I had always wanted to visit Portugal and decided the north was one of the more beautiful areas to visit. I did not want to stay in Porto, though, since cities are not really my thing and I also wanted to visit the surrounding area and widen my horizons. I also wanted to visit the Spanish city of Vigo but more about that further down!
I flew to Porto from Malta but for the reasons outlined above, I decided to stay in the likeable resort town of Vila do Conde, 25 km to the north of Porto. The town offers glorious beaches, interesting sights and bags of Portuguese charm, but is surprisingly overlooked by tourists. Coincidentally, I happened to be staying just a few minutes walk away from the last metro stop to Porto. That was perfect, as even though I had hired a car, it made more sense to go to Porto by metro and drive only when I wanted to go further afield.
I had booked a personal two-hour guided tour of the city on my first full day there as I wanted to familiarise myself well with the main attractions. I caught an early morning metro train and found myself in the city centre of Porto in next to no time. I was not disappointed as my guide took me all over the city and gave me plenty of hints and tips. For example, he told me that the Lello Bookshop (this is the shop that inspired the Harry Potter library in JK Rowling’s books) was overrated and not really worth visiting due to the long queues and large number of people inside at any one time!
Just for the record, JK Rowling lived in Porto while she was writing the first Harry Potter book. She had moved to Porto in 1991, following which she spent her evenings teaching English to young teenagers, business people and housewives and spent her days working on the manuscript of “Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone”.
I so enjoyed the guided tour and my walk around the city that I promised myself I had to return to Porto during my one-week stay in northern Portugal as my little tour and brief walk-around afterwards were not quite enough to take it all in.
The next day I drove off in my rented car towards a number of planned places of interests. My first destination was the beautiful Parque Natural Do Litoral Norte or Northern Littoral Natural Park. It encompasses the shores of the Atlantic Ocean and was created to preserve the dunes and the wildlife in the area, mainly birds and fish. It’s a true haven of peace and tranquility. I could have spent hours here if only I had the time!
My next stop was the famous Santuario de Santa Luzia, the majestic icon of Viana do Castelo. Architecturally, it’s of Romanesque-Byzantine inspiration, fitting into the revivalist architecture that marked the turn of the century. Its imposing rose windows are the largest in the Iberian Peninsula and the second largest in Europe.
However, I made a silly mistake here as I did not realise that I could drive up to the sanctuary and instead parked right at the bottom. Since the funicular was out of action due to maintenance work, I had to climb hundreds of steps, ending up soaked in sweat by the time I reached the top! However, it was well worth it just the same as it was good exercise and the views from up there are simply amazing!
I then crossed the border into Spain and drove to Vigo! Why Vigo, I hear you ask? Well, this is my silly answer! My aim is to visit every single country in Europe and the only city I had ever visited in Spain was Barcelona in Catalonia, What if Catalonia secedes from Spain when I am 80 years old and unable to travel?! It would mean that I would not have visited Spain so to safeguard against this quite possible future scenario, I ‘popped down’ for a brief visit, where I had a delicious paella for lunch! When in Spain …..
My final stop that day was at another famous sanctuary, the Bom Jesus do Monte in Tenões, outside the city of Braga. Its name means Good Jesus of the Mount. This time I made no mistake and drove my car right up to the sanctuary, where I found ample parking space. But then I was visiting in March. If you’re going in the high season in summer, you can expect to find crowds of people as this place is hugely popular!
The Bom Jesus ensemble is centred on a Via Crucis that leads up the western slope of the mount. It includes a series of chapels that house sculptures evoking the Passion of Christ, as well as fountains, allegorical sculptures and formal gardens. The Via Crucis culminates at the church, which was built between 1784 and 1811. The sanctuary is also surrounded by lush gardens and you get to see a great view of Braga and the surrounding valleys. A truly fascinating experience!
The following day I had planned to drive to Bragança, a city and municipality in northeastern part of Portugal, where I had also planned to sleep for the night. On the way, I first stopped at Braga, one of the jewels of Portugal. Within the maze of narrow streets, Gothic churches back onto modern shopping streets and grand baroque buildings surround peaceful plazas.
This medieval city has an immaculately preserved Old Town and has a reputation for being the capital of the Portuguese baroque movement. Wandering around it was like being transported back in time to a scene out of the ‘Three Musketeers’!
My second stop on the way to Bragança was at the imposing Castle of Guimarães, the principal medieval castle in the municipality of Guimarães. Built under the orders of Mumadona Dias in the 10th century to defend the monastery from attacks by Moors and Norsemen, it’s truly a majestic sight, although the presence of a group of Japanese tourists snapping happily away did frustrate me a little bit!
Once I arrived in Bragança, I quickly realised I was right to have chosen this place to spend a couple of days at as it’s a gorgeous old town in two parts. The high ground is ruled by the citadel and castle, while on the banks of the Fervença River below, is the new town. Not that the new town is very new either, as the former cathedral here is from the 1500s.
The medieval citadel and castle above are in great shape, with original details and a sleepy neighbourhood of cobblestone streets defended by the walls. It’s a peaceful place with artisan workshops and a few bars and restaurants. To enter you have to pass through stone gateways, and once inside the walls, you can find stairways to get up to the ramparts, where you will be rewarded with some excellent photo opportunities!
Another place on my wish list was Aveiro, a popular tourist destination, famed for its canals, Nouveau architecture and colourfully painted Moliceiros boats. For this reason, I nicknamed the city the ‘Venice’ of the west’! The city lies on the edge of the Ria de Aveiro, an expansive saltwater lagoon that was historically farmed for its seaweed, salt and bountiful fish.
Today, Aveiro is a bustling university city with an authentic fishermen’s district, ornate Art Nouveau houses, and numerous grand religious buildings. The city is often visited as a day trip from Porto, being connected by a direct train and offering a range of unique sights and activities.
My last full day in northern Portugal was spent in Porto. It’s a really fascinating and vibrant city that is rapidly becoming one of western Europe’s most respected tourist destinations. The city boasts an extensive history and interesting tourist attractions. There is a lot to see and do in Porto, and this diverse city will appeal to a wide range of visitors.
It’s a pleasure to walk along the narrow cobbled streets that make up the ancient Ribeira district, the oldest and most popular district of the city. It’s situated on the riverbank (Ribeira in Portuguese comes from the word river), and is one of the most authentic and picturesque parts of the city. Of course, the region around Porto is famous for the production of Port, which is still stored and matured in the vast cellars that stretch along the banks of the Douro River. One can even take river boat tours coupled with port tasting.
An interesting art installation can be found on Vila Nova de Gaia on the opposite banks of the Ribeira district. This ‘Half Rabbit’ installation by Portuguese artist Bordalo II was made entirely with materials gathered around the city. Half of the rabbit has been left unpainted, showing the materials’ original colours. Whether you spend five minutes or 20 minutes, observing the intricacy of the rabbit, it’s a cool stop and makes for great photos.
One particular building worth visiting is the train station. It has beautiful tiles on the inside that depict rural life around Porto, scenes from Portugal’s history, the history of transportation and various arts. Very impressive and unexpected!
And speaking of tiles, this is one particular feature you see everywhere in Portugal. The tiles, called azulejos in Portuguese, decorate everything from walls of churches and monasteries, to palaces, ordinary houses, park seats, fountains, shops, and train stations.
All in all, I truly had a fascinating time in northern Portugal as the countryside is very beautiful and virtually the whole coastline from Porto to the Spanish border consists of golden, sandy beaches, many virtually deserted. This is the land of ancient cities, medieval castles and sanctuaries, beautiful parks, rivers, vineyards, monuments and religious traditions!