I thought I’d begin the next series of posts featuring my travel escapades to Portugal on an unexpected note. Opting to showcase the road less travelled in Northern Portugal, followed by the usual fanfare of iconic and recognisable haunts and waterfronts. For it was here, off the beaten track in Northern Portugal, in which I fell in love with crumbling (though terribly saddening and frustrating) facades and architecture. It was a visual enchantment of traditional aesthetic delights featuring stone work dating back countless decades. Some even centuries. And all alongside splashes of millennial pink; long before this tone was considered stylish and noteworthy on Instagram.
In truth it had been almost an entire decade since I last set foot on the European continent. And after a long twenty something hours in the air I savoured those views from my window seat between Frankfurt and Porto. Irrevocably enraptured by that familiar European landscape. Of lands dappled in light, mountainous and sunburnt in golden hues and shades of olive. The familiar site of spluttering wind turbines, gracious and grand casting considerable but unobstructed shadows to the ground. Their cadenced waltz as hypnotic and harmonious as the sun repercussing off serpentine rivers and capacious bodies of water. I realised just how dormant my love for this part of the world had become. And yet after so much time between us, its charm did not fail to captivate and sway me.
Both in the air and on the ground.
This trip saw me based and somewhat confined in Northern Portugal. Predominantly in the Trás-os-Montes. And despite fervent eagerness to venture down south towards parts like Lisbon, Sintra and the Algarve my inadequately devised plans fell through catastrophically. To be honest this was trip that remained unorganised until the very end. With poor time constraints and other factors being at play I decided to simply wing it, which is not entirely ideal for a perfectionist. In hindsight I do wish I had hired my own rental vehicle and researched more thoroughly prior to departure, as my internet connection proved too erratic and unreliable. And because of this I was unable to search for more unknown points of interest. But in the end it left room to thoroughly explore a part of this country I once thought I was overly familiar with. Happily discovering and regarding Northern Portugal with a new found affection and appreciation.
The Tras-Os-Montes, translates to “behind the mountains” and much like the name suggests this is a landscape abundant in elevations and valleys. A vastly green landscape of towering pine trees flecked with quaint white walls and the occasional splash of millennial pink contrasting with worn terracotta roof tiles. What I once perceived to be deteriorating dwellings, I now saw as shelters dating back countless generations. Shelters that have stood the test of time, despite harsh elements and obvious desertion. Their facades overflowing with an abundance of character and vibrancy; albeit in dire need of several coats of paint and general TLC. And traditional cobblestones and stonework commingling with perceived Oriental influences and modern renovations. While these villages may appear indifferent to the naked eye, they are in fact swarming with activity and sentience. There is a strong sense of camaraderie, family and community. And a kindliness this Melbournian was ineptly unprepared and unaccustomed to.
Portugal’s first and only national park. Famed for its waters and trails, wild ponies and infinite number of waterfalls. After spending a taxing morning trawling through the isles of Ikea, we happened upon the road to this park by accident. And it was a drive I did not want to cease, regardless of the unwelcome bouts of car sickness. It was labyrinth like narrow roads framed by precipices and a gargantuan sapphire lake that captured my heart. Seemingly this was a playground for young and old and a way to find solace from the scorching summer sun in Northern Portugal.
Since my return back home, I am yet to stop envisioning returning here. Returning to peruse its vast grounds more thoroughly and tour the countless untouched villages and granaries and visit its castles and go souvenir shopping in Sao Bento. Best of all hiring a rental nestled within thick undergrowth, sheltered from the sizzling elements. With only a slender pathway leading out to the banks of that very lake.
Also known as the birthplace of Portugal with its namesake castle linked to such origins. Much like a fairytale, this castle is perched atop a steep green hillside overlooking a most whimsical town dotted with vivid azulejos (tiles). Sadly it is somewhat overshadowed by its recent medieval neighbour the Paco Dos Duques. But despite this I still find the presence of this castle far more commanding, especially upon entry into the town itself where its residence is certainly known.
