For many people, Portugal means stunning sea landscapes, beautiful villages and pasteis de Belem. It is all true: the landscapes the villages and the tasty pastries (well, my friends at RandomTrip would argue that pasteis de Belem is not the proper name) but there is so much more to discover!
A couple of weeks ago I left the Atlantic coast and headed to the east by the Spanish border to the place where the Douro river enters Portugal, at the eastern point of the country. ¿My goals? Discover the history of Miranda do Douro, the beauty of the Arribes and the tastes that make this region unique.
Why you shouldn’t skip Miranda do Douro
You may have never heard of Miranda do Douro, it’s not on many travel guides (yet). For the people at the Spanish border, it is a beautiful village where they might spend the weekend or go shopping every once in a while. But there’s more than that.
I’ve chosen my 12 great reasons why you shouldn’t skip Miranda do Douro. If you find more, just let me know below ;)
1. The fortress of Miranda do Douro
Miranda was an important spot during the Middle Ages. The fortified village had a castle, was home of the bishop (now in Bragança) and was an important defensive spot over the Spanish border (here meaning the Douro river.)
Today, while the bishop house and the tower are down (yes, you can blame us Spaniards for this one), the village keeps the medieval feeling of small houses and cobbled stones. Go up the hill to the fortress (there are free parking spaces around) and cross the walls’ door through Costanielha or Postigo streets towards the Sé church and the ruins of the Bishops’ place. Or join the shopping addicts through Mouzinho de Albuquerque by the ruins of the old Tower and the Town Hall.
2. The traditions at Museum Terras de Miranda
Largo de Dom Joao III is a small pedestrian square up in the fortress and very close to the Cathedral. You could pass by without noticing the beautiful buildings (I’m not saying that you should). But the statue of a couple dressed with the traditional costumes of Miranda do Douro will tell you you’re on the right place.
I taped this short video of the square for Trazers app, so you can get a feeling of the place. It’s in Spanish, (I haven’t had time to upload the video in English yet):
The buildings you’ve seen above are:
- the town hall
- the Ordazes’ manor house (Baroque façade)
- the Museum Terras de Miranda (with the arched one)
The ethnographic museum Terras de Miranda, shows the traditions of Miranda do Douro’s region: from agricultural traditions to fashion, carnival festivities and traditional dances. Up to here, just like any other ethnographic museum in the world, but for the fact that Miranda has some very unique traditions that you can only spot during major festivities (which I’m assuming are not on your calendar) and this is one of the few places where you can see them all the year round.
Which ones? Well, the pauliteiros, for example, which I’m telling you about right below.
Not far from here, another interesting building you can visit is the old customs house or Alfandega, from the XV Century. It hosts different cultural exhibits throughout the year.
3. The “pauliteiros” of Miranda
“Miranda do Douro is a land of pipes, pauliteiros and men dressed with skirts”. Three of the most important landmarks of Miranda are the ones that connect the village with the major Celtic locations around the world. While at many other places in Europe men chose trousers over skirts, the traditional dancers of Miranda still wear them, both men and women.
Partly religious and partly warrior training, the “pauliteiros” dance is something to look for when you visit Miranda. As I told you before, you can take a glimpse of it at the museum, but it is best to join a party like the gastro festival that took us there, to watch them dance/fight live.
Just so you get an idea, you can watch the dance below on video.
4. A Capa de Honras
Men’s fashion wear in Miranda does not limit itself to skirts for dancers, they also have a traditional cape that looks like out of Star Wars. It is called the “Capa de Honras” or honor cape and, as you may have imagined, it was for the nobles.
You won’t find golden threads or beautiful embroidery. Miranda’s traditional cape is made of strong wool that protects from wind, cold and even rain. Since it is harder to see someone wearing a real capa de honras (relevant people from the municipality do still wear it for important events, but not for daily routine), I’ve added some glimpses of one at the end of this video.
5. The Co-Cathedral and the meninho da Cartola
You can see the Sé church of Miranda do Douro from the distance. You can even see it from Spain, proud on top of the fortress. But it is not a Cathedral anymore. Since the flee of the bishop 200 years ago, Miranda’s Sé has to share the “cathedral” title with the one in Bragança.
That doesn’t make it less interesting or beautiful. The building is a National Heritage monument in Portugal and they say that, when the bishop left, he didn’t take the Cathedral with him because it didn’t have wheels. That’s how interesting it is.
There is lot to see inside: from a unique organ to masonic elements behind the altar, a wardrobe full of relics and the tombstone of “the despicable” Aleixo de MIranda Henriques, the bishop who left Miranda when it went broke, taking the richnesses and political importance out of it. No, he’s not there under the Cathedral, just the tombstone so everyone can step on it if they feel like it.
But don’t leave without visiting the right wing of the cathedral, where the kid of the Cartola lives.
The figure is one of the most devoted elements of the whole Cathedral. The Jesus child used to appear in front of the people of Miranda during the war against Spain, telling them to resist so they could win. They lost the tower and the bishop’s palace, but they survived.
The kid changes its clothes every once in a while to adjust to the festivities or the time of the year. Devotees bring him clothes and women also bring small shirts and socks as an offer in exchange of good boyfriend.
