As the River Lima meanders its way through picture-postcard countryside towards the coast at Viana do Castelo it passes through it passes through any number of charming, ancient villages. Of all these it is Ponte de Lima which stands out.
The picturesque riverside town takes its name from the ancient bridge which spans the Rio Lima here. Positioned on the southern bank of the river this has been an important crossing point since Roman times. The current bridge dates back to 1368 but it does incorporate five arches from a much older Roman bridge. Originally the medieval bridge had seventeen arches but over the centuries it has lost three of these as the riversides were built up.
Whilst there aren't actually a enormous amount of things to do in Ponte de Lima it is still a wonderful, relaxing place to spend time in and has charm by the bucket load. Located deep in the Minho interior it is easy to imagine the town might be something of a backwater, but it most certainly isn't. There is something of an up market air to the place with surprisingly elegant granite buildings and some very pleasant cafe-lined squares, not to mention the riverfront area.
Strolling through the twisting cobbled streets of Ponte de Lima there are a number of interesting historic buildings and monuments worth looking out for. Among these are a couple of reminders of the town's important role in defending the Minho from the Moors during the Middle Ages. Just beyond the town centre is the small 15th century Paço do Marquês de Ponte de Lima, a castellated manor, while overlooking the river is the crenelated tower of Torre da Cadeia Velha. Once part of the town walls this now houses the local tourism office.
There are a number of churches and chapels around the town the most recognisable of which is the Igreja de Santo António. This is the whitewashed Baroque style church which sits directly across the river from the bridge with its distinctive bell tower. The oldest, and perhaps most interesting church in Ponte de Lima is the medieval gothic style Igreja Matriz with its distinctive rose window. Built in the early 15th century during the reign of D. João I the church has been modified many times over the centuries. On the south wall of the belltower is a particularly striking azulejo tile depiction of the visit to the church by King D. João IV in 1640.
The riverside is where it happens in Ponte de Lima. There are a number of festivals throughout the year but it is the huge bi-weekly open air market, the Feira Quinzenal, that the town is known. Reputedly the oldest chartered market in Portugal it has been run since 1125 and is still thriving. There are stalls here selling a vast range of goods, most of which hold no appeal to the average visitor. You'll find everything from cheap tat and mobile phone accessories on the one hand along with a range of somewhat unsavoury animal parts on the other! To be fair there is also plenty of good fresh produce and quality textiles on sale too.
For four days during the second week of September the market becomes the Feiras Novas. Originating in the 1820s this is a kind of market stroke fun-fair on steroids, drawing big crowds. In addition to the market stalls there is folk music, fair rides, fireworks and parades of "gigantones" - huge carnival-style statues on floats.
Just across the bridge is the well-manicured Parque do Arnado which is divided up into a number of themed gardens, also known as the Jardins Temáticos do Arnado. These include Roman, Renaissance Gardens and Baroque gardens. Beyond these is a small museum of rural life which is home to an interesting collection of antique gardening tools and farming equipment. During the summer months this is the site of the Festival Internacional de Jardins.