Out into the wilderness to a mystical and mysterious land

TRAS-OS-MONTES is not for everyone. Its name, ''beyond-the-mountains'', refers to more than the geographical shield of the Marao and Geres ranges. In this far northeast province of Portugal a sense of mystery lingers. There are pagan cults and weird mask dances, balancing boulders and prehistoric stones. Urban Portuguese are quick to warn you away from the area: ''It's very backward,'' they explain. ''Roads are poor, accommodation bad. It's a hundred - 300 - years behind.'' Eight kilometres from the Spanish border I stopped at Chaves, the cutting edge of Tras-os-Montes, the last outpost before the wilds proper.

I languished in the town's seedy old Hotel Chaves, perused Roman milestones on the bridge and phallic menhirs in the town museum and joined geriatric nuns by the riverside spa hospital for a daily dose of warm, alkaline spa water (good for metabolic disorders, diabetes, gout and obesity).

At nearby Boticas I discovered the ultimate liquid cure: a vinho dos morots - ''wine of the dead''. It was first produced by the villagers in 1809 when they buried their wine to conceal it from the invading French and discovered afterwards the taste had improved.

But Tras-os-Montes is not famous for its wine. It is famous for sturdy pottery looking like pewter, spindles and woollens and walking sticks, baskets, knives and clogs. Life here has few luxuries. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the villages of theBarroso district, west of Chaves. Here in the rugged grooves of the Barroso and Larouca mountains is Tras-os-Montes lifestyle at its toughest and truest.

Vilarino Seco, at the lonely end of the road from Alturas do Barroso, is typical of many villages: cobbled streets caked with dung, houses made of huge granite blocks, pigs grunting from behind wood doors. A few children flicked sticks, and looked bored.Cock crows and cowbells alternated with the dripping water of the village font to fill the silence.

For centuries, the villagers of north Portugal have emigrated to earn a better living. Montalegre, the largest town in the area, is flush with emigrant money. Its ruined 14th century castle may look incongruous, but to undefended nearby frontier villagesthere is something strangely reassuring still about the castle's four-towered outline.

It is easy to linger in these rolling hills of broom, and crusty villages of wood and stone. At Pardornelos, a Spanish-looking lady on her donkey stops to talk. ''I've been hoeing! Are you hungry? Come and eat!'' She smacks her lips in unmistakeable mime, clicks her donkey onwards and leads the way home. Out of the smoke-blackened kitchen comes presunto (smoked ham), a loaf of bread - ''eat, eat!'' - and a jug of wine - ''drink!'' Her husband was ill in hospital, her son in Germany. Life, she said, was hard.

It was a shock to see the ugly modern outskirts of Braganca after a long drive from Chaves through dreamy, lonely landscape. This high capital of the northeast could not be more remote. A highway from Oporto will soon link Braganca with Spanish Zamora but psychologically Braganca will always be out of reach, perversely far away.

You get the impression little has altered since the House of Braganca came to the throne in 1640. Out beyond town, in the hilly northeastern knuckle of Portugal, there is little to remind you of the 20th century.

But in Miranda do Douro, spitting distance from the awesome Douro gorge that marks the frontier with Spain, the rural life has long since been forgotten: this lovely walled citadel is now a popular shopping centre for Spanish day-trippers who stroll among the emblazoned 17th century mansions that now serve as shops of linen, shoes and towels. The old times here are slipping away.

In Freixo de Espada-a-Cinta there was no sense of loss or impending change. This is the end of Portugal, both spiritually and practically. Surrounded by wild, heathery hills where hawks and black kites soar, Freixo encapsulates beyond-the-mountain feeling. In early spring, thousands of blossoming almond trees attract visitors. For the rest of the year, nothing happens.