Living abroad is everyone’s plan, or at least so I think. For months I planned moving and flying to Porto, where I ended up living for 10 months under the warm sun, lying on white sand.
Portugal, however, isn’t only that long coast where you feel the ocean winds in your face. It is also a small green paradise, where imposing mountains stand, showing themselves for everyone to see from kilometers away. So I went up north for a cool one day walk around Guimarães, the country’s birth place. I couldn’t be happier for having been there!
Being the place where “the nationality was born”, as they use to say, it was in Guimarães that, hundreds of years ago, a major rage from Count D.Afonso made him kill his own mother in battle and that led to the independence and the birth of a new nation. To celebrate the event, the portuguese wrote on one of the city walls “Here was born Portugal”!
The choice of going to Guimarães wasn’t hard to take, me and two other friends just decided the night before, in a kind of drinking plan that most of the times aren’t happening at all. Honestly, it wasn’t a drastic decision, since Guimarães is less than 2 hours away from Porto, it was more for the challenge of actually going. We didn’t make plans, what starts unexpected is meant to keep unexpected, and those are the best journeys. So it was Sunday, a sunny one, and we were taking the train from Porto for the first time. Cheap tickets were our first good vibe of the morning, when our heads were still tired and screaming. Few kilometres, good company but with no coffee in my veins I ended up falling asleep on the road.
First thing I saw was Centro Cultural Vila Flor, a big contemporary art gallery inside a centuries old palace, merged with a really sober and good looking modern structure that compliments it with cinema rooms.. I can’t explain the beauty of the area, the blooming nature around, the labyrinth-like gardens, the untouched look of the buildings and the fresh air around, it was all we needed to start and escape the big city rush.
The big, thick, imposing walls were just down the street, reminding us we are on a city of kings and queens where fights were as common as greek style banquetes. A bit further we found this weird stone structure that seemed like what was left of some old towers, but in fact they were tanks filled with water where, in the 18th century, woman used to wash and prepare animal skin for the manufacture of clothes and shoes.
We kept walking towards the city center and, oh boy, we traveled back to the medieval times, all the houses, the streets, the atmosphere, everything was extremely well preserved, as if they had been built few years before! And those really narrow streets, a gothic monument and a romanesque church, everything is so well arranged and demanding our constant attention.
We stayed right there for a coffee, obviously mandatory. It wasn’t easy though to choose a place, there are so many to chose from and each one with its own character, they all just seemed appealing. In the end we decided to stay outside of a typical small vintage coffee shop’s terrace. The moment was perfect, not only because we were finally having that coffee we were craving for, but also because we drunk it from some cups as we had at home (nowadays everyone has the same, anyway) and we also tasted pasteis de nata. If you don’t know what pastel de nata is, make sure you get that deliciously curdled egg cream on a crunchy kind of pastry mug right when you land in Portugal.
Guimarães is this always breathing and sweating culture artsy city, it is amazing not only on contemporary art, but also on typical tasteful handmade objects sometimes produced out of wood, ceramic or even cork! But Guimarães really did get its international recognition for this, it is a UNESCO’s world heritage site and in 2012 got awarded European Capital of Culture. Not hard to understand why. More than 2.5 million people visited the city in 2012 – and in a way it is good we weren’t there by then, escaping tourists is always good, even when you are one of them.
Having a one day trip, we didn’t get the chance to spend the night there, but at a certain point we considered staying longer and got to know from some locals that Pousada da Juventude is the place to go, it is a kind of hostel, really cool and central and still very on budget. And being on budget, we only had some food we bought on the big supermarket close to the city center, but Guimarães isn’t expensive and there are some really nice small restaurants, “tascas” where you can find good homemade food.
Keep in mind, when you visit a new place, the cool thing is just getting lost on the streets, going without the map and, instead, asking for directions, just walking and contemplating what surrounds you. Plans normally turn out wrong and we get frustrated so it is just better to discover each corner by ourselves, at least we don’t get moody. I do that and it feels great. In those moments you even find more about the place and about how capable you are to deal with uncertainty. It’s the “do it like a local” thing. It’s about details, about spotting those really hidden pieces on walls, streets, coffee tables. Sometimes we don’t need to take a plane or go really far, it is all about how attentive we are, even in places we’ve been over and over again.