To discover the North of Portugal, you should ideally start from Oporto, its capital.
This city, a perfect blend of traditional and contemporary architecture, shops and restaurants (try the nightlife around Torre dos Clérigos called “Galerias Paris”), is a must-visit. The best way to do it is to fly to Francisco Sa Carneiro’s airport and either rent a car – if you plan to visit the countryside – or just take the surface tube to the city’s centre. This centre, a Unesco heritage site, is made up of narrow, steep streets of granite stones and is crammed with baroque churches with interiors covered with the creme-de-la-creme of Portuguese tiles (azulejos, as they are called) and the rich art of gilded woodcarvings. Check the Igreja de São Francisco, in the Ribeira area! You will feel you are in heaven! Just next door, and if you plan to stay in Oporto, don’t miss the 1872 River House premium guesthouse. With views over the river Douro and 8 renovated rooms which have kept all their original charm and architectural details, its proximity to Oporto’s centre, Ribeira area and the long and winding waterfront to reach the aristocratic borough of Foz is an added bonus. Restaurants recommended: DOP, possibly the most sophisticated and sought-after restaurant in central Porto and the Buraco, a great and inexpensive “tasca”.
But the North of Portugal is not just its capital. From here there is a wide region to explore. You may start with the recently renovated city of Guimaraes, the birthplace of the Portuguese nation, and its many charming squares. Not far is the city of Braga, Portugal’s baroque capital, which will surprise you with its many churches, imposing stately houses and monumental granite staircase. By the way, Braga’s sweets are famous and varied: we recommend the “fidalguinhos”, a type of biscuit, and for dessert the “pudim abade de priscos” (eggs, Port wine, caramel, etc), named after a famous local abbot.
You may wish to pursue part of the romanesque route, an architectural style that was developed in 12th century in parts of France, Spain and the North of Portugal. This is a style very much linked to the monasticism and the cult of saints relics, which originated in the construction of many monasteries, churches, bridges, castles and routes. Lousada, Felgueiras, Paredes, Marco de Canavezes, Amarante and Resende (already in Douro), are a few towns rich in the romanesque style, characterized by its purity of lines.
Penafiel, home to the Solar de Egas Moniz Manor House, is also part of this route. This charming family-run guesthouse and its delightful dolce far niente atmosphere, was inspired by the historic achievements of Egas Moniz, tutor to the first king of Portugal (who is buried nearby, in the Paço de Sousa monastery). For activities, apart from visiting the national monuments, we recommend one of the many trails along the Romanesque Route, very near the house, a light introduction to the art of embroidery (an art of enormous importance in the Portuguese handicrafts) or the tasting of the exceptional Vinho Verde, where is located the Quinta da Aveleda estate and its 160 hectares of vines. Famous for its parks and gardens, where rare species of trees flourish, Aveleda has been awarded the international Best of Wine Tourism 2011 award, in the “Architecture, Parks and Gardens” category. An additional highlight is the picturesque Quintandona village, entirely made of schist and slate (both buildings and roads). Every year, on the 3rd weekend of September, takes place the Festa do Caldo, a local festival where local soups and consommés are served on the streets, in an atempt to re-enact the 1950’s and 60’s, when soup was the basic dish to most rural population.
Heading northeast one finds the city of Amarante, home to the painter Amadeu Souza Cardoso, who lived in Paris for a while and rivalled with the artistic intelligentsia of 1900’s. If you enjoy painting, do not miss this museum. Try a visit to the many monasteries that surround Amarante, since you are on the Romanesque route…and do not forget to try Amarante’s regional sweets, the famous “lérias”. The Dom Rodrigo Tavern is also a must: a little rustic tavern with smoked hams hanging from the ceiling, a wall covered with the guests messages, good local cheese and great wine at very reasonable prices!
25 km away, already in the Douro region, one comes across the city of Vila Real, home to the extraordinary Casa de Mateus palace, dating from the 18th century, and attributed to the great Italian architect Nicolau Nasoni. Its gardens are considered some of the most beautiful in the country and the palace’s façade is a genuine display of baroque exhuberance. It is open throughout the year. Before leaving Vila Real, head to the city centre and look for the delicious “covilhetes” (filo pastry with meat).
In terms of small hotels we love in this region, we suggest Quinta de Marnotos, 29 km away from Vila Real, in Gestaçô. This cosy getaway, consisting of four houses made with old stones, is an invitation to an authentic experience. Each house includes a private patio and a fireplace for cooler days. Other suggestion os Morgadio da Calçada, which not only offers a homely, local atmosphere, but also wines of the highest quality. A visit to the estate’s vineyards and wine cellars is always good fun. And a stroll in Provesende too, the lovely and spotless picturesque village located in a plateau with bird-eye views over the Pinhão river. In the heart of Douro, you have Quinta do Vallado, a wine rural hotel, opened since 2005. It includes 13 rooms divided between a 1733 manor house (recently refurbished) and a new and contemporary building made of slate.
Photo: Região Turismo Minho