A Village off the Beaten Path
Upriver 213km (132 miles) from Viana do Castelo is Ponte de Lima, which is exactly what one hopes a Portuguese village will be like. Spread lazily along the tree-lined banks of the Lima River, it's named for the Roman bridge with 27 arches spanning the water. Jagged ramparts surround Ponte de Lima, and massive towers, narrow winding streets, and fortified doors decorate the houses.
The drive along the north side of the river takes you through grape arbors, pastoral villages, and forests of cedar, pine, and chestnut. Red-cheeked locals stand silhouetted against moss-green stone walls as they interrupt their toil in the cabbage fields to watch you pass by. We've never recommended cabbages as a sightseeing attraction, but they are here. Jade green and monstrous, they grow to wild heights of 2m (6 1/2 ft.). They're most often used to make caldo verde, the fabled regional soup.
The town, founded on the site of a Celtic settlement, was developed by the Romans, who named it Forum Limicorum. It was important for both river trade and river defense. Thick stone walls still enclose the town, guarding the bridge across the Lima; though the Roman wall has been partially destroyed to make room for roads, you can walk along the top of what's left. Part of the Roman bridge is still in use, too. It has a buttressed extension, made under King Dom Pedro in 1355 because of changes in the river's course.
An 18th-century fountain graces the town's main square, and houses of that era are still occupied. Ruins of ramparts from the Middle Ages and a solitary keep can be seen, opposite the old bridge. Go up the stone steps of the keep to visit the Biblioteca Pública Municipal, founded in the early 18th century. Its archives are rich in historic documents.
The Ponte de Lima market, held on alternate Mondays, is known throughout Portugal. Its sellers show up in regional costumes. On the north side of the bridge is the cattle market where oxen and steers are sold; little bags are nestled between the horns of the animals, containing a "magic potion" said to ward off the evil eye. Below the bridge is a place reserved for eating such alfresco delights as roast sardines, accompanied by glasses of vinho verde (green wine). If you take a walk along the riverside, you can survey the stalls of various craftspeople, including cobblers, carpenters, and goldsmiths. Sometimes you'll see women wringing out their clothes along the riverbanks. At certain times of the year, the Lima is likely to be dry, but when it's full, anglers often catch trout here.
Ponte de Lima has a collection of beautiful antique properties, ranging from farms to manor houses -- often, a stay at one of these unique accommodations is reason enough to visit the town. There are about 60 such properties in the region. Information about them is available through Turismo de Habitação, 4990-062 Ponte de Lima (tel. 25/874-16-72; fax 25/874-14-44; www.solaresdeportugal.pt).
Another stellar property is the Paço de Calheiros, Calheiros, 4990-062 Ponte de Lima (tel. 25/894-71-64; fax 25/894-72-94). Perched on a hill overlooking the town, it's the best-known solar (country villa) in Ponte. The nine doubles and three apartments in converted stables go for 110€. Breakfast and parking are included. A first-rate dinner can be arranged on request. The solar has lush gardens and a pool.
Back in Ponte de Lima, you can dine at Encanada, Rua do Castelo (tel. 25/894-11-89), which serves the best regional cookery around. Try the special fried pork or homemade fish cakes. Eels with rice is a local specialty, but it's available only in winter. Meals are served Friday through Wednesday from noon to 3pm and 7 to 10:30pm; prices start at 13€.
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.