Many Portuguese consider the Minho – the province north of Porto – to be the most beautiful part of their country. A rolling province of lush river valleys, forested hillsides, trailing vines and long, sandy beaches, it is certainly pleasing to the eye, especially in the mountainous east, where you can still see wooden-wheeled ox-carts creak down cobbled lanes. Age-old customs are also maintained throughout the region at dozens of huge country markets, festas and romarias. In summer, especially, you’re likely to happen upon these fairs and festivals and it’s worth trying to plan a trip around the larger events if you’re keen to experience Minho life at its most exuberant.
In the late 1950s, the Minho, more than any other area of Portugal, suffered severe depopulation as thousands migrated to France, Switzerland, Germany and the United States in search of more lucrative work. In the last decade or so, however, European Union money has helped fund an efficient and growing network of fast new roads. With Porto and Galicia in Spain just a short drive away, the Minho has become a relatively prosperous region. Many emigrants have returned, and a wave of building on the back of their new-found prosperity has all but engulfed many of the smaller towns.
But the historical centres are as appealing as ever, including Guimarães, first capital of Portugal with UNESCO World Heritage status. Equally spruce and historic is neighbouring Braga, the country’s ecclesiastical centre, with several pilgrimage sites in its environs. Between them lie the extensive Celtic ruins of the Citânia de Briteiros, one of the most impressive archeological sites in Portugal, while from Braga it’s also easy to visit Barcelos, site of the best known and biggest of the region’s weekly markets. It takes place on Thursdays, although for the full experience reserve a room in advance and arrive on Wednesday evening.
At Barcelos, you’re only 20km from the Costa Verde, the Minho’s coast, which runs north all the way to the Spanish border. Although this boasts some wonderful beaches along the way, the weather is as unpredictable as the sea, with cool temperatures possible even in midsummer. The principal resort is Viana do Castelo, a lively town with an elegant historic core and, if you’re seeking isolation, the beaches to the north and south scarcely see visitors. The coast ends at Caminha, beyond which the Rio Minho runs inland, forming the border with Spanish Galicia. This region features a string of compact fortified towns flanking the river on the Portuguese side. Their fortresses, in various stages of disrepair, stare across at Spain, with the most compelling stop at the bustling old town of Valença do Minho. Food is a highpoint along the Minho, especially the local eels (enguias), shad (savel) and the rich, eel-like lamprey (lampreia), in season between January and March; Minho trout and salmon are always tremendous, too.
Inland from Viana, the Minho’s other major river, the beautiful Rio Lima, idles east through a succession of small towns where there’s little to do but soak up the somnolent scenery. Indeed, it’s in the Lima valley, particularly around the town of Ponte de Lima, that you’ll find the pick of the region’s famous rural-tourism and manor-house accommodation. Further east, the gentle Minho scenery eventually gives way to the mountains, waterfalls, reservoirs and forests of the protected Parque Nacional da Peneda-Gerês, Portugal’s only national park. This is superb camping and hiking territory, stretching from the main town and spa of Caldas do Gerês north as far as the Spanish border and east into Trás-os-Montes.Read More