Northern Portugal Resort Description
Hidden and secretive, the little villages of the Douro contrast with the magnificent ‘Quintas’ of the port masters, just as the sepia earth contrasts with the fresh green of the vines or the rich gold of autumn, the best time to visit the Douro, the ‘Golden’ river. Like gigantic staircases the wine-cultivating terraces lead down to the mirror-like surface of the ribbon of lakes formed by centuries of work to control the turbulent Douro. The landscape changes with every bend of the river, ever craggy and majestic, tamed but never tame. Vineyards dominate the Douro landscape but there is much else to discover and explore: ruined castles, crumbling monasteries, shady pine forests and river beaches.
At historic and lovely Lamego, you may choose not to climb the 700 steps of the baroque staircase of Nossa Senhora dos Remedios on your knees, but you will surely want to taste Lamego’s delectable smoked hams. The fabulous Mateus Palace at the heart of the Mateus Rosé wine estate near Vila Real has been described as ‘the most fantastic country house in Portugal’. In the parish church of pretty Amarante, touching the worn feet of the stone image of San Gonçalo is supposed to lead to rapid betrothal.
In brilliant sunshine the colours leap vibrantly to life but it is probably when the mist wreathes around the boats on the river that Oporto and the Douro are at their most alluring. Oporto does not just echo the past, it lives and breathes it as if little has changed over the last century, bustling and carrying on its age-old business in the labyrinth of decrepit but fascinating back-streets which meander up from the banks of the mighty Douro river.
The Minho, the greenest, most northerly province of Portugal, is the real heart of one of Europe’s most deeply traditional nations. A pastoral paradise, the Minho is a country of vineyards and woodlands, spectacular beaches and magnificent mountains.
Minho traditions are as enduring as the granite hewn from the hills - wooden ploughs, drawn by oxen, have been the same shape for 1,500 years and sowing, reaping, winnowing, grape harvesting and wine pressing by hand - or foot - are still part of an unchanged cycle of rural life. Growing rampant just about everywhere, the vine is king. ‘Vinho Verde’ means ‘young’ wine, both white and red. The white is a deliciously light, quaffable and slightly effervescent tipple, ideal as an aperitif or to accompany sea or river fish.
Glorious ancestral homes grace this pastoral landscape, forming the greatest collection of grand mansions in the country. Every notable Portuguese family had a seat in or near the town of Ponte de Lima, an enchanting little town, set in a picturesque position on the River Lima. A splendid Roman bridge gave the town its name and is still the focus of activity today. Locals gather in pavement cafés on the square by the fountain overlooking the river, to watch the world go by and on the cobbled streets is a range of restaurants from the simple to the sophisticated.
South of Ponte de Lima is Guimarães, a medieval maze of cobbled streets, hidden squares and higgledy-piggledy houses laced with flower-filled balconies. Lovely Braga is the seat of the country’s spiritual authority. The Archbishop’s Palace is home to Portugal’s Primate and to the country’s richest treasury of sacred and baroque art. High above Braga the Baroque style climaxes in the famous wedding-cake tiers of the flamboyant staircase leading to the hilltop church of Bom Jesús. Smaller but equally charming Barcelos is famous for its weekly Feira (the biggest and liveliest market in the Minho). Viana do Castelo boasts riverside elegance adjacent to one of the finest of the Costa Verde’s many unspoilt dunes and sandy beaches. The Minho’s eastern edge is just as magnificent where it rises to the splendid mountains of the National Park of Peneda-Gerês.