Guimarães has been spruced-up for the grand event that will attract many visitors to the place which saw the birth of the Kingdom of Portugal 800 years ago.
By Célia Pedroso
If you’re arriving in Guimarães by car you might get the wrong idea about the city. Don’t be put off by how its sprawling suburbs greet you in a dull, grey way, with their new and ugly buildings and streets interspersed by a profusion of roundabouts, like most suburban areas surrounding Portuguese cities. You’ll need to get to the heart of the city to see how stunning and beautiful this medieval town really is, preserving its historic memories and buildings with a rare and loving care.
The contrast couldn’t be bigger. Even the people who live in the old centre seem to have a deeper connection with their surroundings, and you can see how they care about their streets, their pavements, their buildings. As I walked towards the city centre, declared a Unesco World Heritage Site in 2001, I could notice how the old buildings were well taken care of, reflecting how proud people were of their homes and heritage.
The city underwent major restoration works over the last few decades with the aim of preserving its historical heritage, and its inhabitants took to it with pride, getting involved and helping out wherever they could. Locals believe that this passion and love for the city is the secret to keeping the centre unspoilt and charming.
Whether in football or basketball or any other activity people are proud of their club and their city and will participate”, says Vítor Marques, a tourism expert from Guimarães municipal council.
The people are certainly one of the best features of Guimarães. Friendly and generous, smiling and hospitable. And no grumpy waiters either. According to Vítor Marques, in a survey made for the capital of culture the people’s hospitable character was voted as the number one factor for those visiting Guimarães. The people’s kindness and friendliness came before the city’s historic heritage, of which they are also very proud of.
In fact, Guimarães played a pivotal role in the emergence of Portugal as a nation state. History tell us that it was here that the County of Portugal was created, and that its first king, Afonso Henriques, is commonly seen as having been born here. Indeed, the grounds where the battle of São Mamede took place in 1128, are not far from Guimarães. This battle, which saw King Afonso Henriques’s forces defeat those of his mother Theresa of Portugal and her ally Fernão Peres de Trava, is viewed as a landmark in the county’s independence from the kingdoms of Galicia and Léon.
“Aqui nasceu Portugal” (Portugal was born here), is written in old script on what’s left of one of the old city walls in the main square, Largo do Toural. A heightened feeling of patriotism seems to fill the air, and national symbols can be seen everywhere, as well as those of Vitória de Guimarães, the local football club.
A walk in the centre
Walking in the city’s old centre is definitely the only way to appreciate this historic place with its impressive medieval ambience. If you’re driving, leave the car at the Mumadona car park, designed by renowned Portuguese architect Siza Vieira, and start walking in the direction of Largo de Santiago, taking in the baroque building of the town hall, a former 16th century convent. The Santa Clara Convent was actually the only one to have been built within the city walls, and its nuns left us one of the city’s most precious gifts – the conventual sweets and desserts of Guimarães. You can step inside and stroll along the cloister.
Once back outside, head on down the charming and narrow street of Santa Maria, considered one of the oldest in the city, lined with shops, cafés and patisseries. You’ll eventually come to the lovely Largo de Santiago with its very old houses, some of which date back to the 17th century and seem to be perilously held together. Right next to it you’ll find Portugal‘s most beautiful medieval square: Largo da Oliveira. The iconic former town hall with its ogival arches dates back to the late 14th century.
The Padrão do Salado monument, erected in 1342, stands alone in the square with its gothic architecture, providing many photo opportunities. There’s also the famous olive tree which gives the square its name, and the Nossa Senhora da Oliveira Church, whose origins date back to AD 949, but was remodelled in the late 14th century, as a sign of gratitude for Portugal’s victory over Castile in the battle of Aljubarrota.
During the day the square‘s many cafés, bars and restaurants are busy but it’s at night that it gets really crowded – especially on weekends. The action also spreads to the adjacent Largo de Santiago.
Leaving Largo da Oliveira by the church side, you can walk down to Alameda Santo Dâmaso, take in the imposing baroque church of São Gualter (Saint Walter), unfortunately surrounded by some hideous new buildings, and walk to the right of the Alameda, which underwent renovation and improvement works for Guimarães 2012.
By this time you’ll have seen people in uniform with a yellow vest – these are the municipal police and they have received special training to welcome and help visitors. They will be delighted to help you with directions and providing information.
There are still a few old shops around the Alameda, some of which bring to mind the traditional and exquisite embroideries of Guimarães. This avenue connects with Largo do Toural, another of the city’s iconic squares, which also underwent a “facelift” for the Capital of Culture. This is the city’s social centre, lined with shops as well as cafés, where locals meet and catch up on gossip and news, while Largo da Oliveira is more leisurely. The entire area is covered by free wi-fi, and don’t miss the Guimarães 2012 shop in Rua de Camões, where you can buy tickets for the events, books, local handicrafts and design products from Vista Alegre ceramics or Cutipol (which has its cutlery factory in Guimarães and a shop in Largo do Toural). It also functions as an information kiosk.
