Rich, green valleys contrast with the wide sweeping sandy beaches of the North coast to make this fascinating traditional area the perfect place for a holiday.
The coast from Povoa (30 kmīs north of Oporto) to the border with Spain at Caminha is virtually one long sandy beach encompassing the holiday resorts of Ofir, Esposende, Viana and Vila Praia de Ancora. Between these modest towns it is relatively easy to find uncrowded, often empty, stretches of beach especially outside the peak months of July and August, where your only company will be the seagulls. Summers tend to be hot and, although not as long as further south, will certainly stretch well into September and October. However, as far as the Portuguese are concerned, August 31st signals the end of the summer and they desert the beaches even though the children donīt go back to school until around the 20th ! Even in November and February temperatures can be in the high teens and whilst perhaps not beach weather you should certainly be comfortable in light clothes.
As with much of Portugal, the northern area is one of agriculture. Every possible patch of this fertile land is cultivated and, depending on season, you will see potatoes, turnips, cabbage, sweetcorn and more. And, of course, the vines that produce the sharp, slightly sparkling 'Vinho Verde' peculiar to this area. The white is a delightful refreshing drink but the red is certainly an acquired taste!
Viana is one of Portugal's bigger fishing ports and fresh fish is available everywhere in the area ' bass, sole, hake, octopus and, of course, sardines. Virtually every village has its fish shop but probably the best places to buy are in Viana and Caminha markets and on the sea front at Vila Praia de Ancora where the women sell from makeshift stalls on the roadside. Prices are rarely displayed so if your Portuguese is not up to it make sure you have pen and paper to hand. All restaurants serve an abundance of fish though the Portuguese are great carnivores too and the true vegetarian will not find many alternatives. In winter on the fish front, the snake-like lamprey is the seasonal delicacy although biologically it is not a fish! A rich dish, despite its comparatively high price the Portuguese try to eat it at least once during its season and most restaurants serve it. Look out for the notices in the windows to this effect 'Ha Lampreia'.
Savel (shad) is the other migratory fish that makes an appearance during the summer. It is a delicious, meaty fish, but if you buy it go for the larger variety as these tend to be relatively bone free.
OFIROfir, 3 kilometres south of Esposende, is a relatively new but tasteful development amidst the pine and eucalyptus woods so common in this area. The stretch of beach is superb and some pleasant walks can be made through the woods and dunes, particularly along the narrow spit of land running north away from the main centre around the Hotel Ofir, which separates the sea from the estuary of the River Cavado.
Eating in and around Ofir
There are a couple of cafes in Ofir itself and meals are served in the hotel. However it is a bit touristy around here so for the best food head out of the modern area.
APULIAThe road from Ofir to Apulia along the coast is undoubtedly THE place to eat. The seafront is lined with about a dozen small restaurants most of a fairly basic nature, with open barbecues outside often just an old oil drum split in half. Fresh fish is the order of the day, not surprisingly all displayed tantalisingly in front of your eyes. There is little to choose beteen the restaurants and, given that even in the depths of winter, queues often form you are best taking pot luck. The most popular tend to be 'A Cabana' and 'Apuliense' but do not let this detract from the others.
FAOBack on the main Porto-Viana road a kilometre or so from Ofir this is more of a traditional village on the bank of the river and offers a couple of good places to eat
Eating in Fao
A Adega is situated on the main road near the hospital serves both main meals and a variety of snacky dishes rather in the style of Spanish tapas ' small plates of octopus, smoked ham and cheese and wine straight from the barrel. There is also a small dining room at the back with an open fire, great in winter.
A Lareira is a short distance after turning left from the old river bridge (designed, incidentally, by Gustav Eiffel) coming from Esposende. This is an old stone building which has been beautifully restored to create a pleasant rustic atmosphere inside. As well as always having a good selection of fresh fish, the house speciality is a rack of spicy, garlicky pork ribs cooked on the barbecue in the restaurant.
ESPOSENDEA couple of kilometres from Ofir right on the estuary of the River Cavado this is very much more of a town than Ofir. A pleasant place with good shops, there are also a number of other facilities available. The modern cinema in the main square, open at weekends, shows English language films, fortunately subtitled, at a very reasonable price. The excellent leisure complex on the riverside near the square has a superb indoor pool with wave machine and jacuzzis as well as an outdoor pool on a terrace on the bank of the river. The cafe and restaurant here serve mainly fast food but facing west, it is a superb place to be as the sun sets.
Although well equipped with cafes and restaurants, none really stand out and you are better off eating at Apulia or Fao.
