Amarante clusters photogenically around the high arched bridge over the Tâmega which spills down from Spain, through the surrounding hills on its way to meet the Douro. There are a succession of balconied, red-tilled houses rising up from the main square dominated by the Renaissance church of São Gonçalo, Praça da República (tel. 255 437 425, Mon–Sat 8am–7pm, Sun 8am-8pm, free). Built in the soft brown local granite, the church's main facade has a distinctly un-Portuguese feel. It was mostly built during the Spanish occupation in the late 16th-century and the three-tiered entrance has a Castilian grandiosity (oddly, the tiled dome and arcaded gallery carrying the statues of four kings is distinctly Italianate). Inside the gold-covered Baroque woodwork is more typically Portuguese. The church holds the tomb of Saint Gonçalo, a 12th-century monk, who for reasons lost in time has become patron of spinsters on the look out for a husband and the focus of fertility rituals with their roots in pagan times. Legend has it that unmarried women who pull three times on the rope belt worn by a wooden statue of the saint in the church's sacristy will soon find a husband. To ensure the marriage is fecund, they're also supposed to eat a pastry that is larger than life and decidedly phallic in form, known as a doce de São Gonçalo.
Thankfully for those with a sweet tooth, Amarante has other confectionary delights which are much more palatable. Just across the river is the Confeitaria da Ponte, Rua 31 de Janeiro, 186, (http://confeitariadaponte.pt, tel. 255 432 034, daily 8:30 am–8pm) which is widely considered to produce some of the country's best traditional pastries. Opened in 1930, it specializes in regional cakes and those based on centuries-old recipes from nuns in the convents of northern Portugal. Rich in almond, cinnamon and eggs, they carry evocative names like bacon from heaven (toucinho do céu), angels' cheeks (papos de anjo) or little kisses of love (beijinhos de amor). There's also a tearoom with a terrace overlooking the river where you can sample them, accompanied if you like, with a glass from their selection of port wines.
The graceful Ponte de São Gonçalo bridge that links the two halves of the town was built in 1790 after the 13th-century original was washed away in flooding. Constructed in the same golden stone as the church it leads to, the bridge has three arches and is decorated with a pair of Baroque spires. The bridge also has historical significance as the site of the heroic battle in 1809 when a small Portuguese force, aided by a few British soldiers and the townsfolk, held back a much larger contingent of Napoleon's invading French army for 14 days. Eventually the French broke through and pillaged the town in revenge. Signs of the battle can still be seen with the marks left by shell fragments in the church and ecclesiastical robes ripped by bayonets in the church sacristy.
After Saint Gonçalo, Amarante's most famous son is Amadeo de Souza-Cardoso (1887–1918), arguably Portugal's greatest modern painter. "The best-kept secret in modern art," according to the Grand Palais gallery in Paris, which held a major exhibition dedicated to his work in 2016. Located in an old Dominican monestary linked to the church is the Museu Municipal Amadeo de Souza-Cardoso, Alameda Teixeira de Pascoaes, (www.amadeosouza-cardoso.pt, tel. 255 420 272, open Tues–Sun Oct–May 9:30am-noon, 2–5pm; Jun–Sept 10am–noon, 2–5:30pm. Admission 1€ adults, 0.50€ students and seniors, under-15s free). Besides a collection of works by Souza-Cardoso, whose style absorbed influences from Cubism and Expressionism and Portuguese folk art, this small-town museum has a surprisingly wide selection of modern and contemporary works mostly by Portuguese artists and holds regular temporary exhibitions. Among the oddest works on show are a couple of oversized male and female demons sculptured in wood, supposedly copies of medieval originals shipped in from Indian trading posts and destroyed by the pillaging French. They too are linked to ancient fertility cults, as you might be able to guess from their prominent physical attributes.