What to see in Guimarães
The Palace of the Dukes of Braganza
This is one of the most visited palaces in the country. Its unusual chimneys and northern European architecture are iconic of Guimarães. This impressive fortified mansion was originally built in the 15th century, but underwent major (controversial) restoration works between 1937 and 1959. Children love to explore its vast halls.
Just before you get to the castle, you can see the imposing modern-day statue of Portugal’s first king, Afonso Henriques, welcoming visitors. The origins of the castle date back to the 10th century and it played a key role as a defensive stronghold throughout the ages. Nowadays it offers great views of the surrounding area.
If you’re not afraid of heights, take the cable car up to the Penha mountain and Sanctuary which seems to be perched up on the rocks. It has wonderful views and a huge park. If you like hiking, there are signposted trails that will lead you up to the mountain.
The food, the sweets and the restaurants
Minho cuisine is famous for its hearty, meaty dishes – such as Papas de Sarrabulho (with blood) or tripe. Happily there is also plenty of salt cod everywhere, mainly the traditional Bacalhau com Broa (cod with corn bread, potatoes and greens in the oven). The Caldo Verde com Broa (recipe ) is the best soup to start any meal around here, as it prepares you for what comes next: the portions are unusually generous.
If you have time to spare you should really go to Dona Mafalda restaurant, at the Pousada Santa Marinha. Led by chef Agostinho Martins, it features extraordinary examples of the local cuisine in a very conventual setting. It also has a large dessert, fruit and cheese buffet where you can immerse yourself in the sweet world of Toucinho do Céu (literally bacon from heaven but there’s no pork here, just eggs, crystallised pumpkin threads and almonds), Pudim Abade de Priscos (with eggs and real bacon!) and other specialities.
All of our dishes are regional specialities, changing seasonally, cooked with love with the region’s products. During winter, for example, we must have Papas de Sarrabulho, which is only good when the weather is cold”, the chef explains.
In central Guimarães you should also try Histórico by Papaboa, located in a former 17th century palace with a lovely garden. They have tried to give traditional dishes an innovative touch and have succeeded quite well. They serve a great Vinho Verde by the glass, another important and distinctive landmark of the region, but you can ask for a treat and get a bottle of Alvarinho instead. Other good foodie experiences can be found at Nora do Zé da Curva – very traditional but excellent food –, and the Adega dos Caquinhos. For vegetarians, Cor de Tangerina is the place to go.
If you have a sweet tooth then Guimarães will be pure bliss. Pastelaria Clarinha, in Largo do Toural, is a sanctuary for the old recipes of the nuns – keeping the traditional Tortas de Guimarães alive. The delicious pastries take long hours to make, making them expensive and hard to find with the “right recipe”, according to Olivia Vieira, the owner. “It takes two people in order to get it right, otherwise it’s impossible to make the pastry”, she adds. In spite of the name they don’t look like tortas (rolls) at all. This pastry looks more like a pie, with a sweet filling of almond and egg. This rare recipe can also be found in Naples – where they are called sfogliatelle, but are filled with sweetened ricotta cheese instead. As “keeper” of the convent recipes, Clarinha also has the real Toucinho do Céu de Guimarães (both in the small and the large, decorated version) and the Douradinhos. All these sweet wonders have three ingredients in common: eggs, almonds and crystallised pumpkin threads. And if you fancy just a “regular” pastel de nata you’ll also find them there.
At night, after a tiring day, you can relax in the bars of Largo da Oliveira or at the Centro Cultural Vila Flor, which besides hosting a variety of cultural activities also has a café-bar with a good ambience and sometimes live music.
The cultural hub
For Guimarães 2012 several cultural facilities and venues are undergoing renovations, and will turn the city into an important cultural hub: after the CAAA – Centre for Art and Architecture Affairs building which opened in a former textile factory, there will follow the huge Platform for Arts and Creativity in the former city market, and the Casa da Memória (House of Memory). Set in another former factory, the latter will be a repository for the city’s culture and history. Both will open in June, and another opening is scheduled for March: the Design Institute in the neighbourhood of Couros.
Where to stay
Pousada Santa Marinha
This is probably one of Portugal’s best pousadas (luxury hotels in historic buildings). Set in a monastery built in the 12th century for Augustinian friars, the building has been modified and enlarged throughout the centuries, and nowadays even has a new building cleverly integrated. From the 16th century onwards the monastery belonged to the Order of St Jerome, when they built the beautiful balcony with a fountain surrounded by white and blue tiles, known as Varanda de São Jerónimo.
Its stunning rooms like the Salão Nobre and the Sala do Capítulo, the historical setting and the award-winning restoration project undertaken by architect Fernando Távora (National Prize of Architecture for his work in this pousada in 1985), are but some of the reasons for staying here. Besides the food, of course – the restaurant but also the breakfast buffet are excellent. Its huge garden is also magnificent, with a lake and dazzling camellias. From the pousada you can hike your way up to Penha Sanctuary. On your way back you’ll find an open air swimming-pool to relax in.
Useful addresses- Guimarães 2012, information and ticket centre,
Rua de Camões, 60 (near Toural) - www.guimaraesturismo.com