In 711, Moors invaded and conquered the Iberian Peninsula; they ruled it for centuries until the time known as the Reconquista. But they were unable to overcome a small state in the northwest which remained under the control of Visigoths, originally a nomadic tribe of Germanic people. This state grew, expanding southward, and by the 11th century was known as Portugal. Several years ago on the last leg of a trip to that country, my husband Steve and I found ourselves in the area that was the root of today’s modern state: Portugal’s north-westernmost province, the Minho. (A brief note on pronunciation: in Portuguese, the “h” is always silent but affects the pronunciation of the letter that precedes it. If it’s an “n” as in Minho, or vinho, the “h” tells you to pronounce it like the “ñ” in mañana.)
As we travelled north on our way to the Minho, we passed through some lovely towns including Tomar, with its narrow, cobbled streets and traditional painted houses. Today the town that was founded during the Crusades, in 1119 along the banks of the Nabão River, is included in tourist itineraries principally because of is impressive castle and medieval Convent of Christ. But we were also interested in visiting the ancient synagogue there, the oldest well-preserved Jewish house of worship in Portugal. The sinagoga had been built in the 14th century to accommodate Jews who were already living in Tomar. It was in use until the edict of 1496 when, as in Spain during the period of the Inquisition, Jews were forced to convert or leave the country. It was, incidentally, almost five hundred years later, in 1987, that Portugal first apologized to Jews for centuries of persecution and, in 2013, a law was passed allowing the descendants of Jews to apply for nationality.
Further north, as we approached Porto, the second largest city in Portugal, we were again tempted to stop. We would have liked to explore the old town with its cramped streets and ancient alleys—it was declared a UNESCO World Heritage site in 2011—as well as the nearby mountainous region of Alto Douro where the grapes for port wine are grown. Although the world-famous wine, vinho do porto, takes its name from Porto, the city from which it’s shipped, it’s in the mountains that that the grapes are pressed, still by foot in many places to extract the juices and initiate fermentation, and the wine is fortified with brandy. As with champagne and cognac, only wine from that designated region can be called port.
Stopping in the area would have taken up all the time we had left, so we reluctantly bypassed Porto, and instead, drove on to where we’d booked lodgings just outside of the city of Viana do Castelo, almost at the northern border with Galicia in Spain. By the time we arrived, we thought it might have been too late for dinner, but in that part of the world it’s almost never too late for dinner. We were delighted to find that the hotel had a wonderful restaurant where, in this land of spectacular fish, we had succulent grilled Mediterranean sea bass—known in the U.S. by its Italian name, branzino. We shouldn’t have been surprised at how good it was; the Portuguese know how to cook fish. The country has the highest fish consumption per capita in Europe and enjoys a huge variety, including the popular fresh sardines.
I’d never had a sardine that wasn’t crammed into a can until we’d visited the Algarve, earlier in this trip. It was in Sagres Harbor where we had one of our most memorable meals of grilled sardines, sardinhas assada, covered with julienned carrots and onions that were sautéed and seasoned with a sweet and sour dressing. (I think I’ve reconstructed a pretty close version that I prepare at home when I can get fresh sardines.) Yet, with all of the fresh, dried fish available, salted cod is the fish that is most consumed in Portugal. Bacalhau is embedded in the Portuguese culture as their sailors fished for cod in the North Atlantic centuries before the invention of refrigeration. Drying it was the way to preserve it.
We were lucky to have checked with the concierge before we set off to do any sightseeing in Viana do Castelo the following day. We were told that shops and public sites would be closed because it was Corpus Christi, a holiday celebrated in the region with elaborate processions. Since there would be one in Ponte de Lima in the late afternoon, we decided to spend the day driving around the area and planned a route that would get us to that town by late afternoon.
We began our drive north along the coast to a town called Caminha. But when we got there we found that the main street was roped off and there were police standing guard. Curious to know why, we parked the car, and as we approached the street from which we’d been barred, we saw a lot of color. It wasn’t until we got closer that we realized the street was covered with elaborate and intricate patterns made from flower petals, augmented by various dyed bark, chips, leaves, and charcoal.
We joined the people on the sidewalks, walking alongside the flowered path, thinking we would walk up one side of the street and back down the other. But the path continued on along another street, and then another, until it finally stopped in a large square in front of a church. To our surprise and delight, we learned that in Caminha, the entire town decorates the streets early in the morning and that we’d inadvertently wandered into the best floral display in the north.
It wasn’t until later in the day that we arrived in Ponte de Lima in time to see the grand procession. First, a brass band led by booming drummers marched on the petal- carpeted streets. It was followed by young girls in their white first-communion outfits, clerics covered in bright red capes escorting the priests, and many others carrying colorful banners with religious symbols. It was a fabulous spectacle.
On our drive through villages and small towns we’d passed dozens of vineyards. The Minho is the prime vinho verde region of Portugal—one of my favorite wines, crisp and fruity. I’d always thought that vinho verde was white wine with a greenish cast: that the name referred to its color. It wasn’t until I saw tinto, red vinho verde, on a wine list that I learned the name refers to the fact that these wines are not aged; they’re young and fresh.
The way the vines are trained to grow in this part of the Minho, in a trellis system called enforcado (which literally means hanged) is interesting: the main stem of the vine, supported by thick poles, grows to a height of six feet or more. From these stems, leaves and tendrils spread out along wires to form a kind of roof, like a gigantic arbor, covering the entire field below. The vintners can walk underneath the vines to prune and later harvest the grapes. In home gardens, though, the vines are placed along the perimeter of the fields so that other crops can grow in the sun.
On our last days in the Minho we finally got to explore Viana do Castello which nestles next to the sea and the mouth of the Lima River. It’s a beautiful old city, dating back to 1258, with panoramic views and interesting architecture. Many of the historical buildings have survived since the 16th century when it was an important port for Portuguese explorers and traders. It has some noteworthy museums—and we can confirm that it has at least one excellent restaurant where we savored our last meal in the Minho before we left for Lisbon, and home. Of course, fish.
Carole Bell Ford is a Hudson Valley writer. Her books include The Girls: JewishWomen of Brownsville, Brooklyn 1940-1995 (State University of New York Press). An excerpt from The Girls was included in Jews of Brooklyn (University Press of New England, 2002). Her next book, The Women of CourtWatch: Reforming a corrupt family court system (University of Texas Press, 2005) was selected by the national organization, Justice for Children, as an outstanding work. After the Girls Club: How teenaged Holocaust survivors built new lives in America (Lexington Books) was published in 2010, and in 2013 an essay “Letters from Riverside,” based upon letters written by a young, mid-19th century feminist, was included in the award-winning anthology A Slant of Light, Contemporary Women Writers of the Hudson Valley. (Codhill Press, 2013). Her newest book is On and Off the Beaten Path: The best road trips in twenty years of travel in the U.S. and Canada, available through Amazon and other online sources.