Some of you may remember that I won a prize of a night in Barcelos, a small city in northern Portugal which is famous for its cockerel story. Judging by the number of giant painted cockerels dotted around the place, this is still its main claim to fame but Barcelos has a bit more to offer than that.
I took Mike with me to take advantage of our free night’s accommodation and to find out what there is to do in Barcelos.
Barcelos is one of the cities on the Portuguese Caminho de São Tiago da Compostela, or Way of Saint James so although Mike and I didn’t have time to venture much beyond the medieval bridge of Barcelinhos, we did notice several route markers and sweaty walkers as we wandered around the town centre. The tourist information centre should have some pocket leaflets with details of what you can see on the Barcelos stretch of the route. As you’d expect, the main highlights are chapels, churches and bridges, as well as pretty countryside.
There are also plenty of other walks of about 3 to 4 hours duration in the surrounding area that take in windmills, villages, rivers and forests. Ask at the tourist information office about Percursos de Pequena Rota (PR) short walks or look out for the signs and coloured route markers. Don’t forget to take plenty of water with you.
Barcelos has inspired many varieties of ceramics and pottery over the years, from earthenware pots to bushy-eyebrowed ladies. We tried to visit the pottery museum, Museu de Olaria, but the building was closed for renovations. Luckily, the tourist information office had an impressive array of ceramic figurines on display that reflect the range of styles and the local culture. The museum may be open again by the time you visit but check first.
3. Thursday market
Noisy, chaotic and rich with colour and life, the weekly market in Barcelos attracts people from the Minho region to buy and sell all manner of things. You’ll find cheap clothes and shoes, fresh fruit and vegetables, lots of ceramics, lampshades, kitchenware, traditional tools and farming equipment as well as souvenirs and handicrafts. The Barcelos market started life as an annual event in 15th century and remains an important element of the local economy and culture.
4. Archaeological Museum
I loved the fact that the Museu Arqueológico is not only free but puts the ruined Counts of Barcelos Palace to good use. It’s open to the skies and overlooks Barcelinhos across the river as well as a 15th century manor house. The exhibits in this museum are made of stone and tiles and continue to withstand the elements centuries after they were made. This is where you’ll find the stone Crucifix to the Lord of the Rooster (Cruzeiro do Senhor do Galo) which was erected by the poor fellow who only escaped death because of a rooster.
5. Timeless shops
The main shopping street of Barcelos, Rua António Barroso isn’t long but if you want to step back in time, visit one of the many shops that haven’t changed a bit since they first opened decades ago. There are modern shops, too, of course, but these treasures offer a glimpse into a different way of life.
As well as ceramics, there are plenty of other handmade products on offer in Barcelos, some of which you can watch being made. As soon as we entered the showroom cum workshop of the coppersmith, he grabbed a mallet, plonked himself on a stool and started bashing away at a copper bowl for our entertainment. He’s got a collection of tools that would set many a man’s heart racing and some very fine pieces for sale.
We found another metal worker purely by chance. I happened to glance through an open window and spotted this guy transforming tin cans into what look like mini watering cans but I suspect they are for pouring olive oil. You can buy them at the market and souvenir shops.
7. River beaches and summer fun
If you visit Barcelos in July or August, the patch of sand by the Barcelinhos side of the bridge will probably be covered with sunbathers although when Mike and I visited in early September, there were only a couple of people soaking up the sun. The posters advertising the summer’s entertainment were still dotted around town though and it seems there’s plenty of live music and discos throughout the summer season.
8. Outdoor cafés
We spotted two pleasant-looking riverside café bars, In Rio has terraces on the Barcelos side, while D’Outro Lado is literally on the other side and has a grassy garden and a marquee. There’s also a scruffy (but authentic) football bar just up the road from D’Outro Lado which is decorated with football scarves and graffiti and has a dusty garden with plastic chairs if you like that sort of thing. The town centre has plenty of cafés with outdoor seating, perfect for a spot of people watching.
If, like me, you’re a fan of old buildings, sculpted stonework, colourful tiles and swirly railings, you’ll have fun wandering around Barcelos. The historic centre is quite small but there’s a wide range of architectural styles and features for the keen-eyed. I particularly liked the four stone figures on the wall of the 18th century Benfeito manor house. Each one represents a different season; it looks as though winter is grim up north!
Many of the buildings are in ruins but there are still some very impressive ones, such as the town hall and the baroque monuments of the Walkway of the Benches gardens. I fell in love with this one though; the Solar dos Pinheiros with its pretty windows and sand-coloured stone.
If you want to visit Barcelos as part of a day trip that incorporates some of the Minho’s other great spots, such as Ponte de Lima and Viana do Castelo, this tour may interest you: Minho Day Trip From Porto, or this very similar tour, with lunch.
We stayed at the Bagoeira Hotel which was comfortable and clean, with good service, and overlooks the weekly market.
If you have your own transport and fancy staying in a very special place a few kilometres outside Barcelos, Quinta da Franqueira is worth checking out. It’s a beautifully restored 16th century monastery surrounded by gardens and vineyards with a pool to boot.
Another charming place near Barcelos is the 17th century Casa dos Assentos de Quintiaes, which also has a pool.
For more information, including how to get there and other things to do in the area, check out the official tourist information pdf.