Barcelos – A charming Portuguese town

Portugal, Travelogue — By on June 10, 2018 4:09 pm

It’s all hustle and bustle in Barcelos. At least, on a Thursday it is. A tradition from the 15th century, this weekly outdoor market attracts venders from all over the Minho region, flogging their wares, which range from leather goods to fresh fruit to exotic birds. It’s not just the market that it’s worth coming here for, though, for Barcelos has plenty of other sights to make you linger – from ancient ruins to beautiful churches to gorgeous flowery squares to a winding river to charming street-side cafes in beautiful old buildings….and much more besides in the beautiful surrounding countryside.

We arrived in the early afternoon of a Thursday, on a train from Porto (return about 10 euros) which took just under an hour. Seeing the immense scale of the market (a short 10 minute walk from the train station), we decided we needed sustenance to sustain what would no doubt be a test of stamina and endurance (for me anyway). Luckily for us, we found Latinos.

Latinos is a bright, breezy, restaurant full of plants, colourful mix-match furniture, a big Venezuelan map, and a fantastic menu of Venezuelan and Portuguese favourites, served with a big Venezuelan smile from the owner, who hails from Caracas and is married to a local. I went for an arepa with carne mechada, washed down with a Malta, and Veronica, despite always hankering after Venezuelan food, went for a very Portuguese meat and feijao dish. with fizzy water.  Both huge dishes. Now we were ready for the market.

Entering the market in the heat of the afternoon meant that a certain energy had been removed from the day, and despite the throngs of people, the noise level seemed to have been turned down, and a peaceful and agreeable buzz of commerce filled the air. Yet we could still hear the bellowing of the village women as they advertised their wares, the repeated –“quatro euros y dez” rising to “quatro y DEZ” and “QUATRO, y DEZ!” of a vender who wasn’t keen on negotiating further, and the alarmed call of cocks as they were picked out of cages and stuffed into bags to be taken home to eat.

Barcelos is full of cocks. You see them everywhere, the porcelain kind, the wooden kind, the cloth kind….all colourfully hand-painted; the national symbol of Portugal, a symbol born out of a legend that tells of a pilgrim in the 15th century passing through the town on his way to Santiago de Compostela in Galicia (Barcelos is on the Camino route) who was accused of stealing. The pilgrim protested his innocence (when brought to the judge’s house in his last request for mercy), saying the roasted cock the judge was about to enjoy would sing when he was about to be hanged. And so it came to pass, the judge ordered the man be set free, and he was allowed to continue on his pilgrimage, returning later to Barcelos to erect a monument (some say of a giant cock). Of course, there are many other versions of the legend, one of the more detailed is here.

After a good wander around the market and some friendly bargaining we had some goodies to take back to Porto with us – a lovely leather wallet, some beautiful dresses, and a fantastic hat, all made in Portugal. Buy local when you can. We then left the market area and discovered a beautiful square, the Largo da Porta Nova, rich in colourful flowers. There was also a giant cock (a little too modern-looking to be the pilgrim’s), which seemed a big draw for the cameras. We took turns flinging our arms around it’s strong neck. From here we entered the Torre do Cima da Vila, a restored medieval tower with exhibitions of local pottery depicting religious scenes and, of course, cocks in various forms (my favourite was the ‘tourist cock’ – complete with sunburn, beer belly, camera slung around the neck and smoking a cigarette). At the top (you can take the lift or climb the stairs), there is a roof terrace with commanding 360 degree views of Barcelos, taking in the town and the Cavados river. And it’s all for free!

From here we walked down the main commercial street, full of boutique shops and cafes, hit a right at the pretty Historical Café and came to the Igreja Matriz da Paroquia de Santa Maria Maior, a fairly inconspicuous building – until you go inside. When we entered, the azulejos inside, depicting historical and religious scenes, had been hit by the late afternoon sunbeans streaming through the beautiful stained glass windows and the already incredibly pretty interior was transformed into something more magical. It really is one of the more spectacular interiors of a church I have seen in Portugal, with its huge arches, wood-beamed ceiling, and gold gilded altars. After a moment of silent prayer, we left for the next-door ruins of the Paco dos Condes de Barcelos, which sits on a small hill overlooking the river. This was once a palace, built in the beginning of the 15th Century, becoming an archeological museum in the 1920s….it seems full of mystery, and the tombs dotted in and around the former palace lend an eerie air to the place, and seemed to chill the warm sunshine. We spent some time here admiring the grounds and the views, before we headed for some much needed refreshment – at the pretty Art Café where we sat outside and relaxed, listening to a student band at practice in one of the old buildings round the corner. They were pretty tight.

From here we made our way very slowly back to the train station to catch the 7:20pm train to Porto. We passed more open-air cafes, and walked through the market one last time. The quiet of early evening had now descended on Barcelos, and it felt as though somebody had taken the cable out of us and we were about to stop completely. We sat on a step and munched on a watermelon half we’d bought earlier from the market to regain some strength, before the short train ride back. Barcelos had surprised us. There is a lot more to this place than the cocks. It’s a bit of an undiscovered gem. Go on a Thursday for the added experience of one of northern Portugal’s most famous markets. Go any other day for a peaceful and interesting stroll around this pretty town. Well worth it.

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