Portugal, Guimarães – European Capital of Culture 2012

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.

Castle Guimares 03

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.

Guimares Castle Portugal

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.

Castle Guimares 02

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.

27 responses to “Portugal, Guimarães – European Capital of Culture 2012

  1. Wow! I’ve never heard of this place before and your description makes me want to forego Porto if I will be given a choice of destinations in Portugal.

    • You would like this place. A really good thing about the historical centre was that none of the buildings had satellite dishes or TV aerials on the roofs, I don’t know if there is a city ordinance or whether the residents just collectively agree that it looks better without them!

  2. I was just here a couple of weeks ago! It is absolutely beautiful.

  3. Pingback: Entrance Tickets – The Castle of Guimarães in Portugal | Have Bag, Will Travel

  4. That castle sounds a bit worrying….

  5. Very funny about them checking your free tickets!

  6. Free admission? Now I am thinking this was a happy day for your Andrew. 🙂
    Glad you didn’t become a ‘permanent addition to the rocky foundations’. A very clear descriptor and image producing phrase.

  7. I’ve never heard of this town Andrew, but thanks to this post, it sounds like a good one to go on our list. Our last couple of trip ideas have included returning to Portugal. We’ve been a couple of times, but it’s been years and I’m sure it has changed. I always enjoyed the relaxed atmosphere in Portugal and look forward to spending more time there. ~James

    • Where would you choose to go? I like Porto in the North but have never been to Lisbon. I have been to the Algarve of course but this is really a beach holiday destination. Thanks for the comment.

      • I would return to Lisbon, but I’d also consider some of the other areas that we haven’t visited – maybe up north – and then visit Santiago de Compostela as well. The good news about Portugal is that given its small size, travel distances are no problem. ~James

      • I recommend the north and then Santiago de Compostela.

  8. Pingback: Entrance Tickets – The Castle of Guimarães in Portugal | Have Bag, Will Travel

  9. nice, at the time it included Galicia too, as the language remains very close even today. Galego ! A bit longer and would have been different in 1492!

  10. Thanks for sharing Andrew. My great-great-grandfather was a Portuguese sailor who jumped ship in America, and I would love to visit Portugal one of these days.

  11. I love the idea of them issuing a blank ticket and then collecting the blank ticket. I suppose it’s for the statistics .

  12. That is a big formidable castle..

  13. That’s a great shot down onto the entrance towers, with the stairs either side. You must have had quite a view from atop that tower.

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