The village of Melgaço is almost as far north as you can get in Portugal and is only separated from Spain by the River Minho. Surrounded by hills, forests and vineyards and the mountains of Peneda-Gerês National Park, its setting couldn’t be more beautiful.
I only had one day to explore Melgaço and crammed as much as possible into that time but I didn’t manage to see everything it has to offer.
Here are just some of the things that make Melgaço worth visiting
1. Its history
The historical centre is compact and dotted with cute-looking restaurants, leafy squares, fountains and old churches. It’s dominated by the castle which was once a strategic element in the ongoing battles to keep Portugal from being taken over by the Spanish. Outside the main gate, a statue of two women fighting marks Portugal’s final historic victory.
In 1388, Melgaço was under Castilian control but the Portuguese king wanted it back. Some Portuguese were happy to stay with the Spanish, which led to a civil war within Portugal. A Portuguese woman, known as The Renegade because she sided with the Spanish, challenged Inês Negra (Black Inês), a loyal supporter of King João, to a duel in order to settle the dispute. The Renegade lost and Melgaço’s heroine, Inês Negra has become immortalised in local history, and recently in bronze.
Walking around the outside of the castle, you’ll find a café, pretty flower gardens, colourful benches, and kids play area. Oh, and amazing views over the River Minho and the Spanish mountains. A short underground section of the old tunnel access to the fortress has been excavated which is free to visit although not especially impressive.
Inside the castle walls, there’s nothing much left except the medieval tower. For 1 euro, you can climb to the roof top for 360° views of Melgaço, Spain and the peaks of Fiães and Peneda-Gerês National Park. There’s an attractive bell up there, too. It’s not the original one used to warn the population and its defenders of approaching armies but it looks the part.
On your way up to the roof, you’ll pass some faded photos and a few artefacts which represent the archaeological and architectural history of the area but it’s the view that’s worth paying for.
2. Alvarinho and vinho verde
The Minho region of Portugal is famous for its vinho verde (green/young wine) and the area around Melgaço is renowned for the Alvarinho grape. This explains the vineyards that cover every spare inch of countryside.
I had just missed the annual Alvarinho and smoked meat festival which attracts wine fans at the end of April. Luckily, the Solar do Alvarinho offers tastings of the many versions of vinho verde they sell on behalf of local producers. If you’re thinking of buying, it’s worth coming here to sample first as there is tremendous variety in the taste. Upstairs, there are plush leather armchairs for you to savour the wines in and downstairs, there’s a small bar and a shop selling local delicatessen items and handicrafts.
If you have more time, and a car, you could follow the Alvarinho Wine Route as a way of exploring the countryside and learning more about the grape and wine production in the region.
3. The Cinema Museum
Film buffs are in for a treat at the Museu de Cinema de Melgaço. Film critic Jean Loup Passek donated his extensive collection to Melgaço, much to the chagrin of the French authorities who tried to stake a claim on it. I didn’t have time to visit the museum but apparently, it’s an extraordinarily wide collection of machines, posters, photographs and other cinema-related items which chart the course of cinematography through the ages. The collection is so vast, it needs to be re-housed.
4. Walks and views
If you’re pushed for time, try to at least get up to Fiães hilltops, even if you have to take a taxi. The views are well worth the effort/minimal expense and there’s a monastery, too.
If you fancy a relatively short walk around Melgaço, there’s a 5.7 km route which takes you downhill from the statue of Inês Negra, past a convent, through the sports complex, along the river, between vineyards into villages and ends up at the Termas de Melgaço Spa in Peso. You can pick up a leaflet which details the walk from the tourist information office but I’d advise you to check out the post I wrote about it before tackling it.
When you’re so close to Portugal’s only National Park, it would be rude not to spend some time exploring Peneda-Gerês. I only had a day in the park but fell in love with its diverse and dramatic scenery, fascinating villages and crystal clear water. A good place to head for if you’re based in Melgaço would be Castro Laboreiro which has a small museum and is the start of the Megalithic Monument Walk.
You can buy a map of the park and individual trails from the interpretation centre at the Lamas de Mouro park gate and follow the signs but make sure you ask about the state of the trails before heading off on your own. It’s probably better to go with a guide if you plan on doing a long walk.
5. Spa treatments
The water from the thermal springs at Peso is credited with the ability to relieve diabetes, as well as other ailments. The Termas de Melgaço spa has just reopened after extensive remodelling and is modern, bright and stuffed with all manner of equipment designed for both medical use and relaxation.
If you fancy a massage and the use of the spa pool with its jets and currents (not for swimming), ring ahead and book yourself in.
Even if you’re just passing through, it’s worth stopping to have a look at the glass and steel building next to the treatment centre and possibly try a glass of the curiously fizzy water. There’s a café in the woods opposite if you’d rather have something else to drink.
6. Sports facilities
If you want to swim, you’ve got a couple of options in Melgaço. As well as an indoor pool near the Urban Park, there’s an outdoor one in the sports complex just outside of the village centre.
If you follow the orange signs to the Centro de Estágios (Sports and Leisure Complex) you’ll find all manner of sporty facilities including an athletics track and tennis courts as well as mini golf and picnic tables. You can walk (or jog) from Melgaço, stopping for a workout at the little roadside fitness station if the urge to exercise strikes you.
If all that seems too energetic, you could just go for an amble in the woods or have a drink or meal at the Hotel Monte Prado and enjoy the views from the comfort of your chair.
Active tourism has taken off in the Melgaço area and you can arrange to go rafting down the River Minho, go hang-gliding, mountain biking, all-terrain karting as well as horse riding, abseiling and canyoning. Bring appropriate clothes and sunscreen and enjoy!
Have I convinced you to visit Melgaço?
The closest airport in Portugal is Porto, about 150 km / 2 hours by car but Vigo and Santiago da Compostela airports in Spain are nearer so check all options if you’re flying. There are buses from Porto to Melgaço and trains from Porto as far as Valença but a car would give you much greater flexibility for getting around the area.
There are several accommodation options in and around Melgaço including a youth hostel. I stayed in the 17th century farmhouse of Casa da Calçada but there are several other hotels listed on Booking.com if you prefer something more modern.
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