The walled city of Valença do Minho has a commanding view of the countryside.
Northwest Portugal’s Vinho Verde Route is bypassed daily by tourists in favor of its well-known southern cousin, the Algarve. Ironically, flights heading to Portugal’s vacation hot-spot often land in the north, where a few visitors with a knowing glint in their eyes disembark.And why the twinkle? Soon those travelers will relish the savory cuisine, fresh air and meandering roads punctuated with chronicles of lore that can only be found in this corner of Portugal.
A horse grazes outside the walls of Valença do Minho.
There’s something else to discover too: Vinho verde, the northwest’s regional wine.
The literal translation means “green wine,” and its medium alcoholic content and fruity flavor make it the perfect companion for meals enjoyed along this route, which runs from the Douro River north to the Spanish border.
The historic city of Porto, whose old center has been deemed a World Heritage site by UNESCO, is the gateway to the Vinho Verde route.
With the enchanting Douro River rimming Porto on the south, colorful old buildings perch elegantly on incredibly narrow streets and laundry flutters from balconies.
To rub elbows with the locals, especially in the late afternoon, the place to go is the Cais da Ribeira, or river quays. This dockside area with an abundance of outdoor cafes is the perfect spot to see rabelos, the antique boats used to transport another fermented favorite, the city’s fabled Port wine, from the vineyards downstream to the cellars for aging.
That tradition ended in 1965, and now the wine makes its way by truck, however, the methods of achieving that world-renowned Port are the same as centuries ago. To learn more about that process, visitors can take the guided tours offered at the Port lodges in Vila Nova de Gaia, the center of Port wine production, just a 15-minute walk from the Ribeira on the other side of the Douro river.
Thirty-seven miles (60 km) north of Porto and right on the Atlantic Ocean is Viana do Castelo, a town with roots stretching back to 1258. The town, a vibrant fishing community, was the launching pad for some of Portugal’s famous explorers who set off to chart an unknown world in the 15th century.
Port was originally transported downstream in barrels on traditional wooden boats. Each Port lodge maintains one of these historic boats.
These days, Viana, as it is known to natives, is the place to go for authentic northern cuisine such as vinho verde and Rojões à Minhota, a tasty meal of roast pork and sausage.
The top of the domed Santa Luzia Sanctuary here offers a panoramic view. Although an elevator will take visitors up in about 10 seconds, walking up the concrete steps will earn you bragging rights, especially if you squeeze through the inexplicably narrow spiral staircase that claustrophobics would be well advised to avoid. But the reward is well worth the effort: an unparalleled view of the city with the Atlantic Ocean beyond.
Slightly northeast and directly on the Spanish border, with only the River Minho as a dividing marker, is the walled town of Valença do Minho. It was this strategic position that made the area desirable as a fortress.
The fort walls, although destroyed numerous times throughout history by different warring factions (Barbarians, Arabs and most recently, the French in the 19th century) are still standing and well preserved. A stroll alongside the fortress wall reveals vignettes of a simpler life.
A view of the historic city of Porto, as seen from across the River Douro.
Locals go for horseback rides, sheep graze along the river and children kick soccer balls. Inside the walls, neighbors chat from their windows to passersby and flowers are left at the little chapels that line the cobbled streets.
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