Guarda, Serra da Estrela, Portugal
Situated at 1,056 m amidst the mountains of the Serra da Estrela and commanding a 360º view of the surrounding countryside, Guarda is the highest city in mainland Portugal. Although its altitude and proximity to the Spanish border have made it an historic defensive site and explain the origins of its name “guard”, it is the beauty and serenity of the landscape and the purity and crispness of the air that most characterise it.
The solemn, granite buildings that appear to rise out of the ground in the old city centre blend harmoniously with the mountainous landscape. Examples of this are the solid lines of the 14th century Sé Cathedral; the Torre de Menagem, the only remaining evidence of the city’s 12th century castle; the Torre de Ferreiros, the 13th century remains of the city’s perimeter walls erected by King Sancho I and the granite houses of the Jewish quarter. The 17th century Igreja da Misericórdia church, also renowned for its beauty, appears almost modern in comparison.
The 14th century Jewish quarter in the old city centre is a maze of narrow cobbled streets, only accessible on foot and lined by small granite houses. It is a charming and fascinating area to visit: cryptic marks imbedded over some of the doors hint at the existence of former Jewish synagogues and crosses symbolising Christian converts tell of desperate attempts to ward off the Inquisition. There is even a touch of romance attached to one of the houses as it is held to be the clandestine meeting place of the Portuguese king, D. João I, with the beautiful daughter of a Jewish cobbler with whom he had illegitimate children.
Guarda is also a perfect base from which to explore the historic villages and towns that lie on the neighbouring mountain slopes. Former medieval strongholds, they all boast impressive monuments or evidence of former grandeur as well as a few additional enticing attractions. Celorico da Beira is the capital of the famous regional cheese, the queijo da serra and hosts an annual cheese festival, Monsanto has earned the title of “the most characteristic village in Portugal” and tells stories of Romans, Moors and Knights Templar and Linhares, also of Roman origin, is a popular paragliding spot. Seia has a famous bread museum, the spa town of Manteigas provides skiing and snowboarding on its artificial slopes and the nearby Archaeological Park of the Côa Valley contains the world's largest collection of open-air Stone Age engravings.
The gastronomic delights of Guarda are in keeping with the rest of this region, where good food is all-important. Roast kid, lamb and smoked meats and sausages are the specialities although octopus and cod dishes are just as popular. Naturally, the region’s pride and joy, the serra da estrela cheese, adds the finishing touch to any meal.
Guarda sits majestically on its plateau serenely regarding the countryside around it and seemingly oblivious of the many conflicts and threats that marked its beginnings. A former bastion of Portuguese defence, it now invites visitors to enter its walls and enjoy the best that the Serra da Estrela has to offer.