After weeks of rain, the promise of a dry day was the only incentive we needed to get out on the bike to explore more of Portugal and its history. This day-trip took us to the medieval fortress town of Valença and then onwards into Spain, for lunch in Baiona.
We met up with Marco and Patricia at a service station near Guimarães and then continued to Valença’s historic old town, located inside the walls of the fortress. The area is steeped in history, with settlements having existed here as far back as the Bronze Age. By the time of the Iron Age, fortified settlements were constructed in the region. The nearby crossing over the River Minho proved to be a strategic location for the Romans during their empire and subsequently for the invading Suevi, Goths and Moors. The old Roman road and the river crossing maintained their significance into the 1200’s, during the Christian Reconquista as Christians made pilgrimages to Santiago.
The town received its charter in the name Contrasta, but was renamed Valença in 1262, at which time King D. Afonso III also ordered the strengthening of the military fortress. But the most significant fortifications came in the 17th century, during the time of the War of Restoration, to defend against invaders from Spain. The innovative use of bastions as a system of defence made Valença one of the most important fortifications between Portugal and Spain.
Much of the old fortress remains today, with the historic village very much alive within its protective walls. Vehicular traffic must still enter and exit through the narrow gates and tunnels, now controlled by one-way traffic lights.
The historic centre is home to several old churches, including the 13th century Igreja Santa Maria dos Anjos and the 17th century Capela do Bom Jesus. Despite it being a Sunday, the shops and restaurants were all open, catering to the tourists wandering through the narrow streets.
Before crossing over into Spain, we stopped to look at the old iron ‘International Bridge’ that was constructed in 1886. The bridge has two levels with vehicles and pedestrians utilising the lower deck whilst the railway runs on the upper level. It spans the Minho River between Valença on the Portuguese side and Tui on the Spanish side.
Whilst Tui doesn’t have a competing fort, its highest point of land is dominated by the Catedral de Santa Maria, which was designed as a stronghold. The cathedral was consecrated in 1225, but its origins date back to the 6th century. A tower was added in 1419 and a turret was constructed in 1485. Finally, a bishops palace was added in the 16th century. The exterior is austere with only the gothic style doorway showing any adornments. At the time of our visit, a service was underway, so we only got a glimpse of the interior, but it seemed similarly gloomy.
We were ready for lunch, so we rode on to the Galician tourist town of Baiona. The road into town runs alongside Vigo Bay, providing a nice ocean view. We parked the bikes and walked along the seafront for a while, before finding a restaurant. As we were in Spain, three of us opted for paella. After all, you don’t get much more Spanish than that. Unfortunately, it wasn’t impressive. We were reminded of something we learned on previous visits to Spain – the food cannot compare to Portuguese food and it costs twice as much!
We took a scenic route back to Portugal, following the coast south from Baiona and then inland alongside the Minho River until we reached a bridge into Portugal. Despite the lacklustre Spanish food, it proved to be another very enjoyable day-trip with friends. We are already looking forward to the next ride.