Guimarães, Portugal: Europe’s cultural enigma

What links Berlin and Paris with tiny Guimarães in Portugal? David Atkinson explains on a visit to the city, newly crowned European Capital of Culture.
Athens blazed the trail in 1985. Florence, Berlin and Paris followed in its wake. Closer to home, Glasgow and Liverpool have also enjoyed their centre-stage moments in the cultural spotlight. This year, Guimarães is one of the two cities hosting events for the European Capital of Culture (the other is Maribor in Slovenia).

Guimarães? You may well ask. The former industrial city in northern Portugal’s less-explored Minho region hardly trips off the tongue. There are no direct flights from Britain, no well-trodden route similar to the Douro Valley wine trail to the east. Culturally, too, the north of Portugal is known primarily for Porto, some 37 miles (60km) south-west of Guimarães, with its imposing Serralves Museum of Contemporary Art and buzzy, after-dark street life. Guimarães is an enigma.

But for Carlos Martins, the CEO of the Guimarães 2012 Foundation, hosting a scaled-down, post-austerity event is the very thing that sets the city apart. “We have more chance to surprise people as a small-scale city. The challenge is greater, but then so is our commitment,” says the former academic with an interest in cultural geography.
I arrived at dusk with little idea what to expect. My first impression was of a city similar to York or Durham: sturdy city walls, cobbled courtyards and labyrinthine backstreets. The Old Town, anchored by the twin squares of Largo da Oliveira and Praça Santiago, has been recognised by Unesco for its cultural heritage and there are historic buildings aplenty – monasteries, churches and palaces testify to the city’s pivotal role as the 12th-century birthplace of the modern nation.

But a “cultural melting pot”? Hardly. Then, as I took a seat at a small tapas bar on Oliveira Square that evening, I started to appreciate the city’s low-key charm. A light but tasty dinner of Portuguese cheeses, meats and olives, washed down with a glass of the local vinho verde, was remarkably good value at around £10. A young crowd started to bring a buzz of animation to the café terraces of the old square. Even the adjoining Alberto Sampaio Museum, which combines sacred art with more contemporary exhibitions from Portuguese artists, opens until midnight during July and August for exhibitions and tours. There was life behind those old doors after all.

Over the next couple of days I found the best way to soak up the local culture was simply to wander the ancient passageways in the early spring sun. The fusion of history-creviced architecture and the budding contemporary culture was particularly appealing. I found small, independent art galleries that had sprung up in old merchants’ houses and tiny, design-led boutiques rubbing shoulders with lost-in-time ironmongers.

The cultural programme for the year reflects this beneath-the-surface ambience. Carlos Martins’s team of young and enthusiastic cultural programmers has moved away from headline-grabbing names in favour of less-established projects, a series of artists in residence and a strong emphasis on work by local artists.

One of the first events to be staged in January was a series of small concerts in which the musicians played in family living rooms around the city. In the coming months, the French travelling theatre group, Footsbarn, will present its take on Shakespeare’s The Tempest and Cesena, a dance performance from the Belgian choreographer, Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker, will be staged at dawn in an old church.

The one concession in scale is a major new arts centre, the Platform for Arts and Creativity, which opens in June on the fringe of the newly restyled Toural Square. The three-gallery complex, built on the site of the old public market, will host visiting exhibitions of contemporary work and a new permanent home for work by the modern Portuguese artist José de Guimarães.

“Our strategy is simple,” says Martins. “To be relevant to today and offer a future impact. We are raising questions about what is European culture at the moment.”

During my stay I’d heard much about the city’s 50-odd cultural associations, the lifeblood of the local arts scene, which plough their diverse cultural furrows behind centuries-old courtyards. On the last night I finally ventured behind one of the façades, opening a tiny door onto a snug bar in the building belonging to the cultural association responsible for Guimarães’s well-established international jazz festival each November.

A group of old men gathered around a flickering television screen in the first room. The barman handed me a large tumbler of port and I moved through to the next room, where the open fire, cool jazz soundtrack and chatter of young art students provided a stark contrast.

Typical Guimarães. Venture behind those closed doors and there’s a delightfully understated world of culture waiting to be explored.

More information and Source: David Atkinson at the Telegraph

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