By Don and Linda Freedman

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Fall 2004

Vila do Conde | Guimaraes | Amarante | Porto | Aveiro
Coimbra | Sintra | Cascais | Ericeira | Lisboa


Traveling by bus is great. We sat in comfortable seats totally relaxed and enjoyed the scenery and the company of our fellow travelers. Our driver followed route 206 east through pretty agricultural country making fairly frequent stops. About half way between Vila do Conde and Guimaraes is the town of Vila Nova de Famalicao, which is a major stop. From this point on many school children came and went and all were extremely well behaved and courteous. It is quite common for the young people to offer their seats to seniors.

The density of vineyards was increasing in this "green wine" region as we approached Guimaraes. The name green has to do with the green color of the region for which the climate is responsible. The well known "vinho verde" is a light slightly sparkling wine that goes well with fish and seafood. There are varieties of grapes that produce some of the best whites in Portugal. The reds are mostly drunk locally, often right from the barrel, with the traditional dishes of the region.

The central bus station is located just outside the old city center in a modern enclosed shopping mall. It was a 10 minute walk along Rua D. Joao 1 to Praca Toural considered to be the heart of the city. In the 17th century it was outside the city walls, adjacent to the main gates, where the cattle market took place. Today this beautiful square with a perimeter of tall, attractive buildings and a lovely park/garden of flowers and tall trees at the center is a neat spot for relaxing and socializing.

Praca Toural - Guimaraes, PortugalOur destination was the Hotel Toural. A large part of it is in one of the buildings that faces the square. There is a very narrow street behind this facade on the other side of which is the rest of the hotel. The two parts are connected by enclosed foot bridges. The entrance to the hotel is not in the Praca but in Largo A.L. de Carvalho behind the two joined buildings. Because the hotel kept expanding within these old buildings the corridors sort of sprawl in various directions and each of the rooms is quite different. The lush green entrance patio was very welcoming as was the cheerful receptionist who proved to be very helpful and accommodating throughout our stay. The buildings are old but the interior has a contemporary design. There is a pretty central atrium in the reception wing which brightens the surrounding public area. Our room with a window onto the atrium was bright and sunny with no street noise. The bedroom and bathroom were average size with modest furnishings.

Portugal was founded in the 12th century and in 1139 Afonso Henriques proclaimed himself King and Guimaraes its first capital. The town grew and walls were erected to defend it and during the 15th century the layout of the town within the walls was established. In 1853 Queen D. Maria II raised the status of Guimaraes to that of a city and major changes took place. The demolition of the city walls was authorized and new squares, streets and avenues were created. It was all done in harmony to preserve the integrity of the historic town center.

Praca Santiago - Guimaraes, PortugalGuimaraes has been designated as a World Heritage Site by UNESCO. A major rehabilitation has taken place over the past years which renewed the ancient architecture, streets, squares, and infrastructure (even the TV antennas are gone and all electrical wires are now ingeniously hidden along the buildings). The ancient homes and buildings had to be reconstructed according to the original design using only the materials originally used. It is an ongoing project for financial and practical reasons. Working with the old materials takes special craftsmen who are in short supply. It has taken many years just to replace the wrought iron balconies because there was only one man who had the skills and know-how. In addition, some of the old materials do not stand up too well and have to be continuously replaced, particularly the exterior paint. We were here several years ago when the reconstruction was going full speed ahead and it was difficult to navigate the streets but even then it was a treasure to behold. All I can say now is that Guimaraes is a city not to be missed.

The city bought several buildings and when reconstructed became public service facilities. At the same time the city provided space for artisans to maintain the heritage of their crafts. We visited such a place where a group of women do the detailed and amazing embroidery for which the city is famous. Their work is sold in a non-profit store and the proceeds are used to pay the artisans.

The municipal governments in most Portuguese cities have set up free Internet facilities. Not far from our hotel on Rua Egas Moniz we found one and had only a short wait before a computer became available.

Salado Memorial - Guimaraes, PortugalJust around the corner we entered Largo Oliveira which is home to several impressive monuments. The 1342 stone cross Gothic Salado Memorial commemorates the Battle of Salado fought in l340, the old Council Chambers which now houses the Museum of Primitive Art and the Church of Nossa Senhora De Oliveira, the interior of which is quite simple with stone walls and pillars. There are two panels above the stall which are the work of the painter Pedro Alexandrino. In the Chapel of the Holy Sacrament there is a silver altar covered by a silver altar cloth and in the sacristy a chapel whose walls are covered by patterned tiles.

The cafes and restaurants spilled out onto the square and the tables were filled with folks enjoying the traditional, good-natured, fun hazing of the new students by the black caped upper-class men and women. An integral part of the start of the school year, this scene was to be repeated many times throughout our trip. The adjoining ancient Santiago Square is a medieval beauty and together with Largo Oliveira forms the social center of the city.

