A Portuguese man with a big smile greets me as I exit the airport. It’s one of the few times I get picked up from an airport with a sign. This trip is off to a good start already, and it doesn’t even matter that my name on the sign is spelled with a k. The man’s name turns out to be Francisco, and he presents himself as the tour leader of my 3-day exploration trip of Hotel Minho and the amazing area called Alto Minho in northern Portugal, bordering Spain.
Travel blogger and girlfriend Claire accompanies me as well, and she’s equally excited. We sit down briefly to have a sip of coffee since we had been up since 3:30 am (curse these early flights!), and Francisco takes this opportunity to explain to us what’s in store for the next few days. He shows us a draft version (it should be finished by the time this article is published) of the area’s new brochure on his tablet, and I have to say that it looks nothing less than spectacular.
The unspoiled nature, the impressive historic sights and don’t forget the world-class food and wines… What’s not to like? We get in Francisco’s van and set off. Soon he immerses us into his extensive knowledge of the area and the sights. Lucky for me, Claire is taking notes, which gives me time to take it all in.
In the next few days, we are driven around the beautiful area of Alto Minho, up along the coast from Porto through Viana de Castelo and Vila Nova de Cerveira in northern Portugal. The road takes us in between the rivers Minho and Lima, and on our way, we pass plenty of vineyards that produce the area’s famous Vinho Verde wines such as the fresh summer wines Alvarinho and Loureiro.
Igreja de Santa Luzia: what a view!
Always wanted to be king of the world? This is your chance. Make your way to the top of the mountain and you’ll find the magnificent Church of Santa Luzia and a perhaps even more magnificent view of Viana de Castelo.
The roman / byzantine church was finished in 1959 and features an iconic rose window made in Lisbon by architect Ricardo Leone, which also happens to be the biggest on the Iberian peninsula.
How to get to the Santa Luzia church
There are several ways of getting to the top, just choose one according to your desired level of comfort:
- The ‘Elevador de Santa Luzia’ cable car, which departs from the Viana de Castelo railway station and costs € 3.00 for a round trip (or € 2.00 for a single). Do take in account that this service doesn’t run every day of the week, and only certain months in the year. Check the website of the Viana de Castelo council for more information.
- Walk up the hill if you’re up for it. Don’t blame me if your calf muscles give up 😉 It’s about 45 minutes up a winding road, but you will be handsomely rewarded once you make it to the top. Try this route.
- Drive up. If you have a car to your disposal and don’t feel like walking, you can drive all the way up to the viewing point and church.
There is no entrance fee to the Church of Santa Luzia, but donations are welcome (as in every church).
See the location and directions.
Fortaleza de Valença: northern Portugal’s medieval times revived
This 13th-century fortress has been destroyed by just about everyone throughout the times, be it the Barbarians, the Arabs, and even the French. Time and time again the Valençians showed their pride and work ethic by rebuilding it stone by stone. Even now it felt like I was wandering in a medieval village where I could expect armored knights and wooden carriages around every corner. The view from the fortress is truly impeccable; you can see the lovely Minho river, the Eco Via and you will even have a grand view of the Spanish city of Tui with its prominent cathedral standing out.
The fortress was practically deserted when I visited in October; perhaps it gets a little bit busier during the high season. Although I visited the sight during the day, strolling inside the medieval walls on a warm summer evening must be truly magical.
How to get to the Fortaleza de Valença
- The fortress is a 15-minute walk from the train station.
- Parking your car should be easy near the back entrance of the fortress, close to the international bridge to Spain.
There is no entrance fee for the Valença fortress.
