From Porto, we continued north for a few days of exploring the Minho. I’ve always enjoyed the sense of mystery and magic that surrounds the Celts. I think it started somewhere in high school when I read Edward Rutherford’s The Princes of Ireland. Soon, I was the proud owner of about 3500 coffee table books about Ireland and Scotland. I was buying calendars with pictures of castles by the truckload, only to carefully pull each one apart and stick the photos on my bedroom wall. Some girls had Justin Timberlake…I had Eilean Donan.
My Celtic daydreams were so focused on the UK and Ireland, I often forget that the Celts were everywhere. Their influence stretched across most western European countries and even into Turkey.
The northern part of the Iberian peninsula was no exception and several sight in Northern Portugal boast well preserved Celtic Ruins. When we arrived to Citania de Briteiros, arguable one of the most interesting of Norther Portugal’s Celtic sites, we had the place almost entirely to ourselves. It took us a little over an hour to wander through the well preserved ruins.
From Citania de Briteiros, we headed towards Viana do Castelo, where we stopped for lunch at Churrosqueria Valencia. The north western most region of Portugal (Minho) is one of the least frequently visited parts of the country, but exploring the Minho is well worth it for those who are keen to escape the crowds.
The restaurant came highly recommended as a place for affordable and delicious local food. Our waitress spoke a little German, but describing her English as elementary would be an overstatement. Luckily, Aleks had picked up enough Portuguese by that point to ask for the same delicious ribs our neighbors were having. (If you’re thinking, anyone with a hand can point to what their neighbor is having, let me assure you that he most definitely had (the best) words.)
Our neighbors also ordered this caramelized flan-like cake, which looked like it would taste perfect when washed down with our little (bitter) cups of Portuguese espresso, so naturally we ordered a slice of that as well.
After lunch, we headed out for a much needed walk. We strolled around the walls of the fortress, breathing in the fresh air and trying to imagine the city in its heyday.
As much as we enjoyed walking around Viana do Castelo, the grass is always greener; as soon as we caught a glimpse of what appeared to be another fortress staring back at us from the Spanish side of the river we knew exactly where we had to go next.
Far from experts on the nuances between Spanish and Portuguese culture, we tried to see if we could detect any differences between the two sides of the river (aside from the language…not really) and spent at least 10 minutes musing like a couple of old grannies about how easy it is to travel within the Schengen zone.
The day was cloudy, but somehow it just made everything seem moody and slightly intimidating.
We marveled at the carvings as we entered the church. I don’t think I’ll ever tire of visiting churches in Europe.
The courtyard was quiet, although we did share it with a few older couples from Spain. Still the sheer number of artifacts out in the open available for perusing was impressive.
Unfortunately, there was little information available in English, so it was a bit challenging to understand the significance of what we were looking at.
In the courtyard, we spotted what we were sure were limes. We were ready to lift a few and make some margaritas, but upon closer inspection turned out to be unripe oranges.
As usual, beautiful tile work was lurking around every corner.
From there, we headed to our accommodation. The room was perfect, but the grounds were almost too quiet. There was a family staying in one of the apartments in the next building, and we got the impression that we would be disturbing them if we went down to lay by the pool or take a dip.
So we entertained ourselves with a quick drive to the town of Moncao.
Things were pretty quiet when we arrived, and most places had already closed up shop, but we still enjoyed a nice walk by the river.
I often feel a tad melancholy when strolling through small towns in Europe. On the one hand, I find the slowly decaying buildings full of history and charm. But on the other, I can’t help but imagine each town in its former glory days and feel sad for the struggling economy of today.
On our second day in the Minho we set out on a real adventure, completely uncapturable on film. I had read in the guidebook that there was a national park scattered with charming stone villages and spooky looking espigueiros. (Don’t worry, they are really just used to store grain.) So we set out to find them.
It’s when I try to capture moments like these that my lack of photography skills becomes very apparent. These little stone towns were beautifully contrasted against the harsh and barren landscape. They were perched high on top of steep mountains and the roads leading up to them were better suited for goats than for people. (A fact seemingly lost on local truck drivers who blazed on as if on a proper freeway.) Can I just say that the conditions were marriage testing and leave it at that?
My first look at an espigueiros was everything I had imagined. Although the Minho is not the only place in Europe that uses this type of grain bier (we’ve even spotted a few in Croatia), the stone construction and little cross on the top did give a slightly eery feel to the whole place.
This little cluster could have easily been mistaken for a little field of tombs rather than a collection of humble storage facilities for grain.
As usual, while exploring the Minho, we stopped frequently to check out the local vines. In the Minho, they grew tall. Most were trained on wires about 5 feet off the ground, which probably makes them easy to pick. (I’ll leave it to the vintners and sommeliers to discuss what it does to the quality of the grapes.) Most of these grapes in this region end up as Vino Verde–the young, slightly sparkling wine that the Minho is famous for. We found it refreshing, but it probably won’t be replacing Croatian Malvasia or Italian Friulano on our table anytime soon.