Amarante, Portugal

Jason R. Matheson
5 min readDec 9, 2022

I chose the quiet village of Amarante along the Rio Tâmega for my last night of this trip to Portugal. After the bustle of big-city Porto, I welcomed shifting to a slower pace.

The old town is picturesque with the bridge of São Gonçalo spanning the river in front of Igreja de São Gonçalo, the Romanesque church. I learned many things in Amarante were named for Saint Gonçalo — some more interesting than others (we’ll get to those later).

As I drove into town, I passed an abandoned factory complex that caught my eye. I pulled over and examined the buildings. “Fabrica de Moveis” translated literally from Portuguese to Factory of Furniture. I wondered what kind of furniture they made there and how long it had been empty.

On into town, I first toured the impressive church buildings located prominently near the bridge. An eager volunteer lady explained that during Napoleon’s invasion of Portugal in the early 1800s, French troops ransacked the town and rode off with many of the church’s relics.

Much of the gold-painted woodwork with ornately carved birds and swirls was painstakingly restored. Alas, the alcoves in the walls were still empty as the French never returned the relics.

I appreciated that the church was completely accessible and mostly devoid of other tourists. Nothing was off limits and I could quietly examine the main alter and sacristy.

Soon, it was time for dinner. I saw many traditional Portuguese dishes with “bacalhau” which means codfish. Salted codfish is deeply integrated in the country’s DNA. What’s strange is that the fish isn’t native to the warm Atlantic waters near Portugal, it’s a cold-water fish.

The first records of Portuguese fleets fishing cod off the coast of Newfoundland date from the 1500s. The fish were salted for preservation and sold cheaply back home. No matter the economic conditions in Portugal for the next 500 years, salted codfish was readily available, even earning the nickname “meat of the poor”.

I had an excellent baked codfish dish earlier in the week back in Coimbra. This evening, I was hungry after a long drive. Unfortunately, the Portuguese traditionally eat late like the Spanish and all I could find open was a small tavern offering tapas and wine.

No problem, it was simple but delicious. The olives came in convenient double bowls so you could deposit the pits on the side. As in Spain, smoked ham, cheese, crusty bread and a hearty local wine rounded out the meal.

After dinner I wandered along the main street looking in shop windows. Soon, a band marched by playing Christmas songs and Santa himself (called Papai Noel here) rode by in an old fire engine.

He was destined for a wooden hut under a big plastic bubble where parents with eager children were already waiting. Portugal is evidently too warm for snow so some sort of machine created soapy bubbles that passed for the white stuff. Kids posed for pics and soon had it all over their shoes.

Local women had set up small booths around the square where they offered homemade candy, baked goods and crafts. It was such a wholesome scene. As I looked over the tables I glanced at these cakes and then took a second look.

Wait, what in the world?

Evidently these were called “Bolos de São Gonçalo” or cakes of Saint Gonçalo. They’re believed to promote fertileness and fruitfulness, thus the erotic shape. Legend has it that women who venerate Saint Gonçalo will find love shortly after. Hmmm……

Amarante was obviously a fascinating place to learn more about old-school Portuguese traditions. I enjoyed my time here but tomorrow, I must head back to Spain. My flight home leaves from Madrid in a couple days.


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Jason R. Matheson

I prefer to travel slow. Enjoy history, design, architecture, cars, sports digital. Auburn alum, Sooner born.