Portugal's birthplace is the capital of culture

This year's European capital of culture has been named. We report from Guimaraes.

By Barry Toberman, March 1, 2012
Largo-do-Toural: A picturesque square in the heart of the city

Largo-do-Toural: A picturesque square in the heart of the city

'Portugal was born in Guimaraes," explains our tour guide during the 30-mile road trip from Porto airport to a 2012 European Capital of Culture. Now the affection which the Portuguese display for the nation's 900-year-old birthplace is to be shared with a wider audience, as organisers expect a doubling in visitor numbers to one million. But they stress that the cultural programme will be less about marquee names than projects enhancing an enviable community spirit.

On our first night, we experienced an example of that local pride as the rain-sodden masses turned out for a ceremony marking the 10th anniversary of UNESCO's award of World Heritage Site status to the city's historical quarter. The heritage listing recognises the development of specialised building techniques during the Middle Ages, its close links to the establishment of a national identity and language, and it being "exceptionally well preserved". Even in a torrential downpour, the historical centre looks impressive, not least because of the picturesque effect of the nocturnal lights framing windows of properties in the vicinity.

For those on touring holidays, Guimaraes enjoys locational virtues with both its proximity to Porto and the Spanish border just an hour's drive away. There are decent accommodation options and plentiful dining possibilities. The locals say, only half-jokingly, that there is a dried cod recipe for every day of the year and we get to experience a number of examples, notably bacalhau com natas, a fluffy souffle of cod with cream.

Meals are invariably washed down with some acceptable vinho verde, whose "green" nomenclature refers to the youthfulness of the wine. Given the region, a glass of post-prandial port also goes down a treat.

Footwear lovers can splurge on some locally manufactured shoes and boots at prices considerably lower than you will find in London. The leather industry is a key element of the Guimaraes economy, along with the textiles trade and cutlery production.

Historic town centre

Historic town centre

Regeneration initiatives are part of the 2012 programme, for which 70 million of a 111 million euro budget is devoted to infrastructure. You won't wear out too much shoe leather locally as most of the main attractions are within walking distance.

Ensure your itinerary incorporates the Vila Flor Palace and Cultural Centre, with its elegant gardens. At dusk, visitors making it to the summit of the Guimaraes Castle ramparts are rewarded with a breathtaking view

The Alberto Sampaio Museum houses treasures from local churches and monasteries which were in state hands at the time of its establishment in 1928.My favourite element was a collection of silverware featuring ornate pieces dating back as far as the 12th century.

The museum packs them in with late night opening in the height of summer. Not that July and August are ideal visiting times as temperatures can climb well into the thirties.

Far better to travel in early spring or autumn, when the sights and sounds of the friendly citizens can be appreciated in a balmy 20 degrees climate.

Jazz guitarist Pat Metheny and German chanteuse Ute Lemper are among the stellar attractions for the programme in the 160,000 population city - one of two culture capitals, along with Maribor in Slovenia.

But there will also be pop-ups -happenings in non-conventional spaces - and intimate gatherings in people's homes, showcasing artists from local musicians to top Portuguese stars.

Many events will be free and few will have tickets priced above 10 euros.

In this inclusive spirit, Rui Catarino from the organising group says: "We want visitors to feel the diversity, and how a small city can have a high quality of life. Guimaraes doesn't want to be Paris, London or Lisbon. It wants to be Guimaraes, but even more so."

Guimaraes 2012 organisers have created a free iPhone app and an information website: www.guimaraes2012.pt

Last updated: 11:54am, March 1 2012