Guimaraes is a bite-sized historical gem, within easy travelling distance of magnificent Porto in Northern Portugal. Lovers of medieval charm will be captivated by this European City of Culture 2012
Staying in the beautiful Douro region of Northern Portugal, I had far too many choices of places I wanted to see, but I knew Guimaraes would be near the top of my list. I was not disappointed.
"The Conqueror", King Afonso Henriques, the first King of Portugal, is alleged to have been born here. At the age of 14, he raised an army and wrested control of the country from his mother, then set about vanquishing the Moors. He had much support from the Portuguese nobility, who were understandably wary of an alliance with Spain. The magnificent castle at the top of the hill is testimony to these turbulent times, but today Guimaraes is a sleepy place.
Arriving, as I did, at the station, you could be forgiven for thinking that Guimaraes is just another Portuguese town. Persevere! Once you have negotiated the bland surrounds, there is many a treat in store. The first of these is the azulejo-clad church of Sao Francisco. There is something about these blue and white tiles that just gladdens my heart. Step inside the church to be greeted by curls and swirls of colour, and cherubs.
A swathe of red geraniums carried me across Largo da Liberdade do Brasil and along leafy Almeda in search of the castle. Heading gently upwards, I passed the trickling fountain in pretty Largo Martins Sarmento.
The castle, and Guimaraes, date from the 10th century, when Countess Mumadona Dias ordered the construction of a monastery on her estates. The fort was constructed to defend it from raids, and the settlement became a walled city. The walls are long since gone, but the castle ruins afford beautiful views across the valley. The tiny chapel where Afonso was christened is bare but beautiful.
Heading down from the castle, I was drawn to the Palace of the Dukes of Braganca. This fortified house in the manorial style is unlike anything I ever saw before. I gazed at the lofty chimneys in wonder, then tiptoed around admiring ancient tapestries.
The city’s first street, Rua de Santa Maria, all cobblestones and wrought-iron balconies, unravels gently into the cluster of the old town.
Time to eat!
You will have no difficulty in finding good food in Guimaraes. The difficulty will be in choosing. Around Largo da Oliveira, the picturesque heart of the old town, there are numerous choices. Hool has a prime location, opening out onto the historic square. If you're after presentation and style, this is a winner, though not a cheap one. Telephone +351 253 519 390.
On Rua de Santa Maria itself, Michelin starred O Solar do Arco serves good meat and fish, the salmon in shrimp sauce coming highly recommended. Telephone +351 253 513 072.
Casa Amarela at Rua de Donaes 16, has another lovely location, with a more affordable selection of Portuguese cuisine. Mumadona, at Rua Serpa Pinto 260, is a good one to hunt down if you want traditional bacalhau or black pork- always favourites in Portugal.
It's always nice to recommend a good vegetarian restaurant and Cor de Tangerina is just that. It's situated near the castle on Largo Martins Sarmento in a beautiful spot. I'm not a vegetarian but I would be ecstatically happy to sample the Cogumelos Portobello (stuffed mushrooms).
Sights not to miss
If you've been wandering these atmospheric streets deciding on a place to eat, you won't need me to tell you of the charm of this historic city. The narrow streets wrap around two lovely squares, Praca de Santiago and Largo da Oliveira. There's a good story associated with the church, Nossa Senhora da Oliveira. In 7th century, an old Visigoth warrior, Wamba, was out tilling the fields when a delegation arrived to tell him he'd been elected king. Driving his staff into the ground, he declared that not until it bore leaves would he become king. In the nature of these things, the staff turned into an olive tree and the church was named in honour of this miracle.
The Salado Monument is what captures the eye. It must have been photographed from every angle, but my own favourite is from beneath the arcades of the Council Chambers. The largest square in Guimaraes is the Largo do Toural. It's here that you will find, emblazoned on the remainder of the city walls, "Aqui Nasceu Portugal"- Portugal was born here- a reminder that Afonso made this his capital in the 12th century.
Irrespective of it's proud history, Guimaraes has a lively student population and a thriving art scene, which was capitalised on last year during its status as European Capital of Culture. Details of events can be obtained from Tourist Information on Largo Conego Jose Maria Gomes. A wonderful time to be in the city is during the first weekend in August, when Festas Gualterianos (the festival of Saint Walter) takes place. A Linen Parade and Battle of Flowers are part of the festivities, along with a torchlight procession. Nicolinas, traditional student activities in honor of Saint Nicholas, take place from 29th November to 7th December.
If you're there in fine weather, don't miss a ride on the cable car up to the heights of Penha. Grottoes, walking trails, cafes and restaurants will make for a lovely day out. The city of Braga and its theatrical sanctuary, Bom Jesus, is just a short distance away. Lovely Amarante in the Douro, Barcelos of cockerel fame, and Viana do Castelo at the coast, all would make great side trips. And that's without setting foot in Porto! (and you simply have to)
Where to stay
This is always the tricky part as I prefer hotels with character to modern, especially in a historic setting.
Pousada de Nossa Senhora da Oliveira should please everybody. Centrally situated on the square of the same name, and with Hool restaurant looking out onto the square, you have prime position here. Pousadas are state-owned converted former palaces and historic residences, and standards are universally high. At £78 (90 euros) for a double with breakfast, I don't think this is a bad deal. Reductions often apply to over-55s too.
Hotel Toural has the benefit of being located on the town's main square. With WiFi and all the usual amenities, it's an excellent base for exploring the town, priced from £51 for a double.
Pousada de Santa Marinha There is no doubt that this would be my choice. The magnificent setting of this 12th century converted monastery overlooks Guimaraes. There is still a 10th century Mozarab arch in the cloisters and beautiful tile scenes. The 2km stroll into town would be a small price to pay for the elegance of house and gardens. £95 (110 euros) does not seem at all unreasonable to me for this palatial setting.
Easyjet and Ryanair fly quite cheaply into Porto, and from there it's a little more than an hour by train.