No one place is typical of Northern Portugal. It is a region of contrasts, where the cultures and traditions shift and change with the landscape; a region of terraced vineyards and granite villages, lush river valleys and mountains snow-capped in winter, cool deserted beaches and medieval alleys, urban bustle and remote, isolated communities, vinho verde and toucinho do ceu (“bacon from heaven”), and even the sound of bagpipes (gaita transmontana). On the eastern coast, the vibrant city of Porto; in the west, rock engravings from Paleolithic times.
Known as the “city of bridges”, Porto stands where the river Douro flows into the Atlantic. The historic base of the port wine trade, Porto has always been an energetic commercial centre, typified by the noise and bustle of its markets, whether on the streets along the waterfront or inside the covered Mercado do Bolhao in the city centre. In the old quarter of Ribeira, a jumble of narrow cobbled streets lead you past bars and restaurants, with offerings of freshly caught fish and local tripas a moda do Porto.
Directly across the river, Vila Nuova de Gaia has a stunning waterfront promenade, overlooked by a steep maze of warehouses with distinctive terracotta roofs. The nearby fishing village of Afurada, bedecked with azulejo tiles, still maintains many of the old traditional ways.
Beyond Porto, the region seems to retire into a different space. On the northwest coast, along the Costa Verde, the less reliable, cooler climate ensures its long sandy beaches become almost your own personal domain. It is no surprise that so many Portugese regard the fertile Minho area as the most beautiful in the country. Streams and rivers tumble from the various Serra ranges, lush green valleys are rich in flowers and wildlife, while small stone villages are connected to an older age. Ideal for walkers, providing easy progress with spacious views, the paths follow the slow progress of bygone ox-drawn carts.
Lively and compact, the original capital of Portugal, Guimaraes – known as Cidado Berco, the “cradle city” – retains its medieval piazzas, cobbled streets and alleys. Its 10th century castle with its distinctive battlements still overlooks the city. Nearby Braga is Portugal’s main religious centre, where for once you may suspect there are fewer shops than churches, built in an abundance of architectural styles. There is evidence of round stone huts, roads and cattle sheds belonging to an ancient Celtic settlement at the Citania de Briteiris, and extensive Roman remains at the Bacara Augusta. Vila Real is home to the fabled Mateus Palace, one of the great jewels of baroque design, which has dazzled visitors since 1745.
Over the centuries, the Tras Os Montes area in northeastern Portugal was almost left to its own devices (“Those who rule are those who are there”), and consequently has a unique culture of folkloric traditions. Seasonal festivals with extraordinary costumes remain regular events among the scattered villages. Vast plateaus and river valleys are a perfect invitation to hikers, who can often find themselves on their own for hours, apart from the company of the occasional wandering goat. Along the border with Spain, a series of castles hark back to a more turbulent past.
25,000 years ago, our paleolithic ancestors made engravings on the dark schist rocks to be found around Foz Coa, and these extraordinary carvings can be viewed today – though advance booking is advised, as visits need to be accompanied by a guide.
Central to the region, however, and crucial to its character, is the great river Douro. As it meanders its way towards Porto, the endless terraces filled with vines provide a memorable backcloth to any journey. Whether the sun rises or the sun sets, a glass of port is at hand, and the tranquility and timelessness of the Douro remains.