BHS Visit to Northern Portugal

Branch: 

21 members from the Lisbon area spent an interesting and happy five days in Northern Portugal in mid-April and the comfortable and friendly Hotel do Elevador in Bom Jesus de Braga proved an ideal base for visits to the western area of the Minho. The weather also contributed greatly to our enjoyment: five days of unbroken sunshine and mid-day temperatures in the mid 20’s re not all that frequent in the month of April.

After driving north via Aveiro, where we ate a splendid arroz de pato which set a high standard to challenge our meals throughout the week, we began our second day by driving 100 kms north of Braga to see the charming 19th century Palácio da Brejoeira, close to Monção. This great mansion had opened to the public for the first time less than 12 months beforehand and our guided tour took in the splendid old house and its beautiful grounds and ended with a glimpse of the charming private theatre.

The following morning presented quite a challenge: a clamber over the steep hillside where the site of the Iron Age Citânia de Briteiros is located. Our archaeologist guide showed us a highly developed urban area well over 2000 years old, with family compounds containing two or three round houses, a communal meeting house, water courses and roughly paved “roads” which we negotiated with great care and considerable use of walking sticks. This was a pre-Roman town, later abandoned as people moved down into the fertile river valley and still later occupied once again for a while in medieval times. At the end of the morning our guide took us to the nearby Museu da Cultura Castreja, housed in the former home of Dr. Martins Sarmento, the great 19th century archaeologist responsible for the initial excavations at Briteiros. Here we learned of his care in recording every archaeological find and his interest in the new art of photography, which he used widely in registering his discoveries.

That same afternoon we drove on deep into the countryside around Pôvoa de Lanhoso to visit a filigree jewellery workshop in the small village of Sobradela de Goma. Members were fascinated to see the whole process, beginning with the production of fine wire by melting down various items of silver to form a crucible-full of liquid silver and continuing with the twisting and turning of this wire to create minute flowers, leaves, hearts and swirls which were gradually built up into the decorative jewellery with which we are all familiar. Nowadays this family of young artisans are creating new designs to please the modern market, whilst at the same time continuing to produce the traditional heart-shaped pendants and ear-rings which are so much a part of Minho culture. Members left Sobradela laden with beautiful purchases and with a new respect for the young people who carry on the age-old tradition of filigree production.

The next day was dedicated to the great former Benedictine monastery at Tibães, close to Braga, and here again we were fortunate to have an excellent guide. For many centuries this monastery was the “mother house” for all the Benedictine monasteries in Portugal and Brazil so that although the resident community never consisted of more than 40 monks the buildings were designed on a grand scale, prepared to accommodate representatives of all the Benedictine houses in those two countries for regular meetings as well as continuing the Benedictine tradition of providing accommodation for travellers, especially pilgrims on their way to Compostela. After falling into decay in the hundred years or so which followed on the 19th-century dissolution of the monasteries in Portugal, Tibães was finally acquired by the state in the 1980’s and since then considerable work has been done to repair and restore the damaged buildings so that it is now in beautiful condition and well worth a visit.

On our final day we made a leisurely journey south, carried by our ever-patient driver up a steep hill just outside Barcelos to visit an incredibly well laid-out mountain-top pilgrimage centre with its tiny but very well kept chapel, focus of a great August romaria around the time of the feast of the Assumption which brings tens of thousands up the steep roads. Close by we tasted the vinho verde produced by the English owners of the Quinta do Convento da Franqueira and then went on to the Oporto Cricket and Lawn Tennis Club for the last of a series of splendid meals which added greatly to our enjoyment throughout the week.

It was great to have with us four members of the Oporto branch of the British Historical Society for our visit to the Palácio da Brejoeira and we also enjoyed the company of two other members from Oporto each of whom joined us for two days during the course of the week.

Finally, we received an unsolicited word of appreciation from our hosts at the Quinta do Convento da Franqueira, who wrote saying how much they had enjoyed meeting our “lively and interested group”.