If I am brutally honest I found the Paco Dos Duques to be rather underwhelming. Architecturally there is no denying its grandness and minimalist medieval beauty; even within the newly renovated touches here and there. It truly is rather exceptional. The exterior has a tenacious and assertive presence, one which continues through its walls into the central courtyard which is flanked by rows of decorative aches and wooden features. The letdown for me was that I found the interiors to be uninteresting and stark. After paying a small fee for entry, walking into such a grandiose building I expected to discover walls laden in historic artworks and secretaries adorned with the frivolous of trinkets. And yet all that was presented was a smattering of antique furniture, more often than not a dining table and accompanying chairs, confined tightly to the centre of an incredibly vast room with a sole splay of tapestry along the wall.
With the magnificence presented within its stature, I simply expected to find interiors that harmonised with such impressions.
The Guimaraes Castle on the other hand did not disappoint. Time and history have been far from kind to this structure. It has a sense of dilapidation while predominantly only its outer shell remains. Regardless it is captivating nonetheless. Much like a scene out of Game of Thrones, this fortification is fit for Dany and her dragons. With the occasional stray stone block dappled throughout the inner grounds and resplendently unobstructed views along its walls, it’s hard not to let you your imagination soar. Like expecting to find Jon Snow trudging up the ramp at any minute.
I would recommend appropriate footware when calling into this site. The terrain is far from smooth and those countless haphazardly strewn blocks along the ground are ripe for stumbles. As is the climb along the wall with the far side housing misshapen and worn down stairwells in different heights and depths leading towards each tower. Take my word for it. Climbing along centuries worn stone with my Puma Fenty slides with nothing but a sliver of rope to keep me from tumbling down to the ground below was quite the feat. And yes, definitely not a good idea for someone as accident prone as myself.
The town centre of Guimaraes is actually listed as a UNSCO World Heritage Site. Mostly renowned for its “exceptionally well-preserved and authentic example of the evolution of a medieval settlement into a modern town”. For obvious reasons this town is a mecca for tourists. But regardless it is still crawling with locals going about their day. This town feels even more beautifully foreign (to an Australian) than its counterparts. That continuous medieval theme feels rather untouched by time, despite one or two soccer paraphernalia adorned on apartment windows and balconies. This town is best seen on foot as it there are countless points of interest between bustling cafes and eateries. Most notably the Lago De Oliveria, a large square framed by picturesque apartments and exemplary Gothic architecture like the Igreja de Nossa Senhora de Oliveria. The first Gothic masterpiece to be built in Northern Portugal. From here it is also a short, but uphill stroll towards the Guimaraes Castle.
I think what I appreciated most was the narrow streets paved in typical cobblestone fanfare while enclosed by towering medieval apartments clad in lively azulejos. It was truly difficult keeping your eyes from straying above, with decadent planter boxes overflowing with blooms of magenta and contrasting azulejos desperately vying for your attention. Also, the best Pastei de Nata consumed at the Supremo Gosto Cafe, opposite the Largo Republica do Brasi. Its window display fruitful with sumptuously irresistible flaked delicacies.
Northern Portugal and it’s less travelled roads truly do not disappoint. There are copious sites to peruse and explore. From ancient ruins to Roman citadels and facades. Northern Portugal has an array of opulent architecture fitting for fairytales and towns teeming with smiling faces and people wanting to converse. Something which again left this Melbourne girl taken aback on. There truly are countless points of interest in every direction. While this trip certainly did not pan out as intended, in the end such misadventures left for improvised itineraries. Also more quality time with family, who I may or may not have had the opportunity to properly encounter and innocently carouse otherwise. Like late night suppers with my uncle Mario and those notorious platters of cheese, bread and cold cut meats and me awkwardly trying to explain to him that I don’t like presunto, and all between shots of his homemade Ginja.