Portugal’s north-western corner, tucked under the hem of Spanish Galicia, is traditional, conservative, lush and lovely. The inland mountains attract plentiful rain and rich soil encourages intensive farming, mostly smallholdings of maize and vegetables outlined by low stones walls. Despite EU money, rural life remains stubbornly poor and old-fashioned, with many farmers still relying on lyre-horned oxen to pull their carts and plough their fields.
The Minho clings to its traditions. Here you’ll find some of Portugal’s most vibrant country markets, and there are dozens of festivals and romarias (religious pilgrimages) on the calendar commemorating local saints. Religions holds an important place in daily life, and Easter in Braga, Portugal’s ecclesiastical capital, is an extraordinary combination of fervour and merrymaking.
Minhotos have reason to be proud of their history, too, for this where Portugal was born. Guimarães is the birthplace of Portugal’s first king, Afonso Henriques, and the place from which he launched the main thrust of the Reconquista against the Moors in 1139. In almost the same place over a millennium earlier, Celtiberian maintained their last strongholds against the Romans. It’s no accident that UNESCO has added Guimarães to its list of World Heritage sites.
Braga, Barcelos and Guimarães lie within easy reach of one another in southern Minho. Lashed by the Atlantic, the coastal region – sometimes called the Costa Verde (Green Coast) – has fewer attractions, though the seafront north of the cultured resort of Viana do Castelo has good beaches and offers plenty of solitude.
The Minho’s real pull is inland, along the Rio Minho, which forms the frontier with Spain. Further inland is the Parque Nacional da Peneda-Gerês, with a cornucopia of outdoor sports and several outfits ready to show you around.
It would be hard to rush through the Minho; the pace of the region is nearly always slow and its distractions are numerous – not least the local vinho verde, a young, slightly sparkling white or red wine that is among Portugal’s most addictive, and features as the house wine in many restaurants.
You know that the wine is from this region if you see this logo on the label: