AMARANTE and THE SOUSA VALLEY
This rich agricultural area in the south of the Minho province is bisected by the rivers Sousa, Tamega and Vizela, producing an undulating area of green patchwork with vast quantities of vines to produce the lightly sparkling Vinho Verdes of the region. Rich, too, in history nearby Guimaraes is considered to be the birthplace of the Portuguese nation with countless fascinating towns and villages. The area also discreetly contributes significantly to the Portuguese economy producing considerable amounts of textiles, shoes and furniture. The richness of the economy over the years has given rise to countless grand properties dotted about the countryside which are now, of course, often offered as holiday accommodation.
In recent years access has been considerably eased by the construction of motorways to Guimaraes and Amarante, bringing the latter only 40 minutes or so from Oporto. Beyond Amarante and Felgueiras, though, the area soon becomes more remote and thus more interesting to explore. The narrow valley of the River Tamega and the small villages and towns along it and even the broad spectacular Douro Valley are both still relatively undeveloped and all the more interesting for it.
AMARANTEAmarante nestles beautifully on the River Tamega with a fabulous arched bridge crossing it. It is an important regional centre with plenty of shops and all other necessary facilities with a good indoor market on the riverside near the main church of S. Goncalo, which is the town's most prominent building. There are also fairly large InterMarche and Modelo supermarkets on the edge of the town both of which sell most internationally recognisable products. Although other than the attractive churches and local museum there are few other monuments in Amarante, it is nevertheless a pleasant place to spend a day with plenty of cafes on the riverside in which to pass the time. One of Portugal's principal and famous producers of Vinho Verde, For a fun day out as a family there is an Aqua park at Fregim just outside the town superbly located above the river.
Eating in Amarante is no problem. As with any sizeable town in Portugal there is an abundance of simple cafes and restaurants, many offering a dish of the day. In addition you might like to try the following :
A Quelha. In a pleasant location down on the south side of the river, this restaurant particularly specialises in meat dishes but fish, as everywhere, is readily available.
From Amarante you should consider leaving your car behind and taking to public transport to sample one of Europe`s great rail journeys. Set aside a day to undertake the following round trip, carefully consulting the timetables beforehand.
Train Journey - Amarante- Livracao-Regua - Vila Real - Amarante
First, take the train for the short 12 kilometre trip from Amarante following the beautiful Tamega Valley south west to the village of Livracao, passing alongside the Fregim Aqua Park shortly after leaving Amarante. The line is metre gauge, twisting and turning along the contours of the valley through the vineyards.
At Livracao change for a main line train to Regua, which is the capital of the Douro Valley. The first 20 kilometres or so takes you through the newly developed town of Marco de Canaveses before dropping down to the spectacularly beautiful Douro Valley. The first glimpses of the river coming into sight are always accompanied by a shift of passengers to the right, as even the locals do not seem to get tired of the view. From here to Regua the line never leaves the side of the river with the hillsides on either side dropping down steeply into the water.
At Regua a further change of train is necessary onto the narrow gauge line north to Vila Real. This line is even more spectacular than the other two, following the valley in a series of seemingly impossible horseshoe curves serving villages with no other form public transport.
The important regional town of Vila Real offers the opportunity of a lunch stop. The town is a short 500 metre walk away from the main entrance of the station and down across the river. Try O Churrasco, an inexpensive grill restaurant with a good atmosphere, popular with locals, or the more expensive Espadeiro, which has a more varied menu of regional specialities. Both are centrally located in the town.
An alternative to lunch would be a visit to the Mateus Palace the picture of which appears on every bottle of Mateus Rose. The palace and its beautiful gardens are about 4 kilometres from Vila Real with a fairly regular bus service.
From Vila Real to Amarante is a winding 2-hour bus journey across the Serra Marao, although there are some faster express busses if you time it right. Remember, too, that to be appreciated, this last leg of the journey should be done in daylight.
