The view from a glass-fronted riverside café one afternoon in Arcos de Valdevez was enough to convince me that this northern Portuguese village warranted further exploration. That’s partly why I accepted an invitation to follow the Lima Valley Giants Route. Being keen to learn more about the history, countryside and culture of this part of Portugal, the route enabled me to kill more than two birds with one stone.
The Lima Valley Giant from Arcos de Valdevez, Father Himalaya (1868 to 1933), was not only a gifted inventor but also unusually tall for a Portuguese man, especially over a century ago. Everyone called him by the nickname ‘Himalaya’ and he ended up making it his official name.
He was also rather attractive, which no doubt helped him gain sponsorship from wealthy ladies to fund his revolutionary projects such as the Pyrheliophero (Sun Machine) which harnessed the sun’s rays using thousands of mirrors generating temperatures of over 3,200°C. His pioneering work into renewable energies and solar power is still widely respected today. My guide, Luís Fernandes, also teaches renewable energy and is clearly a Himalaya fan.
Father Himalaya’s birth and final resting place
Luís took me to Himalaya’s grave in the cemetery at Igreja de Cendufe, which is covered with plaques dedicated to his memory and achievements. Just down the hill, we stopped at the house where he was born, currently occupied by private owners but visible from the arched entrance to Casa da Costa.
Monte do Castelo
The countryside between Cendufe and Arcos de Valdevez is truly beautiful with terraced slopes of green farmland, the odd-shaped peak of Castelo da Nóbrega across the valley and undulating outlines of mountains in the distance. After a few kilometers of windy country lanes, we reached the small church of Nossa Senhora do Castelo (Our Lady of the Castle). On the first weekend of May, almost 2000 people join the 7 km procession as her statue is carried from Arcos up the hill to the chapel. The stone picnic tables and benches in the woods behind it would be crammed with people during the open air mass.
The castle the Lady is named after no longer exists; it was made of wood so the only trace of it is a square hole in one of the boulders which used to hold one of the supporting beams. You can reach the site by following the brown signs for Monte do Castelo from the N301. The views across the valley and the Serra Amarela mountains of Peneda-Gerês National Park are well worth the effort.
A bridge over the River Vez
Once you get past the creeping urban sprawl of Arcos de Valdevez, its still pretty historical centre spreads uphill away from the river. The arched bridge across the River Vez was built while Father Himalaya was a child, totally replacing the previous Romanesque structure. At this point, the river is wide and calm although its flow is interrupted a little further downstream by a line of rocks creating a short waterfall.
Further upstream, the shouts and splashes of a game of kayak polo in progress pierced the serenity of the riverside park. If you continue following the river as it curves upstream, you’ll reach the local river beach which was already attracting sunbathers when I visited in April.
Architecture in Arcos de Valdevez
As for the Lima Valley Giants Route, most of the buildings in the old part of town were around during Father Himalaya’s lifetime, including the Igreja do Espirito Santo located in a lovely square with gardens and trees next to a grand 18th century building which is now the Casa das Artes. The library has stunning ceilings with original paintings and a small exhibition of books and a video about Father Himalaya. Ask at the counter if you want to watch the film (it’s around an hour long) and you’ll be taken to the multimedia centre which is housed in the former kitchen where you can still see the stone sinks and oven.
The unusual stone pillory opposite the peach-coloured town hall was made by João Lopes o Velho (the Old), the renowned stonemason responsible for the 16th century water fountain in Viana do Castelo’s Praca da República.
Between here and Largo da Lapa you’ll find the oldest building in town, the tiny Gothic Capela de Nossa Senhora da Conceição (Chapel of Our Lady of Conception) which was built at the end of the 14th century. Continue along the street to reach the small square, dominated by a curved white 18th century church, Igreja da Lapa, and the circular water clock which definitely wasn’t around when Father Himalaya was alive.
A living legend in Arcos de Valdevez
Nor was Delfim Pereiras Amorim, owner of Tasca Delfim. Now retired, Delfim was an internationally acclaimed accordion player and his bar is crammed with his vast collection of instruments and keepsakes, every one of them with a story behind it. He obliges me by playing a little tune when I ask if I can take a photo of him with an accordion. When asked to point out his favourite, he reaches behind a chair and pulls out a heavy case to reveal a beautiful shiny red machine.
Local cakes and dishes in Arcos de Valdevez
It is possible, however, that Father Himalaya enjoyed some of the sweet treats from Doçaria Central which has been producing pão de ló (very soft sponge cake), charutos dos Arcos (cigar-shaped rolls of sweetened egg yolk wrapped in soft wafers encrusted with sugar) and rebouçadas dos Arcos (wrapped cylinders of hard boiled sugar guaranteed to keep you quiet for a while) since 1830. Made using antique machinery, the recipes are a closely guarded family secret.
Other local gastronomic specialities include posta de cachena com arroz fe feijão tarrestre (veal steak from the long-horned cows that roam the slopes of Peneda-Gerês served with a bean and rice stew). I tried this at Restaurante O Pote and although very tasty, the meat was unfortunately a little on the chewy side. The bean and rice stew was delicious.
Horse riding around Arcos de Valdevez
Such a beautiful landscape is a haven for horse riders and nature lovers in general. Although I sadly didn’t have time to go on an extended trek, I did manage to squeeze in a 1 1/2 hour hack through a village and into the forest. Once mounted on my beautiful, patient and well-trained horse, Luna, we plodded past smallholdings with their pointy stacks of corn stalks, cabbage and potato patches, mini vineyards and chicken runs. Even on such a short ride, the scenery varied and at one point, I found myself looking across the valley to Monte Castelo where I’d been only the day before.
As we rode, Carlos, the owner of Quinta do Fijó, told me about the 2 and 3-day treks he organizes along the Wolf Trail in Peneda-Gerês National Park and the protected area of Corno do Bico which can be combined to create a week’s horse riding holiday. I’m not a skilled or confident rider but he assures me that the treks are suitable even for beginners. I’m seriously tempted…
Other adventures around Arcos de Valdevez
If you’re looking for a nature fix, Arcos and the Lima valley can deliver it in spades. Whether you just want to sit and admire it or take on its challenges through adventure sports, there are plenty of opportunities to do so including canyoning, climbing, 4-wheel-drive tours and cycling as well as plenty of hikes. Check out Nature 4 for lots of ideas.
Where to stay in Arcos de Valdevez
I spent the night in Quinta das Cortinhas, a charming traditional house on the outskirts of Arcos. Built at the beginning of the 20th century, it’s hosted many renowned writers and politicians over the years. Its 17th century azulejos were brought from the family home in Lisbon and originally decorated the external walls of the house. Sadly, repeated thefts forced the family to move most of the remaining tiles inside where they line the walls of the breakfast room.
Guest rooms vary in size and facilities so if space is an issue for you, check before booking. Some are in the main house, others are in a stone building which used to house the bread oven, pigeon house and stables. The best time to stay here would be the summer months (June to September) when Paula is on site to keep everything in order and it’s warm enough to make use of the outdoor pool.
If this doesn’t suit you, you could have a look at other hotels and accommodations in and around Arcos de Valdevez.
Local council website (in Portuguese but with contact details for useful places and institutions)
Lima Valley Giants Route (my introductory post about the route)
Disclosure: CENTER hosted my stay in the Lima valley while showing me the Lima Valley Giants Route. All opinions, as always, are my own.