Far North in Portugal’s Minho
Part One: An Introduction in Song and Dance
We love to dance. We love to party! We love to sing and make music. We wear bright clothing: greens and gold and blues and reds so bright it hurts your eyes.
This is the Minho, the remote north of Portugal where locals party, dance, and sing, rarely seen by foreign travelers.
We have a special kind of song here—a call and response sung by two men—and the subject is always about the one woman both men are in love with. It is a Minho art form. Singers try to outdo one another with their lyrics to woo the woman they love.
And this is the Minho, where notions of romance are celebrated in song, unheard by many tourists.
In the Minho we work hard. And then we play hard in the summer months. Then we work hard again during the harvest and then the pruning. And then it is the holidays and we celebrate. And then it all begins again at the new year.
This, too, is the Minho, where an ancient cycle of life continues remarkably intact, waiting to welcome those who venture to the far north of Portugal.
The Algarve? Lisbon? Porto? Many travelers readily check these off when visiting Portugal. But relatively few reach the Minho, where the top of Portugal nestles against the Spanish border. During our visit we were the only Americans at our hotel and usually the only Americans dining in restaurants, browsing the local shops, and exploring the Minho’s historic monuments and natural wonders. We had escaped the beaten tourist trail simply by driving four hours north—on Portugal’s modern road network—from the capital city of Lisbon.
What we found wasn’t simply brightly garbed locals spontaneously breaking into song and dance. We discovered rugged landscapes, an unfamiliar history, fascinating individuals, and distinctly different food and drink.
Dancing, singing, and music can be found throughout the region, but for some reason the residents of the town of Arcos de Valdevez seem ready to join in at the drop of a hat. We arrived on a quiet weekday afternoon. No concerts or musical festivals were on the schedule, but it only took us a few minutes to locate seemingly spontaneous street music. An ageing accordion player squeezed out a lively tune. His rhythm section was another older man playing an instrument we had never seen before. Propped on his shoulder was a small angel figurine mounted atop a three foot-long, ornate reque-reque. He strummed the reque-reque with a stick, creating a clacking beat that was half-tambourine, half washboard. Attracted by the music, a slightly inebriated bystander pulled a set of castanholas (castanets) from his pocket and joined in the fun.
Musical traditions abound in Arcos de Valdevez, but perhaps nowhere more so than at A Tasca Do Delfim. This little tavern is filled wall-to-wall with concertinas and accordions, along with banners, trophies and framed photos of local celebrities. The collection belongs to Delfim Pereiras Amorim, the retired Portuguese king of the concertina. Memory challenges have ended Delfim’s performing career, but he remains a fixture at the tavern, under the caring gaze of his wife Maria. Look, listen, eat and drink—this eclectic shrine to music is one of many genuine slices of local life that charm visitors to the Minho
In our next article, we climb to the peaks of Portugal’s first national park…dodging wild cows and horses along the way.
Portugal, a Tale of Small Cities is available on Amazon.