Guimaraes – The First Capital of Portugal

by Mar 5, 2020Castles, Portugal, Tour Five Spring 2020

It’s Tuesday the 3rd of March and the rain is teeming down in the small city of Guimaraes, thirty odd miles northeast of Porto. Iggy has spent a wet and windy night tucked against the face of a hill in the large, dirt, car park opposite the free, motorhome service area. Jay has just returned from taking Marley for a very short morning toilet walk. They bring rain smells which Marley promptly shakes enthusiastically all over me, the walls, the seat covers – everything!

A very sodden looking Jay hangs his dripping jacket in the bathroom. His jeans quickly follow and he pads around in his boxers as I use his morning movements for the start of my story. He passes Marley Dog her “good girl” slice of salami for coming home, a tradition we inadvertently created when she was a puppy in Greece. A small treat every time we brought her back into the van from a walk. To make our poor, abandoned pup feel safe – feel at home. 

Within days she was looking for her treat as soon as we came home. Stopping dead inside the doorway and sitting there – expectant, waiting – until the morsel was delivered. Somehow we could never bring ourselves to end the tradition. Marley would never understand. And now the great lump leaps on the sofa as soon as she’s home. Turns to face the fridge and gives us her irresistible waiting face.

Jay busies himself around the van. Cleaning up last night’s detritus from around me as the coffee perks on the stove. Pulling pain au chocolat from the goodie cupboard for breakfast. Orange juice, bananas. A large mug of oat milk cappuccino plonks itself down a few inches away from my right hand. Jay slides into the dinette seat opposite and vanishes into the morning news on his phone as I tap… tap… tap on the laptop keys.

The rain is set to last all day and there is no hurry to get on the road. I can take my time to write my story. Now I just have to figure out where to begin…

Iggy parked opposite the Motorhome services in Guimaraes

We’ve been in Guimaraes for two nights – setting off to drive here from Agueda back on Sunday morning. It was a longish drive for us at just under three hours for only 128 kilometres. We could have knocked that time in half by using the toll roads, but we were in no hurry. And the toll roads are bland, boring affairs that tell us little about the country we are driving through.

Off toll we could easily tell we were drawing close to a large city as the traffic increased, and the aggression and impatience of the drivers with it. We had almost forgotten how atrocious driving can be in Portugal as we dotted around the villages and small towns over on the east side of the country. Traffic is light there and seldom a problem. But here, as Porto grew closer every second, we were unhappily reminded that Portuguese driving is among the worst we have encountered in Europe.

Jay and I discuss which country it most reminds us of and settle for Romania with a dash of south of England. There is that general sense of impatience and total disregard for other road users that is so prevalent in England. And a similar habit to Romanians of appearing to just throw the vehicle at anything resembling a gap. Whether or not another vehicle is actually about to fill it and will have to cause an eight car pile up slamming the brakes on to avoid you!

In busy places the Portuguese seem, if anything, worse. Worse than I remember them as well. Perhaps the steady downpour of rain is making them drive faster, more impatiently. Perhaps they are just driving the same way they do on a dry, sunny day. Not adjusting for the weather, and setting my nerves dancing on a knife edge in the process.

There are other signs that we are passing by a large city. The derelict fincas give way to more and more blocks of dull, unappealing flats. The urban area around Porto is large and the countryside disappears into the modern city mix of steel, glass and concrete. Villages and towns stretch long, familiar fingers of retail park and industrial estate to touch their neighbours. 

In one of the gaps between towns we pass a woman sitting on her own in a large layby. A shabby place with bins, a blackened shrine, rubbish, mud. The kind of spot where truck drivers stop for a break when their tachographs dictate.

The kind of place we often pass young women, incongruously dressed in uber high heels. Looking out of place as they pop in or out of truck drivers’ cabs. Or dropped off from fancy looking cars. Checking their phones as they wait, like this woman. Sitting on some old plastic chair she had found. Umbrella lying open on the ground – temporarily discarded in a break in the rain.

A common sight everywhere we go. Lone women in deserted laybys.

It’s a relief when the press of buildings eases off a little and larger areas of countryside start to stretch out between the towns again. The rain holds off to occasional drizzle with a side order of “getting a little windy” as we finally reach Guimaraes and follow our Co-Pilot satnav’s directions through the town and up to the free motorhome stopover. 

