Together with actress Sandra Barata Belo, we discovered the nooks and crannies of the beautiful and historic town of Ponte de Lima. Situated in Minho, it is the oldest town in Portugal and here (there are days when) tradition is still alive and well.
“It was Dona Teresa, mother of Dom Afonso Henriques – the king who founded Portugal – who granted the charter to Ponte de Lima in 1125. We occupy a key position on the Portuguese route to Santiago, as well as on the ‘Vinho Verde’ Wine Route. Here we have the greatest number of manor- and palatial houses in Portugal, as well as the ‘Feiras Novas’ (New Fairs) that take place every year in September, and which are probably the most famous popular feasts in the country. There were only two Portuguese medal winners at the London Olympics, and one of them, the canoeist Fernando Pimenta, trains right here on the River Lima, which is also our beach. We have two magnificent museums (the Portuguese Toy Museum and the Terceiros Sacred Art Museum), a beautiful theatre and a host of excellent cultural events, such as the International Garden Festival. And if you think I’ve already covered everything, you are mistaken. These two days here will prove to you that there is much to discover in Ponte de Lima and its surroundings.” Words spoken by Francisco de Calheiros e Menezes as, by way of summary, he introduces us to his hometown and his home. He is the third Count of Calheiros and owner of the palace of the same name, where we will be staying for the next couple of days.
The history of this palace merges and blends in with the history of this region and of Portugal. Francisco takes us on a guided tour of the many drawing-rooms, bedrooms, lounges and halls, showing us veritable treasures, such as the bed that belonged to Carlota Joaquina – Queen consort of Portugal, and one of the most enigmatic and unloved figures in the history of Portugal, portrayed as a traitor (she conspired against her husband), and a wanton but determined woman – the family’s coat of arms that bears the insignias of Santiago and the magnificent baroque altarpiece in the palace’s chapel.
Sandra, who is no stranger to Ponte de Lima, is happy to be back. In the town’s historic centre, preparations are already well underway for the ‘Feiras Novas’, which will begin in a week’s time. There are carousels and street lights that remind one of Christmas. There are stalls with ‘churros’ and ‘farturas’ (both fried-dough pastries), and others where you can try your luck at various games. Young and old, Portuguese and foreigners, all mingle in the streets of Ponte de Lima. In the midst of all this hustle and bustle, we wander around looking for a bar to have a drink. We choose ‘Arte e Baco’, which is a mixture between an art gallery and a wine cellar. The wine list calls for a choice: what will it be, a mature wine or ‘Vinho Verde’ (green wine)? Sandra sets about explaining the differences. “Contrary to what people often say, ‘Vinho Verde’ is not made from grapes that aren’t completely ripe. ‘Vinho Verde’ is a controlled denomination of origin (d.o.c.), as are Douro and Dão. And as Minho is the greenest region in Portugal, the wine that is made here is called ‘verde’ (green).”
And what else does Sandra, the actress who gave life to the greatest fado singer of all time on the silver screen, have to tell us? “I was born in Lisbon in the late 1970s. I grew up in Alfama and I always spend the long summer holidays in the Alentejo. I’m an only child; I learnt to play by myself. I like listening to stories, but I also like to tell them. I like simple things and generous people.” She also likes to travel. A lot! And à propos, she pulls out her phone and shows us some photos of India, where she went this year to do a 3-week internship with the Indian company Adishakti and stage director Veenapani Chawala, so as to “further her knowledge of the psychophysical techniques of Indian culture in theatre and in acting.” And she saw beautiful things, too.
The sun is burning down as if it were midday, and it’s not yet ten thirty when we meet up with Carlos Sousa at Ponte de Lima’s Nautical Centre. The banks of the River Lima look like a beach in the Algarve on an August Sunday. Apart from those participating in the regatta organized by the Centre, there are many people making the most of the good weather as summer draws to a close. Filled with pride, Carlos takes us on a small tour of the Centre. “We’ve been around for 20 years and we’ve managed to win 26 national titles and 18 Portuguese Cups. We’re the club with the highest number of national champions and we’ve also got various international titles. This year, our athlete Fernando Pimenta – together with Emanuel Silva – won the Olympic silver medal in the K2 1000m sprint. But what we’re most proud of is the fact that we have 276 federated athletes who train here free-of-charge. We pick them up at school, drop them off at home, and train and initiate them for competitions. So, in order to bear these costs, and because we would like to share this fabulous river with more people, we organize leisure and tourism-related activities. We also have a strong social component: we’re involved in school sports training, environmental awareness activities and supporting the local community.”
