The 455 kilometre route winds through Bragança, Miranda do Douro, Mogadouro, Vimioso and Vinhais, five of the twelve municipalities in the Bragança district. The Transmontana Terra Fria Route is long, but each visitor is invited to go at his own pace. If you do the whole route, you will cover 11 different sections. But you can begin your journey from any one of the 11 Section Gateways, the name given to the points at which the route intersects with main roads.
The route passes through villages, towns and cities and past ancient castles and churches that have been preserved by the locals. There are valleys, stunning views of the Douro and other rivers and gorgeous countryside dotted with schist and granite houses. Marshy meadows, stands of black oak, chestnuts groves and hectares of almond trees populate the hillsides. Between March and April, flowering almond trees colour the landscape pink and white.
If you come in the summer, the weather is hot and dry. In the winter, cold, rain and snow, particularly on Montesinho Mountain and other high points, stamp their mark on both life and landscape. The varied climate and the human presence combine to explain the diversity of landscapes.
You can do the Transmontana Terra Fria Route by car (perhaps the best option if you really want to get to know this north-east corner of Portugal), on foot or by bicycle. There is a Route Door in each of the five county towns. These dispense information (in paper and multimedia form) and also host such activities as tastings, cultural events and exhibitions of traditional arts, crafts and skills. To give a helping hand, multimedia kiosks have been installed at the 11 Section Doors along the route.
The first section begins in the village of Quintanilha – the route gateway closest to the Spanish border - and ends in Avelanoso. In Quintanilha, you can see the Chapel of Nossa Senhora da Ribeira, which dates back to the 13th Century. In Outeiro, there is the imposing Basilica of Santo Cristo. Then you pass through the town of Vimioso. To come to the small schist-built villages, something you will come across throughout the Terra Fria Route.
The second section (Avelanoso – Constantim) is the shortest on the route. It is worth stopping off in S. Martinho de Angueira, on the Angueira River. This village was settled in the 13th Century, or even earlier. A five-kilometre detour takes you to the Sanctuary of Senhora do Nazo, where the main church and five surrounding chapels are thought to have been places of worship since medieval times. The sanctuary’s lofty position affords breathtaking views out over the plateau.
After Constantim, set out on the third section, towards Sendim. From the Constantim parish church, enjoy one of the most beautiful panoramic views to be had in the region. You can see right across the plateau to the mountains of Montesinho, Nogueira, Bornes and Mogadouro (and even the village of Brandilanes, in Spain). Marvel at the “Douro Canyons” (Canhões do Douro), tall cliffs scoured by birds of prey, particularly the giant royal eagle and the migratory Egyptian vulture.
Aldeia Nova, also on the third section, is worth a stop off, with its Chapel of S. João and Castle of S. João das Arribas. The city of Miranda do Douro is not far from there. The old part of town should not be missed, particularly the cathedral and its magnificent reredos. Miranda do Douro is also famous for its traditions – from the Pauliteiros de Miranda (similar to Morris dancers), who perform a war dance, to the Mirandese language. Of course, there is also the food (of which the Mirandese steak is just the best-known example).
After Sendim, famous for its folk festival - the Sendim Interceltic Festival, you enter the fourth section. Your destination is the small and tidily turned out town of Mogadouro, although there are plenty of surprises along the way.
In the village of Palaçoulo, you can buy a knife hand-forged by craft cutlers. The Parish Church of Santa Maria Madalena in Tó is one of the best known (and preserved) in the Mogadouro area. In Ventozelo, enjoy the 18th Century frescoes and the life-size figures of the Holy Way in the Chapel of Senhor da Boa Morte, which the Távora family had built towards the end of the 17th Century. If travelling by car, park in Urrós and follow the dirt road that takes you through vineyards and olive and almond groves down to the bank of the Douro. Your reward will be some of the most beautiful views the river has to offer.
