Situated in the South of the Minho Region, Guimarães sees itself as the cradle of the nation of Portugal. It was the birthplace of the first king, Alfonso Henriques, in 1110 and first capital of the kingdom, then known as ‘Portucale’.
Although, it lost its position as capital to Coimbra, in 1143, its wealth of medieval monuments and attractive narrow streets has earned it UNESCO World Heritage status.
Guimarães can be reached by bus, car or train from Porto. When planning our visit, we found that there was a direct train but it stopped at every station enroute and we decided that car was the best travel option for us.
In 2012, Guimarães will be European Capital of Culture and it was clear when we arrived that every effort is being made to live up to the accolade. The roads were being repaired and building work was being carried out everywhere.
There is no parking in the historic centre, which is pedestrianised, and the metered parking was at a premium, largely as a result of the building works. Our Rough Guide to Portugal advised using the free car park at Largo das Hortas. Following the signs for the Teleférico - having given up on our satnav - we eventually reached our destination and found that plenty of parking spaces were available.
A short walk up the Largo da Republica do Brasil brought us to the Largo da Oliveira a large square at the entrance to the old centre of the city. We were struck immediately by how lively the place was. Local cafes and bars were populated by locals, students from the university and, of course, tourists like us.
The convent church of Igreja de Nossa Senhora da Oliveira is the dominant building in the square. In front of it stands a shrine to commemorate the Battle of Salado. It also marks the spot where Wamba, reluctant king of the Visigoths is said to have driven a stake into the ground swearing that he would not accept the crown until it sprouted. Legend has it, that it did so immediately.
There are many museums in the immediate vicinity but, with so much to see and a limited time to see it, we decided to delve into the history of the area.
After a drink in one of the many outdoor café’s, we walked from Largo da Oliveira to the neighbouring square of Praça de Santiago and on to the Rua de Santa Maria. This leads up towards the imposing Castelo at the top of the hill and passes many of the towns most historic buildings. These include the 16th century Convento de Santa Clara with its baroque façade. This beautiful building now serves as the Câmara Municipal.
The climb up the Rua de Santa Maria is an energetic experience but at the top we were rewarded by the sight of the Castelo and the knowledge that the journey back was all downhill!
The Castelo was original a fort, that was built in the 10th century by the Countess of Mumadona, to protect the people of Guimarães from attack from the Moors and the Normans. In the 12th century it was extended by Alfonso Henriques, who set up his court there.
Through the centuries it fell into disrepair and became a debtor’s prison in the 19 century. It was renovated in the 1940’s. The keep, reputed to have been the birthplace of Alfonso, is and impressive structure surrounded by seven fortified towers. It can be reached from the walls over a walkway and 77 steps opening into a narrow tower.
We decided to forgo the pleasure of a further climb and instead visited the small, but beautifully proportioned, Romanesque chapel of São Miguel do Castelo on the grassy slope close by. This building contains the font in which tradition has it that Afonso was baptised.
Next to the chapel is the Paço dos Duques de Bragança.
The first construction dates from 1420-22, most probably influenced by the French style. The building was conceived as a symbol of the pride of the Bragança family and served as their palace until the 16th century. The ruins were restored, by the Salazar regime, as the official residence for the President.
Whilst the building today, is a mixture of architectural styles, it is still possible to imagine its former magnificence. We were particularly impressed by the extensive collection of paintings, tapestries and artefacts that tell the story of Portugal’s past and the age of the Discoverers who opened up the routes to the new world in the west and the old world in the east.
Most tourists arrive at the area around the Castelo by coach and are disgorged at the grassy mound in front of it and collected there after they have visited the sites. Whilst this is undoubtedly easier than the trek up the Rua de Santa Maria, we would have missed so much had we taken this option.
Our trip back to the heart of the old town was much easier than the ascent and we were soon enjoying the culinary delights of the area in one of the outdoor restaurants situated in Praça de Santiago.
A visit to, and tour of, Guimarães is something that all visitors to the North of Portugal should undertake. This gem is often overlooked in favour of its near neighbour Braga. This is a mistake that will no doubt be rectified when its profile will be enhanced when it becomes European Capital of Culture in 2012.
A tour of the Minho Region with visits to Guimarães, Braga and Ponte de Lima is included as part of ‘A Three Cities Tour of Portugal' tour that has been developed and is being marketed by Ambient Tours.