Sunday, June 29, 2014

Querido Portugal | Visiting Minho

Hello World. It's been almost twenty days since we returned from a trip to sunny Portugal! We were so excited when our friends from the Minho region invited us to spend some time with their families. Two years ago, I had visited the North of Portugal with my mother. It was a beautiful trip albeit a very touristy one. This time round, I wanted to experience real Portuguese lifestyle. Of all the regions I have visited in Portugal, the North is by far the most historic and traditional one. If you're looking to soak up the sun and relax by the pool/beach, the Algarve region in the south will seduce you. However if you're looking for history, culture and tradition, the North it is!

Cabeceiras de Basto | Pedraça

Our friends live in Cabeceiras de Basto and Pedraça. Both counties are famous for their vineyards, linen, meats and natural beauty! June is a dazzling month for nature in the north. It's the end of spring and break of summer. It's cool enough for the sunflowers but too hot for the roses. The lush green and florals blend beautifully with the thousands of terraced sloping vineyards. 
I also must say, it's the people that make a place, and the kindness of the people in Minho really knows no bounds. I knew the Portuguese were famous for their hospitality but honestly I was really not prepared to feel like I was visiting my family right at the onset. An average Portuguese salary is between 480 to 600 euros, so nearly three times less than the French or English salary. But they are so generous!! People we barely knew would pay for our meals in restaurants, welcome us into their homes, offer us food (the best food), homemade wine, let us have the best rooms with comfortable beds while they slept on the floor. We were so moved. It's an amazing feeling to finally understand the meaning of a minha casa é a tua casa. I don't think I could ever repay the hospitality and love that I felt in this fortnight. My biggest hope is that the entire Portuguese nation comes out of this damned economic crisis, because the Portuguese, they definitely deserve better!
Dinner for 17 :)
Other than the fantastic scenery, Cabeceiras also boasts of an amazing cathedral aka Mosteiro de S. Miguel de Refojos. Legend has it that Cabeceiras de Basto (Basto meaning *enough*) got it name from Hermigio Romarigues who protected the monastery and the town from the powerful Moors. After the fall of the Visigoth empire at the hands of the Moors, the invaders marched towards the monastery, however Romarigues vowed "Até ali, por S. Miguel, até ali, basto eu!" (Until now, Saint Miguel, until the next time, I am enough!). And sure enough, the Moors attacked the vulnerable monastery three times but fell miserably thanks to the mighty sword of Romarigues.
Courtesy: Flybasto
Today the Monastery boasts of important architectural and cultural value to the region, but it needs the attention of benefactors to help restore its exteriors and interiors. Atleast what we understood from our guide was that the people of Cabeceiras are trying to get the attention of UNESCO to fund the restoration work. We witnessed an amazing feat by approx 3000 child volunteers. You can see in the photo above, they all came together to give the monastery a "hug". It's was such a beautiful initiative to save a monument that's filled with so much history and continues to be an important part of daily lives! UNESCO people, if you're ever reading this, you have some work on your hands!
Mosteiro de S. Miguel de Refojos
Baroque interiors of the monastery.

Povoa de Varzim
Since 138 BC, Povoa de Varzim has remained an important fishing port in Northern Portugal. It's also a well-known beach resort and even though it's by the cool Atlantic ocean, there are many tourists who come by to enjoy the soft sands and sunny skies. I will never forget this place because here's where I realized Sushi is not meant for me. Our friends and I went to a beachfront Sushi restaurant. The prices were amazing. All you can eat for ten euros! And sure enough, since we never find sushi at that price in France, we ate of sushi quota of the entire year in one meal. That night my body exploded. I never realized until that day that I could scare people off by just using their bathrooms but yeah, that happened. Lesson of the story: stick to local cuisine while travelling + don't overeat even if the food is free. 
Cultural scenes depicted with traditional coloured tiles.
Portuguese people are really gifted with ceramic tile work. I spoke more in detail about Azulejos here. The tile work on display in Povoa de Varzim was a real treat. The traditional blue and white colours of the tiles synced well with the colours of the sea and the sky. Honestly, it's such a pleasure to find that associations still invest in their artists, who in turn create such amazing art and it's free to admire of course!
More Azulejos | Portuguese Tiles

