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Guimaraes: the Town Where Portugal Began


We had thought our usual approach to a foreign European country would be a good start. Hello was bom dia. Excuse me was desculpe. Please could be faz favor. Thank you would be obligado/a. And goodbye adeus. Well… it's not that simple.

We had thought our usual approach to a foreign European country would be a good start. Hello was

. Excuse me was

. Please could be

. Thank you would be

. And goodbye


bom diadesculpefaz favorobligado/aadeus

Yo! We are in business. Who said Americans were mono-lingual? As W said, “Bring it on!”


Luis Lopes, our cruise manager, leading us on a trip through Portuguese history and language. He demonstrates the changes over the millennium. Even as he speaks about the past, local boat builders continue to create future boats that will handle the Douro river.

Well… it’s not that simple. We are getting a pre-dinner lesson on the Portuguese language from our Cruise Manager, Luis Lopes. He is fluent in English and asks us, Why d’you think, Europe, even to a degree the French, has embraced American English? “Rock and roll music,” he claims. “It was playable, danceable and sing-able. We wanted to sing ‘Come on baby. Light my fire!’ But we wanted to know what it meant.”

The Portuguese language is the sixth most commonly spoken language in the world. It is the primary language of 240 million people, of whom 190 million are in Brazil. In comparison, says Luis, The most spoken language in the world, not surprisingly, is Mandarin spoken by 1.2 billion — then far behind, Castilian (Spanish) 380 million and English 360 million. Arabic is the language of 320 million and Hindi 260 million.

The English language has borrowed a lot of words from Portuguese like albino, banana, embarrass, fetish, massage, and even vamos for let’s go! Our language has Phoenician, Greek and Roman roots, says Luis. We used to have only 23 letters in our alphabet but now we have 26 because we have added K, W and Y. Our combined letters NH and LH have no corresponding sound in English. He continues, “So much of our language is nasal so if you have a cold and a blocked nose you can’t speak Portuguese!”

The women passengers, paying more attention than the men, shout out “Obligata!” and we all go in for dinner.

Next morning we learn more about Portugal by visiting where it all began, Guimaraes, a northern Portugal city now with a population of 52,000. It has been called “the birthplace of Portuguese nationality.” Its historical center has been declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site and it was named the European Capital of Culture in 2012.

We set off in our big comfortable coach to find that the pinched hilly streets of Porto create the same problems in size that the docks and dams of the Douro would give river boats that were impossibly big-beamed. The awkward streets climb up the hills far too narrow for 2-way traffic although that is attempted. When 2 buses meet head-on the drivers appear to play the game of Bus Driver Chicken until the one that’s chicken reverses down the slope. We asked around, “Which driver has the legal right to proceed?” but were told, “It’s all resolved without involving the law.”

When we noticed cornfields and greenhouses we were told by our guide that was a sign we were close to our destination. “Our northern towns are famous,” she said, “for their house balconies and their glorious gardens abloom with camellias and magnolias.”

The northwest of Portugal has its industry such as the manufacture of shoes, furniture and cutlery. Agriculture is still important but the soil, the terroir, is granite not like the schist of the Douro valley so the wine has less sugar, therefore less alcohol. The local wine vinho verde tastes different. A New York Times review in June 2013 summarized it as “cheap and cheerful,” especially if drunk as it is meant to be within a year of harvesting.

We bail out of the coach at the Duccal Palace. It was built in the 15th Century and is now “a museum full of treasures.” We take a look at the statue of the young Afonso who was born in 1109 and had to fight his family, literally, to become king at the age of 30. When his father died his mother married a powerful Galician count. He disapproved and declared himself a knight at the age of 14 to take up arms against his mother and stepfather. In 1128 at the age of 19, he defeated her armies at the Battle of Sao Mamede. A king was about to be born!

