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Portugal> Romantic River Routes


A Karen Brown Recommended Itinerary

Romantic River Routes

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This itinerary takes you through the extreme northwest corner of Portugal, the verdant area near the River Minho known as the "Verde Minho." It is indeed an apt description: its intensely cultivated fields and heavily forested mountain slopes envelop the visitor in green. Culturally, the area shares a great deal with its Spanish neighbor to the north, Galicia. The Galician language and the dialect of northern Portugal resemble each other, and the similarity of other characteristics-architecture, folk dances, music, traditional dress, food, wine-is striking. This is the most densely populated section of the country and also the coolest and the rainiest. The economy is primarily agricultural-the majority of the small family farms are still cultivated and harvested in much the same way as they have been for generations. Once off the beaten path, you slip back in time, occasionally even passing families in wooden carts drawn by a team of oxen.

Recommended Pacing: Spend two nights in one of the many charming properties that are located in or near the quaint town of Ponte de Lima. Conclude your itinerary with a night at Viana do Castelo.

The Verde Minho also encompasses what is technically the oldest part of Portugal: the part that was declared a separate kingdom by Afonso Henriques in 1139. As a result there are a large number of Romanesque monuments. There are also many churches, attesting to the Minhotos' reputation as extremely pious people who are renowned for their gay religious festivals and popular pilgrimages. It's one of the last areas where you may see local citizens in traditional dress even when it's not festival time. Local handicrafts run the gamut from lace to knife blades. The town markets, therefore, offer a wide variety of interesting possibilities for your shopping pleasure. Local food specialties include a hearty dish, caldo verde, a creamy cabbage and potato soup. Bacalhau, or dried cod, is perhaps even more ubiquitous here than in the rest of the country.

Porto occupies a privileged location at the mouth of the River Douro and serves as the economic hub of northern Portugal. However, the area north of the city to the Spanish border presents some very attractive contrasts to the cosmopolitan air of the country's second-largest city. It is a region sprinkled with quaint villages set in a verdant landscape of vineyards and fertile river valleys (the Ave, the Cavado, the Lima, and, of course, the Minho), an intriguing mixture of an ancient society and young wine.

Leave Porto heading north through the suburbs on A3 toward Braga. Take the turnoff to Barcelos, center of a thriving handicraft region. You cross the River Cavado on an interesting 15th-century bridge as you enter town. If you happen to be here on Thursday, you will see everything from pottery to basketry to linen displayed at the open market in the huge main square called the Campo da Republica in the center of town. On any other day you should visit the Centro de Artesanato in the Largo da Porta Nova, just off the southwest corner of the square, which sells a wide variety of local handicrafts. It is housed in a tower remaining from the 16th-century town fortifications. Nearby is the 18th-century municipal garden with pretty baroque fountains and ornate walls.

By far the most famous folk-art ceramic around here (and perhaps in all of Portugal) is the Galo de Barcelos, or Barcelos cock, a multicolored rooster, available in all sizes, which you'll find for sale throughout the country. The cock symbolizes this ancient legend: A Galician passing through Barcelos on his way to Santiago de Compostela in Spain was accused and convicted of a crime. During his final plea at the judge's house, he exclaimed in frustration, "As certainly as I am innocent, it is equally certain that cock will rise up and crow when I am hanged." The chicken in question was a roasted one on the judge's dinner table, and the pilgrim's claim provoked much laughter among those present. And, of course, at the proper moment the roasted chicken arose and crowed. The judge managed to get to the gallows before the poor fellow met his fate and released him. He returned to Barcelos many years later and built a monument to Saint James, which is now in the Archaeological Museum of the city.

The Archaeological Museum, partially in the open air, is housed in the former Palace of the Dukes of Bragança, as is the Regional Ceramics Museum, a collection of colorful native pottery. The palace is located a few blocks southwest of the main square, near the bridge across the Cavado, where you can also see the parish church with its fine azulejos. Opposite the palace is the Solar dos Pinheiros, a 15th-century granite mansion that is very representative of other admirable old mansions in the vicinity.

When you are ready to continue, return on N103 across the Cavado and remain on it to Braga. This is one of the country's oldest cities and was once the seat of the Portuguese monarchy. To reach the village of Monte do Bom Jesus, from Braga follow signs for Chaves, then bear right toward Monte do Bom Jesus. The shady, switchback road winds up to a plateau on top of the hill 215 meters above the city with a spectacular view over the valley below. Here you find the Church of Bom Jesus do Monte, which was built in late neoclassical style by a local architect, Carlos Amarante, in the late 18th century.

Bom Jesus was designed as a pilgrimage church. An elaborate, 265-step staircase that starts from the base of the hill and leads to its summit, represents the Stations of the Cross, with chapels at each landing. One segment is called the Stairway of the Five Senses, and another the Stairway of the Virtues, with the senses and virtues represented by tiled fountains. You might want to take the stairs down, then return by the elevador (funicular) back up. In the wooded hills behind the pilgrimage church there is a beautiful park laced with trails leading up to a small lake. This is a favorite spot for families to come and relax on weekends.

