PORTUGAL - THE MINHO VALLEY
The River Minho forms Portugal┤s most northerly border with Spain, at this point with the Spanish province of Galicia. In Portugal itself the river stretches inland in a north-easterly direction from the town of Caminha at the mouth of the river, inland to just beyond Melgaco, some 75 kilometres distant, though the river rises a further 200 kilometres away well into Spain.
The valley is a lush, green agricultural area where every square metre of land is used to produce maize, potatoes, cabbage, or just grass, depending on the time of year, and everywhere edging the fields, rivers and gardens, wherever there is space, the vines which produce the light, slightly sparkling 'Vinho Verde' peculiar to this area. The very best of these, Alvarinho, is produced in the area around Moncao and Melgaco.
This is an area where tourism is still in its infancy. Agriculture still reigns and any of the innumerable small villages in the area to the south can seem a million miles from the EU and Brussels and its inevitable progress. The ox and cart are still in evidence and the weekly markets at places such as Moncao see local produce, chickens, turkeys, rabbits, fruit and vegetables all laid out on the floor for inspection and purchase. Prices are rarely, if ever, displayed, and although it is unlikely that you will get ripped off just take care before you commit yourself.
At the same time the lively and historic towns of Valenca, Vila Nova Cerveira and Caminha offer good choice of restaurants and a night life which continues till six in the morning. For the sun worshipper, the beaches to the south of Caminha at Moledo for example, offer long stretches of sand and, being the Atlantic, you have the opportunity to try your hand at surfing or bodyboarding.
Don┤t miss, too, the chance of a 'two-country holiday'. Spain is easily accessible, no passport is needed so if you decide to hop over on the spur of the moment don┤t worry if you haven┤t got it with you. Bridges cross the River Minho at Moncao, and Valenca although it is probably a little more interesting to take the ferry from either Caminha or Vila Nova Cerveira. The regional capital of Galicia, Vigo, by far the largest city in the area, is only 30 kilometres from Valenca and has excellent shops and restaurants with great beaches nearby.
The food of the area is a mixture of meat and fish with perhaps fresh fish having the upper hand. The Portuguese dried, salted cod (Bacalhau) is served here in various guises as indeed it is all over the country. Additionally most varieties you get in Britain are available here - Bass, Hake, Dover Sole, Whiting, Monkfish and many others. In restaurants by far the most popular method of cooking for both meat and fish is simply on the charcoal grill. One of the most popular regional dishes is 'Rojoes', cubed pork marinated in lemon and wine and then cooked in the oven often with a variety of black sausage rather like black pudding. If you are here in the winter you should certainly try 'Lampreia', an expensive eel - like fish which migrates to the area for breeding and served in virtually every restaurant during the season. Look for the signs in restaurant windows. Almost everywhere in Portugal portions are enormous so be careful not to over - order. Staff are usually helpful in this respect and will let you know if you order is going to require a doggy bag !
The large weekly market is a short walk from here (opposite the square and on the left) stretching along the river bank. The indoor market in the same place is probably the best place in the area to buy fresh fish with supplies replenished throughout the day. Although there are plenty of small shops of all varieties in the town you will probably find it most convenient to use the Pingo Doce supermarket down on the main road near the ferry to Spain. This is a chain of moderately sized supermarkets found all over Portugal and offers a good selection of both fresh and processed foods alike. Always a safe bet wherever you are.
The ferry to Spain (from the square, turn right) leaves on the hour from Caminha until around 7pm depending on season. On the other side La Guardia is the nearest town, about three kilometres up the hill and has excellent fish restaurants clustered around its small fishing harbour. Alternatively, take a walk down river on the other side and take advantage of the sandy beaches along the river. Water temperatures here are a few degrees warmer than the sea. There is no beach as such in Caminha, the nearest one being at Moledo just to the south of the river mouth about 4 kilometres by road.
Eating in Caminha
Plenty of options available especially around the square.
Chafariz is a lovely old stone building in the square and always has an excellent choice of grilled or baked fish but its speciality is undoubtedly 'Costelinhas', a barbecued rack of pork ribs served with a plentiful helping of bean rice.
Escada in the road leading back off the square is a cosy lunchtime stop with a good value dish of the day.
Por do Sol in the market square is a first floor restaurant with superb views across the river to Spain, particularly pleasant at sunset, which is what 'Por do Sol' means.
A short distance upriver from Caminha the next village of Seixas offers eating with a difference. Turn left in the square, cross the railway and head for the river. On the right is 'Restaurante Michelle'. Of basic appearance there is small restaurant at the back of the cafe but the place to be on a fine day is on the first floor terrace almost on the river bank. Michelle himself is a lively Italian from Naples who serves up excellent Italian and Portuguese food or whatever else happens to be around on the day. Great for pizzas too, but do not expect many frills !
Surprisingly for its size, Caminha has a superb nightlife with a number of bars and discotheques, particularly in Rua Direita where the Tourist Office is located. During the day it all looks pretty inconspicuous but come midnight the whole street comes alive. Locally '┬lfandega' is considered the best of the bunch.
