The unsung and affordable corner of Portugal that will convince you to emigrate
When I grow up, I shall live in a medieval manor house. Its thick granite walls will be whitewashed, neatly roofed with terracotta tiles, dark-wood windows flung open to catch the cool breezes. And as afternoon becomes evening I shall loll on its colonnaded terrace where, shaded by swaying vines, a glass of my own chilled white wine in hand, Iâll inhale scents of orange blossom and eucalyptus, listen to swifts swooping overhead, and watch a peachy sun dissolve into the Atlantic.
Itâs a daydream, of course. But as I ambled along an aromatic, forest-edge track beside such a mansion in northern Portugal, it occurred to me that (whisper it) this one might just be achievable. Not in Britain, naturally; Iâm a writer, not an investment banker. But in the Minho â" that countryâs oldest, greenest, tastiest, northernmost region, sandwiched between the Spanish border and the Douro river â" itâs not entirely beyond the realms of possibility.
This verdant land is bejewelled with mansions dating back over five centuries to the Portuguese age of discovery, when the country was flooded with wealth from new colonies, notably Brazil. The Minho, already agriculturally rich, benefited disproportionately from trade through its bustling maritime hub at Viana do Castelo. Today, many of these grand quintas and casas â" those not in a state of decorous decomposition, awaiting investment from overambitious travel journalists â" have been stylishly renovated to welcome guests, often at astonishingly reasonable rates. This is one facet of Portugalâs appeal to impecunious British walke rs, along with fine trails and top-notch nosh at bargain rates: itâs a country where you can enjoy champagne hiking at prosecco prices.
A new self-guided walking holiday between four of the Minhoâs most appealing historic homes offers would-be lords of the manor a tempting try-before-you-buy break. Add the appeal of the regionâs fruity vinho verde (âgreen wineâ), and itâs an easy sell. Which is just what I intended to try on my girlfriend, who joined me on the week-long trip.
As we learned on my first morning at the Quinta da Malta in the hamlet of Durraes, itâs not just the wine thatâs green. Throwing open the curtains I was met with a broad emerald vista â" being liberally doused with a spring shower. Fair enough: you want lush landscapes, accept rain. Catarina, our genial host, sighed: âWe have a saying: âAbril, aguas milâ ... April, a thousand waters.â Note: for reliable sunshine, early summer is a safer bet.
No matter. By the t ime weâd breakfasted on the quintaâs organic fruits, the clouds had lifted and, resisting the temptation to relax by the pool or squeeze in a spot of tennis, we sauntered north past the orange groves, espigueiros (stilted granaries) and vineyards.
Daily distances on this itinerary are modest, not because the terrain is testing â" this is gently rolling countryside, with few climbs to speak of â" but reflecting the languid pace of life. Just as well: weâd covered mere yards before being waylaid by Chocolate Avianense, the countryâs oldest producer, creating cocoa treats for more than a century. The modern factory houses a small museum tracing Portugalâs long history of drinking chocolate from Brazilian cacao; more enticing is the shop selling daypack-friendly samples of âImperadorâ (Emperor), a classic confection with toasted almonds.
This landscape is less wall-to-wall spectacular, more authentically rural, all vines and orange groves, timber plantations and working villages. And, despite tractors and satellite dishes, bygone traditions linger. We passed more than one spring-fed roadside lavanderia where women pounded and rinsed laundry. Itâs a reminder that this is really, really old Portugal â" the region where the country was born, in fact: the âPortugaleâ wrested from the Moors by an Asturian count in ADâ868. Pretty much since that time, people have been walking these trails towards Santiago de Compostela on the Caminho Portugues.
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We first encountered the familiar scallop-shell waymarks for that pilgrimage route outside Durraes at medieval Ponte de Tabua. For the next three days, we largely follo wed the caminho through villages graced with improbably impressive shrines such as the Santuario Nossa Senhora de Aparecida at Balugaes, a striking baroque church and chapel adorned with typically Portuguese blue azulejos (tiles) built where the Virgin Mary reputedly appeared to a young deaf shepherd boy in 1702. On its annual pilgrimage day in mid-August, Balugaes is thronged, apparently. Our only companion was a sprightly hoopoe flitting above as we admired the view back across the valley to Durraes and the quinta.
On we continued, through a wood carpeted with arum lilies and descending into the Lima Valley, tramping back-country lanes lined with camellia and cherry blossoms. Between the ubiquitous vines, glimpse s of the craggier horizon far to the east hinted at the granite massifs of Peneda-Geres National Park. By mid-afternoon, we were traversing a silvery chestnut plantation to reach the Quinta do Casal do Condado. Another 16th-century manor farmhouse left to rack and ruin by previous owners, from 2000 it was rebuilt stone by stone, the heavy granite exterior giving little hint of the bright, fresh guest rooms within.
