Wonderful wandering in the Minho

Paul Bloomfield, 07 March, 2019
Wine, walking and truly memorable accommodation – just three of the reasons to visit Portugal’s northerly Minho region, writes travel journalist Paul Bloomfield…

One of life’s great mysteries – up there with why toast always lands butter-side down – is why there aren’t more Portuguese restaurants in the UK. We have Spanish tapas bars aplenty, of course, and we’re awash with French, Italian, even Thai eateries. But places specialising in delicacies from western Iberia? Not so much. And it’s an incomprehensible omission.

I was recently mulling this enigma during gentle ambles in Portugal’s northernmost, greenest and arguably tastiest region, the Minho. This ancient land – the very first part of what we now call Portugal to exist – is compact, squeezed between Galicia to the north and the Port-famous Douro region to the south – yet overflowing with local specialities.

There are delectable pastries, of course. You won’t want for pastéis de nata, the flakey custard tarts that have, at least, arrived on UK shores. But at the bustling Pastelaria Liz in Ponte da Barca you can also try orange-tinged quesjoadas de laranja, or boat-shaped os Magalhães, baked in honour of globe-circumnavigating hero Ferdinand Magellan.

Not such a sweet tooth? Ponte de Lima, with its Roman-cum-medieval bridge, ancient stone towers and fortnightly market – Portugal’s longest-running – dishes up delicious cod, kid, lamprey, trout, suckling pig and monkfish rice. Then there’s the rather gory but tasty town speciality: arroz de sarabulho – pig’s blood rice, garnished with all the pork you can eat.

But though the Minho’s cuisine is sensational, there are three other aspects that make a visit such a treat: wine, walking and truly memorable accommodation. And Inntravel’s Manor Houses of the Minho itinerary showcases the best of all three.

It’s half a millennium since the riches of the New World began to flow into Portugal, much of it through the port of Viana do Castelo in the Minho. The result was that these verdant hills and valleys, long swathed in vineyards, became studded with stately whitewashed manor houses, many of which now offer grander-than-average accommodation to walkers. Inntravel’s trip links some of the best manor houses with shortish, gentle strolls – just long enough to work up an appetite.

We started from the Quinta de Malta in the village of Durrães. Its massive granite walls are a reminder of past glories, though the swimming pool, tennis court, games room and delightful, orange-tree-shaded gardens speak of more modern comforts. As elsewhere, the food is fresh as a daisy, mostly organic from the quinta's own lands. And all washed down with the fruitiest wines.

This is Portugal’s biggest wine-producing region and the home of vinho verde, a light, often slightly sparkling ‘green’ wine. The reds here are a bit of an acquired taste, but the whites – particularly the young, aromatic Loureiro and Alvarinho, are a refreshing treat, appearing on tables everywhere.

Our walk north from Durrães passed perilously close to Chocolate Avianense, Portugal’s oldest producer; though the factory itself isn’t too picturesque, it houses an interesting museum outlining the country’s long history of drinking chocolate from Brazil, and – most importantly – an outlet shop where you can pick up samples of Imperador milk chocs made with toasted almond.

Before long, at the medieval Ponte de Tabua bridge, we picked up the Caminho de Santiago, one of the Portuguese pilgrimage trails snaking north to Santiago de Compostela. Though less busy than the best-known route through northern Spain, we joined a sparse stream of walkers as we followed the familiar scallop-shell waymarks between appealing villages and through eucalyptus forests to reach our next welcoming base, the Quinta do Sobreiro.

From here, Inntravel's route is deliberately circuitous, aiming for the River Lima and the peaceful ecovia  (traffic-free path) that follows its southern bank. At its busiest you might pass a bike or two, though more likely you’ll see more egrets, herons and kingfishers than people until you reach the outskirts of Ponte de Lima. The approach is spectacular, along a cathedral-like avenue of ancient plane trees, and the town itself – Portugal’s oldest (you’re getting the idea), founded in 1125 – is a little gem of plazas and alleys, cafés and bars, not to mention the vinho verde interpretation centre where you can get up-to-speed on the regional varietals with a relaxed tasting.

The final leg of the journey took us on a meandering hike along the broad Lima valley to the manor to end all manors: the Paço de Calheiros. Mostly dating from the 17th century, this rambling whitewashed edifice is more palace than hotel, though the current Count of Calheiros, the sparkling-eyed Francisco, is as down-to-earth and welcoming as he is knowledgeable and charming, with an infectious sense of humour (he’s particularly proud of his son’s success in a Prince William lookalike competition!). On a greatest-hits tour of the house, he showed us the magnificent carved chestnut altar in the family chapel (built atop the tomb of an unnamed Napoleonic soldier), the family crest – its five scallop shells indicating long association with the Caminho de Santiago – the vast stone fireplaces, roe deer grazing the chestnut orchards, and, of course, the winery.

Sipping a glass of his own sparkling vinho verde, inhaling the aroma of orange blossom in the spectacular stepped gardens overlooking the Lima Valley, that evening we toasted a week of wonderful wandering, of lush vineyards, historic manors and – of course – feasting on the Minho’s inimitable cuisine. Saúde!

Manor Houses of the Minho

Far from the bustle of the Algarve, the northerly Minho is a tranquil and surprisingly little-visited region – despite its reputation as one of the most scenic corners of the country, with superb walking trails that take in sections of the Portuguese Caminho de Santiago. Choose our leisurely route to explore beautiful countryside and ancient towns, and to enjoy sparkling vinho verde and magnificent manor-house accommodation.
More about our self-guided walking holidays in Portugal >
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