The Minho, in the verdant northwest corner of Portugal, is almost a land unto itself. The region begins some 40km (25 miles) north of Porto and stretches to the frontier of Galicia, in northwest Spain. In fact, Minho and Galicia and their people are strikingly similar. The regions share a Celtic background.
Granite plateaus undulate across the countryside, broken by the green valleys of the Minho, Ave, Cávado, and Lima rivers. For centuries, the region's bountiful granite quarries have been emptied to build everything from the great church facades in Braga and Guimarães to the humblest village cottages. Green pastures contrast sharply with forests filled with cedars and chestnuts.
The small size of the district and the proximity of the towns make it easy to hop from hamlet to hamlet. Even the biggest towns -- Viana do Castelo, Guimarães, and Braga -- are provincial in nature. You'll sometimes see wooden carts in the streets, drawn by pairs of dappled and chocolate-brown oxen. These noble beasts are depicted on the pottery and ceramics for which the Minho (especially Viana do Castelo) is known.
Religious festas are occasions that bring people out into the streets for days of celebrations, including folk songs, dances, and displays of traditional costumes. The women often wear woolen skirts and festively decorated aprons with floral or geometric designs. Their bodices are pinned with golden filigree and draped with layers of heart- or cross-shape pendants.
The Minho was the cradle of Portuguese independence. From here, Afonso Henríques, the first king, made his plans to capture the south from the Moors. Battlemented castles along the frontier are reminders of the region's former hostilities with Spain, and fortresses still loom above the coastal villages.
Porto is the air gateway to the Minho. A car is the best way to see the north if you have only a short time; if you depend on public transportation, you can visit some of the major centers by bus and rail.
The far northeast province of Portugal is a wild, rugged land -- Trás-os-Montes, or "beyond the mountains." Extending from south of the Upper Douro at Lamego, the province stretches north to Spain. Vila Real is its capital. Rocky crests and deep valleys break up the high plateau, between the mountain ranges of Marão and Gerês. Most of the population lives in the valleys, usually in houses constructed from shale or granite. Much of the plateau is arid land, but swift rivers and their tributaries supply ample water, and some of the valleys have fertile farmland. The Tâmega River Valley is known for the thermal springs found there as far back as Roman days.
This land is rich in history and tradition, offering the visitor a new world to discover, from pre-Roman castles to pillories and interesting old churches. The inhabitants are of Celtic descent, and most speak a dialect of Galician.
You can reach Trás-os-Montes by train from Porto. Service is to Régua, not far from Lamego, which serves as a gateway into the province in the Pais do Vinho, where grapes from vineyards on the terraced hills provide the wines that are credited to Porto. Lamego is actually in the province of Beira Alta. You can drive through this land of splendid savagery, but don't expect superhighways.