Monte do Bom Jesus makes a delightful place to stay, but you must also go down the hill to visit Braga, which was probably settled by the Celts long before the Romans arrived in 250 BC. It was an important Roman town, subsequently occupied by the Suevi, the Goths, and the Moors before being reconquered by the Christians in the 11th century. It became the center of the religious hierarchy in the area and maintained that status until the 18th century. This presence resulted in the great number of architectural monuments that now dot the town. Braga is Portugal's fourth-largest city (after Lisbon, Porto, and Coimbra) and, as such, has the inevitable urban development at the edge of town, but the older central area retains a great deal of its traditional charm and ambiance.

The Cathedral dominates the old town. Originally built in the 11th century, only the south doorway (Porta do Sol), the apse of the cloister, and some minor trim remain from that period. Other elements, including the numerous small chapels, were later additions, and the interior was redone in 18th-century baroque. The Anca-stone high altar is especially interesting. Reached from the courtyard, the Gothic Capela dos Reis contains the tombs of Henry of Burgundy and his wife-parents of the first king, Afonso Henriques-along with the mummified body of a former archbishop.

Across the street to the north is the former Archbishop’s Palace, which has three separate wings dating from the 14th, 17th, and 18th centuries. One wing now houses one of the country's most important libraries. East of there is the Torre de Menagem (keep), which survives from the town's 14th-century fortifications. Behind the tower are formal gardens. To the south is the 16th-century Capela dos Coimbras whose interior is prettily decorated with azulejos and sculpture. If you continue east to the Avenida da Liberdade and turn right, then right again on Rua do Raio, you find the Fonte do Idolo, said to be of pre-Roman origin. At the end of that street is the Palácio do Raio (or do Mexicano), which typifies the numerous 18th-century mansions in Braga.

Braga is designed for wandering and savoring the old-world atmosphere of its colorful, landscaped squares and charming, narrow, cobblestoned streets. If you are in town at mealtime, you will have your choice of many restaurants with good, inexpensive regional food.

One excursion from Braga is to the pre-Roman ruins at Citania de Briteiros. The settlement, apparently of Celtic origin (3rd century BC), is about 10 kilometers southwest of town (watch for signs as you descend Monte do Bom Jesus). Drive through the gate up to the caretaker's house to buy your ticket. The ruins of three defensive walls encircle the village, consisting of some 150 large and small structures. Of particular interest are the circular houses. There are remains of fountains, aqueducts, and a funeral monument in the 10-acre site, the most impressive and largest in Portugal. The site also has a wonderful view over the surrounding valleys.

Leaving Braga, venture deeper into the Minho countryside. Take N201 northwest from Braga toward Ponte de Lima. Just as you leave town, you pass near the Chapel of São Frutuoso dos Montelios, one of Portugal's oldest Christian monuments. Although still the subject of controversy, it was apparently built in the 7th century, partially destroyed by the Moors, and rebuilt in the 11th century, thus incorporating a mixture of Byzantine (uncommon in Portugal) and Gothic influences. It seems to have originally had the form of a Greek cross, but parts of it were destroyed and are incorporated into the building of the adjacent Church of São Francisco, an 18th-century monastery church.

Return to N201 (or you can take the A3) and continue north. You traverse intensely green, wooded hills with vineyards for the next 27 kilometers until you reach Ponte De Lima, which means "Bridge over the Lima River." The Roman stone bridge has 15 large arches and 12 small ones. The town, one of our favorites in Portugal, is delightfully situated on the bank of the Lima amid lush, rolling hills and has a wonderful old-world ambiance. It has been settled since Roman times, as the bridge suggests, and traces of its medieval fortifications are interspersed among the more modern white houses near the end of the bridge. If you can arrange to be here on Monday, you will enjoy the famous market on the riverbank, which has taken place for several centuries. Numerous shops also display the varied handicrafts of the region, including blankets and baskets. The tourist office has a modest exhibit of regional handicrafts.

Ponte de Lima was the center of much wealth and consequently the area is dotted with gorgeous big estates and mansions, many of which have opened their doors to guests.

When it's time to leave the Ponte de Lima area, take the N202 and turn left past Refoios to Souto, where you bear right toward Ponte Da Barca, another picturesque little country town on the River Lima. Head north from there on N101, being sure to look back toward town after crossing the 16th-century bridge for a splendid view. A few kilometers farther and you reach the lovely village of Arcos De Valdevez, straddling the River Vez.

As you continue north toward the border, you are treated to glorious landscapes and quaint little villages. After about 17 kilometers watch for a panoramic vista point toward the Serra de Peneda to the east and the Lima Valley to the south. Twelve kilometers later you pass the large 19th-century Palacio da Brejoeira on your left. Soon thereafter you reach the border town of Monção, on the bank of the Minho. Being on the border with Spain, Moncão is a fortified town with a long history of heroic defense of the Portuguese frontier. The town has two main squares, the Praça da República and the Praça Deu-la-Deu, named in honor of Senhora Deuladeu Martins who saved the town against the Spanish in the 14th century. She accomplished this feat by giving bread to the Spanish invader, Henry II of Castile, who thought that if the town had so much surplus food, it would never surrender-he called off his troops and left the town in peace. The ruins of a 14th-century castle also attest to Monção's strategic location. Be sure to pay a visit to the pretty interior of the Romanesque parish church, which dates back to the 13th century. The town is also famous as a source of vinho verde, the youthful regional wine.

