A Week in Northern Portugal

My trip report for a week in Portugal, July 2012. I am writing this trip report more than a year after our trip. This was a lovely trip but it was pushed to the back of my mind because we were busy with other things when we got home. As I write my notes now I remember how much we enjoyed northern Portugal and I would like to return.

Neither of us had been to Portugal so when our friend Jonathan offered to share a farmhouse near Guimarães in early July we gave an enthusiastic “yes”. But in the back of my mind I thought “Portugal?” I didn’t know much about the country and had never thought of traveling there.

Guimarães is in the Minho region of northern Portugal, near the northern border with Spain. Portugal’s second largest city Porto (also called Oporto) is on the coast near Guimarães and has the airport for the area. I had visions of hot southern European weather and wanted to avoid larger cities and get out into the smaller towns and countryside. I wanted to swim in the ocean and it looked like there were good beaches north of Porto, so we decided to fly from England to Porto, pick up a rental car and drive to a coastal town. I booked three nights in a hotel in Viana do Castello, an hour’s drive north of the airport. After that we would move inland to the farmhouse rental near Guimarães for four nights with Jonathan.

Guimaraes, northern Portugal
Remains of 10th century castle. Birthplace of Portugal’s first King, Afonso Henriques.

Portugal is more west than I realized. It is in the same time zone as England, while most of continental Europe is one hour later. When I looked at the map of Europe, I saw that Portugal sits straight south of Ireland. Northern Portugal is cooler than southern Portugal or central and southern Spain. When we were there in early July we had a few overcast days, a bit of rain, and some sunny days with temps in the 70s – very nice summer weather and certainly not too hot. A few days were hot enough for swimming.

The food in Portugal was good, even for a vegetarian (me). Vegetable soup is on most menus, many restaurants offer vegetarian dishes and we found some good vegetarian restaurants in Guimarães and Braga. Steve reported that the seafood was good and Jonathan was happy with his meat dishes. We loved the cafes and stopped for coffee and local pastries frequently.

The towns and countryside that we saw were beautiful, the people we encountered were friendly and most spoke English, and the driving was easy (contrary to what I had read on the web). There is an interesting history to this part of Portugal and much to see and do.

Three Nights in Viana do Castello

We flew on Easyjet from London Gatwick to Porto, picked up a rental car and drove an hour north to Viana do Castello, a small town on the coast. We stayed at a Pousada (historic hotels throughout Portugal) – Pousada Monte de Sta. Luzia. This hotel was fantastic. It has an “old world” feel to it – quiet, peaceful and elegant – but not stuffy.  It sits on top of a hill, above the town, with views down the coast and along the River Lima. We had a corner room with large windows looking at both views.

Viana do Castello, northern Portugal
View from our hotel above the town.

The hotel website makes it sound like you can walk into town (and you can), but it is 900 steps down the mountainside. There is a funicular which goes to the church below the hotel, but it stops running at 5pm, so this is not an option for going out for dinner. Instead of walking, we drove into town and the parking was easy. There is paid parking near the train station or free parking near the Castello, a few blocks from the main street.

Viana do Castello is a nice enough town, but I liked the inland towns on the river better. The main shopping area in Viana is a large indoor American-style mall, in the center of town -not very appealing. The best thing about Viana was our hotel. We used it as a base to explore up the coast and up the River Lima. We had lovely dinners at the hotel on two nights and went into Viana one night.

A Few Towns in Northern Portugal

Of the towns we visited from Viana, my favorites were Ponte de Lima and Ponte da Barca, small towns on the River Lima.

Ponte de Lima has an ancient bridge across the River Lima, originally built in Roman times. Five of the original Roman arches remain and the rest was rebuilt in the 14th and 15th centuries. The historic center of Ponte de Lima is charming, with a good selection of cafes, restaurants and shops.

Ponte da Barca has a 15th century bridge across the river. The town has many older buildings, from the 16th and 17th centuries, and is beautifully situated along the river.

In Bravães, a village near Ponte da Barca, we visited a 13th century church with Romanesque carvings of animals on the doorway. A funeral was being held in the church, so we could not go inside.

The River Minho creates the northern border of Portugal with Spain. We drove to two towns on the border: Moncao where we took a wrong turn and ended up in Spain, and Valenca do Minho with its 17th century fort. These were both quiet towns.

We drove along the coast north of Viana looking for good beach towns. The towns we stopped in seemed deserted, even in July. We decided that the best looking beach area was across the river from Viana do Castelo, the beach we could see from our hotel.