There is a sign in this town that says "Aqui nasceu Portugal", which means Portugal was born here. During the 12th century, the Portuguese sovereigns were grouped in this region, including Afonso I, the first Portuguese king. This eventually led to the official creation of Portuguese identity and the Portuguese language. The historical center of Guimarães (comprising of the medieval castle, the Palace of the Dukes of Bragança, etc) is a UNESCO heritage site. Today you can find a very vibrant city, steeped in history and filled with artists, museums, great restaurants, art galleries, and souvenir shops. No guesses why it was named European Culture Capital two years ago. 
Church of Senhor dos Passos, Guimarães.
Archer at the Ducal Palace
To immerse yourself into Portuguese history, you must visit the Paço do Duques de Bragança or Palace of the Dukes of Bragança. It's a few metres away from the medieval castle and chapel. The castle is in ruins, so venture only of you like rubble. The chapel is really sober and you can visit if you like to see tombstones beneath your feet. The fee to enter the Palace is really minimal (about 5 euros) and really worth it! The castle was built between 1420 and 1422 by the first Duke of the Bragança House, Afonso I. The palace was inhabited only in the 15th century and was eventually abandoned and consequently ruined. In the beginning of the 20th century, thanks to political backing, the palace underwent an integral reconstitution, including the interior deco (furniture et al). Today it's one of Portugal's most visited monuments.
The thing that strikes you at first is the the gigantic size and details of the tapestries in nearly every grand salon. And secondly, if you're a Game of Thrones fan like me, you'll immediately be transported to a Westeros-like world. You can find grand salons with low chandeliers, tables and plates for giants, warfare items like swords, lances, spears and pole arms. To be honest, the entire decor looked authentic to me. However, according to the Palace's website, most of the interior decoration is a replica and not necessarily medieval either. Due to time constraints and financial burdens to find exclusive medieval furniture, the commission decided to use replicas of different time periods. According to them, the replicas have the same "artistic merit and documentary value". Well to be honest, if you're not a medieval art specialist, the visit will not disappoint you.
Indo-Portuguese "artifacts" at the Palace.
Rua Santa Maria and Town Square
Charming bougainvillea!
Adding to the historical ambiance of Guimarães are her young and old artists. You'll see them plonked on the cobblestone streets, sketching away. Sometimes they're in large groups or sometimes alone. Seems like this city fits perfectly in history books and sketchbooks. 

Braga is the capital of Minho. This ancient city is important for Christians due to it's strong links with the Church, dating back to the 3rd century. 
Bom Jésus de Monte Courtesy: Wikicommons
Situated high on a mountain in Braga, the Bom Jesus de Monte church is an impressive architectural gem. Other than a Christian shrine, the church is also world famous for it's baroque architecture inside out. The staircase leading up to the church is an important point of interest. We mustered the courage to climb up to the church from the foot of the mountain, via the stairs. Took us a good half an hour. The view from the top is what makes it all worth it. If you're a believer, then the effort also adds to the sanctity of the experience. There are 14 mini chapels depicting the stations of the cross and water fountains to ease your climb. Apparently there are pilgrims who go all the way up on their knees!
The Church, the gardens and the view of Braga = Spectacular!
Sanctuary of Sameiro
O Sameiro is a sanctuary a few minutes drive away from Bom Jésus de Monte. It's famous because the last Pope, i.e John Paul II visited it in 1982 and it's generally the next stop for pilgrims after Fatima. The interior decor of the church wasn't very attractive. Outside, you find that the architect clearly played on the size of the structure to impress people rather than details. Most importantly, the view from here is the best in Braga. We just had to sit down and admire the spectacle at our feet. Also a good time to reflect on your speck of an existence in the larger scheme of things. 

Viana do Castelo
Locals devoted time and effort to create these religious floats with tiny grains and flower petals!
Viana de Castelo is a real treat for varied interests. On one hand, it seems like a très chic côte d'azur and on the other hand it holds onto a prized medieval centre. You know immediately that this is a "richer" region in the North mainly because of its historical port, naval construction, tourism, gold artisans, religiosity, etc. This city has something for everyone. Especially if you're looking for the bolas de berlim, then you've come to the right place! OMG these desserts are just amazing, so fantastic that I will dedicate a separate post just for them. 
The Marina. Great for long walks on a sunny day.
Yacht beauties.
Vianense architecture.
Another historic square is the Praça da Republica. Nearly all the cafés, historical buildings and souvenir shops are grouped here. It's also a great place to purchase Portuguese filigree jewellery. 
Santuario de Santa Luzia
This dominant shrine can be seen from almost every place in the Lima valley. The Basilica of Santa Luzia reminded me of another important church I had seen somewhere. I couldn't place my finger on it until I read the plaque. The church was modelled after the Sacré coeur in Paris. Contrary to its appearance, the church dates back to the early 1900s. With the exception of an ornate altar, chandeliers and stained-glass windows, the interiors are almost bare. But it's worth climbing up the hill or driving by car to appreciate the views of the valley and see the River Lima greet the Atlantic. 
Our hosts were very kind to take us to the Basilica in the morning and again at night. Just in front of the monument is a great viewpoint. The city's personality is completely different at different times of the day and hence a photographer's or chronicler's delight. In the morning you see the calm Atlantic and the dreamy Lima valley below. In the evening, you see a vibrant black and gold phoenix come to life. True to its golden heritage, it seems like someone melted tons of gold and poured it into the Vianense arteries. 

Adeus Minho! 


  1. Beautiful pictures. Hope to make a trip to Europe someday. I love your blog. Bookmarking it and will be back for more. :)

  2. Oh thank you so much Ash! I do hope you come to Europe and have an amazing time! Kind regards :)