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PORTUGAL Fall 2001 (3)
Index of this travelogue

MINHO

Viana do Castelo | Ponte de Lima | Ponte de Barca
Soajo | Arcos de Valdevez | Viana do Castelo

Viana do Castelo

As soon as we got into Viana do Castelo we saw signing to Pousada do Monte Sta. Luzia. The signs led us to the top of Monte do Sta. Luzia, from which vantage point the lovely pousada overlooks the town and the mouth of the river. Surrounded by gardens and woods, with a magnificent swimming pool, it's an ideal spot from which to headquarter while visiting the Minho province.

Originally opened in 1908 as Hotel Sta. Luzia, it was remodeled and became part of the Pousadas of Portugal network in 1979. The wide expanse of stone steps leading up to the stone pillars forming high archways combine to create a grand entrance. The reception area is high, wide and handsome and backed by a wall of glass leading to a patio, gardens and a panoramic view of all below. All the public areas are open and airy with lots of glass capturing the daylight and reflecting on the white walls and ceilings. The wide corridors on the guest room floors continue the bright, light ambiance. Our room was a nice size with queen bed and a large bathroom. The furnishings are good quality contemporary, in keeping with the style of the pousada. Best was the fabulous view of the Citadel of Sta. Luzia just below, the woods, gardens, sparkling river and the Viana waterfront. It was a truly spectacular sight especially in the evening with the Sta. Luzia and city lights aglow.

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The Minho is the birthplace of the country, Guimaraes having been the first capital. We had visited the southern part of the province in 1997 and this visit we concentrated on the north, the Alto Minho. Viana do Castelo besides being a beautiful city is ideally situated on the coast, within easy driving distance of all the Minho. If you want to take a break from touring, you can enjoy the sandy beaches and linger for the glorious sunsets.

Surrounded as it is by the wooded, green hillsides of the Sta. Luzia mountain, the Lima River and the sea, Viana do Castelo is charming and unique. The streets form a pretty, geometric pattern, crisscrossed by narrow lanes with picturesque squares popping up around corners. The historic city center is one of the most well-preserved in the country where Baroque, Manueline, Art-Deco and Revivalist live side-by-side. This is best represented in the main square, Praca Republica, with the contrasting styles of the town hall, Misericordia Hospital and the drinking fountain in the center. Viana has a special comforting feeling created perhaps by the granite of which the city is built and the traditional, smart-looking wrought iron balconies that grace the facades of the many remarkable buildings. Since our brief visit in 1997, many streets, sidewalks and the waterfront area have been renovated and the work is ongoing. The gorgeous mansions and manor houses that dot the city attest to the affluence that the sea has provided, from fishing to ship building to being a popular tourist destination.

One of these days we will have to come back during festival season to appreciate the traditions of the city and the Minho, particularly during the costume festival when the beautiful girls of the Minho region are dressed in costumes adorned with genuine gold works of art.

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While walking we met a nice lady who suggested we go to O Prior Restaurante, Rua Prior do Crato 14, for dinner. We started with a nice, thick, tasty caldo verde and a good house salad. The arroz de marisco we shared was really bad. Overcooked rice, frozen, tasteless shellfish, completely devoid of any flavor whatsoever. Dreadful! Avoid!

Again, not much sleep. Breakfast is served in the dining room which adjoins the patio overlooking the beautiful views. There was a total lack of service and the buffet was mediocre.

Ponte de Lima

We followed the Lima River east, along its south bank, our first stop being Ponte de Lima. Along the way the vineyards began to appear and small farms growing corn and fruit. Ponte de Lima is the "doll house" of river villages. After winding through the neat, well-preserved winding streets and enjoying a new, exciting perspective at every turn, we came to the main square, Largo de Camoes, at the water's edge, with its precious fountain and cafes. Along with the esplanades on the banks of the river, the square is the meeting point for locals. The Roman bridge, the namesake of the town, crosses the river directly in front of the square. There are five arches from the original bridge, the balance have since been added. The European Union has given the village a well-deserved award for ambiance and cleanliness.

If golf is your thing, there's a gorgeous 18 hole gold course nearby that boasts of its clubhouse, a renovated and enlarged old manor house that has retained its original beauty.

If you enjoy the experience of staying in private homes in gorgeous locations where you can get an up-close perspective of Portuguese traditions and culture, then the Minho region is a prime place to start. It's no wonder that Solares de Portugal was founded and headquartered in Ponte de Lima. Turihab is the government body that was founded in 1983 to preserve the heritage, the authenticity of the Portuguese traditions and to guarantee the quality of the Solares de Portugal, which offer three different types of family homes in the country. Casas Antigas are elegant manor houses and country estates, most from the 17th and 18th centuries. Quintas and Herdades are agricultural farms and estates in a rural setting. Casas Rusticas are simple architectural style, generally smaller and located in rural villages or within farms. They have been individually inspected to ensure the highest standards of quality and hospitality. After visiting their office, getting acquainted with the concept and properties, this is now on our list for the future. Solares de Portugal also has formed a consortium of five organizations called the Europe of Traditions offering a similar program in Ireland, France, Netherlands and the U.K.