Eating in Vila Nova Cerveira
Adega Real in the main square on the corner directly opposite the church offers good regional cooking in a rustic atmosphere. Lots of barrels, rough tables and hanging hams in evidence. Unusual layout too, with no ground floor, just an upstairs balcony and cellar downstairs.
As an alternative take the ferry over to Spain, head up the hill to the village of Goian. As you enter the village look for the fork to the left to the 'Casa Correo'. This wonderful old granite building which was once the village post office, has a fabulous enclosed garden at the back. Lots of Spanish snacky food and excellent local wine - Rosal. Remember this is Spain. Lunch, particularly, is a long drawn out affair and that Spanish time is one hour ahead, so watch the time for the ferry !
Once inside the old fortified town walls you are in a different world. Take the time to explore the maze of narrow streets and its variety of small shops; look into one of the chapels or simply sit at one of the pavement cafes and relax. Despite being inevitably popular with visitors - hundreds of Spaniards descend here, especially at weekends, the old town manages to retain a quaint atmosphere.
Surprisingly, since the weekly market was moved to the other end of town, market days (Wednesday) can be the most pleasant day to visit the old town. Apart from the weekly market where just about anything can be bought, and the small shops in the old town, your best bet for shopping is the fairly large, well stocked Lidl supermarket a short way along the Moncao road.
Eating in Valenca - Some good options inside the town walls
Fortaleza right in the centre of the town on the main road through (Rua Apoinario), has an excellent outside terrace area which is covered in bad weather enabling an outdoor atmosphere to be maintained.
Restaurante Monumental at the other end of the town built into one of the old gates. Both these restaurants serve excellent grilled fish and meats in sizeable portions.
Outside the town walls try the following for something a little less touristy. Pensao Rio Minho is right opposite the station has a large outdoor eating area overlooking the small shaded square. Standard Portuguese dishes but good atmosphere and prices.
For a true taste of Portuguese lunchtime dining try Cafe Estacao, the station buffet where the excellent dish of the day costs as little as 7 euros with a drink !
Valenca provides another opportunity to visit Spain though this time it is probably most interesting on foot. From the main crossroads follow the road down past the tourist office, football ground and the old customs and passport control office and on to the old bridge over the river Minho which has the railway above it, and on into Tui, probably about a 30 minute walk between the two centres. The centrepiece of the town is undoubtedly its Cathedral sitting high on the hill above the river. There are plenty of eating places here and no shortage of banks and ATM┤s in the town.
MONCAOMoncao, like other towns in the area , was also a fortified town although today little remains of it fortifications. Nevertheless, the old town makes for a pleasant stroll, the main Misericordia church in the Praca Deu la Deu being particularly worth a visit. As with so many Portuguese towns Moncao comes to life on market day, Thursday, when you can buy everything from a live chicken to a complete commercial wine making kit !
The usual selection of cafes and snack bars are here with the best probably being Restaurante Terra Nova in Praca da Republica which offers a fairly staple menu of grilled meats and fish.
Moncao is now also linked to Spain by a bridge. At the other side is the small town of Salvaterra from where a superb rail journey can be made to the beautiful town of Ourense which hugs the opposite bank of the River Minho for most of its 75 kilometre journey.
MELGACOThis is the final settlement of any size on the Portuguese side of the River Minho. Another fortified, the remaining small tower sits above the town looking across to Spain and inland to the now increasingly mountainous interior of the Serra Peneda. Friday brings the town to life but on other days it is an equally pleasant town to explore. Four kilometres before the town (from Moncao) is the spa centre with ornate baths, gardens and swimming pool.
Apart from the usual selection of cafes, Melgaco does have one highly regarded restaurant, Panorama in the market place. A small traditional stone building seating only about 35, it serves excellent meat dishes, particularly beef and kid, and a good array of starters but it is more pricey than the norm for Portugal.
The area between the Minho and Lima rivers is a fascinating upland area great for discovering by car. In the absence of detailed maps take pot luck and try to discover the villages of Castro Laboreiro, Soajo, Montaria among others.
Caminha - Rua Direita just off the main square.
Vila Nova Cerveira - Near the main square and church
Valenca - On the old main road to Spain.
Moncao - In the main square.
Melgaco - On the edge of town on the road to Moncao
The nearest golf course is at Ponte de Lima.
There is First Division football at Vigo in Spain. Other than that the nearest Portuguese first division football is at Braga, Guimaraes or Vila do Conde although most towns have a football team in one of the lower divisions.
Every village and town has its annual festival which is always well advertised in shops and cafes. Look out for the arches of coloured lights in the streets. Perhaps one of the most beautiful festivals is the Corpus Christi procession in Caminha (June) when all the town┤s streets are covered in designs made of petals and flowers.
Other than the opportunity of swimming in the river, the nearest beaches are just south of Caminha at Moledo and Vila Praia de Ancora. Both fantastic curving bays with excellent opportunities for surfing
Accommodation in the area