A look at northern Portugal from the 'inn' side

Europe editor Kenneth Kiesnoski set out from Lisbon on a self-drive tour of northern Portugal, stopping at six "pousadas," or inns, along the way. His report follows:

onks, I suspect, didn't have it as good back when the Augustinian order alone occupied the 12th century, hillside Santa Marinha da Costa monastery near Guimaraes, now among the most luxurious of Portugal's renovated pousadas, or government-run historical and regional inns.

For one, their accommodations were smaller, as two cells were combined to create each now well-appointed guest room when the structure was restored and converted into a pousada in 1985.

And it's a sure bet that the gourmet dinner of caldo verde (green cabbage soup) and bacalhau (salted codfish) I feasted on in the pousada's cavernous restaurant outclassed the meals that the friar cooks once dished out in a less lavish refectory within the same walls.

Still, the more some things have changed, the more others clearly have stayed the same.

Lovely views over ancient Guimaraes, Portugal's first capital; quiet strolls in adjacent gardens; and contemplative moments in the medieval chapel surely eased monastic life at Santa Marinha centuries ago, much as they seduced me during my recent stay.

My memorable overnight visit to Santa Marinha -- one of two such inns in Guimaraes -- was my second stop on a tour of several pousadas and attractions in the Minho, the northernmost and greenest part of Portugal.

Undiscovered Portugal

The province, just north of Porto, gave birth not only to the 863-year-old Portuguese state itself but many national symbols and traditions, as well.

For example, the black ceramic roosters peddled as souvenirs nationwide are native to the town of Barcelos, and caldo verde, originally a Minho delicacy, now is a national dish.

Unfortunately for local suppliers -- but luckily for crowd-weary clients -- the quiet province is less popular with tourists than the sunny Algarve and Lisbon to the south.

That means accommodations are reasonable and dinner reservations and retail bargains are easier to come by, even compared with the rest of typically affordable Portugal.

For example, pousada stays in the region can be had from $89 per night in the off season.

Booking one of the 45 pousadas in the Minho and the rest of Portugal -- whether the 18 "historical" ones housed in significant structures or "regional" inns set in areas of exceptional natural beauty -- offers a more intimate encounter with the nation than any standard hotel stay ever could, according to Carolina Marafusta, manager of Santa Marinha.

"The main aim of pousadas is not only to preserve monuments or highlight the countryside but to serve as mirrors of our country's culture and cuisine," she explained. "The pousadas are the embodiment of this country's experience."

Lured by that promise, more tourists are opting to embark on their own self-drive "pousada trails" across Portugal.

"With so many pousadas so close to one another -- only one to two hours apart -- it's a great way to explore Portugal," said Marafusta, who also manages the smaller, regional Nossa Senhora da Oliveira pousada in the historical city center.

On the pousada trail

My own pousada trek began in ancient, walled Obidos, a must-see stop on the drive from Lisbon where I paused for a short tour and a bite to eat.

Occupying a castle that looms over the enchanting, whitewashed town, the pousada -- the first historical one, opened in 1951 -- is hard to miss and even harder to leave.

After lunch at the on-site restaurant (have clients ask for the sole booth with a view), I scaled a castle tower to inspect the nine-room pousada's duplex honeymoon suite, which boasts an ancient four-poster bed atop a steep staircase.

As the small Obidos pousada is both extremely popular and close to busy Lisbon, book stays well in advance of travel.

After a couple of hours of driving on the A1 motorway through lush green countryside, I arrived at Santa Marinha up in the Minho, some 150 miles to the north of Obidos.

The following morning, I popped into Nossa Senhora da Oliveira before exploring the rest of Guimaraes, a well-preserved medieval jewel with a northern European feel.

In contrast to awesome Santa Marinha, intimate Nossa Senhora had the feel of a cozy wayside inn of yesteryear.

While the pousada is of no historical importance, its appeal lies in its location; several of its 16 rooms face the beautiful Largo da Oliveira square, just steps from top sights.

After a brief stop in picturesque Barcelos for some of those souvenir roosters, I checked into the grand Pousada de Santa Luzia in coastal Viana do Castelo.

A winding three miles up a steep hill outside town, the pousada -- sandwiched between hilltop Celtic ruins and a basilica below -- fully delivered on the regional pousadas' promise of spectacular locales.

Throwing open the windows of my room, I was treated to a sprawling vista of the basilica, town and coastline below.

Viana do Castelo itself was a wonder to behold; after an espresso break at a cafe in the Praca da Republica square, I explored streets crammed with Gothic and Renaissance mansions, as well as crowds of laughing, jostling teens.

Returning to the pousada for dinner, I found a new range of dishes on offer and opted for pork with almonds and cabbage; the menus at all the pousadas I visited had been, from soup to nuts, somewhat similar: heavy on seafood and beef.

Still, I looked forward to the sumptuous appetizer spread of olives, sheep's milk cheese, chourico sausages and warm breads I knew awaited me at each pousada meal.

Sure enough, my favorite snacks were the opening act of yet another delicious lunch at my next stop, Santa Maria do Bouro, a jawdropper of a pousada set in a reconstructed Cistercian monastery in vineyard-laden hills outside Amares.

Santa Maria do Bouro was designed in 1997 by architect Eduardo Souto Moura to blend modern comfort and design with stark monastic simplicity.

Santa Maria is a particularly popular meetings venue; bearing this out, businessmen from Porto crowded the restaurant.

Another 20 minutes along a mountain road and I'd reached my last stop, the lodge-style Pousada de Sao Bento, a regional inn perched in Peneda-Geres National Park, where wooded, rolling highlands resemble the Adirondacks.

If the abundant local hiking and fishing is not your client's cup of tea, pousada staff can arrange spa sessions at the hot mineral springs in the nearby village of Caldas do Geres.

Auto-lagged, I chose simply to lounge on the pousada's hilltop terrace, drinking in views of the Cavado River valley below -- and resolving to return to the pousadas of the Minho.

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