BootsnAll Travel Network

Best Birthday Ever! Guimarães is Spectacular!

I thought Lisbon was terrific; Porto was even more lively than Lisbon and would have been fabulous but for the bed-bugs; then Braga blew me away; Ponte de Lima was the perfect place to be sick and watch the river and let my eyes land on beauty and peacefulness till I could walk again. But lemme tell ya: Guimarães (pronounced gee-ma-RYE-sh) beats everything. This is it, this is the top, this has to be the most exciting city in Portugal, if not in the world. It has incredible art, jaw-dropping architecture, a castle with parapets you can stroll on, a cable car up to the nearest mountain top, a slammin University community full of pierced and tattooed people reading books in the park and listening to MP3s and kissing and sitting in cafes that blare out heavy metal and doing what college kids do, a cyber center that´s open till 2 a.m. and only charges one Euro per hour, and GET THIS! A washer and dryer available FREE in the hostel. So I will wash all my clothes again and dry them for a very long time tonight, freeing myself at last of any possible bed-bug eggs left anywhere. And it´s my birthday. And I am so happy, if it weren´t for my all-terrain Beppi´s I´d be levitating.

It is my sixty-first year to heaven. Woke to the roosters of Ponte de Lima, got out of the hostel by 7 a.m. and had the whole sleeping town to myself, dew-heavy and waking itself with morning glories and fresh sweet smells of flowers falling out of every crevice and corner. Out of open windows I could smell coffee, fresh bread, sweet cakes, and cigarette smoke. The TVs began to wake up, to what I am sure is more bad news. Nevermind. The bad news will be there whether I have a glorious birthday or not. I made it to the 7:30 bus back to Braga, from which I needed to transfer to get to Guimarães. Not many people on the bus, but those who got on were fragrant of soap, after shave, deodorant, and hope. A new day. Anything could happen. Corn fields, vineyards, acres of roses, some growing wild in abandoned fields. Cool mountain air, the occasional trickling stream passing under a bridge that could be 800 years old.

Got to Guimarães by 10:30, by which time everything was open. First stop, Turismo, where the young woman who helped me spoke excellent English and wanted to know about Texas. She confided in me that she hates Bush, and I confided in her that everybody I know does too, and that many Americans, me included, do not believe he won either of those elections fairly. She said, “And he says he is bombing Iraq to force it to become a democracy!” She got that irony. Before she sent me on my way, she asked me for my nationality and birth date, and when I told her, she said, “It´s your birthday! May I kiss your face?” So I got kisses in the air on each side of my face. My face is still beaming.

