The first weekend of August I was invited up to Ponte de Lima, about 70 km (45 miles) north of Porto, on the Minho River, about 25 km (15 miles) or so upriver from the Atlantic and Viana do Castelo. This is an absolutely beautiful little village set against a backdrop of mountains. It seems to be a bit of a resort for the Portuguese themselves – I met several people from Porto and Gaia who had second homes in the area, and the riverbanks at lunchtime on Sunday were heaving with families on holiday, spreading out their picnics, grilling sardines or sausages, playing football and swimming in the river.
The occasion for my visit was the one year anniversary of a wonderful little wine bar called Arte e Baco, which translates as Art and Tobacco, and sponsors a wide variety of performances. For their anniversary celebrations they mounted an exhibit of photos celebrating the career of António Capelo, a well known actor in theatre and on TV, who also has a theatre school and company here in Porto.
The evening of 31 July there was a musical performance followed by a poetry reading by António Capelo and Pedro Lamares, another actor of stage and TV who has been trained by Capelo. Despite my still rocky comprehension of Portuguese, I was completely enchanted by the reading – the expressions and cadences of their delivery told their own story. And I did in fact (I think…) recognise a passage from Fernando Pessoa, so there may yet be hope for my language skills.
The evening was also memorable for dinner. A dozen or more of us went to the restaurant O Brazão next door and I had a regional dish of which I’d heard, but never before tried. Vegetarians look away now and skip to the next paragraph. The dish is called Arroz de Sarrabulho, and it is rice mixed with a variety of meats (beef, chicken, pork) and pork blood. The effect was simply of rice that had been cooked in some kind of very savoury broth, and highly seasoned with ground cumin, which I have to say I really liked. Although the rice has shredded meat mixed in, we also ordered a platter of various meats and sausages, including morcela (blood sausage), chouriço (smoked cured pork sausage), alheiras (another type of sausage typical of the north and usually not made of pork), and chunks of pork and tripe. Still not keen on tripe, though the rest was good.
With this I had some of the local red wine, which is a pretty rough and ready stuff, but went well with the dish, and is traditionally served in a small bowl, rather like you would expect to see filled with cereal at breakfast. It is a red vinho verde (ignore the oxymoron) made from Vinhão (aka Sousão in the Douro).
Vinhão Quinta do Formiguero, just looking at their website (in Portuguese only), they describe it as dry, slightly astringent, full bodied, balanced, rounded and persistent. I think I would agree with most of that, but I think it is probably one of those wines best enjoyed in situ, with local food and atmosphere.
The next morning (actually, later in the day, given the hour at which I finally left Arte e Baco), I had a good wander around Ponte de Lima. It really is a beautiful village, not to be missed. It claims to be the oldest village in Portugal, and they protect this status by ensuring the village doesn’t grow any larger (thereby risking becoming a town or city that could not claim to be the oldest). The centre of the village is almost entirely old stone buildings, crowded on the bank of the river and up a little hill, the building which houses Arte e Baco is medieval. There is a legend that Roman troops balked at crossing the river, thinking it was the Lethe – the mythical river of forgetfulness. Their commander got fed up, crossed the stream himself then turned around and said he hadn’t forgotten a thing, and they had better cross that stream now. The event is memorialised by a statue of the commander on horseback on the northern bank and lifesize wooden cutouts of a small legion on the southern bank.
There is a beautiful public garden with many small gardens within it, each in a different style – here, the rather formal and spare Roman garden and the more exuberant Baroque garden. On Sunday morning there was a market under an allée of trees along the southern bank, with a wide variety of local produce – breads, cheeses, some fruit, veg and charcuterie, and handicrafts – notably a cheap and cheerful glazed red pottery decorated with designs of white dots and some beautiful table linens, with very elegant, restrained designs of drawn thread work or embroidery, and beautiful fringed and knotted edges.
Very beautiful, I hope to return.