When I woke I was encouraged to see strong sunlight leaking underneath and around the sides of the curtains and I turned over and slept a while longer confident in the certainty of a good day. When we finally got up however there was some cloud and by the time we had finished breakfast and set out for the day it was overcast and threatening to rain. We should have got up earlier!
On the advice of the nice lady at the car hire office we planned to drive thirty kilometres or so inland to the city of Guimarães which is ranked second in the country’s most livable cities survey published annually by the Portuguese newspaper Expresso. As might be expected Lisbon is rated first and Porto is third.
We joined a deserted motorway and with the weather less than promising I drove at an appropriate Sunday morning pace because there wasn’t any need to rush. I encouraged everyone to have ‘blue-sky thoughts’ and it must have worked because by the time we arrived and parked the car (free on Sundays) there was a brighter sky and little hints of sunshine.
As the first capital of Portugal, Guimarães is known as the place where the country was born – ‘The Cradle City’. In 1095 Count Henry of Burgundy, who had married princess Teresa of León, established in Guimarães the second County of Portugal and on July 25th 1109 Afonso Henriques, son of Count Henry of Burgundy, was born here and it was where Duke Afonso Henriques proclaimed Portuguese independence from the Kingdom of León, after the Battle of São Mamede in 1128, declaring himself to be Afonso I, King of Portugal.
Today Guimarães is a busy and important University city with an industrial base of textiles and metallurgy. It was quite relaxed this morning with groups of men chatting on street corners and waiting for the wives to leave the churches scattered in little clusters along the streets. The city is clean and smart and since Portugal and Slovenia and were selected to host a city as the European Capital of Culture in 2012 Guimarães was chosen by Portugal to represent the country. Slovenia chose the city of Maribor.
We walked through tidy streets and open green spaces without high expectation of Guimarães but we found a street map that indicated a castle, a palace and a UNESCO World Heritage site in the old centre and so we walked to the top of the city and into the grounds of the twelfth century castle where there were some musicians playing tradional songs inside the delightful leafy gardens. In 1881 the castle was declared the most important historical monument in this part of Portugal and in the 1900s a lot of work has gone into its restoration. We went inside and were struck by the fact that they hadn’t spent a lot of the renovation budget on basic health and safety.
The Castle is a disaster waiting to happen, with uneven surfaces, irregular steps and almost completely without handrails or safety barriers to prevent visitors accidentally slipping off of the high battlements and becoming a permanent addition to the rocky foundations. In the middle of the castle was a keep where there was a stiff climb to the very top which was slightly perilous and hard work but the reward for tackling it were some excellent views of the countryside and the city including the football stadium where Rio Ave had narrowly beaten their neighbours only two days before.
After the castle we visited the Palace and without explanation there was free admission today but where an officious attendant still insisted on issuing tickets and someone else insisted on checking them. Inside the Palace of the Condes de Castro Guimarães there was a small museum containing family portraits and other paintings, as well as furniture, china, silver and gold objects and local prehistoric finds. At just half an hour to walk round it was the perfect size for a museum and without crowds of other visitors to slow us down we wandered from room to room practically by ourselves.
The sun couldn’t quite manage to make a full appearance but there were bits of blue sky here and there and the weather was pleasant and warm enough to sit outside in the garden terrace of a trendy little restaurant selling fair trade products and local handicrafts and we had a drink in a charming shady garden surrounded by herbaceous plants, herbs and fruit trees and with the relaxing sound of a water fountain close to our table.
From the castle we followed the beautiful cobbled Rua de Santa Maria, that didn’t look as though it had changed a great deal since the Middle Ages, down into the heart of the old town, where there are superbly restored historic buildings including a former sixteenth century Baroque convent of Santa Maria, now serving as the City council offices.
At the end of the street were two delightful squares with outdoor cafés and balconied houses, Praça de Santiago and Largo da Oliveira. At Largo da Oliveira is the old Town Hall and the Church of Nossa Senhora da Oliveira, with a Gothic shrine erected in 1340 standing in front of it. There are many legends about its origins, but a popular story says it marks the spot where Wamba, elected king of the Visigoths, refused his title and drove a pole into the ground swearing that he would not reign until it blossomed, and it then sprouted immediately. We walked right the way through the streets of the old town and then reluctantly left Guimarães and returned to the car.