The above is subject to change so please enquire at the bus / train station before starting your journey
PENAFIELThe pleasant town of Penafiel marks the start of Vinho Verde country and is still an important wine centre. Vinho Verde (in English, Green Wine!) is characterized by its slightly sparkling quality coupled with a lower alcohol content, usually about 9 or 10%. The vines grow tall and, unlike the backbreaking job of picking grapes for port production, here the grapes are usually picked from the top of ladders which is not always easy as the vines often trail across small rivers and streams.
Penafiel was founded by the Benedictine Monks who also first developed Vinho Verde and their legacy remains today in the number of interesting churches in and around the town, particularly to the southwest in villages such as Boelhe and Abragao. The most simple of Vinho Verde involves no additives whatsoever. Grapes are picked, crushed and left until such time as the juice and must separate. Much of the house wine in cafes and restaurants in the area is produced this way and usually arrives label-less at your table more tax is payable once the bottle has a label! Even better, try to find a place serving straight from the wooden barrel. Maybe not as cool as you might expect but a delightful, refreshing drink on a hot summer's day.
Penafiel is big enough to provide all day-to-day necessities with a good covered market as well as large Continente and Intermarche supermarkets. The town also has a railway station on the main Douro line, a trip along which is recommended (see section on Amarante) although the first 50 kms from Penafiel are pleasant but unspectacular.
Quinta da Aveleda, the beautiful former home of Fernando Guedes, responsible for the comercial success of Mateus Rose wine, is nearby. Group tours of the gardens and the 'winery' can be arranged. Ask at the local Information Centre for more details regarding individual tours, as these are not always possible.
To eat in Penafiel centre try:
Restaurante Relogio do Sol or Cedro´s Churasqueira both of which are good grill restaurants with a few regional specialities. Both are also very reasonably priced.
FELGUEIRASFelgueiras is a busy town and whilst not offering a great deal in the way of historical sites, it has a clean, bustling town centre which will provide for all everyday needs; plenty of banks, shops and a large Continente hypermarket conveniently situated. However, whilst it may be convenient and have good facilities it is perhaps preferable to make the journey to Guimaraes and combine shopping with a visit to one of Portugal´s most historic towns.
GUIMARAESGuimaraes is considered to be the birthplace of modern day Portugal, dating back to 1110 when Afonso Henriques, the first king, began the re-conquest of the land from the Moors. The town centre, with its cobbled streets and small squares, is a delight to explore. The castle looks down from the north end of town and certainly warrants a visit. As you explore the town make sure that you find time to visit at least one of the convents/churches, which house the museums. The Museu Alberto Sampaio is perhaps the best. As befits a town of its size there is no shortage of places to eat. Lots of cafes serving a good value dish of the day and other dishes:
Churrasqueira, Rua Francisco Arga. A rather simple but bustling restaurant where the smell of the barbecue is guaranteed to whet the appetite at any time of the day. Portuguese staples of pork, chicken and grilled fish in substantial portions.
Oriental, Largo Toural. Another typical but inexpensive Portuguese grill house but with a few regional meat specialities which are worth trying.
Pousada Santa Marinha, Rua St Maria. The restaurants in Portugal's high class Pousada hotels vary enormously in reputation. This, however, is considered to be one of the best. A beautiful ornate dining room with outside seating too. A different menu but expect to pay for all this!
BRAGASlightly further afield, Braga, now considered to be Portugal´s 3rd city, is the country´s ecclesiastical centre and the city centre still maintains an air of charm, particularly along the pedestrianised Rua Diogo de Sousa up to the main square, Praca da Republica.
As with Guimaraes, there is plenty written about Braga in all the main guidebooks. Suffice to say that along Rua Diogo de Sousa you must make a point of seeing the Cathedral and the library almost opposite, which was once the Bishop's Palace. As you would expect of an ecclesiastical centre, there are innumerable churches and small chapels dotted about the city centre. A town map from the tourist centre will help you easily locate them, there being about 10 within a short walk of the Cathedral.
