A view of Arcos de Valdevez from the air. Jonathan Ribeiro
The events that gave birth to a country

The events that gave birth to a country

Near the welcoming northern town of Arcos de Valdevez, the Kingdom of Portugal was born

Kino Verdú

Friday, 25 August 2023, 17:08

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In 1141, the armies of Afonso Henriques, the future first king of Portugal, and those of his cousin, Afonso VII of Castille and León, met in the Vale do Rio Vez (River Vez valley), giving rise to one of the most important moments in the founding of a nation, the Recontro de Valdevez. This kind of medieval tournament helped avoid a full-scale battle, delivering a significant advantage to the people of Portugal and the ambitions of their young monarch for an independent, sovereign state.

Afonso Henriques won the contest and became the first king of Portugal. Setting off with a good feeling about that historic moment, we approach the town of Arcos de Valdevez, about 100km from Porto and almost 90km from Vigo. First we cross the Roman bridge over the river Vez, stroll through the streets and spend some time in the church of S. Paio (a mix of 18th and 19th century architecture) and the church of Nuestra da Lapa (18th century). Then, before heading further afield, hunger pangs lead us to sample some of the local, traditional cuisine, such as 'cachena' beef (a local breed of cattle) served with 'tarreste' (kidney beans with rice), 'cabritinho mamão da serra' ( tender roast goat) or 'sarrabulho' (pigs' blood stew) with potatoes. Not forgetting to wash that down with a glass or two of a young, light wine from the Vinhao or Lureiro grape varieties. For dessert it has to be a portion of 'bolo de discos e charutos dos arcos' (a multi-layered, puff pastry cake), one of the seven sweet delights of Portugal.

With our batteries fully recharged, it is time to climb the steps leading to Peneda Sanctuary, lodged between the steep-sided mountains and shaded by lofty trees. This presents a good photo opportunity: just by the church where a huge rock sits perfectly balanced at the base of the Fraga da Meadinha cliff. The whole rock face, resting on a green blanket of trees, is an incredible, superb sight.

The town of Arcos de Valdevez is located in the only national park in the country. Further north within the park we find the village of Sistelo, which in 2018 was chosen as one of the winning locations in the The Seven Wonders of Portugal competition.

We can take a pleasant stroll through Sistelo's streets, carpeted with large stones worn by the many years of carts rattling over them, and studded with old mills, wash-houses and granaries. Here you should see the late 19th century castle-palace and, above all, you don't miss the beautiful terraces along the mountain slopes... That is why Sistelo is also called 'the little Portuguese Tibet'.

Nearby is Soajo, a parish of Arcos de Valdevez, a great place to stay in one of its traditional houses that have been faithfully restored.

Many kilometres of trails snake around this area, such as section 35 on the Ecovía, a riverside route with wooden walkways and bridges to cross, plus crystal clear lagoons and the banks of the Vez and Lima rivers.

Once you know that Arcos de Valdevez is at the heart of a world-class Biosphere Reserve, you will understand why its ecological wealth is so lush. If you are more daring, you can ride a garrón (a small, sturdy, local horse breed) and gallop through its virgin forests, explore the cycling routes, climb a mountain, canoe down the rivers or try the dizzying heights of canyoning.

Just 15 minutes from the centre of Arcos de Valdevez is Porta do Mezio, gateway to the wonderful Peneda-Gerês National Park. Everything is within a stone's throw from here. There is the visitor centre at the foot of the Alto Minho mountain range, the Himalaya Creativity Workshops, a space dedicated to discovery and science which takes its name from the man known as Father Himalaya, a visionary Portuguese scientist and priest from the late 19th century.

There is also the national monument of Paço de Giela where a historical reenactment of the Valdevez 'Rencontro' tournament takes place every year. There is also an equestrian-related monument dedicated to the Valdevez Recontro of 1141, located in the heart of Campo do Trasladário (public gardens) that is well worth seeing. And thus our tale of travel and history comes full circle...

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