The hotel recommended the restaurant Nora Ze da Curva, Travessa Gil Vicente/Sto. Antonio, Tel. 253 414 457, which they said was hard to find and gave us as good directions as possible. We headed off in the appropriate direction up Rua de St. Antonio and to be sure asked a young woman if she knew of the restaurant and how to get there. As happens so many times in this country she insisted on leading us there. It was a good thing, because you have to know where to turn into a shopping arcade, walk to the rear to a narrow alley, turn right, go a few steps and there you be! We were greeted by Angelino who was in charge tonight as his parents were away. Nice, a family-run restaurant with simple charm and comfort complete with a jovial son intent on pleasing his customers. Even the mandatory TV was blazing away. Let’s eat!

The house offered fried, breaded veal meatballs which were wonderful. The local vinho verde red has a frothy sparkle and distinctive tartness which we quite enjoyed. Our quest for the best vegetable soup was well underway. This one was very good, but most are. The grilled linguado (sole) was quite nice but a tad overdone. The order of beef filet produced two thick medium rare filets that were tender and flavorful. There is no doubt that Portugal grows the finest potatoes we have ever tasted no matter what size, shape or preparation. As usual the fish was served with the boiled variety and the meat was served with roasted small round beauties in their jackets covered with amazing olive oil and chopped garlic. Fresh steamed greens were served for both of us. The leite crème for dessert was not to our liking. Everything was of the best quality and well prepared except for the small discrepancies noted. The cost was very reasonable.

A few of our neighbors kept us up a lot longer than we would have liked by having extremely loud telephone conversations and turning their TV volume to maximum. When we were finally allowed to sleep, we slept soundly. The breakfast room is clean, bright white and the service excellent. There is no buffet. As soon as we were seated the waiter brought us fresh squeezed orange juice, rolls, ham, cheese and coffee to be followed by a fresh fruit cup. As the dishes were cleared we were offered more of anything we wished. High marks here!

Guimaraes had its origins in the 10th century. Countess Mumadona Dias had a monastery built which became the focal point of the settlement. For its defense she ordered a castle to be built on a hill a short distance away creating a second nucleus of development. Rua de Santa Maria grew up linking the two. The castle was abandoned when it was no longer needed for defense. It was declared a National Monument in the 20th century and was restored. Nearby is the Palace of the Dukes of Braganca also a National Monument. It too was rebuilt in the 20th century and today it has a museum and is the official house of the Portuguese President when he is in the north of Portugal. Santa Clara Convent - Guimaraes Town Hall

There are splendid old houses along Rua de Santa Maria which depict the character of the city; Casa do Arco, Casa dos Peixotos, Casa dos Valadares and the Convent of Santa Clara (Guimaraes Town Hall). Founded in the 16th century the Convent was one of richest in the city. The facade of the building is baroque with a sculpture of St. Clare in the center. The two story cloister is neo-classical. Standing on Santa Maria facing the Convent and glancing right and left you capture the spirit of this historic place.

At lunch time, we found ourselves in Praca Santiago. Luckily there was an empty table outside the Cafe Spaten and we enjoyed a delightfully fresh tuna salad. The weather was sunny and warm. We were surrounded by ancient colorful homes. Laundry was hanging from the windows and wrought iron balconies. Is this not why we travel?

The Alberto Sampaio Museum is located in the historic center on the site where Mumadona ordered a monastery to be built. The monastery became a collegiate church in invocation of the Virgin Mary and later of Nossa Senhora De Oliveira (our lady of the olive tree). The museum is in 3 spaces of the Collegiate Church; the Chapter house, the cloister, and the House of the Priorate. The museum was founded in 1928 to house the art from the Collegiate Church and other churches and convents in Guimaraes, which were then the property of the state. The collection of old sacred art consists of sculpture, carvings, paintings, ceramics, textiles and the finest collection of silverware in the country. S. Gualter Church - Guimaraes, Portugal

As we exited the museum and looked outside the city center, we saw the gorgeous twin spire Church of S. Gualter designed by the architect Andre Soares at the end of the green Largo Republica do Brasil. It was a lovely sight with the sun shining brightly on its exterior.

After checking-in at the municipal Internet center we walked up Rua E. Moniz to look at the small 3 story house that had been designated as typical of the city of Guimaraes. It had been in an advanced state of decay when the city bought it and had it fully restored. This restoration was used as the model for the rehabilitation of the town. The restoration was limited to reinforcing the structure without changing the interior layout. The only addition was toilets which did not exist before. Local materials and traditional techniques were used by local craftsmen to keep the harmony of the city. The building now houses the office of the Local Technical Department. Architects and technical help are available to help renovate consistent with the original designs and standards. Assistance in financing these projects is also available.

On Rua da Rainha at Largo Joao Franco is a new sculpture dedicated to the first King of Portugal, Afonso Henriques. It is an intriguing depiction of a warrior with his sword and shield.

As we have noted many times in our visits to Portugal there are more pastelarias (pastry shops) per street than in any other place we have visited. The wide arrays of goodies are consumed throughout the day with excellent coffee. Clarinha in Largo do Toural, 86-88 is considered to be the best in the city. The window display is guaranteed to get you in the front door and then the square of showcases will finish you off. The only problem will be making the big decision - which one(s)? We chose 3 and loved them all. The big secret here is the Torta de Guimaraes, flaky crescents filled with ingredients known only to the family, which are available only on Fridays and must be ordered in advance. We were leaving on Friday morning and placed our order to be picked up right after breakfast to be enjoyed en route to our next stop, Amarante.