In Mogadouro, visit the town centre and the castle, of which the keep and some parts of the walls are still standing. From here, you enter the fifth section, which includes three rivers that feed into the Douro – the Angueira, the Sabor and the Azibo. You pass through Castro Vicente, with its Chapel of Senhor da Fraga, and Penas Roias, which was once the country seat but is now known for its castle and the “Fraga da Letra” schematic rock paintings that are thought to date back to the 2nd Century BC.
Two types of tree dominate the sixth section (Algoso – Salsas): the olive and the chestnut. The little castle of Algoso is perched on a cliff above the Angueira River, at an altitude of over 600 metres. The castle was occupied for from the Bronze through to the Modern Age. Uva is one of the many villages in the Terra Fria where popular architecture has left its mark on the landscape. This can be seen in the houses made of small schist stones and the 30 or so dovecotes, some of which have been restored.
The Sabor River forms the county line between Vimioso and Bragança. Next stop on the route is Izeda, the most important town in the Bragança municipality, after the county seat itself. Visit the Izeda Museum Centre (Núcleo Museológico de Izeda), a former olive mill that has been turned into an information centre for olive oil, where you can see exactly how olive oil used to be made.
The next section runs from the hamlet of Salsas to Zoio. The section is flanked by Nogueira Mountain and its extensive tracts of black oak. In Santa Comba de Rossas, you can see what is left of the old train station that was once on the Tua Line. Back in the golden era of Portuguese railways, this was the country’s highest station (at an altitude of 849 metres). Next to the sign to Paçó, on your right, you will see a very different kind of bus stop. It has a roof and a fireplace, to help keep out the winter cold. It is not the only one of its kind along the Terra Fria Route.
Running parallel to the dual carriageway, a twisty road takes you into Bragança. It is well worth coming off the route to explore this county seat. No visit to Bragança would be complete without taking time to see the cathedral and the 13th-century castle. In the medieval city centre, still guarded by stone walls, you will find one of the most important testaments to medieval architecture in Portugal, the Domus Municipalis. This is where the town’s senate used to meet.
Another detour takes you to Castro de Avelãs, a national monument, where the top of the church nave from a pre-12th Century Cluniac monastery still stands.
The small village of Zoio marks the beginning of another section, the eighth. The parish church deserves a visit, particularly because of its interior. This section also has another key destination: the town of Vinhais and its culinary delights. The route, which includes a drop down into the Tuela Valley, offers magnificent views that will certainly whet your appetite: poplars, alders and ashes line the watercourses and there are oaks and stands of wild chestnuts plus huge age-old chestnut trees.
You could have a picnic by the medieval Ranca Bridge, or just take a quick break on the Tuela River before heading off to Vinhais. Enter the town’s historic centre through the main gate of the former fortress and look for both the parish church and the pillory. Visit the mansion of the Counts of Vinhais (Solar dos Condes de Vinhais), now a cultural centre, and the Corujeira Mansion (Solar da Corujeira). Admire the baroque reredos in the church of the Convent of S. Francisco and in the chapel that lies alongside.
Vinhais is just the right place to get to know the region's food. It is no coincidence that a major fair for smoked products is held here, as this is basically the capital of the art of smoking, conserving and flavouring meats. Along with the quality of the meat, the smokehouses here make the ham, the sausages, the white puddings, the pepperoni and the sweet and savoury chorizos that are famed throughout the country. Before leaving town, take a look at the Vinhais Biological Park (Parque Biológico de Vinhais), which serves as a repository for the region’s natural assets.
The ninth section begins in Sobreiró de Cima. Follow the Rabaçal River up onto the peaks of Coroa Mountain. The village of Tuizelo is worth a visit, particularly the baroque church with its large nave and gilded reredos. Ask someone in Vila Seco to show you the buried cellars - used to protect the wine from the harsh climate.
Make time to stop in Moimenta, the beginning of the tenth section, to get a feel for the communitarian lifestyle lived in the village. Some of the community constructions - threshing floors, mills, presses, fountains and the forge - have been kept going, which makes Moimenta one of the most interesting villages in the Terra Fria. The route traverses Montesinho Mountain mid-slope to reach Rio de Onor, perhaps the most emblematic of all the villages in north-east Portugal.