Another day we headed south to Barcelos, on the River Cavado west of Braga and the famous Bom Jesus do Monte. This was a lively town with a beautiful historic center.

Walking in Northern Portugal

I had read about the St James Way, the pilgrimage trail that runs through Portugal to Santiago de Compostela in Spain, on a SlowTrav Trip Report (Report 815: A Pilgrimage from Porto, Portugal to Santiago de Compostela, by Dennis Switzer) and wanted to walk some of it. The trail goes through Ponte de Lima, so we decided to do some walking there. We started at the bridge and followed the trail north. We were out in the countryside in a few minutes and it was beautiful. The trail is in good shape and well sign posted. We walked for an hour, but this would be a good place to do a long walk out and back.

The St James Way also passed through Barcelos. We walked on the trail north from the center of town, but it was a long slog through boring suburbs, and we gave up and turned back. If we had kept going, we could have walked all the way to Ponte de Lima.

Ecovia is a riverside walk along the River Lima from the mouth at Viana do Castelo all the way to Ponte de Lima and on to Ponte da Barca and Arcos de Valdevez. You could stop in any of these towns and do a long walk along the river.

Swimming in the Ocean in Northern Portugal

On our last full day in Viana it was finally warm enough to swim. We drove out to the beach south of Viana do Castello, the one we could see from our hotel, parked, carried our beach gear along paths through the sand dunes, changed into our bathing suits behind a dune and plunged into the Atlantic Ocean.

Cold! Very cold! Colder than swimming in England! It has something to do with that jet-stream and how it misses Portugal. I like cold water and stayed in for a bit of a swim but at some point I could feel my inner organs freezing up, so I got out. If you want to swim in Portugal, swim in a river (more about that later).

Driving through Peneda-Geres National Park

On our travel day, when we only had to go the short distance from Viana do Castello to Guimarães to meet Jonathan, we started out by going to Ponte da Barca where found a fabulous vegetarian restaurant in a square beside the river and had a leisurely lunch. We walked along the river and found a good place to go swimming on a hotter day.

Next on the day’s agenda was a drive through the Peneda-Geres National Park (Parque Nacional da Peneda-Geres). We drove into the northern part of the park. We saw signs pointing to Dolmen (megalithic tombs), and drove down the country lanes looking for them, even stopping to ask people how to find them, but we did not manage to find any.

From the northern part of the park we drove into Spain, where we stopped for coffee, so that we could say we had been to Spain and because this was route you had to take to get to the southern part of the park. (Our two minute drive to Spain by mistake a couple of days before did not count because we did not get out of the car.) Steve had never been to Spain and I was last in Spain in 1972 (my teenage European adventure).

By this time we realized we had misjudged the driving times and distances, and should have headed south from Ponte da Barca to the farmhouse to meet Jonathan, but you know what it is like when you have an extra hour or two on a travel day. You want to see something!

From Spain we drove to the Portela do Hommem entrance to the park. Once you enter the park you can only part in Hommem at the northern entrance or at Caldas do Geres in the south, outside the park. You cannot pull over to the side of the road anywhere in between, as I had counted on doing. There are Roman ruins in this area and I had hoped to park close to them and walk in, but you have to park at the entrance and hike to them. It was getting too late in the day for us to do this. The drive through the park was beautiful, but I wished we had time to park and go hiking. We did see some of the wild ponies.

Jonathan visited this park after we left, parked in Caldas do Geres and did some hiking. He said it was lovely. He also did some river swimming in the area. We did too much driving on this day, but I am happy that we did go through this part of Portugal, because I know we will return and see it slower next time.

Four Nights near Guimarães

We finally reached the farmhouse but hours later than we had planned. The directions neglected to mention the very, very narrow the lanes to the farm! Living in England I am now used to narrow lanes, but these took my breath away. Cobble stoned, steep, narrow with large rocks jutting out from the hillside. But we got used to them, sort of.

Guimaraes, northern Portugal
Narrow lane we drove up to find the farmhouse.

The farmhouse is in a village up in the hills on the outskirts of Guimarães (Quinta das Lameiras). The house was spacious and very comfortable, with a good kitchen. It is part of a group of buildings, with another smaller vacation rental and a house where the owner’s relatives live. A group of ducks live there too. We walked out each morning to the local café and shop. In the evenings, we sat out on the terrace with stunning views over the countryside. From the farmhouse we went into the towns of Guimarães and Braga. One day we drove north to Ponte de Lima and Ponte da Barca.

