Golden Light in the Alto Minho
Words by Emily Nathan
We raced with Francisco to the top of the hill to catch the sunset. At the peak, a few feet of trail led us to a towering bronze deer. The sculpture, representing a deer-king of local legend, stands proudly above the town of Cerveira (which means deer) and the curving river Minho, which separates Portugal from Spain, below. The light shifted to gold and we watched other travelers and locals photograph the landscape and themselves, following the river with our eyes to it’s opening into the Atlantic. After dark, we descended the hill. Francisco played us a bit of Fado and sang along a few words of the Portuguese. Sparks of city lights appeared as our car unraveled the switchbacks to the base of the hill. Shortly after we reached the flats we arrived at Hotel Minho, a chic and Nordic feeling wine-focused hotel and spa from where we based our stay.
In my mind, Portugal was a place for kings and queens and conquistadors requesting permission to plunder the Americas. A place of power and history. From pictures, I knew it also to be a place of old villages and stone roads, bright laundry and powerful surf beaches. I could picture local and tourist families filling flats and villas with the noise of vacation and I could smell the sunscreen being applied throughout the bright hot summer months as everyone rushes in to get a taste of the sea and fresh air.
But to be in Portugal when we were, in the late fall was something else. On this visit, the Alto Minho came to mean a place to wander vast Roman walls covered in grasses and moss, completely free from ticket stalls or masses of tourists. It meant tiny home vineyards with families of sheep munching their way with their young down the grassy rows, the last of the Alvarinho grapes low on yellowing vines. Cool weather and the sound of rain. We tasted so many varieties of Vinho Verde wines and met a farmer/vintner at Soalheiro tending to the smokehouse for the meat of his pigs in the mist. The Alto Minho meant spotting wild horses through pine forests and carefully scooting past bulls on a narrow mountain road, their cowbells creating a sound piece across the heather.