“We used to be important.” It’s a statement that reveals why the people of Guimarães exude pride peppered with a hint of an inferiority complex. As the birthplace of Portugal there’s no questioning its noble historic credentials but this medieval UNESCO World Heritage Site has played second fiddle to the likes of Lisbon and Porto for a long time now. Having the title of European Capital of Culture for 2012 bestowed upon it could be the spark it requires to propel it into the premier league of desirable European destinations.
Guimaraes is tucked into the north west corner of Portugal, 50 kilometres northeast of Porto and 24 kilometres south of Braga. A sign on the old wall proudly proclaims ‘ Aqui Nasceu Portugal’ (Portugal was born here). It’s no hollow claim. Dom Afonso Henriques, the first King of Portugal, was born in Guimarães in 1111.
How he became king and Portugal extracated itself from the clutches of Spain to be a country in its own right is the steamy stuff of historic soap opera. In 1128 at São Memede, just outside of Guimarães, Afonso Henrique and his forces went up against those of his own mother, Teresa of León, and her lover. It was a battle whose outcome shaped the fate of the region known as Portucale. If Teresa had won who knows what Portugal would be known as today, but she didn’t and the rest, as they say, is history. After the battle Afonso declared himself Prince of Portugal, upping the title to King after defeating the Moors at the Battle of Ourique in 1139. Spain recognised Portugal as an independent country in 1143 followed by Rome’s recognition in 1179. And it’s all thanks to Guimarães.
In Guimarães you’re never far from a monument or statue that reminds you of Henriques’ feat. In the intervening centuries since spawning the founder of Portugal, the townspeople have made a living by making cutlery (they still do), textile manufacturing, being silversmiths and tanning leather. These trades have never completely died out and a stroll around the quaint narrow streets reveals remnants of these industries.
The presence of the Minho University in Guimarães adds a youthful breath to the old cobbles. Although maybe not quite as vibrant and buzzing as some of the blurb makes out (much is made of the fact that it is one of the youngest cities in Europe in terms of population), bars in Guimarães have a more youthful clientèle than might normally be found in an historic town of this ilk.
Apart from possessing historic attractions by the bucket load, Guimarães has somewhat of a contemporary artistic face as well; which is presumably why it was chosen as the European Capital of Culture for 2012.
Buzz Trips Opinion
Most guides to Guimarães will focus on the historic centre. There’s a reason for this, the town beyond the UNESCO World Heritage Site could be anywhereville. However, once in the warren of the old town’s streets it becomes clearer why Guimarães was chosen to be European Capital of Culture.
It is a captivatingly pretty old town with interlocking squares bordered by museums, creaky old balconied houses and coffee shops that double as wine, pastry and beer stops. On the face of it there are lots of enticing looking restaurants in Guimarães. But many cater mainly for day visitors from places like Porto who make up the bulk of the town’s tourists. After dark the culinary choice in the golden alleys and courtyards is more restricted as many close at around 6pm.
Much of the town is geared towards this daylight hour scene and this has its ups and downs. During weekday nights outside of the summer months, Guimarães can be considerably quieter despite boasting a healthy selection of bars. The upside is that visitors will be in no doubt that they’re experiencing the authentic Guimarães during these hours.
It’s obvious that Guimarães isn’t totally au fait with 24/7 tourism (everywhere can shut down for public holidays leaving visitors high and dry) but this attitude perversely can add to its charm. Despite having an historically picturesque charm, it doesn’t have a ‘manufactured for the pleasure of visitors’ feel.
We weren’t completely smitten by Guimarães at first taste but the more we got to know it, the more we warmed to the character of its inhabitants and the charm of its buildings. It’s a proud city with a defiant attitude… and so it should be; it is the birthplace of Portugal after all.