Touring Portugal’s medieval northern heritage

By CHRIS GRAEME chris.graeme@algarveresident.com

‘Travel’ is written by freelance journalist and photographer, Chris Graeme, who lives in Lisbon and   enjoys subjects such as world economics and politics.

With the credit crunch and recession beginning to bite, many people are opting to take holidays within Portugal rather than heading for costly exotic destinations.

For those who decide to stay put, there is a wealth of cultural and architectural heritage the length and breadth of the country, particularly in the Cradle of Portugal’s Nationhood and its medieval cities in the north.

Braga, one of Portugal’s largest cities with a population of 175,000, was my starting point for my five-day Easter tour of the north.

One of the oldest cities in the country and indeed one of the oldest Christian cities in Europe, Braga was founded by the Romans, when it was called Bracara Augusta, 2000 years ago.

It is particularly rich in terms of both historical monuments and picturesque churches, many of which are baroque, the reason why it is often referred to as the ‘Baroque City’.

In the heart of the Minho District, it is also known as the Archbishops City given that its archbishop was, for many centuries, the most important on the Iberian Peninsula.

One of the wettest cities in the country, there are a number of sites worth visiting including the impressive early medieval 11th century Romanesque, Gothic and Manueline style Sé Cathedral, the partly Roman Basilica of São Martinho de Dume from the sixth century, and the Visigoth chapel of São Frutuoso which is a national monument.

There is also the wonderful Renaissance Church of Misericórdia de Braga, the highly ornamented Monastery of Tibães and the Braga Episcopal Palace near the Sé where the city’s archbishops resided.

Particularly impressive is the baroque church of Bom Jesus, from which one gets a fantastic view over the entire city.  

For those who like medieval history, castles and open air markets then Guimarães, the birth place of the Portuguese state, is an absolute jewel.

Also in the district of Braga and Minho, this Moorish city originally called Vimaranis, was, according to legend, the birthplace of Afonso I of Portugal and it was from here that the duke proclaimed Portuguese independence from the Kingdom of León after the Battle of São Mamede in 1109.  

The castle and surrounding park are particularly lovely. Although parts are being restored and, therefore, are closed to the public, one can see some of the main state rooms with their amazing tapestries and pieces of late medieval and Renaissance furniture from the Dukes of Braganza. The city has been a World Heritage Site since 2001.

Vila Real is a small, but well-ordered medieval town with Roman beginnings, which are attributed to Count Dom Henrique and King Afonso III between 1096 and 1272, but only became a city in 1925. Try the town’s famous hot veal pies and visit the impressive cathedral in the town centre.

Viseu has, for years, become the battle ground of two conflicting stories as the birthplace of Portugal’s founding father Dom Afonso Henriques. According to legend, he came from Guimarães but according to historian Dr. João Silva de Sousa, documents unearthed in the Torre do Tombo archives in Lisbon point to the fact that he did, in fact, come from Viseu, which has an impressive 13th and 14th century Gothic cathedral that contains the silver covered relic of the hand and arm of Saint Teotónio which is said to have healing properties. An ally of Afonso Henriques, he managed to get the pope to excommunicate his intriguing mother Teresa de Léon and was one of the first Portuguese religious figures to be canonised.

Lamego is a pretty town in the hills not far from Viseu, which has the amazing baroque church and sanctuary of Nossa Senhora dos Remédios, with its blue and white rococo ceiling, perched atop a hill accessed by a series of long and steep stone steps from the top of which one has a wonderful view of the town and its medieval castle.

Nearby is Régua and the Estrada Real (Royal Road), which winds along the River Douro cutting through the Upper Douro Valley, where one can see many of the most famous port wine vineyards, including Sandeman and Croft, dotted along the layered vine terraces from which one gets truly breathtaking views of the river and surrounding countryside.

It’s worth taking a river trip from Régua as far as Pinhão, which is a pretty riverside harbour with scenic views and the famous Vintage House boutique hotel where you can stop off and sample some of the local port wines at the wine cellars there.

Finally, your trip back to Lisbon could be via the Serra da Estrela Mountains which are the highest points in mainland Portugal. The vastly improved roads take you up to the highest point or Torre (1993 metres) while Guarda, Covilhã and Manteigas are small towns worth visiting as the region is overall famous for its cheeses, smoked sausages, honey, pure new wool clothing and, of course, the famous Serra da Estrela dogs which are for sale everywhere you look.