All the spaces around the service point were empty, although we’d passed quite a few vans parked in the big car park opposite, and down below as well. The service point was on the hill near the cable car station with good, clear views. But the spaces were unfortunately just a little bit too short for comfort. 

Iggy generally fits quite well into a “normal” car space, so long as we’re at the outside where he can hang his little bum over a verge. But in these spaces, although his wheels fitted in just fine, his nose was sticking out just a tiny bit. Tucked in a car park corner this wouldn’t have been a problem. But, although quiet and fairly out of the way, it was a bit of road that he faced in this spot. And despite there being plenty of space I just didn’t trust Portuguese drivers not to careen into his bumper on their way past.

There was no end of space in the big dirt car park opposite though, and it was not too far from the service point if we needed it. Jay bumped up the steep entrance ramp and we settled Iggy into an empty corner and quickly set out to try and see a bit of the town before the rain tap was turned back on to full again.

Maybe the Rain Gods were just angry about the grafitti?

It’s a short walk down the hill to the town centre, but we hadn’t got far before the rain started up again. I have a habit of giving our umbrellas to homeless people begging on soggy street corners. And Jay has a habit of putting them down and forgetting to pick them up again. So obviously we didn’t have an umbrella to our names, and I really didn’t feel like getting soaked.

I also really didn’t feel like failing to at least take a quick walk around, and spending a few hours outside the van. And poor old Marley needed a proper walk – rain or no rain. So we decided to carry on regardless and hope the rain Gods would have a bit of mercy on us.

Thankfully they must have decided to reward us for our umbrella sharing activities and cut the downpour into brief, blustery bursts. The first one was over almost as quickly as it had begun and in just a few minutes we came out from the car park areas at the foot of the once magnificent Nossa Senhora da Consolação e dos Santos Passos Church. 

Despite it’s filthy facade and chipped off tile work it is still an incredible building. The landscaped gardens stretching up towards the castle area didn’t look quite as pretty in the rain as they had in the Google images I’d seen. But they were pretty enough to entice us onwards to see what else we could find.

I had only taken a glimpse of the castle, the church and gardens and the word “medieval” before deciding to come to Guimaraes. So I was more than delighted when we spotted the entrance way to a medieval old town at the top of the gardens. Result! It looked like Guimaraes might be the fascinating place of Portuguese history I had been looking for.

As we reached the old town the rain Gods happily started emptying God sized trucks of clouds on the ancient stones of the city. They had clearly noticed we had lots of archways and arcades to dodge between for shelter. It limited us to a smallish, central area in the old city if we didn’t want to be soaked through. But that was fine with me ( and even finer for Jay who is always delighted when a walk is shorter than he expected!) The forecast was for brighter spells tomorrow and we would stay two nights and see more of the town then.

Mask sculptures at Guimaraes Old Town

For this afternoon I was happy with a quick peek round the rain washed streets and plazas. I grabbed a few shots of tour groups of tourists with their brightly coloured umbrellas. We gasped in horror at the prices in the cafes, restaurants and gift shops. For things to cost a bit more was understandable. But when touristy places charge two or three times more than normal prices I would need to be a very hungry puppy indeed to eat there.

We finally managed to find a place that hadn’t elevated it’s prices beyond the scope of normal Portuguese families and had lots of pretty looking beers for Jay to try. The waiter was a friendly, helpful guy who fussed over Marley as we settled ourselves under the giant umbrellas in the plaza and watched the rain hit the waterproof clad tourists.

My glass of wine was enormous and Jay had to drink two beers in the time it took me to finish it. We shared a giant sandwich between the three of us, and then the rain Gods sent us a final little gift to finish off the day. A poor looking man scurrying around the streets with hands full of umbrellas – looking for wet people to sell them to.

Perfect! I ran out from the cover of the cafe and pounced upon him for a price. 

“Cinco. Five.” he mumbled shyly, holding up five fingers.

“Great. Two please. Dois por favor.” I grinned happily back at him. Holding up two of my own fingers in return.

The ten minute walk home we had been dreading in the now solid, teeming rain, was no longer a problem. The umbrellas were cheap and nasty, and would probably not last too long. But they were large, they looked okay, and they kept us warm and dry all the way back to Iggy. And somewhere out there a poor looking Portuguese man had a little bit more than he did this morning. 

Somewhere high above us the rain Gods smiled and threw some fifty mile an hour winds at us to lull us to sleep.

