When walking the Portuguese Central Camino de Santiago both Valença do Minho and Tui are among the cities that pilgrims will have to go through, with Valença being one of the recommended cities for rest days. What’s so special about these cities? Come with us and let’s find out!
Like so many Portuguese towns and cities located near the border, Valença do Minho takes pride in its century-old fortress, which over the centuries endured attacks from both Spanish and French troops. Built in the 13th century and covering a total of 5,5km along the Portuguese margins of the river Minho, in the 17th century the fortress underwent reconstruction work, becoming a star-shaped Vauban style fortification. It is considered to be one of the largest and most well kept fortifications in the world.
Valença is also home to some quite unique churches. The 14th century church of Saint Stephen (Igreja de Santo Estevão), for example, is built in Neoclassical style with a main facade characterized by very high naves. Among the several examples of religious art in this church one specific painting deserves a special highlight: it is the only depiction of the Virgin Mary breastfeeding baby Jesus which managed to escape the Inquisition. Also within the fortress, the 13th century church of Saint Mary of Angels (Igreja de Santa Maria dos Anjos) has an interesting mix of Romanesque, late Baroque, Neoclassical and Revivalist styles.
Right in front of the 18th century Baroque Chapel of Bom Jesus you’ll find the statue of Saint Theotonius, the first Portuguese saint. Born near Valença, he was both advisor and confessor to Afonso Henriques, Portugal’s first king.
The old streets inside the fortress are, still today, busy with restaurants, cafés and shops. Plenty of these focus on linens with many people coming from Spain specifically to buy them. Feeling hungry? Consider trying some of the region’s traditional dishes, like the tasty cornbread (broa de milho), caldo verde soup, lamprey or salted cod (bacalhau) prepared in many different ways.
Nature lovers will be happy to know that there are two greenways along the Minho river that make it possible to enjoy a variety of natural landscapes: the well known 30km long Ecopista do Rio Minho and its complementary route, the 5,6 km long Ecovia das Veigas do Minho. If water sports are more your kind of thing then you can choose from stand up paddling, canoeing, kayaking or rafting.
For many centuries Valença do Minho and its Spanish neighbour, Tui, were sworn enemies but in 1886 a bridge was built to connect both cities. The so-called international bridge has two levels: a lower one for road traffic and an upper one for rail transport. This bridge crosses over the river Minho, which in its last 75 km before reaching the Atlantic Ocean acts as a natural border between Portugal and Spain.
As one might expect, if there’s a fortress in Valença do Minho then Tui also built its own defense system. The first rampart line dates back to the 12th and 13th centuries but later, in the 17th and 18th centuries, a wider rampart system was built as an additional protection against Portugal.
Tui has its fair share of important religious buildings, starting with Saint Mary’s Cathedral, in the old part of Tui. Its construction began in 1220 so, as expected, there’s a clear Romanesque style in the oldest parts of the building, with some elements in Gothic style. In fact, this cathedral represents the first time Gothic architecture was used in the Iberian Peninsula. Also worth noticing are the Baroque organ and choir. The Church of Cloistered Nuns (Mosteiro da Concepción Santa Clara – As Encerradas), built in the late 17th century in Baroque style, is still the home for nuns who took vows of enclosure. For that reason visitors are not allowed inside the convent.
Surprisingly enough Tui is also home to a one-of-a-kind example of Portuguese Baroque architecture: the Chapel of Saint Telmo, who died in the 13th century in the house on top of which the chapel was built. Visitors can still admire its frescoes from the early 19th century and the umbrella-shaped dome.
The amazingly old Church of Saint Bartholomew of Rebordáns, built in the 11th century, was a monastery and the Bishop’s see in early medieval times. Today, in one of its chapels, visitors can still marvel at a wall painting from the 16th century. Saint Dominic’s Convent, which started to be built in 1330, is another example of a mix of architectural styles, bearing both Gothic and 18th century neoclassical traits.
Located in what used to be the Hospital of Poor and Pilgrims we can now find the Tui Diocesan Museum. Built in the 18th century, today this building houses a permanent collection that includes an archaeology section featuring several findings from excavations in the area, as well as a sacred art section. The latter includes a 12th century Romanesque style sculpture of Christ.
Like several other towns and cities in both Portugal and Spain, Tui once had a considerable Jewish community. Today there are still relevant elements from that time scattered throughout the city, like the menorah in the Cathedral cloister, the sambenitos and the synagogue, among others. Taking the Jewish pedestrian route is the best way to get to see them all.
And what about delectable food in Tui? Well, of course there is! Special focus goes to Galician specialties, like the hearty caldo gallego, the savoury empanadas, pulpo á feira and, of course, the local Albariño wine.