The beach at Esposende is a pleasant walk along the river to the estuary (about 1 kilometre) and the lighthouse. From here the beach stretches north in a beautiful arching curve. It can, for the more energetic, be walked continuously for about 8 or 9 kilometres until broken by the next river, the Neiva which would be a little difficult to negotiate on foot. At any point along the beach, though, you could head inland to the main road and catch one of the frequent busses back to Esposende.
Apart from all the small shops, Esposende has an excellent private supermarket, 'Jaju' and there is also a fairly large 'Lidl' supermarket in Fao on the main Porto road.
VIANA DO CASTELOThe lovely city of Viana situated on the Northern bank of the River Lima at its estuary is well covered in all the major guide books and the local tourist office publish a very good guide in English. Apart from the superb beach (on the opposite side of the river) the town offers a host of other attractions from the Basilica high above the town to its Cathedral, the Main Square and riverside gardens. The maze of streets in the centre is bisected by the wide Avenida dos Combatentes, constructed at the same time as the railway to facilitate movement of goods between the station and the riverside quays.
It is a lovely town for shopping with an excellent selection of small shops as well as a large Continente supermarket on the edge of town which will provide for all your day to day needs. Within the town centre itself there is also a smaller Pingo Doce supermarket, both of these are part of chains found throughout the country and are always a safe bet for shopping. The town is especially busy on Fridays when its large weekly market is held. The area outside the municipal market is transformed into a field of vegetables, fruit, flowers and small animals all laid out on the ground. Whilst at the other end of town the open market sells everything from 3 piece suites to 3 piece suits!
Viana now has a shoppong centre located behind the railway station at the top of the main street (Avenida dos Combatentes) here you will find the smart 'chain' shops, cafes and a cinema.
Eating in Viana
The delights of Viana can be appreciated by walking around its back streets and by doing this you will soon realise how many restaurants there are. It is difficult to confine the list of recommendations. Virtually everywhere serves a good value dish of the day at lunchtime which can cost as little as 5 euros including a drink. As a suggestion try the following:
O Prior is in Rua Prior da Crato in the historic part of the city, just off the road which runs from the town centre down to the river. This excellent restaurant serves traditional and international cuisine in an intimate setting.
Valentims in a side street near the open market and not immediately visible, this restaurant is unusual in that it is a fish restaurant and nothing else, serving Grilled fish, Fish rice and Caldeirada, a mixed fish and vegetable casserole.
Tres Arcos, along the riverside gardens has a smart restaurant with plenty of starched linen and a 'sit at the bar' area serving the same food but cheaper. Daily change of menu with good variety.
Bandeira in Rua Bandeira, the main shopping street an excellent lunch time stop with four or five dishes of the day in enormous portions for only 5 euros.
Foz Cafe. This modern cafe/restaurant is actually on the other side of the river near the beach. Enormous portions at very reasonable prices. They also serve a wide variety of pancakes as a dessert or snack.
For deeper pockets the following two are worth a visit:
Casa das Armas at the bottom of the avenue, turn right, this up market restaurant has many regional specialities and very attentive service.
Tres Potes A lovely old stone building which sometimes features a folklore night on Friday and Saturday during the summer. Good food with some regional specialities and a warm, friendly atmosphere.
There are further excellent beaches north of Viana at Carreco, Afife and Vila Praia de Ancora. Carreco, has two beaches separated by the hill and lighthouse of Montedor. The more northerly beach, Paco, is particularly attractive with its small fort. Afife, a further 4 kilometres, is a beautiful village with a superb 3 km stretch of beach excellent for surfing. Finally Vila Praia de Ancora is very much a small resort town with an excellent beach divided by the River Ancora which is clean and safe for younger children. Many of the beaches in the area are designated Blue Flag beaches and proudly fly the flag every day.
Both Afife and Ancora have a good selection of restaurants :
Restaurant Praia, Afife Beach. This rather large somewhat impersonal restaurant has the advantage of being situated virtually right on the beach with an abundance of window tables. Good helpings of food with the roast kid (cabrito) being recommended as is the Cozido Portugues a mixed meat and vegetable dish popular on Sundays.
Quinta S. Roque, Afife. At the south end of the village alongside the railway. A superbly converted old farmhouse with plenty of character and an outside eating area under the trees. A selection of regional dishes with a difference as well as simple grilled chicken for the less adventurous.
The seafront at Ancora is lined with a number of restaurants. The speciality here is a mixed, grilled fish platter (parrilhada).
