A popular day excursion destination from Porto and Braga and a summer time magnet for its art, music and cultural events, 2012 sees Guimaraes in Northern Portugal take on the mantle of European Capital of Culture which should up its visitor numbers considerably.
Buck the day tripper trend, book yourself into one of the city’s charismatic hotels like the Toural or the Pousada de Santa Marinha or settle yourself into the chic, boutique Villa Hotel and take a little time to get to know Guimaraes.
Pass through the work-a-day outer limits of the city and you’d be forgiven for asking yourself what all the fuss is about. But head down any of the narrow alleys that radiate inwards from Toural Square and you’ll find yourself transported back to the Middle Ages where grey stone spires, heraldic Coats of Arms and the alternately angelic faces of cherubs and ghastly features of gargoyles crowd your retinas.
Dominating Oliveira Square is its eponymous church and tower dating from the 14th and 15th centuries and the Gothic Salado Memorial which stand guard over the tables and chairs of the cafés and restaurants that fill the ancient public space. Above the heads of the students surfing the net in the free WiFi space and the day trippers experiencing the powerful punch of Portuguese coffee, lines of clean knickers and bedding drape from the 16th century, half timbered façades of bourgeois housing. Across the square, stone arches belonging to the former Council Chambers provide shade for more café tables and lead the way to Santiago Square and the endless warren of alleys and cobbled streets that defy logical navigation. Riddled with bars, cafés and shops, invest time and energy exploring these streets to be rewarded with good food, irresistible cakes and souvenirs ranging from shoes to chandeliers.
Alberto Sampaio Museum
Erected on the site of the 10th century monastery which was the birthplace of the city, the Alberto Sampaio Museum houses a fine collection of ecclesiastical silverware, frescoes, sculptures and the tunic worn in battle by King João I at the Battle of Aljubarrato in 1385.
Rua Alfredo Guimaraes; open 10.00-18.00 Tues-Sun, (10.00-12.00 during August), closed Mondays and public holidays; entrance €3, free on Sunday mornings.
Head for the turrets on the horizon and all routes will take you to the ruins of the 10th century castle which is believed to have been the birthplace of King Afonso Henriques – the first King of Portugal. Wander its ancient ramparts from where Kings and Queens surveyed the lands they sought to protect, and you can feel the history in the stones beneath your feet. In the castle grounds, the tiny Chapel of S. Miguel is where Afonso was baptised and its stone floor is paved with the sepulchres of warriors who fought by his side in the founding of Portugal.
Open 10.00-18.00 Tues-Sun, closed on Mondays; entrance to the castle is free, entrance to the tower is €1
The Palace of the Dukes of Bragança
Lying just below the castle walls, this multi-chimneyed stately home dates back to the 15th century and houses an important collection of tapestries depicting Portugal’s historic development. Antique furniture, porcelain and weaponry are all on display within the splendid walls.
Open 10.00-18.00 Tues-Sun, closed Mondays and public holidays; entrance €5, free on Sunday mornings.
Perched 400 metres above Guimaraes and frequently blanketed in an invisibility cloak of cloud during the winter months, a 7 minute cable car ride takes you above the eucalyptus trees and allotments of the city’s rural outskirts to the fascinating mountain top of Mount Penha. A family favourite for picnics and post-lunch walks during the summer months, winter can find you all alone amidst the Tolkien-esque landscape of twisted paths and hidden caves that weave their way through the granite monoliths and woodlands of this sacred spot.
Teleférico cable car operates every half hour daily from 10.00-17.30 Nov-Mar, 10.00-18.30 Apr, May & Oct, 10.00-20.00 June – Sept; Adults €2.65 one way, €4.30 return, children (4-11yrs) €1.75 one way, €2.15 return.
Pousada de Santa Marinha
Built as a monastery for the Augustine Order in 1154 on a site which is believed to pre-date Roman times, the Pousada de Santa Marinha is now an elegant and luxurious hotel where history and style have been merged in award winning architectural design. Ancient cloisters, a tranquil courtyard, 18th century azulejos wall tiles and extensive enchanting botanical gardens and woodland are all open to the public and highly recommended for a visit.
Sited 1km outside the city, follow the walking route signposts along Rua Dr. José Sampaio and alongside Parque da Cidade before climbing up to the Pousada.
Vilaflor Palace and Cultural Centre
The 18th century Palace of Vila Flor houses art exhibitions in its two floors of industrial-sized space. When BuzzTrips visited there was an exhibition by Hugo Canoilas which consisted of a larger-than-life canvas depicting man’s violence against his fellow man which filled the entire first floor of the palace. Outside, beautifully decadent gardens amble in formal squares and tiered boxwood terraces where the moss-covered stones keep their counsel of years. In stark contrast to the antiquity of the palace, the contemporary Vilaflor Cultural Centre housed alongside has two auditoriums, a restaurant, meeting rooms and the Café Concerto which has live music at weekends.
Entrance to the Hugo Canoilas exhibition was €1 and runs until 18th February 2012
Andrea (Andy) Montgomery is a freelance travel writer and co-owner of Buzz Trips and The Real Tenerife series of travel websites. Published in The Telegraph, The Independent, Wexas Traveller, Thomas Cook Travel Magazine, EasyJet Traveller Magazine, you can read her latest content on Google+