About 6 kilometres from Braga the fascinating church and gardens of Bom Jesus, beautifully situated at the top of a hill and approached by about 700 steps, is one of Portugal´s most famous pilgrimage centres. For the less energetic there is a furnicular railway to take you to the top.
The Rua Diogo de Sousa and its continuation was once Braga´s main shopping street and many interesting shops still exist along its length but many of these are, today, given over to the sale of religious artefacts. However, at the top of the street, across the main square, the modern Braga Shopping Centre has an excellent selection of shops catering for all tastes. The main square was redeveloped a few years ago with a series of illuminated fountains, which make quite a spectacle at night.
Braga is a buzzing city with a university population as well as a considerable number of tourists. Consequently, there is no shortage of cafes, bars and restaurants.
Cafe Astoria and Cafe Viana, two popular cafes in the main square are somewhat limited if you are looking for a full blown meal but with their outside tables under the arched canopies they are great places to sit and watch the world go by over a beer and sandwich.
A Ceia. This is your best bet for a cheap. enormous Portuguese grill but it is always busy, especially at lunchtime, so you may have to queue.
Away from the main centres, true rural Portugal is an easy drive in any direction. From Amarante or Felgueiras, the beautiful Tamega Valley is a short distance away head for the towns of Celorico de Basto, Mondim de Basto or Arco de Baulhe. The roads are tortuous but the countryside fascinating with vines in just about every conceivable nook and cranny. Mondim is superbly situated high above two rivers and the old town is an interesting labyrinth of narrow alleys with bars and cafes some of which serve excellent, crisp Vinho Verde in label-less bottles or straight from the barrel.
Further north, Arco de Baulhe is a sleepy agricultural town with, again, an interesting network of narrow streets, which are in the process of being renovated to former glory. The railway here closed in 1990 but there is an interesting small railway museum in the still extant station and plans are, in fact, underway to re-open the line to Amarante as a tourist attraction. Arco also has a great river beach at the bottom end of the town.
Exploring the Tamega Valley is just one of many ways of discovering the unspoilt nature of rural Portugal and ambling around the side roads in any direction away from the main towns will, undoubtedly, be a rewarding experience. For example the road from Penafiel to Entre os Rios (in English Between the Rivers) where the Tamega joins the Douro, or the roads north east from Felgueiras to Fafe and beyond to the town of Cabaceiras de Basto will all make for an interesting afternoon out. Along any of these roads you are quite likely to encounter a roadside cafe, often with an outside grill offering chicken and chips lunch or take-away.
Tourist Information Centres
Amarante - Near the main church of S. Goncalo
Penafiel - Avenida Sacadural Cabral.
Guimaraes - On the edge of the old town in Alameda Resistencia Fascismo
Mondim de Basto - Praca 9 Abril
Braga - In the main square, Praca da Republica
The only golf course in the area is at Amarante.
Possibilities exist at various places - Ask at the Tourist Office. A cheap permit is usually necessary, available at the local Town Hall.
The best swimming is at the Fregim Aqua Park on the outskirts of Amarante. Beautiful location and great fun.
The nearest first division football is at Oporto, Guimaraes and Braga with second division clubs at Felgueiras and Penafiel. Most towns have clubs in the lower divisions. The season runs from mid - August to June.
Most towns and villages have their annual festival, which is an opportunity to see local dancing, music and superb firework displays. These are usually well publicised in local shops and cafes with a colourful poster or, look out for the arches of coloured lights across the roads. The biggest festivals are at Guimaraes in early July and the very lively festival at Braga at the end of June. Braga also holds a sombre but moving torchlight procession on Good Friday. Another, is the festival on Monte Farinha, the mountain shadowing Mondim de Basto, at the beginning of September.
Most towns have inexpensive cinemas which all show predominately English language films fortunately sub titled and not dubbed into Portuguese!
Accommodation in the area