The Rough Guide sang its praises and it had a railway station. That suggested it would be a good base for visiting Porto without having to drive. What we hadn’t thought was it would be so good we’d give up on Porto.
Some careful internet research had found us a city centre hotel with parking. The drive from the mountains must have been harder than we thought because the receptionist greeted us by explaining that our room was on the third floor and there was no lift. So we could have a room lower down or help with the luggage. I said thank you but we could manage. A good thing I did, because each time we used the stairs we had the pleasure of the artwork on landings and the first floor lounge area like a modernist showroom – and comfortable with it!
Lack of a lift must have been the only reason the hotel Mestre de Avis had two and not three stars. It had been a prosperous town house before conversion, just below the city’s magistrates’ court on one side of the traffic-free square used by students for cheap eating, drinking and visiting the contemporary art centre. Two minutes’ walk took us to the main shopping street, across which was the old centre with remains of the encircling wall.
Orientation was easy. We found one of the old squares with one of those shrines to miraculous events outside a church. All around were tables for early evening drinks and snacks: Portugal has its own variation of tapas, and very good too. The problem was to identify which was the best-value restaurant for later. We decided it would be the one least dominated by a television set. Whether or not we were right it proved good enough for us. We ate there twice with great pleasure; the two others we tried, once for lunch and one because our first choice, Buxa, was closed, confirmed our decision.
All four of our days were filled with interest. A moderate walk took us to the castle, where from the ramparts all the old city and its modern suburbs are visible. The Ducal palace was just below, but we decided to concentrate on the two museums. One reason for staying in Guimaraes had been to visit the Celtic Citania de Briteiros, a few kilometres away, and the archaeological museum exhibits some of its relics. The other museum, in a former convent, holds the religious treasures of the city.
More advice from the Rough Guide was to visit the pousada, or luxury hotel. another former convent. Our hotel receptionist very kindly confirmed arrangements, and with a little negotiation of the one-way system we arrived, parking (as we discovered) well away from the guests’ rather better-appointed vehicles, and approached reception.
It had something of the feeling (I imagine) of entering the royal presence, yet the staff could not have been more accommodating. We sat in a lounge lined with nineteenth century paintings of earlier worthies, its lower walls tiled in the elegant Portuguese manner, and were brought coffee and cake. Thereafter we were free to go anywhere except guest rooms of course. The gardens are magnificent; the cloister – the reason we asked permission to visit – is splendid. Our only problem was in paying for coffee: the staff had to make enquiries of the kitchen.
Briteiros was at the opposite extreme of accommodation, with just two reconstructed houses and everything else wide open. We did notice, however, that the main streets had gutters, to carry off rain water we thought until finding a bath house at one end of the site. Ingeniously, the gutters fed the cistern there, and bathers, after squeezing through a small arch that kept the heat in, would have thrown containers of water on to heated stones for their Iron Age sauna.
Our final day, including a visit to the Continente hypermarket, ten minutes’ walk from our hotel, and the rather more upmarket craft and furnishings shops of the old city, ended with a tour of the art centre. Admission at first seemed expensive, but then I discovered an unfolding story of ethnography and art that set out to examine the post-colonial attitude to Africa, South America and the mountain region of Portugal we had just left. Even without the language, or time to read all the translations, its point was well made. The final moral dilemma was delivered in English by a black American telling the story behind Puccini’s “Girl of the Golden West”. In the evening there was a gathering outside the church for an event following the service.
Everything seems to happen on a Sunday in Guimaraes. It is well worth more than one visit.