Portugal – Northern Portugal

THE VALLEY OF THE MINHO, DOURO AND MONDEGO.

THE mountains of Lusitania are a portion of the great orographical system of the whole peninsula ; but they are not mere spurs, gradually sinking down towards the sea, for they rise into independent ranges; and the individuality of Portugal is manifested in the relief of its soil quite as much as in the history of its inhabitants.

The mountains rising in the north-eastern corner of Portugal, to the south of the Minho, may be looked upon as the outer barrier of an ancient lake, which formerly covered the whole of the plains of Old Castile. From the Pyrenees to the Sierra de Gata this barrier was continuous, and the breaches now existing date only from a comparatively recent epoch, and are due to the erosive action of torrents. The most considerable of these breaches, that of the Douro, could have been effected only by overcoming most formidable obstacles.

The most northern mountain mass of Portugal, that of the Peneda of Gavieiro (4,727 feet), rises abruptly beyond the region of forest, and commands the Sierra Penagache (4,065 feet) on the Spanish frontier to the east, as well as the hills or Santa Luzia (1,814 feet) and others near the coast. Another mountain mass rises immediately to the south of the gorge through which the Limia passes after leaving Spain. This is the Serra do Gerez (4,815 feet), a range of twisted, grotesquely shaped mountains, the only counterpart of which in the peninsula is the famous Serrania de Ronda. This range, together with the Larouco (.5,184 feet), to the east of it, must be looked upon as the western extremity of the Cantabrian Pyrenees, and like them it consists of granitic rocks.

The flora of these northern frontier mountains of Portugal much resembles that of Galicia, and on their slopes the botanist meets with a curious intermingling of the vegetation of France, and even Germany, with that of the Pyrenees, Biscay, and the Portuguese lowlands. On the southern summits, however, and more especially on the Serra de Marto (4,665 feet), which forms a bold promontory between the Douro and its important tributary the Tamega, and shelters the wine districts of Oporto from north-westerly winds, the opportunities for examining into the arborescent flora are but few, for the forests which once clad them have disappeared. The schistose plateaux to the east of them and to the north of the Douro have likewise been robbed of their forests to make room for vineyards. Most wild animals have disappeared with the forests, but wolves are still numerous, and are much dreaded by the herdsmen. The mountain goat (Capra aegagrus), which existed until towards the close of last century in the Serra do Gerez, has become extinct. The Serra da Cabreira (4.196 feet), to the east of Braga, is probably indebted for its name to these wild goats.

If the Serra do Gerez may be looked upon as the we-tern extremity of the Pyrenean system, the magnificent Serra da Estrella (6,540 feet), which rises between the Douro and Tejo, is undoubtedly a western prolongation of the great central range of Spain which separates the plateaux of the two Castiles. These ” Star Mountains ” are attached to the mountains of Spain by a rugged table-land, or mesa, of comparatively small height. The great granitic Serra da Estrella rises gently above the broken ground which gives birth to the Mondego. It can easily be ascended from that side, and is hence known as the Serra Mansa, ” the tame mountain.” On the south, how ever, above the valley of the Zezere, the slopes are abrupt and difficult of access, and are know n for that reason as Serra Brava ; that is, ” wild mountain.” Delightful lakelets, similar to those of the Pyrenees and Carpathians, are met with near the highest summit of the range, the Malhao de Serra. The tops of the Serra da Estrella remain covered with snow during four months of the year, and supply the inhabitants of Lisbon with the ice required for the preparation of their favourite sherbet. The orographical system of the Estrella ends with the Serra de Lousao (3,940 feet), for the hills of Estremadura, which terminate in the Cabo da Roca, a landmark well known to mariners, belong to another geological formation, and consist for the most part of Jurassic strata overlying the cretaceous formation.

The mountains of Beira and Entre Douro e Minim are exposed to the full influence of the moisture-laden south-westerly winds, and the rainfall is considerable. The rain does not descend in torrents, as in tropical countries, but pours down steadily. It is more abundant in winter and spring, but not a month passes without it. Fogs are frequent at the mouths of valleys and along the coast as far south as the latitude of Coimbra. At that place as much as sixteen feet of rain has fallen in a single year, an amount only to be equalled within the tropics.

