually cut off from the rest of the country for several hundred years.
Chaves to the west commands a strategic position in a broad valley and you may reach the centre by crossing a wide Roman bridge. Chaves is popular as a thermal spa, with water gushing out of natural springs at an amazing temperature of 73ºC. Other towns close by where you can also still take the waters are the spa resorts of Carvalhelhos, Pedras Salgadas and Vidago.
A trip to the old city of Vila Real will give you a glimpse of the area's vineyards lying row upon row. Here, the splendid Palacio de Mateus is renowned for its architecture and interiors as well as its cultural events. The grapes for the world famous Port wine are also grown on the gently terraced hillsides here. A scenic railway wends its way along the valley from Regua, where the wine is stored after harvest, up to Chaves. Two bridges also connect Regua to Lamego where you'll find evidence of Baroque in its full glory, with lavish gardens containing fountains, statues and sweeping staircases. The local museum houses fine 16th century tapestries and sacred works of art. Dignified Viseu keeps watch over the heart of the region from its high plateau. It became known as a centre for art in the 16th century and the works of the acclaimed painter, Grao Vasco, are exhibited in the museum.
Stretching as far as the eye can see is the high, austere mountain range of Serra da Estrela. This nature reserve is a landscape of jagged boulders, pine and chestnut forests, where rich pastures provide the source of the wonderful Serra cheese. Guarda, at an altitude of 1,000m has a cathedral built out of massive blocks of granite with lofty pinnacles and grimacing gargoyles. Inside are huge carved stone screens depicting scenes in the life of the Virgin and Christ. Close by is the charming mediaeval village of Belmonte, presided over by a beautifully restored 13th century castle and famous as the birthplace of Pedro Alvares Cabril, discoverer of Brazil.
The ancient Roman town Covilha, immediately below the highest peaks, is an ideal base from which to explore the nature park. In the area of Castelo Branco you can find exotically embroidered bedspreads. Probably the most mystifying of all villages around here is Monsanto where the Castle is so integrated into the rock that it looks as if it grew there. New roads have made the mountains even more accessible, and their stunning beauty lie waiting to be discovered.
Text provided by the Portuguese Tourism Information Department