Guimaraes: Birthplace of a nation

By Mick Webb

Mick Webb finds plenty to engage him on a stroll around the northern Portuguese city of Guimaraes.

Guimaraes Castle is thought to have been the birthplace of Portugal's first king, Afonso Henriques. Photo / Thinkstock
Guimaraes Castle is thought to have been the birthplace of Portugal's first king, Afonso Henriques. Photo / Thinkstock

The small city of Guimaraes in northern Portugal has a proud boast. It can claim on good authority to be the cradle of the Portuguese nation, as the country's first king, Afonso Henriques, was born here in the early 12th century. This year there's another reason for its residents to be cheerful: Guimaraes is one of the joint European cities of Culture for 2012.

A host of events, including concerts, exhibitions and a reconstruction of a 16th-century fair (14-16 September) make the pretty old town, with a Unesco-listed medieval centre, well worth a visit.

The castle where Afonso Henriques is thought to have been born occupies the high ground at the north end of the old town. It's a symbolic and impressive starting point for a walk. The building dates back to the 10th century and for the outlay of €3, you can climb the exceptionally steep steps to the top of the keep. The views take in the surrounding hills, the red roofs of the old town and the eccentric, tall chimneys of the neighbouring palace, which was built by the Dukes of Braganza in the 15th century.

The complex is completed by a beautiful Romanesque chapel and a statue of King Afonso.

Walk downhill, past an imposing Carmelite convent and into the Rua Santa Maria, which is the main artery of the old town. At number 68, you find Casa Costinhas, a cake shop that caters for the legendary Portuguese sweet tooth. The owners are descended from women who used to work at the nearby convent and have inherited the closely-guarded recipes for the cakes that the nuns used to make. You can stop here for a coffee and test your fillings with a toucinho do ceu, literally "bacon from heaven", in fact, a delicious almond-based cake which costs €1.40.

A few steps further down, the street opens out into a square, revealing the convent that inspired the cakes. Now the home of the town hall, it's a beautifully proportioned baroque building. A hundred metres further down Rua Santa Maria, two more conjoined squares form the heart of the old town.

The first is the Praca de Santiago, irregularly shaped, with a posse of cafes providing many lunch-time opportunities. Next door to the tourist office, at number 33, Facebar provides hearty snacks, which include the Portuguese classic fast food, bifana (pork tenderloin in a roll), for €1.

The second square, arcaded Largo da Oliveira, is defined by restaurants. Sabores da Oliveira at number 21 serves the dish that's been specially created for the year 2012: naco a conquistador. It's a steak skewered by a miniature sword and served with potatoes cooked in their skins and grelhos: turnip tops (€15).

The Largo da Oliveira is dominated by the magnificent Church of Our Lady of Oliveira (open 8.30am- midday; 3.30pm-7.30pm; free) built by King Joao I to give thanks to the Virgin Mary for a victory over the Spanish in 1385.

Turn left from the church and just around the corner, in Rua Alfredo, is a medieval priory and cloister, now home to the Alberto Sampaio Museum (closed Mondays; admission €3, free on Sundays). Its collection of priceless silverware includes statuary, processional crosses and liturgical boxes dating from the 14th century.

From the museum, the Rua Egas Moniz follows the course of the old defensive wall, which has been included in the fabric of the houses. As the road enters the Largo Condessa do Juncal, you can appreciate the wall's three-metre thickness by going into the reception area of a modern office, the only 20th-century building on the left-hand side of the square. Cross the square and leave the old centre through the Porta Nova gate in the city walls.

After the enclosed environment of the medieval town, the square in which you find yourself, Largo do Toural, seems incredibly airy and spacious. The main square of modern Guimaraes, it has been remodelled for 2012, to make a space for events and to show off the symmetrical terraced buildings from the early 19th century.

Turn right to find the city's best shops and if you walk a few paces to the left, you'll see, writ large on one of the towers in the town wall, the words AQUI NASCEU PORTUGAL: Portugal was born here.

- INDEPENDENT

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