At Caminha, 25km north of Viana do Castelo, road and rail turn decisively northeast and inland to run along the south bank of the Rio Minho. With Spain ever-present – just across the wide river – and crossings easily made, it’s a fairly well-trodden tourist route, and the succession of historic frontier towns are used to Spanish day-trippers and visiting foreigners. You could just about see the lot in a day – from pretty Caminha to the country’s northernmost town, Melgaço, 70km further east – but that would be to rush a region that’s more suited to leisurely strolls, old-town rambles and summer afternoons spent at the nearest praia fluvial (river beach). With a night to spare, a stay in the fortress pousada of Valença do Minho is perhaps the best option, though admittedly this is the most touristy of the Minho towns. The Linha do Minho train line from Porto, via Viana do Castelo, runs to Caminha and Valença but no further, though there are plenty of local buses onwards to the old spa town of Monção and to Melgaço.
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Valença do Minho
Valença do Minho
The must-see historic sight along the Minho is the fortress of VALENÇA DO MINHO (or just Valença), whose walls and ramparts dominate the riverside and speak volumes about erstwhile neighbourly disagreements. The fortress has repelled innumerable Spanish and French invasions over the centuries, though the impeccably preserved old town has surrendered entirely to a modern-day army of wallet-waving visitors who file in through the narrow town gates and descend upon the gift shops. Even the regional tourist office describes Valença as a “shopping fortress”. But most evenings you’ll have old Valença to yourself, and can explore at your leisure – the only disadvantage being that many of the cafés and restaurants are either hauntingly empty for dinner or simply shut up shop once their captive audience has left for the day. There’s a new town, south of the ramparts, home to all Valença’s non-touristy businesses and services, while each Wednesday a huge weekly market is held on the wooded slopes around the old town to the east.
Around the walls and ramparts
The first defensive walls were built here in the thirteenth century, though the current layout – a dazzling system of double ramparts, with two separate old-town areas separated by a deep moat – is a classic piece of seventeenth-century military engineering. The entrance for traffic is through the Portas da Coroada, which leads into an outer town defended by half a dozen bulwarks. Another set of gates, the Portas do Meio, then leads across a stone bridge into the even older medieval town, again defended by an elongated star-shape of steep, angled walls, towers and turrets. Alternatively, you can enter directly into this older part of town via the pedestrian entrance of Portas do Sol.
The cobbled lanes and white-painted buildings within the walls have all been handsomely restored, though few visitors do much more than trawl up and down the couple of main streets, which are lined with boutiques and gift shops, pretty much all flogging the same vast selection of towels, sheets, pillow cases, nightwear, T-shirts and cheap souvenirs. Bewitching collection of traditional arts and handicrafts it is not – though if you need another Lionel Messi football shirt you’re in luck.
If you’re to come away from Valença with a more positive memory of its charms, you need to get off the street and up onto the ramparts, which can be accessed from virtually anywhere. From the precipitous walls, grassy mounds and winding footpaths, you can look down upon the buildings and the river far below, while exploring hidden tunnels, archaic towers and sentry-posts, and landscaped battlements complete with cannons. It becomes immediately apparent how difficult it would have been to vanquish Valença – the scale of the fortifications is immense – and you can spend a happy hour or two away from the shoppers, revelling in the fine views to all sides.