Rias Baixas and Verdes Lirios along here are both to be recommended. They both have good seaviews if you are early or lucky enough to get a window seat. In a street behind here you like might to try A Tasquinha. Despite its location in a modern building block the proprietors have successfully created a more rustic atmosphere inside with plenty of regional crockery and decorations adorning the walls. Plenty of variety on the menu with grills and other dishes. Good lunchtime dish of the day and a surprisingly good and reasonably priced wine list.
The interior of this part of Portugal is dominated by the rugged Serra D`Arga and the River Lima. A number of small market towns definitely warrant a visit as do many of the remote mountain villages.
Ponte de LimaThis is undoubtedly the most important town in the area, beautifully situated on the south bank of the river where its ancient bridge marked the first crossing point of the river inland from Viana thus contributing to its development as a trading centre. Today the bridge is fortunately pedestrianised with a new modern bridge a kilometre or so downstream. As with most Portuguese towns much modern development has taken place in the form of the ubiquitous apartment blocks, although the centre of Ponte de Lima and the area around the river bank is still a delight where its shops display their smoked hams and sausages hanging outside and the large fortnightly market (Mondays) takes over the 'beach' area.
There are plenty of good, inexpensive cafes and restaurants around the main square, the river and the market. Ponte de Limaīs speciality is a dish called 'Arroz de Cabidela', a chicken dish with rice cooked in the blood of the chicken! Sounds bloodthirsty but its not as bad as it sounds and the locals are justifiably proud of it. Give it a try.
Restaurante Parisienne on the riverfront offers a simple but very reasonable menu with great views of the river from upstairs if you can grab a window seat. To be fair most of the restaurants nearby are worth a visit.
Cavalheiro outside the town centre on the Valenca road is one of the best restaurants in the area with a varied menu. The starters are especially good and plentiful so be careful not to over-order!
Ponte de Lima Golf Club. Set on a hillside a short distance outside the town (on the Braga road) this new course has an excellent restaurant in the clubhouse, a converted farmhouse, open to non-members. There are superb views across the valley, good food and surprisingly reasonable prices considering the surroundings.
The other two towns of any size in the area are Ponte de Barca and Arcos de Valdevez, both riverside towns with good river swimming and a selection of good restaurants. Try:
Restaurante/Bar Rio Minho in the small riverside park and beach at Ponte de Barca. A little pricier than the norm but the setting is superb.
Maria Gomes. In the main street thorugh the town this is the upstairs restaurant of a small hotel. Very reasonable prices with friendly service and a pretty standard menu of grilled meats and fish.
From Ponte de Barca the Lima Valley continues inland for a further 20 kms climbing steadily until the border with Spain is reached just beyond the small village and castle of Lindoso. At this point the countryside becomes wilder and inhabitation less. Roadside cafes exist but perhaps your best bet is picnicking, especially beyond Lindoso where, because of the dam further downstream, the river becomes more tranquil and lake-like. Look out for picnic sites with barbecue facilities.
The area between the Rivers Lima and Minho is a fascinating remote mountainous area, the upper reaches of which form part of the Peneda-Geres National Park, and is just begging to be explored by car. In the absence of readily available detailed maps it is worth risking a little adventurous spirit and seeking out the villages of Montaria, Soajo and Castro Laboreiro and Ermida among others.
Viana do Castelo - In Praca das Ervas just off the main square.
Esposende - Opposite the leisure complex.
Vila Praia de Ancora - On the seafront.
Ponte de Lima - In Praca da Republica.
Ponte de Barca - In the main street.
Arcos de Valdevez - Near the river on the western bank.
Certainly the best is at Esposende but there are also municipal pools at Viana and Ponte de Lima.
There are two new courses at Esposende and Ponte de Lima and an older course between Esposende and Povoa at Estela, well signposted off the main road.
The nearest first division football is in Porto (3 clubs), Braga, Guimaraes and Vila do Conde with second division clubs at Esposende and Povoa. The season runs from mid August to June.
All towns and villages have their annual festival, the majority between May and September which offer the opportunity to see traditional dancing, music and floral processions. The largest festival of its kind takes place in Viana on and around 20th August which attracts thousands of visitors from all over Portugal. The midnight firework displays are superb. Another large festival takes place in Ponte de Lima during the first week of September and at Esposende in mid August.
Other than the traditional festivals there is also a very good week long open-air jazz festival in Viana during the first week in August with a good mix of Portuguese and foreign artists.
There are cinemas at Esposende, Viana, Ponte de Lima and Vila Praia de Ancora. Slightly further afield there is a large, out of town, shopping centre with six-screen cinema just outside Povoa.