Spreading out from the bridge, are a number of pretty streets like Rua 5 de Outubro and Rua 31 de Janeiro lined with centuries-old townhouses where the white-painted facades contrast with naked stone window frames and corner posts. There are plenty of little stores selling woolen blankets from the hills and other handicrafts. It's also worth walking up the hill to the little round Igreja de São Domingos church, which has great views over the town and the river. Inside there's a golden Baroque altar and a museum of religious art. After all the sightseeing, a great place to relax is the Café-Bar São Gonçalo, Praça da República, 8 (tel. 255 432 707, daily 7–2am) a center of the town's social life since the 1930s, which retains its original decor, plus a life-sized statue of local poet Teixeira de Pascoaes (1877-1952) who was a regular customer.
Although the Douro is best know for port and big red wines, the region just east of Porto and the slopes running down to the river from Amarante are cultivated to produce Vinho Verde "green wine," Portugal's fresh, mostly white tipples that are one of the country's most distinctive products.
The region is a delight to drive through, with roads that twist up and down the valleys through forests and vineyards, curving suddenly to open up vistas of the slow moving Douro way below, or reveal the Baroque tower of a white-washed hilltop church. Wine estates in this verdant area are also a pleasure to visit. Most organize tours and tastings, but may require booking in advance.
Among the most impressive is the Quinta da Aveleda, Rua da Aveleda, 2, Penafiel (www.aveledaportugal.pt, tel. 255 718 200) where you can wander lush, tropical gardens surrounding the aristocratic family home and cellars where casks of fabulous Adega Velha brandy ripen, as well as touring the vineyards and tasting their vinho verdes. Reservation needed.
At Quinta de Covela, São Tomé de Covelas, Baião (http://www.covela.pt, tel. 254 886 298) you can sample highly rated vinhos verdes alongside other whites and reds in a stone manor dating back to the 1500s that once belonged to film director Manoel de Oliveira (1908-2015). The views down the valley to the Douro are heavenly. Booking required.
The Casa de Tormes, Caminho de Jacinto, Santa Cruz do Douro (www.feq.pt, tel. 254 882 120, Tues–Sun 9:30–12:30pm, 2:30–4:30pm, admission 5€ adults, 3.50€ students and seniors) offers the chance to mix wine with culture. The house once belonged to the writer José Maria de Eça de Queirós (1845–1900) and has been preserved as a museum. Fans like to walk up the hillside to the house from the pretty little railway station of Aregos on the banks of the Douro, a climb immortalized in his novel "The City and the Mountains." The foundation that runs the museum and the vineyard has a restaurant where you can lunch on regional cuisine and a cozy rustically furnished guest house offering double rooms from 40€.
There are plenty of other excellent places to eat and drink in the region. Among the accommodation, the Casas de Pousadouro, Caminho dos Moinhos, Laranjal - Santa Cruz do Douro, (www.casasdepousadouro.com, tel. 913 296 604) is a stand out offering five restored and beautifully furnished rural stone houses on the banks of the Douro, from 120€. Nearby are two luxury spa hotels also spectacularly located above the river; the Douro Palace, Lugar do Carrapatelo, Santa Cruz do Douro (www.douropalace.com, [tel] 254 880 000, doubles from 90€) and the Douro Royal Valley, Portela do Rio Pala, Ribadouro (www.douroroyal.com, [tel] 255 070 900, doubles from 135€).
Hearty rustic restaurants abound. Locals drive for miles to the remote highland village of Almofrela to tuck into the lamb or chunks of young beef roasted in the wood-fired ovens of the Tasquinha de Fumo, Rua de Almofrela (tel. 255 541 120). Similar hearty cuisine can be found at the Residencial Borges, Rua de Camões, 4, Baião (www.residencialborges.com, tel. 255 541 322) and the Casa do Almocreve, Rua da Serração, Portela do Gôve, (www.casadoalmocreve.pt, tel. 255 551 226). Both also have rooms, which might be a good idea after trying local speciality such as bazulaque, a rich stew made from lambs' offal and blood.
Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.