We leave the Centre with Carlos and Alex, who are taking us to Ponte da Barca, where we will set off on a 6-kilometre kayaking outing to São Martinho. The trip usually takes around two and a half hours, but today we’ve taken four hours. Not because we’re lazy – and judging by the pace set by Sandra, we’d even do it in an hour and a half – but because we’ve stopped to swim, take photographs and have a picnic.
“What a wonderful morning this has been,” says Sandra as we sit down for some snacks at the restaurant, Pica Pau. ‘Pataniscas’ (a type of fritter), codfish cakes, octopus salad and ‘pica-pau’ itself, which consists of fried pieces of meat with pickles and a delicious gravy to dip our corn bread in.
Back to the Palace, we enjoy the rest of the afternoon amidst the vineyards, the swimming pool, the riding school and the 17th century gardens, which have been classified as they are so beautiful and well-tended. Night falls and a wonderful full moon rises in the sky. In its glow, we make our way from Calheiros to the restaurant ‘A Carvalheira’, which has been highly recommended to us. A family atmosphere, classic décor, a beautiful wine cellar and regional dishes. We order the duck rice and the famous ‘sarrabulho’ rice, which in these parts is such a serious matter that it even has its own confraternity. Sandra foregoes the ‘sarrabulho’ because she avoids red meat, but explains what it’s made of: “This rice is made with various types of meat (pork, beef and chicken) and pig’s blood. It’s served with Minho-style ‘rojões’ (fried pieces of pork), tripe, smoked sausages and potatoes. This dish is also typical in the Alentejo, but instead of pork it’s more common to use kid and add some bread to it, too – when they mix in the bread, it’s called ‘papas de sarrabulho’.
The town and the lagoons
There is a Roman bridge over the River Lima. Well, it’s no longer entirely Roman. Of the original Roman arches, only three remain – the others are Romanic. And it is here that Sandra recounts one of the stories told by the Count of Calheiros. “In Greek mythology, there was a river, the Lethe, the river of forgetfulness. Now, legend has it that in 135 BC, the Roman general Decius Brutus, who was engaged in conquests on the Iberian Peninsula, arrived on the banks of the River Lima together with his army. The soldiers were terrified by the beauty of the river and were convinced it was the Lethe and that they would lose all their memories if they crossed it. The general was the first to cross the river to the astonishment of the soldiers. When he got to the other side, he said the name of each soldier in the legion one by one, and only in this way did he convince his men that it was safe to cross the river.” In order to remember this episode, statutes have been put up on both banks of the river: General Decius Brutus is on one side, and the cowardly soldiers on the other.
From the bridge – which since time immemorial has been crossed by thousands of pilgrims on their way to Santiago de Compostela – we take in the historic town centre that was once surrounded by a wall with nine towers. The town’s expansion came at the cost of the wall and seven of the medieval towers. Medieval houses, manor houses, and other houses with gothic, mannerist, baroque, neoclassical and 19th century façades are still there. And that’s where we’re going.
It’s Sunday and the town centre is bustling. The parish church is too small for all the faithful and many listen to the homily out on the street. The cafés are filled with people. Along the riverfront, Sandra comes across some filigree earrings and a pair of typical clogs that she loves and is delighted by the friendly people of Ponte de Lima. As she walks along, heads turn and whisper, “Look, it’s Amália” or “That’s the shrew from the soap opera.”
After having lunch at the riverside restaurant ‘O Açude’, it’s time to visit the Lagoons of Bertiandos and São Pedro d’Arcos. Valter, our guide, gives us an overview. “This is a floodable, wetlands area that was disappearing as a result of centuries of farming activities. Fortunately, some years ago, people began to realise how priceless this landscape is, and so this protected area was created [it is classified as a National Ecological Reserve and is included in the Natura 2000 network]. In summer, there are two permanent lagoons (Bertiandos and São Pedro), and in winter the waters rise and flood parts of some of our nine pedestrian trails. There is a great deal of biodiversity, and in terms of flora there are records of around 80 rare or locally endangered plant species. In terms of fauna, we have already recorded nine species of fish, 13 amphibian species, 11 reptile species, 41 mammal species and 144 bird species. Of these, 25 correspond to high conservation priority species. This is the case of the Iberian frog, the symbol of our park.” Now that introductions have been made, we set off – quietly and contemplatively – to explore the park. The sound of the water, the croaking of frogs and the singing of the birds provide the perfect soundtrack to this sunny afternoon that will end with a dip in the pool at Calheiros Palace. From here we can see the River Lima as it lazily winds its way through the valleys. Further up ahead, it will flow into the sea at Viana do Castelo. And as the Portuguese saying goes, one day, we will go to Viana.
by Maria Ana Ventura
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