So then I went directly to the Alberto Sampaio Museum, built on the site of the monastery which started this whole town, built in the 800s by Countess Mumadona (I love her name, I keep humming it to myself, it hums nicely). This museum, which has some very old cloisters and granite rooms, has been completely remodeled to house and show off (mostly) Ecclesiastical art, though there are also special exhibitions, including one right now, about two wonderful fat children, a brother and sister, in the 19th Century who were born in Italy and traveled all over Europe delighting the people, who had never seen such fat children and found them wonderful and amazing. A whole industry grew up around these children: posters, mugs, plates, ceramics. All celebrating the beautiful fat children from Italy. It was a phenomenon. I wish I could bring every fat kid in America to see this exhibition so they could, at least for one day, feel celebrated. I was allowed to take a few pictures of them. But back to the ecclesiastical art. I know, maybe this doesn´t sound exciting, but it IS, really. I skipped the silver altars and the gold chalices and the pictures of bishops and martyrs dying every conceivable kind of horrible death, but I came to an ivory St. Sebastian (he´s the one with the arrows in him, right?) who is full of holes (the arrows have disappeared), and smiling like one of the fat children. And he´s so recognizably Portuguese: compact, muscular, of such proportions that you know if he were real he´d be about five feet five. There is something in his smile that made me giggle. He is just happiness personified, and the hell with these bothersome holes all over him. They just don´t matter. I love that he´s not suffering. He´s just HAPPY. I wanted to take a picture, no flash, but I wasn´t allowed. They´re very strict about no pictures of the ecclesiastical art. So you´ll just have to trust me on this, or get your ass to Guimarães and look for yourself. And then, there is this one very rigid but striking 17th C Madonna who has a kind of A-shaped body in a red and white gown, standing on a couple of angels, with her hands in prayer position, with pleading eyes, very tender and dear. I wanted to take her in my arms and comfort her. Her face looks like that of a frightened ten-year-old girl. She´s Nossa Senhora da Oliveira. But wait. The BEST (to my warped perspective) is a 13th C Madonna made of wood polychrome, with eyes that gaze forward into her own days, courageous, transcendent, engaged with the looker. Not looking down, not looking up. Looking straight ahead. She arrested me with her unflinching eyes, held me, met my gaze as did Notre Dame de Rocamadour when I was in France in 78. She is Santa Maria de Guimarães. Her arms and her child have been eaten away. Nothing remains of them but stumps of wormwood, but she is palpably, powerfully PRESENT with those eyes. I could stand and look at her all day, wordless, transfigured. Transfigured into what? Into one person of all the many hundreds of thousands who must have met her gaze in the last 800 years. Take that in. Take that IN. I stood there for my grandmother, for my grandfather, for my mother, for my children. I stood there for all my dead friends, and for my live friends, and for Jetgirl and Lisa, and for Guillermo and all my other imprisoned friends, and for everyone who reads this blog, and for the many times I could have died and not made it to this day, this birthday, this moment in Guimarães. I stood there for all of us, gazing into her 800 year old unflinching eyes.

Back on the pavement, I have to say I am grateful for my hideous Beppi shoes. The pavement here is lumps of granite, not worn smooth like the softer cobblestones of the south, but sharp, irregular, and BIG hunks. There must not be a car in all of Guimarães with half-assed wheel alignment. Speaking of big lumps of granite, there´s a castle here, also started by Countess Mumadona because she wanted to protect the people in the monastery from the Moors and who knows what else that might crash in and take their silver altar pieces and gold chalices, etc. The castle is strangely Norman-looking, made out of granite built at the top of the hill (of course) and shaped around massive granite boulders. The stones of the castle incorporate the boulders, and they have been standing together for so long that they are like a very old couple; it is difficult to see where the boulder ends and the wall begins. They curve into each other.

And then here´s my absolute favorite part. Yeah, I haven´t even gotten to it yet. There is a FREE museum of so-called “primitive” art: you know, the stuff with all the little dots like Seurat, but without Seurat´s academic training, so the perspective is a little off and the horses look flat, and there isn´t any shading, but the pictures radiate so much life, so much joy, so much color, they just blow your eyeballs around. It´s like Breughel on hormones. So much is going on in each picture: there´s a farm scene with trees and rows of plants and a building with smoke coming out of the chimney and a man and woman and a horse and some chickens and on and on. And then there´s a scene of a grape harvest, with about 75 people, all doing different things, all red and yellow and aqua and vibrant blue and forest green and intense, throbbing, ecstatic color. I love this stuff. I just eat it up. It makes me want to skip and run naked, as my buddy Ruth says.

I found a restaurant that takes American Express and treated myself to a birthday lunch: soup, salad, and feijoada (white bean stew) with shrimp and cilantro, over rice, with a salad and some water. It was great, but I have to admit I felt a little sorry for myself. No wine, no coffee, no dessert. No migraines. It´s worth it to be healthy enough to enjoy all of this, but I do sometimes feel deprived when all the very well-dressed French tourists around me (and the place is mobbed with French tourists, and quite a few Germans, but no English-speakers I have heard) are drinking bottles of Minho wine and having “breasts of angels” and flan-like confections for dessert, followed by tiny little cups of coffee that would put Red Bull to shame. If you like pastries, this is the place to come. I salivate constantly, gazing in the windows at things I can´t eat that are glazed, sugared, dipped in Port, layered, creamed, flaked, and rolled. And you could stand a spoon up in that coffee if the cup were big enough to fit a spoon in.

