Visit: 23rd October 2015
Guimarães is a town in northern Portugal that is known for being the spiritual birthplace of the Portuguese national identity. It isn’t a place I had heard of before, so I can thank UNESCO for bringing it to my attention by inscribing it on its list. Natalie and I flew Ryanair to Porto on Friday morning and then took a local train an hour or so north to Guimarães. We stayed one night there, which I felt would be sufficient for a quick visit to this small town. I chose what turned out to be a really nice little hotel within the old city walls – the Toural, if you ever find yourself in the area.
Portugal came into being after Afonso Henriques defeated his mother, Theresa, at the battle of São Mamede in 1128. Fifteen years later he was recognised by the Kingdom of León (the area’s erstwhile ruler) as the King of Portugal.
He chose his birthplace, Guimarães, to be the new country’s capital. The Portuguese like to say that, in a way, the whole nation of Portugal was born here too: hence the sign on the city walls.
It isn’t a large town, so it didn’t take long for us to walk from one end of it (where out hotel was) to the other – the Guimarães Castle. The castle dates back to the tenth century, and still stands solid and imposing at the town’s highest point. They don’t charge an entrance fee to get in, and you can appreciate some pretty stunning views of the hilly surrounding countryside.
The town’s medieval quarters have remained largely unchanged since they were built. We walked through the Guimarães’s two main avenues before dinner, stopping to look at the autumn lemons. The two main beer brands in Portugal are Super Bock and Estrela (both lagers), whilst they favour Italian-style espressos for their coffee.
The Portuguese are keen on colourful tile patterns, as we saw the next day at Porto’s famous São Bento station. The green tiles on this medieval house are a good example of what I mean.
The Portuguese national identity isn’t something that has much significance to me – I have only ever visited the country once before! But it was nonetheless a pleasant, relaxing place to visit, and an opportunity to sample ‘small-town’ Portugal – as opposed to the big-town bustle of Lisbon and Porto. The Romanesque church below was originally constructed in the twelfth century.
The train ride to and from Guimarães takes travellers though some impressive scenery as the track winds its way along the bends of the Vizela river. This verdant valley, covered in damp vegetation, made it feel like we were journeying through a rainforest, with the Portuguese place names we passed through helping to make the scene indistinguishable at times from what I imagine Brazil or Angola must be like. We were heading back to Porto, there to get back on the railway and continue south to the university town of Coimbra.