The southern area of Trás-os-Montes will pleasantly surprise those who love history. The Archaeological Park of Foz Côa (http://www.arte-coa.pt) has hundreds of engravings from the Palaeolithic period stretching along the last 17 km of the Côa River. This open-air rock art gallery was considered a World Heritage Site in 1998, and is one of the largest rock art archaeological sites in Europe. Start your visit at the Côa Museum and if you have the time (and have booked in advance), take an off-road guided tour to the Canada do Inferno site (leaving from the museum), Penascosa site (leaving from the reception centre of the village of Castelo Melhor) or Ribeira dos Piscos site (leaving from the reception centre of the village of Muxagata).
About 30 km from Vila Nova de Foz Côa you come to Vila Flor, a small village with remains of hill forts and Roman villages, and the “Arch of D. Dinis”, one of the old arch doorways of the castle built in the medieval period. Vila Flor is also known as the capital of olive oil, so make sure you try the quality of local olives and olive oil, together with some rye bread baked in a wood-fired oven.
After trying the olive oil, how about a wine tasting experience? In Pinhão (about 60 km from Vila Flor) you will notice how the Douro River seems to be omnipresent and visit one of the Port Wine producing farms, the best-known of Portuguese wines. Normally, after the tour, visitors can taste the wines produced on the farm. The Pinhão railway station is worth a long visit: its walls are covered with 24 tiled panels representing the Douro landscapes.
Continue your trip along the river bank until you reach Peso da Régua, the most important city in the Douro wine region. This is where the first terraced vineyards were planted (the traditional planting method in Douro) and from where the rabelo boats carrying wine left for Vila Nova de Gaia, where the wine aged. If you want to learn more about the historical importance of the city in the wine-growing culture of the region, and the centuries-old history of Port and Douro wines, visit the Douro Museum.
Be sure to visit the stately house of Palácio de Mateus in Vila Real (about 30 km from Peso da Régua) portrayed in the logo of the most widely recognized Portuguese wine in the world. Classified as a jewel of the Portuguese Baroque style, the palace was built in the 18th century and it is worth a thorough visit.
See medieval traces in the oldest part of downtown Vila Real, and rest a while in the city park. If you’re still up to it, climb up to the top of Calvário and for a beautiful view over the city, the mountains of Marão, Alvão, and the Montemuro mountain range.
Heavens of rest with a history
The thermal waters of Chaves have been famous since Roman times, when the thermal baths were built. The warm waters of the city were used by the legions to recover after battle, and are still of great quality. The thermal baths of Chaves have been renovated and are on the right bank of the Tâmega River.
You can also see the Roman heritage in Chaves on the Trajano Bridge which connects the river banks, solidly supported by granite arches. The castle wall and its keep date back to medieval times. This is where you can find military items from the Chaves Museum collection. In the noble Praça de Camões you can visit the Archaeology and Pre-History Centre and the Town Hall building, a 19th century palace.
Vidago lies 16 km from Chaves. Now a tourist village, Vidago was once a choice destination of the European aristocracy seeking its mineral waters to treat ailments. You can enjoy the fine waters at Vidago spa, a modern facility that exudes tranquillity and was designed by Álvaro Siza Vieira, one of the most renowned Portuguese architects. The spa is part of the Vidago Palace Hotel, a fully refurbished centuries-old hotel that reopened in 2010. The Hotel is set in a property of several hectares, where you can visit the buvetes (drinking taps) and the old thermal baths, a unique building in the Art Nouveau style. The Hotel also has a golf course.
Another great suggestion for relaxing is the Pedras Salgadas Park, about 12 km from Vidago. Enjoy the pleasure of drinking natural sparkling water and take your time strolling in the park, visiting the horse riding centre or playing golf. If you’re looking for an offbeat experience, spend the night in one of the tree houses in the park and drift off to sleep while gazing at the stars.
Extreme north-eastern Portugal
Bragança is relatively close to the border with Spain and has one of the most important castles in Portugal. Begin your walk to the top of the castle at Porta da Vila, the main entrance of the castle, see the Gothic pillory, an ancient symbol of local power, and walk to the gigantic castle keep, used for guarding the border with Spain in the Middle Ages, that today houses a military museum. From here you can see the city and the many mountains around it, for example Montesinho and Sanabria. While inside the castle walls, you can also visit the Church of Santa Maria and the Domus Municipalis (municipal house), a unique example of civil Romanesque architecture in Portugal.
When you start feeling hungry, try some of the local sausages from Trás-os-Montes and the folar, a meat-filled brioche baked and sold at Easter. If you have time, head to Miranda do Douro (about 70 km from Bragança) and taste the traditional posta à mirandesa, a delicious chunk of local beef seasoned only with salt and grilled to perfection.
But there is more to Miranda do Douro than meets your stomach: visit the Cathedral, the local museum, or watch the pauliteiros de Miranda perform a traditional war dance. If you love nature, go on an environmental cruise around the cliffs along the Douro River and see the fauna in this natural haven. If you are familiar with the Portuguese language and feel that what you hear being spoken in Miranda do Douro is different, then you have a good ear! Besides Portuguese, the locals also speak Mirandese, regarded as the second official language in Portugal.
How to get there
There are several direct connections to Porto. If you opt for low-cost flights, you can fly from London (Stansted and Gatwick), Birmingham, Paris (Beauvais, Orly, Vatry and Charles de Gaulle), Marseille, Dole, Lille, Strasbourg, Tours, St. Etienne, Bordeaux, Lyon, Nantes, Madrid, Barcelona El Prat, Valencia, Milan Bergamo, Rome Ciampino, Brussels (Charleroi and Zaventem), Eindhoven, Maastricht, Amsterdam, Geneva, Basel/Mulhouse, Dortmund, Frankfurt Hahn, Karlsruhe Baden, Nuremberg, Hamburg Lübeck , Munich Memmingen and Dusseldorf Weeze.
In summer, low cost companies fly from Liverpool, Dublin, Bologna, Toulouse, Clermont Ferrand, Carcassonne, La Rochelle, Limoges, Rennes, Las Palmas, Palma de Majorca, Tenerife and Bremen.
Traditional airlines fly to Porto from London (Gatwick and Heathrow), Madrid, Barcelona, Munich, Frankfurt, and Paris Orly, Caracas, Geneva, Luxembourg, Amsterdam, Milan Malpensa, Zurich, New York, São Paulo, Rio de Janeiro, Brussels Zaventem, Rome Fiumicino, Toronto, and Luanda. In summer, you can also fly from Montreal, Brest and Brive.
At the Francisco Sá Carneiro International Airport you can rent a car and drive to Trás-os-Montes on the A4. You can also take the bus leaving from downtown Porto to Vila Real, Bragança or Chaves. Alternatively, you can catch the train from Porto to Pocinho and enjoy the view of the vineyards.