I also found some little gifts for the folks at home, bought them (thank you American Express, this is the first time since I´ve been in Portugal that I´ve been able to use it), and immediately MAILED THEM HOME so they won´t have to be chucked out if I run into bed-bugs again. God forbid. I did mail all the letters and postcards to prisoners with the hope that they will not transport bed-bugs across the waters. They had been sealed in a plastic bag. I´m so grateful for my Ziploc bags. I was using them to keep wet things in their places and dry things in their places, but they turned out being a God-send for keeping out the bedbugs. I have scrubbed down the outsides of the Ziploc bags with alcohol rub several times.

Now that I am here, and so completely taken with it–I can´t even describe all the fountains, the gardens, the gorgeous bronze sculpture of many masks, a tribute to “Five Hundred Years of Theatre,” and the paper and tinsel decorations over many of the small streets. I could go on and on. It´s totally different from the peace and simple beauty of Ponte de Lima. It´s just another whole thing. I spoke (in fractured Portuguese) with a woman from whom I bought some of my gifts for people back home, and she said she was born here and cannot imagine anywhere better. I told her I have to agree. I love it. She added, “And the people are so nice,” with a lovely blush, and I told her I was just going to say that. Actually, I told her, “I want to say what you say, but I don´t have the words fast like you, so thank you very much for to say what you say because it is true!” And she laughed, and the bells in the city rang, and the waters in the fountains splashed, and all was well. I have had some terrific birthdays, but this, ah this. This is the best. This is absolutely the best day of my life. And it isn´t quite 8 p.m. yet. More may be yet to come.

Tomorrow I´m going to take the cable car up the mountain, and I have to figure out how to get to Melgaço, up on the Spanish border. I think it´s just a little town for hikers who are going to step out into the forests of the northeastern mountains. I don´t really want to go to Melgaço. I just had to book into the hostel there because there´s no room at any of the hostels down here. All full of tourists who booked from Europe (you can´t book all of these from the USA; I tried). But probably when I get to Melgaço, I´ll see why I needed to go there. Perhaps it will be a good day to chill out, put my feet in a mountain stream, and savor the joys of Guimarães. For now, I am in love with this city. Guimarães.

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5 responses to “Best Birthday Ever! Guimarães is Spectacular!”

  1. Æ says:

    Dear K –

    Silly me! I’d taken you at your word and thought you MIGHT occasionally add an entry to your blog if you had a chance and felt very inspired, so there was a lot to print out for Tai & Joan when I finally discovered last week, when we returned from 3 days in VT to celebrate Tai’s 70th b’day, that you’ve been blogging up a storm! Anyway, condolences on the whole bedbug fiasco, and a thousand thanks for sharing all your adventures with us. We follow faithfully, eagerly, even though we don’t know useful things like the word for bedbug in Portuguese, which Christopher supplied. Isn’t it excellent that you put so much energy into learning Portuguese in the time you had available, so you could manage in all sorts of unforeseen circumstances. I’m so glad that Manko is getting along well in your absence too. … So HAPPY BIRTHDAY and happy pilgrimage, and we’re hanging on every word – but feel free to be free of blogging when that’s what you need. “May you have ease of well-being.” metta, ~Æ

  2. cathy says:

    Happy Belated Birthday. So much to take in . . . such beautiful sharing.

    Thank you!

  3. John says:

    I am late wishing you Happy Birthday, but there you go.

    I’m off to Brazil tomorrow, to the south, not north, but thanks for the offer to connect me with folks there.

    Big squeeze,

  4. JetGirl says:

    Thank you for this amazing post. Your happiness made me cry.

    Oh and,

    Happy Birthday to you! Cha-cha cha!
    Happy Birthday to you! Cha-cha cha!
    Haaaaaappy Biiiiiirthdaaaaay dear Graaaaanny Gooooolllld!
    Happy Birthday to you! Cha-cha cha!


  5. Christine says:

    SO sorry I am late, Happy happy birthday! I am enjoying your blog immensely, thank you for sharing all of this with us. 🙂

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