If your preference is for personally-tailored trips and lodgings, where gastronomy and wines, festivals and devotional events are the by-word, the historic cities and villages in the north of Portugal will leave an imprint just like a postcard on your memory.
In Minho, the cities of Viana do Castelo, Ponte de Lima, Barcelos, Guimarães and Braga all merit a visit. Reserve two days to really get to know them.
Viana do Castelo at Ponte de Lima
In Viana, climb Mount Santa Luzia and soak up the stunning views. Down below, in the city, you must spend time sitting on one of the pleasant terraces of the Praça da República to appreciate its three sixteenth-century buildings: The graceful fountain in granite, the Town Hall and the Casa da Misericórdia.
In August, the Romaria da Nossa Senhora d’Agonia (Devotion of Our Lady of Agony) parade follows the paths of devotion. The festival takes place on the 20th and the following weekend. At the costume event, which was first held in the public garden in 1931, attractive young girls and boys adorn themselves in richly colourful traditional costumes, and you may be lucky enough to enjoy exquisite wedding dresses and traditional embroidered Mordoma and Lavradeira costumes, as well as the beautiful filigree pieces, known as Viana gold.
The Sanctuary of Monte de Santa Luzia must also feature on your tour map. Construction began in 1903 on the imposing Basilica of Santa Luzia overlooking the city, and was completed in 1943. The view is an absolute must.
At the table, it is sin not to ask for galo de pé descalço (lit. barefoot cock) rice or pica no chão, Minho-style rojões (fried diced pork), octopus rice in the Minho style and Margarida da Praça cod, or cod in the style of Gil Eannes, Zé do Pipo or Camelo.
Leaving Viana, continue in the direction of Ponte de Lima, where one of the pleasures awaiting you is a walk through the luxuriant groves of giant plane trees that align the blue river waters. The old Roman bridge, part of the road connecting Braga and Tui, the imposing mediaeval tower, the parish church, the Casa Aurora, a beautiful palace with coat of arms, the noble dwellings topped with battlements, the beautiful mannerist Igreja da Misericórdia and the refreshing water sources are generous reasons to include this picturesque village on your travel map.
At lunch or dinner, try the green-red wine and sarrabulho rice, a typical regional dish.
If you have time, make an extra stop at Barcelos, the village that was given by King Dinis to the first Count of Barcelos in the year, 1298. Walk over the Gothic bridge across the river to appreciate its medieval core construction: Still remaining are the ruins of the ancient palace of the Counts (later of the Dukes of Bragança) with a fortified tower that today houses the Tourist Office, the central parish church and pillory. In the palace grounds, there is a fascinating open-air archaeological exhibit. Take a walk in the pleasant, Baroque-inspired garden and visit the Church of Senhor Bom Jesus da Cruz.
Don’t miss Braga and Guimarães
For the next day of your trip, schedule a trip to the cities of Braga, ancient city and stronghold of the awesome power once wielded by its bishops, and Guimarães, which is held very dear in the hearts of the Portuguese.
Braga is a city rich in historical monuments, beginning with its Cathedral –the oldest in the country. The population of Braga is very young population since the opening of the university there, and the city’s architecture has a contemporary quality. Climb up to the Sanctuary of Bom Jesus do Monte, a magnificent site and meeting-place of the works of Nature and Man.
During Holy Week, the city is transformed, attracting thousands of visitors. The whole city is decorated with Easter tableaus and beautiful street altars graced with ornamental flowers and lights.
The religious ceremony, includes, for example, a funeral procession of the Lord, which traverses the historic centre, and the Theophoric procession, which takes place in the majestic, oldest cathedral of Portugal. First, shaven and hooded men, the Farricocos, dressed in purple robes, parade with torches in their hands.
Braga also celebrates the Feast of St. John, which dates from the fifteenth century. The festivities commence already by 9 am on the previous day, June 23rd, with parades and folklore events, and brandishing hammers, leeks and sweet basil. It is worth visiting the biblical tableaus on the banks of the Rio Este and sampling the festive fare of grilled sardines with pepper and bread, or cod baked or grilled.
Finally, during the last weekend of May, it’s well worth watching the Reviver Bracara Augusta event that livens up the historic city centre with the enactment of daily life under the Roman occupation.
At any time of the year, when in Braga, don’t miss the chance to try the city's restaurants, where the famous Braga cod, roasted kid and Abade de Priscos pudding are served. And do not leave the city without taking with you some of its famous meat pies, known as frigideiras and without asking for pastries, sponge cakes (pão-de-ló), and traditional biscuits (fidalguinhos) and waffles (talassas) to go.
After lunch, head to Guimarães, where the mediaeval castle, birthplace of Afonso Henriques, the first king of Portugal, has a unique atmosphere. Start your tour by strolling through the historic city centre, which is listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and stop to admire the splendid Colegiada de Guimarães church. Stepping away from the church, you will catch sight of the enchanting former Vila Flor Palace, now the home of the Vila Flor Cultural Centre, as well as the Toural Square, sometimes called the city’s visitors’ hall.
Next, you should visit the Shrine of Our Lady of the Rock, which is located at the top of the Serra de Santa Catarina, at a height of 617 meters and accessible by téléphérique (aerial cable-car). The chapel was built in 1652 and later, in 1727, went on to serve the adjoining Convent of the Immaculate Conception. Reverance for Our Lady of the Rock brings over a million visitors to the shrine, each year.
Time for a meal, and why not treat yourself to the local corn bread, sausages, cod, lamprey, trout and allis shad, prepared in various ways. For those who crave a good piece of meat, it is almost a sin not to taste the city’s famous pork dishes, sarrabulho and rojões. Then, we recommend the Alvarinho verde wine, made from delicious young grapes to complete your meal.