A town that holds onto its ancestral traditions, Macedo de Cavaleiros is in the historic Transmontano region in northeastern Portugal. Some local rites are so old that they began in pagan times. This goes for the “Caretos”, strange mischievous characters that take to the streets in bright woolly costumes and masks at carnival.
If the traditions are ancient the same can be said for the terrain, as a sweep of the landscape is on rocks that are hundreds of millions of years old. There’s so much scientific interest in this environment that the whole municipality is labelled as a “geopark”. You can pore over the folk traditions at museums for those Caretos and the delicate art of beekeeping. And on long sunny days one of Portugal’s top inland beaches is in range.
Let’s explore the best things to do in Macedo de Cavaleiros:
1. Museu de Arte Sacra
The 18th-century Casa Falcão, one of the town’s refined mansions, is the setting for the Macedo de Cavaleiros’s museum of sacred art.
The building is half the fun, and has a stone coat of arms on its facade and also hosts the local tourist office.
It’s impossible to say what you’ll find when you come as the exhibition is revolving.
The museum accumulates the ample reserve of liturgical treasures from chapels and churches across the municipality.
This might be paintings, polychrome statues, vestments, reliquaries, vessels or tabernacles.
2. Albufeira do Azibo
The River Azibo was impounded by an embankment dam in the early 1980s, building a reservoir that is a regional source of drinking water and irrigates local farmland.
In the last 35 years the lake and its shores have become a green oasis attracting a wealth of birdlife.
Some stay for a little while, like the stork, sandpiper or Montagu’s harrier, which normally hang around in spring and summer.
While others like the heron, cormorant and eagle are year-round residents.
The verdant banks are protected land, laced with trails where you might spot deer in the woods or otters by the water.
Wild orchids have also sprung up in the park, and there are faint echoes of prehistoric and Roman settlements on the trails
3. Praia do Azibo
The Blue Flag beach on the reservoir has gained national acclaim: In 2012 it was named among the best beaches in the country in the “Seven Wonders of Portugal” prize.
It’s no mystery either, as the beach has enticing golden sands, lapped by the crystal clear waters of the lake.
The real joy of the place lies in all the support facilities: There’s a floating platform a little way out for swimmers, a station where you can rent boats or pedalos, playgrounds, eateries, a big green area for picnics and rows of parasols in summer.
4. Aldeia de Chacim
On the eastern cusp of the Serra de Bornes, Chacim is a quaint old village on slopes of vines, pine woodland, olive groves and grazing cattle.
The village used to host a silk processing factory with a royal warrant.
The Real Filatório de Chacim was established in 1788 and implemented Italian silk-spinning technology.
The factory thrived for a century but was abandoned in the 1800s when the local silk industry collapsed.
There’s an interpretation centre in the ruins reviving the now forgotten silk trade.
Allow some time to see the Convento de Balsamão, an 18th-century convent for the Congregation of Marian Fathers of the Immaculate Conception, embedded in medieval defences at the crest of a hill.
5. Museu do Mel e da Apicultura
This museum taps into the region’s beekeeping heritage (the only one in Portugal) and has two branches: There’s an exhibition of artefacts close to the old train station, showing all the applications of beeswax, as well as antique equipment for the job like hive boxes, suits and smokers.
You can also taste five types of honey and detect the surprising differences that depend on the type of plant the nectar came from.
And if you’re ready for more there’s a “living museum” at a separate location, where you can observe a hike behind a glass case.
You could also play beekeeper, pulling on a suit and opening the hives to watch honeycomb being made.
6. Casa do Careto
Possibly the oldest tradition still observed in Portugal today is the “Careto”, a Celtic pagan ritual that takes places in the northeast of the country during carnival.
Caretos are groups of young men wearing peculiar suits composed of black, yellow, green, blue and red quilts, along with wooden, brass or leather masks and rattles in their belts.
They all come out to cause havoc on Shrove Tuesday and the previous Sunday.
