IT is midnight, I am sitting in a small bar in a hilltop village near the Spanish border supping a fine craft beer.

It's a world away from the hustle and bustle of Porto and Lisbon and the crowded beaches of the Algarve.

I have travelled from the heart of England to the centre of Portugal and have found a craft-beer haven in the Cantinho Cafe in the village of Castelo de Rodrigo, population 50.

This was one of many surprises in this relatively undiscovered region of Portugal.

It turns out the cafe is a mecca for craft beer in the area.

Its beers feature in the Portuguese equivalent of the Good Beer Guide and it punches well above its weight, winning competitions against rivals from the coast.

Cafe owners Joao, who hails from Lisbon, and Helena, from Mozambique, are rightly proud of its success and having run the bar for 25 years, they feel a strong sense of identity with the region.

And you can see why, Castelo de Rodrigo is one of the castle villages and towns which helped vanquish the Spanish invaders in the 12th century.

As in many border areas, people seem more proud and passionate about their country - yet being Portuguese they remain remarkable laid back and friendly.

Fifty per cent of the population may live in Lisbon and Porto and the majority within 15 miles of the coast but here you really feel you are in the heart of the country - still relatively untouched by urban sprawl.

The Centre of Portugal region lies between the two mighty rivers of the Douro and Tagus.

Our trip centred on the historic fortified border villages which line the oldest frontier in Europe.

Our first stop was the picturesque city of Viseu, known as the garden city.

We took an evening tour of its beautiful narrow streets and elegant square, replete with charming lamps- the Praca de Republica.

At the side of the square is an eye-catching tiled wall with engravings depicting the rural life of the city.

The hilltop cathedral and nearby churches were lit up against the night sky. Unfortunately, we did not see inside the cathedral or the nearby Grao Vasco museum, known for its magnificent artwork, but both come highly recommended and would certainly warrant a return visit.

Dinner at the traditional Muralha da Se restaurant gave us the opportunity to sample some hearty, local cuisine, not to mention the full-bodied, robust Dao reds, which were a welcome respite from the winter chill.

Our friendly, professional guide Jose who runs Madomis Tours explained that the other side of the mountains were subject to the humidity of the Atlantic Ocean therefore producing fresh, crisp white wines.

Whereas, our side sheltered from the sea and with higher temperatures, produced the delightful fruity and robust reds I was now sampling - the best of both worlds in my humble opinion.

We had an array of starters including the famed salted cod.

I opted for roast kid goat for my main and wasn't let down. The meat was tender and accompanying roast potatoes a nice touch. I sampled my colleagues roast octopus and cod, both delightful.

The restaurant was a stone's throw from the cathedral and built from the granite in the heart of Viseu's old quarter.

We stayed at the impressive Pousada de Visueu spa hotel, a former hospital dating back to 1842.

The hilltop hotel (you can see a theme here) had an impressive view of the city and its central courtyard, complete with piano bar was the perfect place to unwind after a day's sight-seeing.

The following day we visited the impressive border fortress town of Trancoso.

You immediately feel the town is steeped in history as you are greeted by its medieval walls and gated entrance.

From the statues of King Dinis and Isabel of Aragon, outside the city walls, to the church of Sao Pedro within - the resting place of mystical cobbler-poet Bandarra (1500-1545) who predicted Portugal's eventual triumph over Spain, you feel as if you are taking a step back through time.

However, the highlight of the trip was a tour of the town's Jewish quarter.

It was a fascinating insight into the lives of the Jewish population in the Inquisition.

Portugal offered its Jews the opportunity to covert to Christianity rather than death or expulsion in Spain.

It was both moving and inspiring to see how the Jews preserved their identity with coded symbols on their properties - still identifiable today.

The small synagogue and museum, complete with memorial to the Jews who perished in the inquisition was a thought-provoking experience.

We were even given the opportunity to unwrap and view a 400-year-old Torah.

If you love history, like me, it's worth visiting the town's castle, just a short walk up the hill from the synagogue.

There's not much inside apart from the keep and castle walls but it's free and the view from the top of the keep over the border is worth the effort as you can imagine the great battles that took place centuries ago.

We had built up a healthy appetite with our tour of Trancoso and our next stop proved to be culinary heaven.

Entre Portas in Pinhel was simply magnificent.

From the impressive architecture, the work of three young architects who have excavated the bedrock to create a much wider space than appears outside, to genial host Francisco, everything was spot on in this hidden gem of a restaurant.

The bruschetta with goat's cheese, mushrooms and chestnuts drizzled with honey was simply divine.

The filet mignon, the cod with prawns, were all a taste sensation and beautifully presented.

The white wine was exquisite and I had to double check Francisco wasn't joking when he revealed how cheap it was.

We were happily satiated by the end of our meal. What a delight!

This being Portugal, it wasn't long before we were sampling more vinho.

The Adega Co-Operative de Figueira de Castelo Rodrigo certainly produces quality wine.

Our friendly host Toni explained this thriving co-operative exported 85,000 bottles of wine to the UK each year.

I defy any wine-lover not to be impressed by its reserve wine Marquez De Castello Rodrigo, which was so good, I took a bottle home for the Christmas table and it was a big hit with the family.

Then it was a drive up the hill to the hilltop village of Castelo de Rodrigo where not only is there the aforementioned Cafe Cantinho but the charming Casa da Cisterna hotel.

Its owner Ana made us very welcome and even took us on a tour of some very rare palaeolithic engravings nearby in the Coa Valley,dating from 25,000 BC. Similar engravings across the border inspired Picasso himself, who declared "art was dead" after viewing them.

There is a nearby museum dedicated to the prehistoric rock sites. Its worth a visit, if engravings are not your thing, the majestic view from the viewing platform of where the mighty Coa and Douro rivers meet, is worth the trip alone.

Ana owns three properties in the village and we stayed in the main house, which was so cosy with intricate touches throughout.

You really felt you were at home and my bedroom was spacious and so comfortable with a roaring fire.

Ana clearly has an eye for design.

It was a bit chilly to use the outdoor pool but the views from the terrace were so calming and picturesque.

The staff were friendly and the food was wholesome and freshly prepared.

It would be the perfect spot to get away from it all for a long weekend. I could have stayed for a week.

The village itself is so picturesque with picture-postcard sites at almost every turn.

This is such a charming part of the world, somewhere you can relax and get away from it all with friendly, charming folk, not to mention top quality wine, beer and food.

The centre of Portugal really does have a great heart.


We also visited:

The Faia Brava nature reserve, a haven for bird-lovers. I even spotted a vulture overhead with a little help from my friends.

Casas do Coro: A charming country house with top notch facilities, tranquil gardens and magnificent food.

Fact Box 2: TAP Air Portugal flies direct from London City Airport, Heathrow, Gatwick and Manchester to Lisbon and Porto, prices start at £80 return including all taxes and surcharges.

For further information, visit or call 0345 601 0932

Madomis Tours offers tailor made tours ranging from culture, history, food to religion around Portugal. Log on to or check out its Facebook page.