If any city can be described as adorable, then it is Guimarães. Its pedestrianised heart is a web of gently winding cobbled streets and washing-hung alleyways bejewelled with tiny bars and cute cafés. Those alleyways lead to pretty plazas that, rather satisfyingly, tend to be any shape but square, while its dinky, idiosyncratic shops, specialising in lacework, hats or birdcages, are a joy to discover – without a Body Shop or a Zara in sight.
Guimarães boasts some 50,000 inhabitants, yet it has the sleepy air of a village. Even amid the hullabaloo that surrounded its status last year as European Capital of Culture, people still took the trouble to bid me good day in the street. And the party isn’t over yet – a diverse programme of cultural events continues until midsummer. But the city’s appeal goes far deeper than the chance to peruse quirky sculptures in public spaces.
On an imposing section of city wall bold white letters proclaim “Aqui Nasceu Portugal” – Portugal was born here. The nation’s first king, Afonso Henriques, made Guimarães his capital in the early 12th century before driving the Moors from the lands to the south.
Lots of granite – in pavements, window frames, doorways and those mighty battlements – lends the city a solid, down-to-earth mien. Senior citizens are resplendent in slacks, ties and tweedy jackets, as though still waiting for the Sixties to arrive, while café windows offer pastries such as toucinho do céu and tortinhas that were invented by the city’s nuns hundreds of years ago.
On the other hand, a large student population breathes life, energy and creativity into the streets, squares, cafés and bars.
The city’s topography, undulating over ridges and valleys and encircled by wooded hills, adds to the pleasure of simply strolling and discovering such curiosities as the huge granite dying tanks where the city’s tanning industry thrived until the Fifties. But there are also plenty of more specific attractions.
The José de Guimarães International Centre of Arts is a spectacular cluster of giant cubes that houses a startling collection of primitive art. In the Santa Clara convent, the Alberto Sampaio Museum showcases religious iconography, from small painted stone statues of saints to 9ft 18th-century angel candleholders. There’s also a fairy-tale castle on the edge of the city dating from 10th century, no more than an empty shell, but offering an excellent perspective of the city from its ramparts. A stone’s throw away, the 15th-century Ducal Palace scores high on armoury and tapestries.
The most agreeable diversion of all, though, is the 10-minute cable-car ride over residents’ back gardens to the 2,000ft-high peak known as Penha. At the summit there are restaurants and cafés, grottoes and walking trails, and picnic tables beneath the pines. It’s the perfect place to spend a tranquil afternoon, drinking in lovely views of a captivating city.