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Ponte de Lima is a place of family tradition, quality of life and fortunately for us - gastronomy. We found our way to the patio of the rustic Restaurante Encanada, Junto a Av. Marginal, Tel: 258-941-189, where we enjoyed a delightful lunch of the specialties of the Minho. Bolinhos, the deep fried cod fish cakes staple of Portugal are always delicious but these are lighter than air and crispy on the outside, just simply sublime. You do not come here unless you eat sarrabulho so without hesitation we ordered rojoes e sarrabulho a moda do Minho. The order consisted of a huge pot of arroz de sarrabulhos (rice cooked with pigs blood and tender strips of pork seasoned with mystery herbs) and a large platter of roasted pork, sausage and potatoes. It was wonderful. This is vinho verde country and since this robust dish demanded a red, we ordered the rarely available red vinho verde, which proved to be an excellent choice. This is not a refined wine; it is immature and a bit tart but assertive enough to be up to the task.

Ponte de Barca

Traveling east toward Ponte de Barca, an interesting church on the left caught our eye. We made a hasty left turn into the adjoining driveway and discovered the Igreja Bravaes with its captivating stonework that has stood the test of time. The intricately carved, three-dimensional arched entrance was riveting and interesting were the small, high windows designed to create lovely patterns of light within. Especially unique was the free standing bell tower of matching stonework. Be careful of oncoming traffic when reentering the eastbound lane across the road.

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After a beautiful drive, we arrived at romantic Ponte de Barca. Holding hands, we strolled along the river's edge and across the Gothic stone bridge to the picturesque north side. The day was sunny and warm and the small beach areas and clear waters beckoned but we had a lot more territory to cover so we continued on our way.

Soajo

The Parque Nacional da Peneda-Geres is one of Portugal's finest natural treasures. It runs along the Spanish frontier from the Peneda Mountains south to the Geres range. The village of Soajo sits on the western edge of the Peneda range, east of Ponte de Barca. A very narrow gravel road led us to an old stone bridge over the river. Terraced vineyards surrounded us and along with the rough, rustic beauty our anticipation grew. Finally, we arrived at a very unique and special place.

Soajo is famous for its espigueiros (granite granaries), which sit proudly atop a high, stone hill overlooking the valley below. They look like tombs standing tall on stone pillars, each with a cross on top. They are designed for storing grain and corn at the proper humidity and away from rodents and chickens.

We met an elderly man and his daughter who were unloading a wagon of corn into large buckets that the woman carried on her head to an espigueiro. Inside, standing a bit bent over, was a smiling wrinkled but handsome woman, her mother, who was distributing the cobs as the younger woman emptied each bucket into the doorway. The woman inside was 99 years old and pleased to be asked to pose for a photo. We later saw her and her husband walking down the road straight as an arrow. He was probably about her age and he, too, looked fit. Hard work and a traditional lifestyle is their recipe for vitality.
pictures: STORING CORN in the ESPIGUEIROS of SOAJO

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Our next task was to decide which lovely laneway to walk down and which to photograph. The one we chose was lined with stone walls with bunches of grapes dangling from the trellised vines above. Fortunately the deep purple, thin shinned, juicy beauties were within reach. This was a nice treat on a warm day and an experience that would be repeated many times as grapes were growing everywhere.

All the twisting laneways and streets led to the small village square, bordered by perfectly maintained, unique, renovated stone structures. A striking manor house is sited just off the square and there are several other private residences that also offer accommodations. The village has been developing a nice tourist business. If you want to spend time exploring the national park, this sure would be a great place to call home. Reality was seeing an ATM tucked into one of the stone walls in the main square of this old village.

Arcos de Valdevez

We drove back on the north side of the river though a part of the national park, dodging baby lambs and mountain goats (a park symbol for good reason), appreciating the splendor of this natural wonder. We stopped briefly at Arcos de Valdevez for a short walk along the river promenade and then a photo op at the exquisite Convento de Refoios and the bright yellow attached monastery and attractive gardens (and a chance to regenerate with a handful of grapes).

Viana do Castelo

Back in Viana, dinner was at Alambique, Rua Manuel Espregueira 88. To put it mildly, the environment is eclectic. Blue plaid tablecloths are matched with a red/brown plaid chair pads. Large wooden artifacts adorn the walls with blue and yellow tiles down below. All kinds of stuff is hanging from the ceiling and somewhere there was a stone wall. Let's talk food and wine. The smoked ham and mixed salad to start were excellent as was the dense, dark corn bread. My traditional dish of cod boiled in olive oil with onion and potato was a delight. Unfortunately, Linda's fried carapau were tasteless despite a heavy-handed dose of salt. The leite crème queimado was not very good but the melon was just fine. The Murachas de Moncho vinho verde was quite good.

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to next pageContinue traveling along with us or choose a link from below

(1) Porto
(2) Porto
(3) Minho
Viana do Castelo, Ponte de Lima, Ponte de Barca,
Soajo and Arcos de Valdevez
(4) Minho
Vila Praia de Ancora, Moledo, Camarido, Caminha,
Vila Nova de Cerveira, Valenca, Moncao, Melgaco
(5) Douro and Tras-os-Montes
Pinhao, Regua, Sabrosa, Pedras Salgadas and Vidago
(6) Douro and Tras-os-Montes
Pinhao, Mirandela and Braganca
(7) Douro
Pinhao
(8) Douro and Beiras
Lamego, Britiande, Mealhada and Coimbra
(9) Lisbon
(10) Lisbon
(11) Lisbon and Coast
Cascais, Estoril and Sintra
(12) Alentejo
Monsaraz, Redondo, Elvas, Borba and Vila Vicosa
(13) Alentejo and Beiras
Marvao, Castelo de Vide and Belmonte
(14) Porto

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