It’s around 100km from Porto to the mouth of the Rio Minho, a broad river of even broader historical and cultural significance for the Portuguese since it marks the border with neighbouring Spain. The river has lent its name to the entire northwestern province, the MINHO, which encompasses a range of picture-postcard landscapes and features that could almost be Portugal in microcosm – dreamy river scenes, high mountains, rolling vineyards, historic towns, dramatic Atlantic beaches, ancient religious foundations and mysterious archeological sites. Add a modern network of roads – it takes only an hour or so to get from the main towns to remote hiking villages – and a useful regional bus and train network, and the Minho instantly appeals, as a sort of Portugal-in-a-nutshell experience, easily accessible straight out of Porto airport.
For a start, the region features many emblematic Portuguese traditions, whether it’s the vast weekly market at Barcelos – a cross between a medieval fair and the biggest farmers’ market you’ve ever seen – or the annual summer romaria, or carnival, at Viana do Castelo. The Minho’s two principal historic towns, both in the south, are also steeped in tradition – handsomely preserved, medieval Guimarães, Portugal’s first capital, and neighbouring Braga, the country’s buttoned-up ecclesiastical centre. The Minho coast, meanwhile, as little as half an hour’s drive from Braga, is the typical Atlantic swathe of sweeping duned beaches and wild surf. It’s known as the Costa Verde (Green Coast), and is pretty much one long unbroken stretch of sand as far as the Spanish border, punctuated by several small-scale resorts and one decent-sized historic maritime town in Viana do Castelo.
Central Minho is characterized by the region’s other major river, the Rio Lima, which idles through a succession of pretty towns where there’s little to do but soak up the scenery – ideally, while staying in one of the boutique manor houses or country homes for which this area is renowned. Further east, the gentle charms of the Lima valley eventually give way to the mountains of the Parque Nacional da Peneda-Gerês, Portugal’s only national park, which stretches north as far as the Spanish border and east into the next-door province of Trás-os-Montes.
To the north, the Minho region ends – where the country ends – with the Rio Minho, across which lies Spain. A string of compact fortified towns flanks the river on the Portuguese side, and the Minho train line from Porto terminates in the best of the lot, the spectacular walled town of Valença do Minho, a major crossing point into Spain.