I lived in Portugal in the 1990s and still travel there regularly. During my time as a resident there, I was fortunate to experience much of the country, from the Algarve to the Alentejo to the north. But I only have vague memories of the latter. This year my wife’s family decided on a group holiday in the north of Portugal, and I was keen to reacquaint myself with that part of the country.
When my wife’s family meets for a group holiday, the options are limited because of how large the family is – more than 20! So, we generally opt for an all-inclusive villa in a remote setting, which is not always easy to find. On this occasion, we found a compound that comprised several apartments, which the owner allowed us to commandeer for a week, in the town of Durrães, approximately 25 miles northwest of Braga and 12 miles southeast of Viana do Castelo. It turned out to be an ideal location, not only as a tranquil repose, but also proximate to some great tourist sites in the north of Portugal.
As is generally customary in this country in the summer, the weather is very agreeable. We had one morning of drizzly conditions that represented a departure from a week of mild temps and bluebird skies. On previous summer visits, there were threats from wildfires, but luckily we were not threatened by the prospect on this occasion.
Braga is an important hub for this area. It is the fourth largest city in the county and a religious hub for the north (although Fátima is the epicenter of religious pilgrimage in the country). A blatantly significant historical site is the Sanctuary of Bom Jesus do Monte, located in the hinterland overlooking the city. It is a long climb uphill, best approached by mounting the long, zig-zagging staircase of nearly 600 steps that many pilgrims will do on their knees. We had an excellent lunch in the Panorâmico restaurant of the Hotel do Elevador within the Bom Jesus complex.
Old bridges feature prominently in the north of Portugal, among them the medieval bridge of Ponte de Lima, which is one of the oldest towns in the country. Another serves as the dramatic entry to the town of Barcelos – home of the rooster that often serves as the national symbol of Portugal. On Thursdays, Barcelos is transformed into one big flea and farm market, with vendors selling everything from linens, to pottery, farm tools and produce. A third bridge spans Lima River in Ponte de Barca, which is the gateway to the Parque Nacional de Peneda-Gerês.
The Peneda-Gerês is the only national park in Portugal and is stunningly picturesque. It also contains some sites and wildlife that are unlikely to be found anywhere else in the country. In Lindoso is a collection of 19th century granite grain storage silos (espigueiros) spread out among the slopes of a medieval castle. Wild, chestnut brown Garrano horses roam the countryside along with the copper-colored, long-horned Cachena and Barrosã cattle. The mountain village of Soajo is worth a lunch stopover to sample the delicacies of the region, including the Cachena beef.