Citânia de Briteiros

On our first day we visited Citânia de Briteiros, a large, fortified Iron Age town, first inhabited more than 2000 years ago. It sits on a hilltop, near the River Ave, just north of Guimarães. This area was settled in the Bronze Age, but Citânia de Briteiros became a prominent settlement from 200BC – 100AD. It continued to be inhabited during the Roman Empire.

The remains were discovered in 1875. The whole site is 24 hectares, of which seven hectares is uncovered ruins open to the public. You see the streets and the partial walls of the buildings. It is easy to see what life was like here. Four different ramparts enclose the town. The town had neighborhoods, public areas, livestock areas, paved roads, and two bath structures.

When we visited on the Sunday morning we had the place to ourselves. We spent an hour or more walking the old streets, looking at the remains of the structures. There were beautiful views from the site.

Bom Jesus do Monte

From the Citânia de Briteiros hilltop, we could see a large church on another hilltop. We assumed it was the famous Bom Jesus do Monte, so we headed towards it. But it was Sameiro Sanctuary, a beautiful large hilltop church. From there we drove to Bom Jesus do Monte, an 18th century church on top of a hill overlooking Braga. Beautiful wide stairs go from the church down the hillside to the outskirts of Braga. We had a good lunch at a simple restaurant on a nearby street.

Swimming in the River Lima

It was still early so we drove up to Ponte de Lima to see if we could do some river swimming. Jonathan had read about swimming in the River Lima in Ponte de Lima or Ponte da Barca. We showed Jonathan around Ponte de Lima, seeing as we were the experts having spent a few hours there earlier in the week. People were swimming the river, but we decided it would be better further upstream, so we headed to Ponte da Barca.

In Ponte da Barca there is a nice riverside park and families were out picnicking. No one was swimming, but we found a perfect spot and went in. The water was warm and deep with a mild current. This was much nicer than swimming in the ocean. Woods line the river on one side, a large grassy park on the other. We all had a nice long swim and were pleased with ourselves for finding such a good spot.

Guimarães

We visited Guimarães twice (population 52,000). The historical center is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and very well maintained. The many narrow streets are lined with 18th century houses covered in colorful decorative tile. Many have wrought iron balconies, making me thing of New Orleans.

Guimaraes, northern Portugal
Tourists in the central square.

Guimarães was the capital of Portugal in the 12th century. We liked Largo da Oliveira, the main square in old town. We toured the Palace of the Dukes of Braganza (Paço Dos Duques De Bragançamore), a 15th century palace and the castle (Castelo de Guimaraes), the remains of 10th century castle and birthplace of Portugal’s first King, Afonso Henriques. We stopped in a charming café for coffee and pastel de nata (a custard tart), a popular Portuguese pastry.

We did some fun shopping in Guimarães. I bought a couple of locally made baskets and linens, all very good quality and reasonably priced. My favorite shop was Chafarica (29 Rua de Santa Maria). I bought beautiful tea towels and blankets, made in Portugal.

While in Guimarães we visited Museu Martins Sarmento, an Archaeological museum with finds from nearby Iron Age sites. We were assigned a personal guide who did not speak English, but Jonathan and Steve had studied some Portuguese in preparation for the trip and managed to understand the guide and translate for me. I was amazed at how well they did in the museum and another day when we had to stop and ask for directions. The museum had many Celtic and Roman stone statues and carvings. My favorites were two “bastos”, statues that are believed to represent Celtic warriors, from a nearby town. You can still find some of these statues in the towns in the Terras de Basto, east of Guimarães.

Braga

We spent an afternoon visiting Braga, a larger city north of Guimarães. It has a beautiful historic center with tile covered buildings and large open squares. We found a very good vegetarian restaurant for lunch. We were heading to Felix Taberna, a restaurant that Jonathan had read about online, but it was closed and right beside it was Anjo Verde (Largo da Praça Velha), a vegetarian restaurant. We walked around, visited the 11th century cathedral (Sé) and explored the downtown streets.

We stopped for afternoon coffee at the historic Cafe A Brasileira (The Brazilian Café). This café opened in 1907 and the branch in Lisbon is even older. It is an elegant café with lovely pastries, great coffee and great service.

Braga, northern Portugal
Cafe A Brasileira in the center of Braga.

