A historical and beautiful town in northern Portugal.
Amarante is about 50km east of Porto, about 30 minutes directly up the A4. It calls itself “a bridge between history and nature”, and it is indeed a haven for lovers of historical buildings and of places of outstanding natural beauty.
If you come to Amarante by car, follow signs for the museum/tourist information office which are centrally situated and by which lies an inexpensive car park (30c per hour). This puts you by the town square on the north end of the famous bridge, by the beautiful Convent of São Gonçalo and the church of São Domingos.
This is a romantic setting, which has different and distinct pleasures for the eye irrespective of the direction in which it happens to be pointing. The imposing juxtaposed religious buildings on the north bank; the tall, once grand olde-worlde buildings with their river balconies along the south bank, the proud bridge between with its semicircular stopping points from which the visitor can enjoy the views, and the Tâmega river making its way underneath, disguising its city centre location as if it is in the depths of Cotswold countryside. In fact, found in the river’s history is the opposite of the peace and tranquillity it exudes today; this tributary of the Douro stretches all the way to Verín in Spain and has been used as an invasion route by foreign armies, including those of Napoleon in the 1800s.
You can hire a pedalo on the river bank for €5 per half hour and take a leisurely paddle up and down the river, although once we got beyond the bridge the current was tough and “leisurely” gave way to “exhaustively”, particularly as the on-board sun umbrella was broken and we had to keep holding it up so we could see where we were going. This was probably what did for Napoleon’s men too as they were defeated in battle at the bridge. Only the French would invade on pedalos with broken sun umbrellas. But it was well worth following in their paddlesteps for the pleasure of being able to look out from centre stage at the splendour around us.
São Gonçalo Bridge
The São Gonçalo Bridge is steeped in history. It is believed to have originated in Roman times, as part of the roman road which passed through Amarante. It is said to have been rebuilt by São Gonçalo in the 13th Century. In 1763 the bridge was destroyed when the Tâmega flooded. Hours before the collapse, a cross known as the “Senhor de boa passagem” (the Gentleman of safe passage) was removed from the bridge and later set in a window of the abutting São Gonçalo church. Seemingly the Senhor was given a sex change and is now the Senhora, visible on the wall by the bridge and still offering safe passage across the Tâmega.
In 1782 the bridge was rebuilt with the four spire-like posts adorning the two ends. The bridge was classified as a national monument in 1910. The chances of another collapse will soon become remote as a new hydro-electric dam is planned to be built just upriver, although the town is awash with protests to stop it.
the odd doorway with curtain
So no doubt you are wondering who was São Gonçalo, the guy it was named after? Well, he was a devout priest who left his parish in Guimaraes to go on a fourteen year pilgrimage to Rome and Jerusalem. When he returned to Portugal his nephew, whom he had ‘left in charge’ as it were, refused to give up his role and had falsified documents saying that São Gonçalo was dead, so that the Archibishop would give him the permanent appointment. So the unemployed Gonçalo sought sanctuary in the quiet backwater of Amarante. There he led the people to Christianity and helped them practically as well as spiritually, for instance, by building the bridge. He was credited with many miracles and the Virgin Mary is said to have visited him. When he died, his body was interred in a small chapel by the bridge, which in 1540 was developed into the imposing convent that stands there today and which bears his name. His exploits and saintdom attracted many pilgrims and thus established Amarante as a significant town. But what I want to know is this: why is there a big curtain draped across the doorway when it is open? Is it draughty in there? Another thing I would like to know is why this poor chap, devout man of God, pious and worthy, is celebrated every June by the exchange of penis-shaped pastries? We don’t really want to sully our blog with a photo of the things, but here is a link to a photo if you really want to look:- http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Sao_Goncalo_Pastries_@_Amarante.jpg. If you are in the convent and hear a rumbling noise, it’s probably him turning in his grave.
Best thing about Amarante: Lunch over the river
Worst thing about Amarante: Penis shaped cakes and the dearth of tourist information in English
Eat: There are a number of restaurants on the south bank with balconies (esplanades) overhanging the river. We went to the Estoril, which was not too expensive and where the sardines were excellent and the service very good. There are also a couple of restaurants on the square on the north bank but they are a little more expensive.
Getting there: It’s easy by car (A4), but to our knowledge the train line to the city is not currently operational so a bus from Porto is about the only public transport option available.