The next day the weather was much more agreeable to wandering around a rather fabulous medieval city in Portugal. The sun shone prettily on the beautiful sights around us, and the odd sprinkle of rain was so light and short lived that our new brollies were barely unfurled at all.

Guimaraes could easily fill a short book or three, and if you ever visit then there are plenty to be found in the tourist shops. I dare say there are many to be found in the many museums as well, but as they never allow dogs in we sadly didn’t get to find out. Even the ruined castle wouldn’t let us take poor Marley in – which was particularly annoying as the entry fee was only two euros each.

Plenty of umbrellas in Oliviera Square

This is clearly the castle that toy forts are modelled on

The unusual shapes of the Palace of the Dukes of Braganza

Below the castle the historic Palace of the Dukes of Braganza was a particularly appealing museum I would have loved a wander around the inside of. The architecture is fascinating and Jay laughed at me when I told him it reminded me of an old lunatic asylum.

“Oh come on!” I responded. “That’s definitely a building you don’t want to go into if you’re sick. ‘Cause you just know you’re never coming back out again! If I was making a horror movie about an asylum that’s exactly the building I’d choose.”

Apparently the inside is decorated with appropriate antique furnishings to replicate how it would probably have looked back when the Dukes lived there. But as we had the shaggy one in tow we were never going to find out what it looked like.

With a slightly regretful sigh I turned my back on the dusty, fading dreams of long dead men who had appropriated vast amounts of wealth, and set off to wander the streets we had missed the day before. And as we meandered I realised more and more that Guimaraes was much more than we had first thought it to be.

 Guimaraes is a beautiful town. A smart town. A town with a varied and rich architectural heritage, and a fair share of pricy, up market boutique shops, and sleek, expensive cars.

It was a pleasant and unexpected turn of events for us to see a slightly different side of Portugal than we had seen previously. The fortified cities of the Spanish borderlands, the flat, tiled fishing villages of the coast. The teeming, breathtaking, poverty riddled splendour of Porto. And now, a wealthy, well heeled middle class, European north.

Iconic Portuguese architecture – complete with washing.


As we continued I spotted a barber shop and  ran in to ask the barbers if they would cut Jay’s hair and beard for him. He’d accidentally left his clippers at my Barber trained daughter’s house a month or so before we left Scotland. I love him whatever he looks like, and he enjoys changing image with his fast growing chin hair. But I know he hates it when his head hair is not the way he wants it.

The guys in the shop had a free chair and were more than happy to fill it with my ginger bearded Scotsman. They offered me and Marley a seat but I decided we’d wait outside instead. The shop was tiny and our over friendly beast takes up quite a lot of floor space. I imagined we would wander around window shopping while we waited, but Marley had other ideas. She’s a loyal big beastie, and plonked herself squarely in the middle of the pavement outside to wait for her pal to come back out again.

It seemed to take forever as I waited, nervously ,for some unsuspecting Portuguese pensioner to break a leg falling over my immovable obstacle course of a dog.

Happily everyone took the other path when they spotted her. Probably causing a substantial loss of income to nearby businesses, but thankfully no lawsuits for loss of life or limb. And, in what was probably only about fifteen minutes, Jay was suitably de-furred at a cost of twelve euro fifty, and we celebrated with a late lunch at the nearby cafe.

This time my glass of wine was so huge that Jay had to drink three glasses of beer before I was finished. We were about done with wandering for one day, and decided it was time for home and some veg out time with Netflix.

We had covered a lot of the town centre by now, but I managed to find a few more interesting streets to wander on a roundabout route home. Even in this affluent area there were a good number of more dilapidated old buildings. As we dropped down nearer the river the numbers of derelict places grew higher. And as usual I was saddened to see so many truly lovely old buildings allowed to rot.

I found an intriguing, quirky little alleway following the river towards the church and road up to our parking spot. As we came out on to an old stone river walkway we passed a peeling apart old wooden warehouse. Then we turned a corner and found our final surprise. Old stone pits and a water wheel were spread out around the river banks. 

There were no signs, but it had the look of an old dye works, and I later found information on Google to confirm it. An old tannery and dye pits to put a perfect full stop on a thoroughly interesting and beautiful day out.

Our legs were worn out and it was definitely time to take the last few minutes walk back to Iggy on his hillside parking. Tomorrow we would head further north for Braga. Our money was running low and it was nearly time to leave Portugal behind and wind our way slowly home.

But for tonight there was still time for vinho tinto, movies, and Iggy rock… rock… rocking in the wind.

Fi. x

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