(Photo of the village of Urjais, concelho of Chaves, by J.B. Cesar)
Tras-os-Montes is a historical province of Portugal located in the northeastern corner of the country. Presently the region is divided into two districts: Vila Real and Bragança. The name--behind the mountains--refers to the location on the other side of the Marão and Alvão mountains separating the coast from the interior, north of the Douro River. This isolation kept the province poor and underpopulated for centuries, causing many people to emigrate to the coast or to other European countries like France.
The most important population centers of the region are Vila Real, Bragança, Chaves, Mirandela, and Valpaços. All are relatively small with fewer than 50,000 inhabitants. Most of the people in this rural region live in small villages. Traditionally these villages were cut off from the coast by lack of good roads and suffered the effects of poverty. Immigration was often the only option. Today the situation has improved somewhat with better roads, but most of the villages are semi-deserted.
In this land of small villages the aging inhabitants still eke out a living from small farms. Corn, rye, potatoes, wheat, olive oil, chestnuts, and grapes for wine have been the main agricultural products. Granite and mineral water are also important industries.
The people of Tras-os-Montes, perhaps due to the ruggedness of the region, are also known for their austere habits and laconic speech. Years of hardship have made "it must be" and "that is life" everyday expressions. Isolation has made the villagers leery of outsiders, but once the initial reaction has been overcome they can show the stranger warmth and hospitality.
The character of the Transmontano—"he who lives behind the mountains"—has always been shaped by isolation. The old saying is that “on the other side of the Marão people are their own bosses.” Lisbon has paid little attention to this area until recent years. According to Padre Fontes, a local ethnographer, “in this centuries-old “corner of the corner of Europe”, alone, in a struggle against the harsh soil and inclement climate, a character was formed: “that of the sad demeanor, the mistrusting air, courageous, daring, hardworking, loyal, and with strength of character a way of life.” Etnografia Transmontana, Lisbon, 1992
The historical picture of the Transmontano is of one who is very mistrusting of strangers. According to Padre Fontes, the Transmontano “often feels himself being tricked. He is spontaneous, violent, rarely taking premeditated actions. He lives in a closed society, in small groups, without influence from other lands. There is monotony in life, in eating the same food, in love, in work, in everything. He accepts gossip as truth. Marriages between cousins and alcoholism cause many retarded children. The woman ages quickly in spirit, and in body”…”the man is a good payer. He won’t go to jail for robbery but for killing. Better to kill than to be a thief.”
These people are also known in Portugal for their plentiful table, usually filled with wine, olive oil, and plenty of sausage.