The humidity of the air accounts for the great equability of the climate of Northern Portugal. At Coimbra the difference between the coldest and warmest month amounts to but 20′ F. Frosts are severe only on the plateaux exposed to the north-easterly winds, and the heat becomes unbearable in deep valleys alone, where the air cannot circulate freely.* At Penafiel, where the rays of the sun are thrown back by the rocky precipices, the heat is almost that of a furnace. This, however, is an exception, and the climate generally can be described as temperate.

Running water is abundant. Cami`Les has sung the beauties of the fields of Coimbra watered by the Mondego, the charms of cascades sparkling amidst foliage, and the purity of the springs bursting forth from rocks clad with verdure. The Vouga, the affluents of the Douro, the Ave, Cavado, and Lima, likewise take their devious courses through smiling landscapes whose beauties are set off by rocks and mountains. The Lima, whose delights might well cause Roman soldiers to forget the rivers of their own country, is the only river of the peninsula still in a state of geological transition. All others have drained the lakes which gave birth to them, but in the case of the Lima that old lake basin is still occupied by a swamp, known as Laguna Beon, or Antela, the only remains of a mountain-girt inland lake as large as that of Geneva.

The current of the rivers of Northern Portugal is too great to permit of their being utilised as high-roads of commerce. They have ports at their mouths, but the Douro, which drains nearly a sixth of the Iberian peninsula, is the only one amongst them which facilitates access to an inland district. Mariners dread to approach the coast when the wind blows on shore. Between the Minho and Cabo Carvoeiro, a distance of 200 miles, the coast presents features very much like those of the French landes. Its original indentations and irregularities have been obliterated by barriers of sand. The lower valley of the Vouga was formerly an inlet of. the sea extending far inland. The basin of Aveiro resembles geologically that of Arcachon. Its waters abound in fish, but the Douro is the southernmost river of Europe visited by salmon. The abundance of life in certain localities of it is figuratively expressed by a Spanish pro-verb, which says, “‘The water of the Douro is not water, but broth.”

The rectilinear beach of Beira-mar is lined for the most part with dunes, the oid gulfs behind which are gradually being converted into insalubrious swamps,

fringed by heath, ferns, strawberry-trees, and broom, whilst the neighbouring forests consist of oaks and pines. Formerly these dunes invaded the cultivated portions of the country, as they still do in France, where like geological causes have produced like results. But long before a similar plan was thought of in France these Portuguese dunes were planted with pines, and as early as the reign of King Diniz ” the Labourer,” at the beginning cf the fourteenth century, they had ceased to ” march.”

The population of the cultivable portions of the basins of the Minho and Douro is very dense, and in order to maintain themselves es the inhabitants are forced to work zealously. Their country is the most carefully cultivated of the peninsula. In a large measure this industry is due to the fact of the peasantry being the owners of the land they cultivate, or at least affarados—that is, copy holderswho only pay a few shillings annually to the lords of the manors. Many of the peasants are wealthy, and the women are fond of loading themselves with jewellery, amongst which necklaces macle in the Moorish taste are most prominent. The cultivation of the fields is attended to with scrupulous care ; and the most ingenious methods are employed for the irrigation of the upper slopes of the hills, which are frequently cut up into terraces, or geios. These Northern Portuguese are as distinguished for moral excellence as they are tor industry. Their sweetness of disposition, gaiety, and kindliness are the theme of universal praise, and as regards their love of dancing and music they are veritable Theocritan shepherds. Challenges in improvised erses form one of the amusements of young men. Nor is the population devoid of physical beauty. The women of Aveiro, though often enfeebled by malaria, have the reputation of being the prettiest in all Portugal.

The cultivation of the vine and the making of port wine constitute the principal branch of industry of the country. The chief vine-growing district, ordinarily known as Paiz do Vinho, lies to the north of the Douro, between the Serra de Marao and the Tua, and is exposed to the full force of the rays of the summer sun. In the middle of the seventeenth century the cultivation of this district had hardly begun. The English had not then learnt to appreciate these growths, and were content w ith the various Portuguese wines shipped from Lisbon. It was only after the treaty concluded by Lord Methuen in 1702 that the cultivation of the vine assumed certain dimensions in the district of the Douro, and ever since the reputation of port has been on the increase. The Marquis of Pombal founded a company for the production of wine, and the small town of Pezo da Regoa, on the Corgo, then became famous for its wine fairs, at which fortunes were lost and w on, and a town of wine cellars and stores sprang up opposite the tow n of Porto, or )porto, near the mouth of the Douro. For more than a hundred years port and sherry have kept their place on the tables of English gentlemen, and nearly all the wine produced on the banks of the Douro finds its way to England or to British colonies. Indeed, up to 1852 the best quality, know n as ” factory wine,” could be exported to England alone. Next to the English the Brazilians are the best customers of Oporto : they receive nearly 1,000,000 gallons of wine annually.