Statue of Portugal’s first King, Afonso I

The history here is really involved and, although search engines give details, it may be sufficient to say the young Afonso exiled his mother to a monastery for females, then defeated a cousin in battle who came to her aid. He proclaimed himself Afonso Henriques, Prince of Portugal, and in 1139 he vanquished the Moors at the Battle of Ourique and was declared the first king of Portugal.

In his statue King Afonso I looks formidable as does his sword. Folklore says, “It took 10 men to carry his sword and, when he was younger, he would often challenge other monarchs to face him in personal combat but none would dare.”

Church of Our Lady of Mount Carmel

We head off downhill with our guide as she draws attention to the Church of Our Lady of Mount Carmel. Its beautiful external mural reminds us of the ajulejos we had seen previously at the train stations. We continue downhill; there sure are lots of ups and downs in the streets of northern Portugal.

(Top and middle) Church of Our Lady of the Olive Tree. It was built by King Joao I to give thanks to the Virgin Mary for a victory over Spain in 1385. (Bottom left) Santos Passos Church. (Bottom right) The Stations of the Cross wall carvings. A statue more secular, more modern with a more war-like theme.

We are now led by our guide to the city square of Our Lady of the Olive Tree. Many Catholic churches pay tribute to the olive tree. One Portuguese legend is that at the time of the Goths supposedly around AD 672, a farmer, Wamba, was told he was now king. He laughed and thrust a stick into the soil saying, I will be king when this stick blossoms with leaves. “By divine intervention it took root and bore the fruits of the olive.” Farther down the slope lies the Santos Passos Church built by Andre Soares who died aged 39 in 1789. Soares, a local architect, favored the baroque gilded exuberant decoration of the era. “Only when the gold ran out did the baroque fad fade,” is a saying. The twin towers were added in the 19th Century, one on each side of the clock.

We had been noticing carved figures on the walls of buildings and it took a moment for us to realize we were looking at a Station of the Cross, the Portuguese rendering of a via sacra station. Seven were created in 1727 in town to “demonstrate popular piety and civic devotion” by a Brotherhood of Our Lady of Consolation but now two have been lost as walls come down over the years. The identity of the surviving Stations of the Cross has been misplaced.

We still remember dragging up a hill to a church in France beside an English couple when the man hissed to the woman, “ABC,” and she laughed. We asked the obvious question and he said, “Another bloody cathedral!” We didn’t quite get it then but since then we’ve lost count of how many cathedrals we’ve seen in our travels. They tend to photograph well but it does get old. It is not easy being Protestant travelers led by, usually, Catholic guides in Catholic Europe, especially if the travelers have a strong sense of European history. We’re going to try and stay out of medieval churches even if they are the only tourist attractions in the area and we suspect some of our readers will be pleased to hear that.

We find in a city square a busy artist who believes in saturated colors as much as some photographers.

A pleasant Guimaraes plaza and an attractive window balcony.

We had seen on arrival in Guimaraes words on a tower that told us “AQUI NASCEU PORTUGAL: Portugal was born here.” On the UNESCO pages we can read “The historic town of Guimarães is associated with the emergence of the Portuguese national identity in the 12th century. But UNESCO makes the additional point that because Guimaraes has authentic and well-preserved architecture it shows how medieval building techniques “were transmitted to Portuguese colonies in Africa and the New World becoming their characteristic feature.”

Knowing UNESCO’s message helps us to enjoy the architecture before us in a typical town square. Sign in a shop window.

We are 5,600 miles from San Diego. We have had a busy year. The sign in the window about HOME gives us pause. But travelers surely learn from travel. And life is a learning experience. So we type this new word of Portuguese Fechado into our iPhone translator before going into this interesting craft shop. We stop. The translation means Closed!

The Andersons, who live in San Diego, are the resident travel & cruise columnists for Physician's Money Digest. Nancy is a former nursing educator, Eric a retired MD. The one-time president of the NH Academy of Family Physicians. Eric is the only physician in the Society of American Travel Writers. He has also written five books, the last called The Man Who Cried Orange: Stories from a Doctor's Life.

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