Just outside the entrance to the Hotel Toural is the pretty Largo Condessa do Juncal in which Restaurante Vira Bar at #27, Tel.253 518 427, is located. The style here is not that of a typical, traditional restaurante. We entered an adorable seductive environment of dark wood, from the paneling to the floors and wicker chairs. The mood was further enhanced by well-designed subdued lighting. If you like your romance on high, there is balcony seating available. We settled in on the first floor with the added attraction of the grill area in the glass enclosed kitchen. The staff matched the environment, relaxed and smooth. The house offered a marvelous seafood and vegetable salad. The crunchy shrimp, tender calamari and octopus were mixed with pieces of fresh vegetables marinated in olive oil, herbs and garlic. Great dense bread was a very compatible mate, as was the Casa da Tojeire Vinho Verde Blanc, fruity, tart and fizzy.

We followed the seafood teaser by sharing a hearty natural-broth fish soup chock full of tender morsels. After starting with two courses we sometimes share a main one, but since the first two were so exceptional we did not want to miss the opportunity to sample two. Both were beautifully presented on large platters to accommodate the large portions. A thick cut of grilled bacalhau was crunchy on the outside and moist inside and smothered in onions - ideal. Yummy small roasted potatoes and steamed cabbage surrounded the filet. Linda had Posta Barrosa, a grilled veal steak, from an animal specially raised in the area. It was served sliced and perfectly medium rare. This tender and extremely tasty local delight was served with the same vegetables as my fish. Tonight we let it all hang out and finished with two egg, cream and sugar favorites, crème brûlée and pudim abade de priscos, attractively-served, excellent renditions.

Student Initiation - Guimaraes, PortugalIt was a glorious day and the Largo Oliveira was a hub of activity so we decided to have lunch on the porch of the Pousada da Oliveira and enjoy some fun people watching. We started with a giblet stew containing chicken parts, sausage and vegetables and a fish soup with assorted shellfish, fish and vegetables. Both were very good as was the entertainment being provided by the student hazing.

Finally, our first coelho (rabbit) of the trip. Coelho estufado com vinho tinto is rabbit stewed in red wine. A liberal portion was served in a large pot and in spite of our best efforts we could not empty the pot. A dessert buffet was set up in the lovely dining room just behind the porch and the assortment of gorgeous treats was overwhelming. Linda was finished but I did manage to sample the fresh fruit cup, baked apple slices and orange cake.

After enjoying an excellent coffee we walked through the public areas of the Pousada to see what it was like. The dining room is a blend of wood beams and stone with a handsome fireplace for cool evenings. The adjoining bar and lounges have the same cozy feeling. We asked to see the rooms and reception was happy to oblige as it was still early in the day and some of the booked guests had not arrived (we had wanted to stay here but they had been fully booked when we inquired). As we walked up the attractive wooden staircase and thru the corridors we had the feeling we were in an old country home right smack in the middle of the city. The rooms we looked at were all very attractive and comfortable looking. While there is no driving in the city center the Pousada does have parking available about 100m away.

Since we wanted to stay in the city we did not consider the Pousada de Santa Marinha da Costa which is outside the city. We knew it was a magnificent historic site and worthy of a visit so away we went. The first written reference to the monastery of Santa Marinha da Costa appears in the will of Mumadona, founder of Guimaraes, in the year 959. Many, many changes have taken place over the centuries and it was in l985 that the restoration as a Pousada was completed. The goal was to preserve and innovate and the results are masterful. The adjoining church and cloister have also been restored and beautifully maintained. The church remains the headquarters of religious activities in the parish of Costa.

From the huge public rooms to the guest rooms and suites the design and the furnishings are a perfect blend of the ancient and contemporary. There are two wings comprised of the original monastery and a newer addition, either would be a dream to call home. Pousada da Oliveira - Guimaraes, Portugal

The cloister houses wonderful architectural remains such as a Mozarab door (the finest example of Mozarab architecture in Portugal), and tiles from 1747 that are the best known collection of paintings of 18C customs. There is the St. Jerome terrace with a fabulous wooden ceiling. In the center is a graceful 18th century fountain that spouts pure, fresh water. The terrace is surrounded by the extraordinary gardens, a splendid spot for enjoying your favorite beverage.

The grounds of Santa Marinha are extensive and as they’re situated on the west face of Penha mountain offer substantial views of the city of Guimaraes and the surrounding area. We spent quite a while exploring the precious pathways up, down and around, enjoying the rare collection of plants, trees and shrubs. Water cascades down from the top of the mountain and flows into the Couros brook.

We finished our tour with a beverage on the deck of the smartly designed pool complex. It was a perfect day for a swim. We settled for pure relaxation overlooking the rooftops of Guimaraes.

This day was to end on a sour note as yours truly developed what was later diagnosed as food poisoning. Let it be noted that this did not sour us on this precious city that will always be on our list of favorites.

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