The Northern Country

Come to think of it — in Portugal, a regular tourist’s journey ends northwards in Porto. And if they’re more inclined, they persevere further along the vineyard valleys of Douro. It still comes as a surprise to meet visitors who traversed beyond the Portuguese heartland, who took off the beaten path and explored the lush and rustic northlands. After all, it does take dedication and sheer curiosity to get to know this country better, and as this writer postulates, the true way to discover the Portuguese soul is to go where this nation began — the north.

“The true way to discover the Portuguese soul is to go where this nation began — the north.”

Since this is Lifestyle Portugal’s first-ever nationwide issue, it’s fitting to celebrate some of the best, lesser-known yet underrated northern Portuguese cities, towns and destinations that would certainly beguile any perceptive traveller with their historical context, ornate architecture, cultural authenticity, gastronomical offerings, ravishing landscapes and unspoilt natural beauty. Believe me, from someone who took a couple of road trips exploring these lands, suffice to say the north feels like another country — a great mountainous expanse of evergreen where nature reigns supreme, unmistakably different from anywhere south of Portugal. So without further ado, put that adventure spirit on, follow this journey and travel deeper into Portugal’s northlands, where you’ll encounter the true soul of Portugal.

Where else to start your journey to the north than the birthplace of the nation, Guimarães. A small city with a great wealth of history (approximately 900 years, and even older), Portugal was formed here, and the first king Afonso Henriques was born here, too. Feel that weight of time as you walk into the historic centre, a time-warp into a palpably mediaeval atmosphere.

It’s no surprise the whole historic centre is declared a UNESCO World Heritage site. Romanesque and Gothic rule the place, laced with grand mansions, palaces and Portuguese townhouses. But considerably the most intriguing is the well-preserved Castle of Guimarães, which is older than Portugal itself.

The country’s undisputed city of Baroque. Braga’s resplendence and importance simply cannot be overlooked. After all, this is home to Portugal’s oldest cathedral, Sé de Braga, fostering architectural styles throughout the centuries, and home to an impressively gilded high choir and organ that are rarely seen in Portugal.

Here, religiosity isn’t taken lightly. Braga wields the highest concentration of religious structures in any Portuguese city. The most grandiose one is on a hilltop, of course, flanked with a zigzag stairway made of 577 steps, leading up the Sanctuary of Bom Jesus, the city’s crowning glory with all its Baroque realness.

For all nature lovers who want to escape the bustle of cities and flock of crowds, Gerês is the perfect paradise. This vast, green haven occupying the northeastern part of Portugal is declared a protected area, more accurately named Peneda-Gerês National Park, the country’s Lake District.

Expect beautiful, bucolic mountain sceneries, evergreen woodlands, hidden waterfalls, and a cornucopia of lakes. Here, nature is king, and you better make sure you pack a good pair of trainers and hiking gear, as this sanctuary will seduce you to walk and hike right into its magnificent embrace.Gerês has become a kind of outdoor mecca for nature enthusiasts and has certainly become a popular alternative destination for summer holidaymakers, but there’s so much wild, unspoilt landscape here that there’s never a competition for space.

Ponte de Lima
From Gerês, head west to Portugal’s oldest “official” town, Ponte de Lima. The first king’s mother, Countess Teresa of León, granted this idyllic village a town status in 1125 (hence the “official” part), before the founding of the country.

Portuguese towns don’t get as serene or captivating as this one. It’s a gracefully preserved historical town, one that includes a proto-Roman bridge that’s considered the safest passing point for Christian pilgrims towards Santiago de Compostela. Then there’s the slow-flowing Lima River and the luxuriously green Minho landscape, providing anyone who comes here a sense of tranquillity and authenticity. Go eat “arroz de sarrabulho”, or stewed rice in pig’s blood, for a delicious local gastronomy experience.

Viana do Castelo
The country’s northernmost port town, Viana do Castelo, had its glorious heyday during the Portuguese Discoveries. Today, being strategically located at the mouth of the Atlantic Ocean, it’s a great place for seafood. Head to the harbour to find a line of restaurants that would truly whet your appetite for anything aquatic and crustacean.

Being the northern district’s main city, it’s also not without its historic opulence. The historic heart is bustling with wonderfully preserved mediaeval quarters, Renaissance and Rococo architecture, Manueline churches and stately palaces. The Misericórdia church, in itself, is worth a visit, featuring some of the most beautiful Portuguese tilework you’ll ever see.

But this city’s pièce de résistance is, without a doubt, the iconic Byzantine-style Sanctuary of the Sacred Heart of Jesus perched on top of the Monte da Santa Luzia. Even better, the jaw-dropping landscape that you’ll see from the mount is widely celebrated. A past National Geographic triumph for being one of the most beautiful panoramas in the world.

Caminha, Monção & Melgaço
Culminate your journey at the northernmost frontier, right at the Portuguese border facing Spain, one of the oldest established borders in the world. This border has survived thanks to this line of fortress towns that have guarded Portugal throughout centuries — Caminha, Monçao and Melgaço.

Sitting right at the mouth of River Minho, Caminha offers dazzling beaches and coastal beauty, the real pinnacle of Costa Verde, Portugal’s Green Coast. The stretch of pristine sands here are the real draw, especially if you’re seeking for a beach destination with lesser crowds.

Monçao and Melgaço are both small heritage towns, surrounded by time-tested 12th century fortifications, and each offer charming, relaxed Portuguese-style village feel with abundant access to nature.

Let’s not forget that this Minho province is home to Vinho Verde, that fresh, popular, youthful wine that’s been forever pairing grilled fishes everywhere in the country. You can wander through the wine route in this region, from heritage wine producers to small family-owned vineyards. Picture yourself at a manor house terrace, or a local plantation, with a glass of wine, overlooking a vineyard, reflecting upon your completion on what it takes to get to know the soul of the northern Portuguese experience.