Crying out to be traversed and fully explored, the Minho region in the north-western corner of Portugal is the oldest and arguably the most characteristic part of the country.
A green and pleasant land of river valleys, wild ravines and a long, rugged Atlantic coastline, the Minho combines all the beauty of its fertile countryside with the architectural merit and historical resonance of some of Portugal’s most important towns and cities.
When the first king of Portugal, Afonso Henriques, shook off the tutelage of his cousins of León in the 12th century, it was the archbishop of Braga, capital of the Minho province, who placed on his head the crown of the Visigoth princes.
Originally settled by the barbarian Suevi, this early reconquered part of Portugal has the highest concentration of Romanesque churches in the country and some of the most significant historic sites in the Iberian Peninsula.
Like the sparkling wine it produces, the Minho is a region to savour in the most leisurely way possibly, with no fixed itinerary and plenty of time to enjoy the occasional detour or spontaneous stopover.
It’s a place where visitors can travel way back in time ambling along narrow country lanes cobbled with large cubes of local granite and shrouded by high hedges.
There’s much to appreciate whilst meandering through the Minho, most notably the spectacular waterfalls and thatched stone houses of the Parque Natural do Alvão, as well as the Parque Nacional da Peneda-Gerês with its wooded valleys, meadows and craggy upland moors.
The Minho is a region of small-holding maize and vegetable plots kept lush and verdant by some of the highest rainfall in southern Europe. It’s still not uncommon to see an ox pulling along a cart laden with freshly-picked produce or piled high with the fruity grapes used to make the fresh, crackling vinho verde wine.
There’s also the eye-catching espigueiros (small elevated granaries) and the ubiquitous vines that produce that deliciously effervescent wine, which clamber over shady pergolas, climb trees, scale walls and even scramble over the sagging roofs of small houses.
In the east of the Minho, a backbone of craggy grey granite splattered with yellow lichen rises up from the coastal strip, while folds of fertile farmland to the west merge with great swathes of scrubby dunes bordering the long, golden Atlantic beaches.
Mountain streams criss-crossing the region are teeming with salmon, trout, lamprey and shad, all mainstay dishes on the restaurant menus. The Minho is also the home of caldo verde, a hearty potato-based soup enhanced with finely shredded cabbage leaves and the occasional slice of chouriço to release a spicy oil into the broth.
Portugal’s chief episcopal centre is Braga (indicated on the map below), which was the seat of Portugal’s bishops for seven centuries. A major attraction for visitors is the hilltop sanctuary of Bom Jesus do Monte, with its kaleidoscopic views and 600-step Baroque staircase.
Nearby, Guimarães is the country’s medieval capital and the place where Portugal’s first king, Afonso Henrique, was born. Its picture-book castle is the place where he was crowned in 1139, officially establishing this ancient town as the cradle of Portuguese nationality.
Built on a height over the Lima estuary, the picturesque coastal town of Viana do Castelo has a long history of its own and is a very popular place for picking up handmade pottery and other regional handicrafts.
Other highlights for visitors travelling through the Minho include Ponte de Lima, a pretty medieval town with a long, 31-arched Roman bridge, and Ponte da Barca, one of the loveliest places in northern Portugal.