Bagpipes, kilts and tartans, stick dancing and Celtic music. You’re probably thinking Scotland or Wales at this point, right? Well, think Portugal instead. In the northeastern corner of Portugal—known as the “land beyond the mountains”— a Celtic history dating back to 2000 B.C. or more survives in the people and culture today.
Most countries of western and central Europe had some temporary brush with the many Celtic tribes, but in northern Portugal’s Trás-os-Montes region, the Celtic influence remained strong because of its isolation—bordered by mountains and rivers on all sides. Prehistoric humans probably moved from the Iberian Peninsula, which includes modern-day Portugal, northward to the British Isles. Recent genetic evidence shows the people of northern Portugal and the British Isles are closely linked. Today, while “true” Celtic regions are defined as Ireland, Scotland, England, Wales, Brittany, Cornwall and the Isle of Man–regions where a distinct separate language can be identified–the Trás -os-Montes region of Portugal has, in fact, retained its own language.
In Miranda do Douro, a monumental town perched on the Douro River, festivals are staged to showcase traditional bagpipers who play instruments called “gaita-de-foles transmontana”. The pipers might be accompanying singers who have mastered the unique scale of the Celtic musical tradition, whose songs may be in the Mirandês language, now recognized along with Portuguese as an official language for this region. Travelers may be somewhat familiar with the type of stick dancing performed in the Trás-os-Montes region, called Dança dos Pauliteiros. This dance probably has Celtic origins related to fertility rites. It is reminiscent of the English Morris Dance, with male dancers dressed in white linen kilts, black waistcoats, and bright scarves, dancing while clacking short, wooden sticks. The town of Duas Igrejas is known for its stick dancing festival each August. And, Miranda do Douro even holds international stick dancing competitions.
Dotted with tiny, medieval towns, the countryside of the Trás -os-Montes region is wild and marked by the Montesinho Natural Park, home to the wild boar and other wildlife. The wild boar was worshiped by the ancient inhabitants of these wild lands, and they still thrive in the numerous valleys that dot the mountainscapes. Ancient granite pig statues are found in many towns, including the main city of the region, Bragança. Set inside the ancient castle, the pig stand not far from the oldest town hall in the nation, dating to the 12th century, where the council of good men met to decide the affairs of the city.