Far from Portugal’s popular tourist regions lies Almeida, a land of amazing landscapes, picturesque towns, and some of the most impressive historical sites in Europe
Portugal is well known as a land of great wines, relaxing holidays, and superb beaches. City breaks to Lisbon and Porto are also popular, as are golfing and horse-riding trips. I’ve been fortunate, however, to discover a part of Portugal that is almost unknown to tourism. One that has amazing scenery, outstanding historic attractions, and an enticing, timeless tranquillity.
Following a short flight to Porto, I pick up a hire car, and then head inland through an ever-changing landscape. To begin with the excellent roads pass through rolling green hills, pretty medieval towns, thriving vineyards, and dramatic river valleys. In a little over an hour, the road begins to climb noticeably, and soon I’m into the stark, boulder-strewn Beiras Mountains. It is a strange and imposing landscape, where these huge rounded rocks have been left – often at precarious angles – by a retreating glacier millions of years ago.
Just to the north of the road is the River Douro – or River of Gold – which follows a spectacular course through the remote border region for more than 150 miles. It is possible to cruise all the way to the Spanish border, passing small villages, and endless lines of terraced vineyards that produce Portugal’s famous port wine.
My main reason for travelling here is my love of history. This region of central Portugal (Centro as it’s known locally) has seen many battles over the centuries. Viriatus once made his last stand here, to defend what was then Lusitania from the Romans, and the French Napoleonic army invaded Portugal no less than four times through this area, in the Peninsular Wars.
My first stop is at the small mountain town of Belmonte, famous in Portugal as the birthplace of Pedro Alvares Cabrai. Who? Yes, I asked the same, and discovered he was the first navigator to discover Brazil, way back in 1500. The town itself is set on the side of a long, steep-sided, valley. My accommodation was a mile or so above the main centre, along a small winding lane. The Pousada de Belmonte is an amazing place to stay. It was raised from the ruins of an old monastery, which in turn had been built on the site of a 13th-century hermitage. The modern parts of the building sit harmoniously with the ancient stone construction, and I found it quite surreal sitting in a medieval chapel with a bar at one end, and a pool outside the window. It was almost dark when I arrived, but in the morning I was amazed to open the blinds in my comfortable room, and reveal a breathtaking panoramic view of the valley, and the mountains beyond. Breakfast on the terrace was a little chilly, but again I wouldn’t have missed it for the same stunning vista.
Half an hour’s drive away, the fortified town of Almeida stands imposingly on a hilltop, close to one of the Douro’s tributaries, and within cannon range of the border with Spain. The huge defences, in the shape of a 12-point star, completely surround the town and are still almost totally intact. They are, without doubt, one of the most impressive in the Iberian Peninsular, and I suspect in the whole of Europe.
Inside the protection of these walls, little has changed since Wellington’s time. Even today the two narrow parallel gatehouses have to be negotiated to enter and leave the historic centre. There was plenty to impress a casual history buff like myself: the whitewashed barrack house, the Governor's house, and the Main Guard Corps building all still stand, indifferent to the passing of time. Below the ramparts lies a huge casemate capable of sheltering up to 5000 military and townspeople, together with their supplies, dormitories, and water supplies.
It’s a charming small town, with pretty streets of whitewashed houses, colourful flower boxes, and cobbled streets. I enjoy an excellent lunch at the Pousada Senhora das Neves, which also boasts views across the ramparts to the Spanish border in the distance. Despite walking around the village twice, I still leave with a strange feeling that it had plenty more secrets to reveal if I were to return one day. I head south, past an old bridge that survived another bloody battle. The deep river chasm was used as a further defensive line, and now a small plaque and a stone cross remember those who died in this beautifully wild and rugged gorge.
At the nearby sleepy village of Freineda, the Duke of Wellington’s winter quarters can still be seen. Bordering one edge of the small sandy square, a modern statue of the General stands outside the slightly dilapidated two-storey building. Sit under the old tree next to the church, and it’s easy to imagine him standing on the rickety balcony, sending a messenger off to the front line with new orders.
My last stop was the even more remote medieval hilltop village of Castelo Mendo. The buildings are all stone, and the single narrow street winds its way up past the 18th-century church, and single village shop, to the ruined shell of the old church on the summit. From here, the 360-degree panoramic views over the surrounding countryside are the reason this was once such an important place in the Portuguese defensive line. The remains of the old castle walls can still be seen, but I am awestruck by the amazing views all around me. To walk in these villages is like walking back in time. Their beauty is in their simplicity. No modern trappings like cars or satellite dishes here.
Indeed, this whole border area, with its mountain villages, plunging valleys, and giant glacial boulders scattered across the landscape, is remarkably peaceful. It’s a wild and desolate region, but I love its enduring appeal, and especially the feeling that I’ve stumbled back to a time when time itself didn’t matter.