For anyone intrigued by folk culture, there’s a museum to this tradition in the village of Podence.
There a mannequins dressed with historic rattles, suits and masks, while the museum traces the origins of this prehistoric custom.
7. Geopark Terras de Cavaleiros
Geologically speaking, Macedo de Cavaleiros is an exceptionally rich region and the whole of this municipality is designated a “Geopark”. The stone in this region is profoundly ancient, dating back 540 million years.
The Morais ophiolite complex is an epic wedge of rock forced up from between the earth’s crust and mantle.
There are 42 sites around the territory that have scientific value and you can conquer the terrain on 24 short-distance walking trails.
On one, the Percurso Pedestre Geológico you’ll venture across an ancient seabed for five kilometres.
You can dig even deeper on the Rota Geológica, linking all the most fascinating sites.
Start at the interpretation centre at the Maciço de Morais to get the facts on this environment.
8. Museu Municipal de Arqueologia – Coronel Albino Pereira Lopo
The town’s archaeology museum opened in September 2016 in what used to be Macedo de Cavaleiros’s primary school building.
It is named after Coronel Albino Pereira Lopo, who was a regional trailblazer in the field of archaeology.
Working at the beginning of the 20th century he wrote did the first archaeological survey of Bragança and founded that city’s municipal museum.
This attraction covers 5,000 years of the region’s past, recreating scenes from prehistory and Roman times with tableaux.
Behind the glass are fragments of prehistoric pottery, a skeleton from a Bronze Age burial, as well as implements recovered from a Roman forge.
9. Igreja Matriz de Lamalonga
You can learn a lot about a town or village from its parish church.
And maybe the prettiest in the Transmontano region is this one in Lamalonga.
It was consecrated in 1767 according to the epigraph on the facade, while the interiors were fitted a year later.
The great thing about the work being done is such a short time is that the decoration is consistent and would have been completed by the same artists.
There’s a supreme level of workmanship of the carvings in the choir, the arch between the chancel and nave, the windows, doors and altar.
But the piece de resistance is the coffered ceiling, which has 55 painted panels bordered by gilt-wood.
10. Museu Rural de Salselas
The village of Salselas has a well-presented museum about the Transmontana region’s culture.
It studies the relationship between people and the countryside, beginning with Prehistoric hunter-gatherers and moving into domestication and agriculture.
You’ll track the evolution of traditional processes like cereal grinding, olive pressing and wine-making.
You’ll also delve into the local wool and linen crafts, as well as the skills and tools needed by Transmontana’s blacksmiths, basket-weavers, cobblers, tailors and barbers.
There are historic utensils for each trade, as well as the interior of a pre-industrial family home, including a fireplace, kitchen and bedroom, all accompanied by old-time games, instruments and folk art.
11. Entrudo Chocalheiro
Carnival in February or March is a special time to be in Macedo de Cavaleiros or Podence.
This festival is billed as Portugal’s most authentic carnival, and it’s hard to disagree once those Caretos start causing mischief.
The fun lasts for four days from the Saturday to Shrove Tuesday.
On the schedule are concerts, dances, gastronomic events.
But of course the Caretos marauding around the streets, wielding sticks, dancing to traditional bagpipe music and snatching up single young women (no joke) is the thing that shouldn’t be missed.
It all comes to a head on the Tuesday evening when a big effigy of a Careto is burned on a hillside.
Something else that has lingered since early times in Macedo de Cavaleiros is the taste for game meat.
Wild boar (javali) is much loved, to the point that there’s a small gastronomic fair at the end of January.
Fifteen restaurants join in this event serving char-grilled ribs and loin, or boar meat in bean casseroles.
Winters can be chilly in Transmontana, and the protein to keep people going comes from baked kid goat and big slabs of seared beef steak.
Turnip greens provide much-needed vitamins and are another regional point of pride with their own festival in February.
And finally, finish up with something sweet, like rosquilhas, a type of donut with a cute knotted pattern.