Remain on N101, which now continues westward, paralleling the mighty River Minho. After 5 kilometers you pass Lapela, a tiny town clustered around its ancient defensive tower. Continue through the intensively farmed riverbank with endless vineyards and cultivated terraces to Valença do Minho, a popular border-crossing town that faces the Spanish town of Tuy on the opposite bank. There is just one way into the old town, which sits perched on a hill overlooking the newer city below. Follow signs that lead you up the hill and through the thick fortified walls into the medieval city whose vantage affords breathtaking views of the river, the Eiffel-designed bridge, the town of Tuy, and the Galician Mountains beyond.

The northern fortified section of Valença do Minho was begun in the 13th century by Dom Sancho I and traces its origin to Roman times. The section to the south was added in the 17th century, after the Spanish monarchy had relinquished control over Portugal. This area is popularly called the "Coroada" (because of the crown-like shape of its layout) and is joined to the older part by a stone bridge. The stronghold consists of double curtain walls, numerous bastions, and watchtowers, all of which offer lovely vistas over the surrounding region. The well-preserved fortress retains a wonderful medieval atmosphere which will reward you for the time dedicated to strolling and shopping in the many souvenir shops along the narrow, winding, cobblestone streets. The ancient stone houses and fountains recapture the enchantment of a time long past.

A short excursion from here is to nearby Monte de Faro on N101-1 (7 kilometers). Ascend through forested slopes to a parking area, then walk up to the top for unforgettable views.

Leave Valença do Minho going southward on N13, which generally parallels the broad, beautiful Minho to its end with the river gradually widening as it nears the sea. After 15 kilometers you come to Vila Nova De Cerveira, a quaint small town with character built near the banks of the river. Located in the center of town is a pousada that occupies an entire fort with the rooms located in reconstructed old houses. The streets inside the pousada constitute a tiny village, including a beautiful 18th-century chapel, with the restaurant rising from the castle ramparts and overlooking the river. Dom Diniz constructed the original fort in the 14th century, but much of it was added later. It was inhabited as late as 1975. There is also a nice handicraft shop next door with local ceramics, lace, and needlework.

Continue south on scenic N13 along the Minho through several small villages to the ancient town of Caminha, once a defensive bastion opposing Monte Santa Tecla across the river in Spain. Today a simple fishing village (although the old town is not on the banks of the river), it has retained a lovely medieval atmosphere apparent in the main square with its old clock tower. The 15th- to 16th-century parish church, found on the street leading from the arch under the tower, has a particularly fine carved ceiling. The town is clustered about a large central plaza where there are tables under jaunty umbrellas inviting you to stop for a coffee or cold drink.

Still heading south on N13, you skirt the beaches of the Atlantic and pass a number of seaside towns, some wonderful old beach homes, and a few modern beach developments.

In Vila Praia da Ancora there is a remarkably well-preserved dolmen-a solitary testament to settlement here as long as 4,000 years ago. To find it, take the turn to the left for Ponte de Lima to the sign V. P. Ancora, then take another left. About 30 meters toward town look for a small, hard-to-see plaque in a stone wall saying Monumento Dolmen da Bairrosa and enter the courtyard behind the wall.

Back on N13, another 15 kilometers brings you to Viana Do Castelo, the largest city in the Minho region north of Braga. Although apparently of Greek origin, Viana do Castelo became a boom town in the 16th century when Portuguese sailing skills paved the way for fishing the Newfoundland cod area. That period of prosperity is reflected in one of the town's most attractive features: the fine old mansions in the central section near the Praça da Republica. There is also a nice 16th-century fountain in the square and several handsome public buildings. A bit south of the square is the 14th-century Parish Church, which contains some fine woodcarving. A few blocks west of the square is the Municipal Museum with a worthwhile collection of antique furniture from the once-far-flung Portuguese Empire and colorful azulejos on the interior walls. At the west end of town near the river you find a 16th-century fort built by Phillip II of Spain during his reign on the Portuguese throne. If you are here in the middle of August Viana is the site of a religious pilgrimage with folk dancing, fireworks and parades.

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A Few Nearby Hotels and Bed & Breakfasts:   List Them All

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€ 130-190
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[ icon ] Seia
Costa da Prata, Guarda, Portugal
[ icon ] Vila Do Conde
Costa Verde, Porto, Portugal
[ icon ] Trofa
Costa da Prata, Aveiro, Portugal
[ icon ] Vila Praia de Âncora
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[ icon ] Porto
Costa Verde, Porto, Portugal

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[ icon ] Restaurant A Grade
Porto, Porto, Portugal
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