The last section of the route begins in Rio de Onor, inside Montesinho Nature Park, and ends back where it began at Quintanilha. Rio de Onor is still a communitarian village, just as it was back in the Middle Ages. You can see this in the shared ovens, farmland, mills, or even in a neighbour taking their turn to shepherd a flock of sheep on land that belongs to all
The schist-built houses are picture postcard quality. The river beach on the clear waters of the Onor (or Contensa, as many people know it) River beckons you for a well-earned rest, after having travelled so many kilometres on your discovery of the Terra Fria.
A region at the table
Bísaro pork is one of the leading lights of the regional cuisine,. It is well-known throughout the country, as are the local breed veal steaks (the posta mirandesa, as famous as it is succulent, which only needs a pinch of salt and the embers to be just so for a perfect meal).
The region is famed for this steak and its variety of smoked sausages (from alheira to butelo, from chouriça de bofes to salpicão). However, there is so much more than this: the broinhas de nozes à moda de Bragança (Bragança style walnut biscuits), folar (a type of bread), Montesinho kid, roast lamb, eel stew, trout and a whole host of different kinds of mushrooms...
We shall focus on Bísaro pork, which reigns supreme in the region’s traditional smokehouses. The Bísaro has inhabited the Terra Fria for a very long time, as evidenced by the various sculptures of the pig scattered throughout the settlements in the region. There is no large-scale production of the breed, which goes a long way to explaining its unique quality. The pigs are fed on fodder produced as part of the natural farming cycle - chestnuts, beetroots, potatoes, cabbages and turnips, amongst others.
If you would like to get to know the cuisine of the Terra Fria a little better, come to the Vinhais Smokehouse Fair, one of the country’s biggest food events. It is held in February each year.
Masks and tongues
In almost all the villages in north-east Portugal, special ceremonies are performed between Christmas Day and the Epiphany. These are often called ‘Feasts of the Boys’.
The precise origins of these pagan celebrations of the winter solstice, which certainly pre-date the Christianisation of the Iberian Peninsula, have been lost in the mists of time. The name comes from the fact that the younger members of the community are the stars of the festivities, with their “excesses” and follies protected by the home-made masks that cover their faces. The ritual marks the passage from youth to adulthood.
In Vila Boa, in the municipality of Vinhais, there is a “mask-maker’s” workshop that sells these wooden masks, true examples of popular art.
Another ancient tradition is the Mirandese language (mirandês). It is not a dialect, or a variety of Portuguese, but a language in its own right, derived from Latin. There are local variations as well, such as Guadramilês, Riodonorês and Sendinês, spoken around Guadramil, Rio de Onor and Sendim.
Even today, the local population is bilingual. Mirandese is learned in the region's schools and is officially recognised as a minority European language Portugal's second official language.
How to get there
There are numerous direct flights into Porto. If you are travelling low cost you can fly straight from London, (Stansted and Gatwick), Birmingham, Paris (Beauvais, Orly, Vatry and Charles de Gaulle), Marseilles, 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 Düsseldorf Weeze.
In the summer, low-cost airlines fly from Liverpool, Dublin, Bologna, Toulouse, Clermont Ferrand, Carcassonne, La Rochelle, Limoges, Rennes, Las Palmas, Palma de Majorca, Tenerife and Bremen.
The traditional airlines operate flights to Porto from London (Gatwick and Heathrow), Madrid, Barcelona, Munich, Frankfurt, Paris Orly, Caracas, Geneva, Luxembourg, Amsterdam, Milan Malpensa, Luanda, Zurich, New York, São Paulo, Rio de Janeiro, Brussels Zaventem, Rome Fiumicino, Toronto and Luanda. In the summer, they also fly from Montreal, Minorca, Brest and Brive.
From Porto, the A4 is the quickest road to the Terra Fria. In two and a half hours you can be in Quintanilha, the village where the Terra Fria Route begins. Bragança, the district capital, is 22 kilometres from Quintanilha.