The breeding of mules and fattening of Spanish cattle for the London market yield considerable profit. Early vegetables are forwarded not only to London, but also to Rio de Janeiro. Manufactures were already of some importance in the Middle Ages, and have recently been much developed by enterprising English capitalists. Oporto has cotton, linen, silk, and woollen mills, foundries and sugar refineries, and its jewellers and glove-makers enjoy a good repute. But agriculture, industry and legitimate commerce, and even the smuggling carried on in the frontier district of Braganca, do not suffice to support the ever-increasing population, and thousands emigrate annually to Lisbon and Brazil.

Northern Portugal may be described as the cradle of the existing kingdom, and it was Porto Cale, on the site of Villanova de Gaie, the southern suburb of Oporto, which gave a name to all Lusitania. At Lamego, to the south of the Douro, the Cortes met, according to tradition, in 1143, and constituted the new kingdom of which Oporto became the capital. When the country recovered its independence after the short dominion of Spain, the Dukes of Braganca were invested with the regal power. Though Lisbon occupies a more central position than Oporto, the latter frequently takes the initiative in political movements, and the success of any revolution is said to depend upon the side taken by the energetic population of the north. If we may accept the estimate of the Pa) tuense., they are morally and physically the superiors of the Lisbonenses. They alone are the true sons of the great people whose vessels ploughed the ocean during the age of discoveries, and there can be no doubt that their gait is more determined, their speech and their glance more open, than those of the inhabitants of the capital. In vulgar parlance, people of Oporto and Lisbon are known as tripeiros and alfasinhos; that is, tripe and lettuce eaters.

Porto, or O Porto, the “Port ” par excellence, is the natural capital of Northern Lusitania, the second city of Portugal on account of its population and commerce, the first in manufactures. As seen from the banks of the Douro, here hardly more than 200 yards in width, and spanned by a magnificent railway bridge, it rises like a double amphitheatre, whose summits are crowned by the cathedral and the belfry dos Clerigos, and the narrow valley separating them covered with houses. The lower town has broad streets, intersecting each other at right angles, but the streets climbing the hills are narrow and tortuous, and even stairs have frequently to be ascended in order to reach the more elevated quarters of the town. Cleanliness is attended to throughout, and the citizens are most anxious in that respect to insure the praises of their numerous English visitors. Gaia, a long suburb, occupies the opposite side of the river. It abounds in factories and store-houses, and its vast cellars are stated on an average to contain 80,000 pipes of wine. Beautiful walks extend along the river bank and its terraces, and the long reaches of the stream are covered with shipping, and fringed with gardens and villas. The hills in the distance are crowned with ancient convents, fortifications, and villages half hidden amongst verdure. Avintes, famous for the beauty of its women, who supply the town daily with brow, or maize bread, is one of them. Suburbs extend along both banks of the river in the direction of the sea. The river at its mouth is only two fathoms in depth during low water, and dangerous of access when the wind blows from the m est. Even at Oporto vessels of 400 or 500 tons are exposed to danger from sudden floods of the river, which cause them to drag their anchors. The port of the Douro has therefore to contend m ith great difficulties in its rivaly with Lisbon.

The small town of Sao Joao da Foz, at the mouth of the Douro, has a light-house, but carries ou no commerce, Near it are Mattozinhos and Leca, the latter of which boasts of an ancient monastery resembling a fortress, and is much frequented on account of its fine beach and refreshing sea breezes. Espinho, to the south of the Douro, is another favourite seaside resort, in spite of the all-pervading smell of sardines. The small ports to the north of the Douro are frequented only by coasting vessels or by seaside visitors. The entrance to the Minho is defended by the castle of Insua, on a small island, as its name implies, and by the insignificant fortress of Caminha. The river is accessible only to vessels drawing less than six feet. The mouth of the Lima, though even more difficult of access, is nevertheless occupied by a town of some importance–coquettish Vianna do Castello, beautifully ensconced amidst the verdure of its fertile plain. Other towns are Espozende, at the mouth of the Cavado, and Villa do Conde, at that of the Ave. Formerly most of the vessels engaged in the slave trade and those employed in the great maritime enterprises of the Portuguese were built here, and it still boasts of a few shipyards.