Palácio da Brejoeira: a great gift idea for an 18-year-old
What presents did you get from your father when you turned 18? A gift voucher? A primitive cellphone? Or perhaps even a brand new car? Well.. how about a ginormous palace? One lucky lady received the latter, and she still resides there even in her late 90’s. The lady in question is Maria Herminia Oliveira Paes, and the palace in question the Palácio da Brejoeira. This palace opened to the public only since 2010, is an aesthetically pleasing neoclassical masterpiece and boasts a far-reaching garden and a vineyard where the homonymous Alvarinho wine is produced. Luxury was certainly the common denominator of my trip to the Alto Minho area, and a visit to this palace was no exception. Looking for more luxurious destinations? Find your own palace to stay in during your travels.
How to get to Palácio da Brejoeira
- There is no easy way to get there without personal transport. The palace is an hour walk from Monção and there is no public transport in the area. You could try hitchhiking there, or otherwise hiring a bicycle in Monção and cycling there.
Make sure you take notice of the opening hours first. The entrance fee per person ranges from € 5.00 for a simple visit to the palace and garden to € 10.00 for an estate visit with wine tasting and can be bought online through Paypal. Warning: this website automatically plays classical music.
Termas de Melgaço: medical treatment for the body and mind
While this thermal spa is only available to use with a doctor’s appointment, I was able to get a tour through it’s recently refurbished buildings. The friendly and humorous general manager, Miguel Evangelista, invites us for a detailed tour of the impressive facilities. We examine room after room, where we get an explanation of the medical instruments, each using the therapeutic waters in a different way to alleviate pain and loosen muscles. The treatment has been advised to use for a number of illnesses such as Diabetes and Dyslipidemia. If you’re looking for (not particularly medical) wellness travel, give Destsetters a try.
The undisputed show-pony of the tour is the Buvete source. In early times, only a simple well was used to draw the thermal water from its source. In 1915 the colorful surrounding aula was finished, giving the source an almost fairy-tale like atmosphere. No wonder that this dome is used for several occasions such as product launches, classical concerts (!), weddings and movie viewings.
How to get to the Termas de Melgaço
- The spa offers a free bus transfer from the center of Melgaço which runs two times per day.
Since the spa is purely used for medical reasons, it is not open for general public use. It is surrounded by a beautiful park, and when a (public) event takes place at the Buvete source building it is definitely worth visiting.
For more information visit the website of Termas de Melgaço.
MQ Vinhos: where northern Portugal’s famous Alvarinho wine has been made for generations
We get in Francisco’s van once again to stop one last time before we can retreat in Hotel Minho again. We’ve been hearing a lot throughout the day about a monk called Miguel, who devoted his life to making Alto Minho’s famous Alvarinho wine. It was quite an exciting mental picture, and I was eager to hear more.
Somewhere along the way one of the others in the van asks the inevitable question: “Does Miguel wear a brown robe all day?”. Francisco chucked, “well, he’s not a real monk you know, we just call him that because he lives a bit secluded, isn’t married and makes wine all day”. Everybody in the van cracks up as we adjust our expectations.
After an enjoyable ride amongst green hills and acres of vineyards all around us, we suddenly pull onto a side road. We’re here, Francisco announces. We see a beautiful medieval-style house (more like an estate), which looks like it has been renovated recently. Miguel, not looking much like a monk at all actually, meets our van. Let the good times roll.
We get a tour through the winery, where big metal vats are used to crush the grapes. “The mechanics are similar to the ancient foot-crushing method”, Miguel explains. We are lead to the vineyard where Miguel picks a grape: “their grapes are grown on the highest altitude in the area, and they are picked 3 weeks later than the others, for flavor reasons”. He produces around 10.000 bottles of Alvarinho wine every year, which is relatively little compared to the other winemakers in the area.
We proceed to the tasting of the wine. Now I would have loved to explain to you in painstaking detail the mixture of flavors and which of my 5.000 tastebuds were affected by it, but since my taste palate is nowhere near sophistication, I’ll just say it was a really nice fresh wine. Satisfied, and a little bit tipsy, we jump into the van again.
The wine tasting concludes our excursions for the day, and after a short drive we arrive in pleasant Hotel Minho again. What’s next, the spa or a world-class dinner?
You can find more information on the MQ Vinhos website.