Take some time to find out the masses timetable before you visit, as the cathedral is not open 24/7. You can do so by asking at the Tourism office or checking the board at the Sé door.
6. The “erotic” statues at Costanilha
Only a few steps from the Cathedral, steep Costanilha street is home to one of the most interesting houses in Miranda do Douro. They even say Miguel de Cervantes walked these streets centuries ago and, just maybe, also slept at Casa das Quatro Esquinas (house of the 4 corners).
This famous medieval house is unique, not only because of the 4 windows at the corner, but for the corbels on its walls. One at Costanilha street and another on the east (like the one on the picture.)
They are not regular corbels, one is meant to be god Cronos (Saturn) and another a dog doing “dirty” things. Just a hing: this was home to what they say is the oldest profession in the world.
7. Number 2
From the walls by the cathedral you can take a look down to the river and the “Arribes del Duero”. Down there, although you will not see it from here, is the International Biologic Station, the departure point of the river cruises that navigate through the canyon that the river creates in between Spain and Portugal.
Right across, at the Spanish rock walls you can see some yellow stains. They were not painted by men, but nature. And that’s probably the reason why you will find another interesting legend here.
Among those stains, search for number 2. No, it’s not a huge 2, but a small cut out number 2. But why? Finding that number means you will find a husband or, if you are already married, not seeing it means you should find somebody else (as the one you found is not the right one…)
8. River cruises by Douro River
There are 2 routes by Douro International Nature Park that depart from Miranda do Douro: a short one (about one hour) and a longer one. We did the short one because we didn’t have enough time, but we’ve been recommended to take the longer as it gets farther away from villages and deeper in the park. You can book the short one online.
To say that the landscape is spectacular and that the rock walls of the canyons are more than impressive from the river level is to say the least. Walls of over 400 meters high, cormorant birds here and there, small eagles and griffon vultures, together with a bit of Biology and a great bilingual guide (Portuguese and Spanish is the standard here).
Find below a small video where you can see where Miranda do Douro is and where the river flows, way under below the walled village.
9. “Fala Mirandesa”
It might be hard to notice when you walk by Miranda do Douro, but the language spoken here is not Portuguese, nor Spanish. Try to spot the “yes” and the “icos” in between the words. The “lhengua” or “fala mirandesa” is the official language of Miranda. The distance and isolation of the village through the years created a unique language that became official for Portugal in 1999 (Up until then Portugal was one of the few countries in Europe with only one official language.)
You can listen a bit of “fala mirandesa” by the end of the following video, at the poem that Domingos Raposo gifted us with by Douro river. You can also listen its sound through the music of Galandum Galundaina.
10. The castro village and lookout of San Joao das Arribas
The fortified village of San Joao das Arribas is hiding underneath the soil. It was a village before the Romans and then after the Romans, until the villagers chose to move to close-by “Aldeia Nova” (new town), just a few meters up the mountain. Archaeologists have a lot of work here, coming every summer to discover the hidden secrets at one of the most beautiful spots to watch the Douro river from above.
There is a chapel there now (some ghosts they say) and a pilgrimage that visits every May. But also some interesting sights, on the right Portugal, on the left Spain.
11. Sausages and… why not? cod
Most Spaniards cross to Miranda to eat Cod, which is always a great option in Portugal, but not the only thing. You could add to the mix “vaca mirandesa” (the cow breed from Miranda do Douro) or the traditional fritters or pataniscas.
But what you shouldn’t leave without trying (unless you are a vegan) are the traditional sausages: the alheira (here called tabafeias), the smoked “enchidos” and the “butelos” which are cooked at certified traditional houses, the “casas mirandesas”. We had them at our countryside hotel Cimo da Quinta (at Pena Branca Village) which is also a traditional certified producer.
12. The donkeys from MIranda
Isolation, wild nature and rocky walls made living hard at Miranda, but also gave the area 5 distinctive breeds: the cow from Miranda (vaca mirandesa), a sheep (churra mirandesa), a dog (transmontano), a pig (bísaro) and a donkey.
The donkey breed (a former worker at the mountains and crop fields) is a protected one and you can visit the donkeys at nearby Atenor village. It is not a traditional touristic visit, but these fluffy (when small) donkeys are curious and tall, and they even take you on tour if you book in advance (they offer routes of up to 3 days long, sleeping at country houses.)
Where to sleep in Miranda do Douro
This time we stayed at Casas de Campo Mirandesas Cimo da Quinta. Beautifully restored traditional houses at a cute village next to Miranda do Douro where they cook their own bread and traditional sausages (chouriços, alheiras and other local delicacies).
Update: A couple of friends just came back from Miranda do Douro. There was no availability for their trip at Cimo da Quinta and chose Puial de l Douro. They recommended it a lot and it is close to the San Joao lookout over the Arribes, so worth checking out. Also, if you are looking to stay within the city, the Parador Santa Catarina is a classic choice.
Did I miss anything?
Let me know in the comments
This post has its origin on a press trip from Porto e Norte where they invited both Spanish and Portuguese travel writers to discover Miranda do Douro and the foodie festival Sabores Mirandeses. As always, you will always find my true experience and opinion about the places visited and activities done all around the world. If you have any doubt about the place, the experience and the recs, just let me know through the comments below