Wild Goose Chases

The brochure we got from the Braga tourist office listed Sete Fontes (Seven Springs), on the outskirts of town, as a major historic site. These are 18th century buildings from water works that brought water to Braga until the first half of the 20th century. We set out to find them. The GPS (Sat Nav) had never heard of them and there were no signs. We had a vague idea of their location from the tourist map but all we found was a road named for them. We managed to get directions from a man who spoke no English but was very enthusiastic. With Steve and Jonathan’s minimal Portuguese, plus many hand gestures, we found the dirt road and we even found the building – in a field beside a huge hospital. But, this is not anything interesting and why is it on the tourist map they give you at the Tourist Office?

Our other long wild goose chase was because of our obsession with finding remains of the Roman Empire. We spent so long searching for Roman bridges near Guimaraes that I am sure Jonathan will never forgive us. When driving between Guimarães and Braga we saw signs for a Roman bridge. You know how it is when driving in a new country, we saw the sign, kept on driving, figured we would stop another time and then when we went back we could not find it again. But we kept on looking and found the small Roman bridge in Parque de Roldes north of Guimarães (signed off the 101 north of Guimarães heading to Braga). It was not that interesting of a bridge, but it was fun to find it.

During our search we found a much bigger bridge on the outskirts of Guimarães – Ponte das Taipas. When we found it, we thought it was Roman and were very excited, but when we looked it up later we found that Wikipedia says it is modern.

Vila do Conde

Our four days with Jonathan went by fast. He was staying a few more days and we were driving back to the airport to fly home. On the way to the airport we stopped in Vila do Conde, a beautiful seaside town with lovely beaches (but that water looked cold). We were surprised to see an aqueduct running through the town. We thought it must be Roman. If I had bothered to open my guidebook I would have realized it was built in the 18th century. Interesting, but not Roman.

Final Thoughts

I really enjoyed Guimarães and Braga, both lively University towns with beautiful historic centers. I would like to return and spend more time in these towns. Of the smaller towns I particularly liked Ponte de Lima and Ponte da Barca on the River Lima. Both towns have interesting historic centers, a good selection of cafes and restaurants, places to swim in the river, and footpaths along the river.

I was surprised by how much I enjoyed Portugal – the towns, the cities, the people and the food. You read endlessly about the economic problems of the country, but you don’t see that when you are there. The motorways are new and not crowded, driving is easy and places are well signed. There are bustling modern outskirts to most cities and the historic centers are well maintained and full of interesting modern shops, restaurants and cafes. And that “old world” charm that we felt in the Posada in Viana do Castello was present in many places.

Finishing this trip report a year after I started it, I am wondering why we did not return to Portugal this year and am making a note to book a trip again soon.

Travel Planning

One benefit of living in England is easy access to continental Europe by train or plane. Usually we fly out of Bristol Airport (Easyjet) or Heathrow (British Airways). We avoid Gatwick because it is a three hour drive and part of that is on the dreaded M25 (the ring road around London which can be very busy). We could fly from Bristol or Heathrow to Lisbon in southern Portugal but only Gatwick has flights to Porto. Various places on the web talk about the crazy drivers in Portugal and the horrible traffic jams, so I thought better to do a longer drive to the airport and fly into northern Portugal, to avoid extra driving in Portugal. In hindsight I think it would have been better to fly from a closer airport here and do some driving in Portugal. The driving in Portugal was fine. The main highways seemed newly built and were not crowded. It was more like driving in France than in Italy (i.e. easy driving).

Photos

More photos from this trip are posted on Slow Europe.

Resources

  • Pousadas de Portugal: Historic hotels in Portugal. We spent 3 nights at Pousada Monte de Sta. Luzia in Viana do Castelo. We liked the hotel and location.
  • Quinta das Lameiras: We stayed in their larger apartment (2bed/2bath). Beautifully furnished, nice location outside of Guimarães. The lanes to the farm are shockingly narrow. My only complaint is the bed is a double, not a queen/king – but that is frequently my complaint about European vacation rentals.
  • Martins Sarmento Museum – Museum in Guimares. The websites has a virtual tour of the Citânia de Briteiros.
  • SlowTrav Trip Report 815: A Pilgrimage from Porto, Portugal to Santiago de Compostela, by Dennis Switzer.
  • Wikipedia – Ponte das Taipas – It looks Roman, but it is modern.
  • Wikipedia – Sete Fontes – Seven springs near Braga, 18th century water system.
  • Emma’s House in Portugal: Good blog about northern Portugal.

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Pauline Kenny

Pauline Kenny and Steve Cohen are US expats living in Dorset. We moved to the UK in 2010. Read about our move. If you would like to talk about travel, please join us on the Slow Europe Travel Forums.

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