Once again, although not six-star luxe, the facilities â" two pools, tennis courts, games room, gym, expansive grounds â" belie the bill: from Â£60 B&B. Thereâs character galore, with window seats spanning 2ft-thick external walls â" favourite perches of fair maids who, in days long past, would bestow favours on courting youths. The foodâs pretty timeless, too, in the sense that itâs all local, organic, flavoursome. Remember when tomatoes tasted of, well, tomato? Here, thatâs not the preserve of overpriced farmersâ markets. Vitor, our host, ob served that the locals take food seriously, travelling a long way to find the best. âPeople flock from across the region to Ponte de Lima just to eat its speciality â" arroz de sarrabulho.â
There are, Iâd say, better reasons to flock to Ponte de Lima than rice cooked with pigâs blood. The next day we strolled along the car-free riverside ecovia past egrets lifting off with languid flaps, turquoise tracer bullets of kingfishers zipping above the limpid water. Our final approach was suitably stately, along the Avenida dos Platanos, a double phalanx of mottled-grey, century-old plane trees, weighty and awe-inspiring as the columns of a Gothic cathedral.
Renowned local writer Conde dâAurora claimed : âThe surroundings of Ponte de Lima are impossible to describe ... how to choose the most beautiful? They all are, each one more than the other.â Hyperbole, perhaps, but Portugalâs oldest town, founded in 1125, is certainly winsome, with its Roman-cum-medieval bridge, crenellated stone walls and towers and an array of eateries serving tempting dishes not involving pigâs claret. Thereâs arroz de tamboril, a delectable monkfish and prawn paella, for example. And bacalhau (cod), of course â" with chickpeas, or onions, or cornbread, in rissoles and with rice. But also suckling pig and roast goat, trout and lamprey, steak and octopus. Itâs a bargain, to boot: a three-course dinner for two with wine in a good-quality restaurant could easily sneak under â¬50 (Â£44). Beware serving confusion, though: a âsingleâ portion is generally a vast platter enough for two.
That wineâs not too shabby, either. A tasting at the Vinho Verde Interpretation Centre showcased the bounty of Portugalâs largest DOC. Indigenous loureiro and alvarinho grapes produce light, fresh âgreenâ wine, aromatic, low in alcohol and extremely quaffable. Reds such as vinhao tend to be heavier and earthier, a taste that takes acquiring, as one expert wryly admitted: âReds ... itâs a difficult romance.â
Crossing the stone bridge over the Lima, next day we struck north along the caminho, past quintas and casas in various degrees of disrepair or renovation, before peeling off onto a forest track and up to the Paco de Calheiros. This sprawling, mostly 17th-century hillside mansion, crammed with artfully chosen antiques, sets the gold standard. The Count of Calheiros, Francisco â" modest of character but twinkling of eye, ebullien t and erudite â" whisked us around the rooms (âHow many rooms? I couldnât tell youâ), treading the fine line between ancestral pride and economic pragmatism.
His family laid down roots here some 900 years ago, so itâs with justifiable satisfaction that he showed off the family coat of arms (adorned with scallop shells, a nod to long links with the caminho), vast stone fireplaces and medieval kitchen, the gorgeous stepped gardens (with pools and gym, naturally), the roe deer browsing his chestnut groves, his vines and winery, even the family chapel in which a Napoleonic soldier rests beneath the elaborately carved altar. Nine centuries of heritage pay no bills, though, and Franci sco has grasped the nettle of modernisation, diversifying into tourism with panache.
That evening we sipped the countâs own fizz in the orange and lemon littered gardens, drinking in panoramic valley vistas. âOur Lima is a little Loire,â he smiled proudly, âstudded with chateaux and striped with vineyards.â As we gazed at the placid river snaking towards the Atlantic some 20 miles (32km) to the west, I recalled the legend that Roman legionaries, encountering the Lima in the second century BC, feared theyâd reached the Lethe of Greek mythology â" the river of forgetfulness. No such worries today. The Minho â" its landscapes, historic towns, romantic manors and especially its cuisine and vintages â" linger long in the memory.
How to see it
Paul Bloomfield was a guest of Inntravel (01653 617000; inntravel.co.uk) on its new Manor Houses of the Minho itinerary. The self-guided walking tour costs from Â£790, including seven nightsâ B&B ac commodation in historic properties, five dinners, three picnics, luggage transfers, route notes and maps, but excluding flights and transfers to/from Porto Airport.Source: Google News Portugal | Netizen 24 Portugal