Amongst the inland tow es of Entre Douro e Minho are Polite de Lima, famous for the beauty of the surrounding country ; Barcellos, overhanging the shady banks of the Cavado ; and Amarante, celebrated for its wines and peaches, and proud of a fine bridge spanning the Tamega. But the only towns important on account of their population are Braga and Guimaraes, both placed on commanding heights overlooking a most fertile country. Braga Bracara Augusta), an ancient Roman colony, the capital of the Galicians, then of the Suevi, and later on the residence of the Kings of Portugal, became the primatial city of the whole of the peninsula when the two kingdoms were temporarily united under the same sovereign. But Braga is not only a town of the past, it is even now a bustling place, where hats, linens, arms, and beautiful filigree are manufactured for exportation to the rest of Portugal and the Portuguese colonies. Guimaraes is equally as interesting as Braga on account of its monuments ami mediaeval legends. Visitors are still shown the sacred olive-tree which sprang from a seed placed in the soil by King Warmba, when still a common labourer ; and Affonso, the founder of the Portuguese monarchy, was born in the old castle. Guimaraes is a busy manufacturing town; it produces cutlery, hardware, and table-linen, and English visitors never fail to purchase there a curiously ornamented box of prunes. Near it are much-frequented sulphur springs, known to the Romans as The towns of Traz os Montes and Beira Alta are too far removed from high-ways to have attracted a considerable population. Villa Real, on the Corgo, is the busiest place of Traz os Montes, owing to the vineyards in its neighbourhood.

Chaves, an old fortress near the Spanish frontier, boasts of one of those Roman bridges which have rendered the century of Trajan famous: it was formerly noted for its mineral springs Aque Flavie). Braganca, the old provincial capital, has a commanding citadel, and, owing to its geographical position, is an important place for smugglers, the legitimate exports fluctuating regularly with the customs tariff. It is the most important place in Portugal for the production of raw silk. Lamego, a picturesque town to the south of the Douro, opposite the Paiz do Vinho, enjoys a great reputation for its hams; Almeida, which keeps in cheek the garrison of Spanish Ciudad Rodrigo, was anciently one of the strongest fortresses of Portugal ; and Vizeu is an important station between the Douro and the Mondego. Its fairs are more frequented than any others in Portugal, and in its cathedral may be seen the famous masterpiece painted by the mythical Gran Vasco. The herdsmen around Vizéu are noted for their strength and beauty. Their uncovered heads and bare legs give them an appearance of savagery, but their manners are as polished and dignified as those of the rest of their countrymen.

Coimbra (Eminium), in Beira-mar, is the most populous tom n between Oporto and Lisbon. It is known more especially for its university, whose professors and students impart to it the aspect of a mediaeval seat of learning. The purest Portuguese is spoken there. The environs are delightful, and in the botanical garden the plants of the tropics mingle w ith those of the temperate zones. From the banks of the Mondego, upon which the city is built, visitors frequently ascend to the Quinta das Lap-ham (” house of tears “), the scene of the murder of the beauteous Inez de Castro, whose death was so cruelly revenged by her husband, Peter the Judge.

Few countries in the world can rival the beautiful valley of the Mondego, that “river of the Muses” held dear by all the Lusitanians, because it is the only one which belongs to them exclusively. Condeixa, a town near Coimbra, fully deserves to be called the ” Basket of Fruit,” for its gardens produce most exquisite oranges. In the north the ruins of the monastery of Bussaco occupy a mountain terrace covered with a dense forest of cypresses, cedars, oaks, elms, and exotic trees. This delightful place and the hot springs of Luso, near it, are a favourite summer residence of the citizens of Lisbon and Coimbra.

Figueira da Fos, the port of Coimbra, is well sheltered, but, like most other ports of Northern Portugal, is obstructed by a bar of sand. It is nevertheless much frequented by coasting vessels, and amongst its exports are the wines of Barraida. Ovar and Aveiro, in the ” Portuguese Netherlands,” on the banks of a lagoon separated by a series of dunes from the high sea, are the tw o other ports of this part of the coast. They were important places during the Middle Ages, but the shifting bars, which render access to them difficult, have put a stop to their prosperity. The seamen of these two places have a high reputation for daring. They engage in sardine-fishing, oyster-dredging, and the manufacture of bay-salt.