Experiencing A Slice of Portuguese Life: Market Day In Amarante, Portugal
When people visit northern Portugal, they often spend time in Porto, and out in the Douro Valley. But few tend to stop and explore along the way, which is a shame. There are many charming villages and small cities to choose from, and today I’m showing you why Amarante should be one of your choices.
Located halfway between Porto and the Douro Valley, Amarante is a small city (about 11,000 people) and is one of the most ancient settlements in northern Portugal, founded in 360 BC as Turdetanos. It blends ancient, Roman, medieval, and Renaissance influence into an absolutely delightful experience.
From prospering under the Romans to fighting off the French in the early 1800s, the city situated along the banks of the River Tâmega has served as an economic and cultural hub in the area.
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Amarante has given Portugal many important artists and writers (particularly in the early 1900s), and also offers centuries-old architecture and natural beauty (including lots of great hiking and cycling trails in the Tâmega Valley). It’s also known for its five or six different unique sweets, which have roots in the monastery here.
It’s also located on the Romanesque Route, a heritage trail of monasteries, churches, monuments, bridges, castles and towers situated in nine countries across Europe that some people choose to explore.
For all of these reasons and more, it can be a great base for exploring the region, giving easier access to highways, restaurants, and more while still feeling immersed in the culture.
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What to do in Amarante, Portugal
Whether you’re just stopping in for an hour or two, or basing yourself here for a few days, here are some things to do in Amarante that you’ll enjoy. If you have more time, you can look into hiking and biking opportunities nearby, as well as visiting the Douro Valley wineries and the city of Porto.
- Enjoy the soaring Ponte de São Gonçalo & historic Igreja de São Gonçalo (with contemporary art museum)
- Get a culture & sugar high at Confeitaria da Ponte
- Try and time your visit for market day, to experience
- Enjoy the scandalous medieval history of the town’s phallic-shaped sweets
- Walk the town’s narrow cobblestoned streets
- Sample the red and white vinho verde with local cheese and smoked meats
A couple other tips
There are a number of parking options in Amarante, though on market days it can be a little tougher to find a spot. There’s street parking in certain areas (keep an eye out for no-parking areas though) and there are multiple public lots in the general vicinity.
If you’re thinking of staying in Amarante, I wanted to shout out one place that looked amazing (and I’ve heard great things about).
Casa de Calçada is right across from the bridge (you can see it, the yellow building about four pics down) and is an old palace that’s been renovated into a five-star hotel with a Michelin-star restaurant. You can check out reviews on Booking.com and TripAdvisor.
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Marvel at the soaring Ponte de São Gonçalo
This tall and graceful stone bridge spanning the Tâmega River provides a gateway to the Church of São Gonçalo and gives you awesome sweeping views out over the river.
There’s been a bridge at this location since Roman times, but this specific design is from a Baroque and Neoclassical rebuild in the late 1700s.
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Stop for pastries and coffee at Confeitaria da Ponte
Dating back to 1930, this confeitaria (sweet shop) is an absolute must-visit in Amarante. Not only does offer a small patio with gorgeous over the river, but is a perfect place to sample all of Amarante’s unique regional sweets.
Like many traditional Portuguese sweet treats, the five originating in Amarante are egg- and sugar-based, and came out of the Catholic convents and monasteries in the area (they used egg whites for starching laundry, so needed a use for the yolks).
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Now, I am irrevocably in love with Portugal’s most well-known pastry, pastel de nata (an amazing egg custard tart). But when in Rome…Fernando brought me here to try all of the unique Amarante sweets that were developed by the Santa Clara convent hundreds of years ago. Some were named with a sense of humor as well (like papas de anjo).
What are the traditional sweets of Amarante?
- Foguetes (sweets filled with egg sauce)
- Lérias (sweets made of water, brown sugar and almonds)
- Brisas do Tâmega (sweets made with almonds and Port wine and served in ship-like cookies)
- Papos de anjo (literally “angel’s double chin”, sweets made with eggs, cinnamon, lemon and rum)
- Bolos de São Gonçalo (a kind of catch-all name from what I can tell…the brown disk below, but more on these later)
For me, these were all much sweeter than my taste preference (that with the caffeine made me a bit nauseous), so I’ll stick to my pasteis de nata…but you’d be crazy not to sample each of these when visiting Amarante!
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Check out Igreja de São Gonçalo (if renovations are done)
Right across the bridge is a beautiful church that—along with the bridge—is a centerpiece of the town as well as being a National Monument. Sadly when I visited it was completely obscured by scaffolding due to a large renovation project. But if they’ve finished when you visit, it’s worth a few minutes of your time.
The church (begun late 1500s) has an interesting diversity of architectural details due to the phased construction over time, including a beautifully-detailed façade, a 16th-century Renaissance doorway, and three tiers of Corinthian and Solomonic columns. The church’s renovated convent buildings are also home to a modern and contemporary art museum honoring the city’s long line of respected artists and writers.
Inside the church you can see the tomb of the 13th-century beatified priest, Gonçalo de Amarante…more on him and how the town celebrates him in a a bit!
Right next door is Igreja de São Domingos. a more ornate Baroque church built in the mid-1700s (the white church on the left in the pic below).
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Wander the well-known Amarante food market for a “slice of life”
Every Wednesday and Saturday (usually 8a-1p), people all around the area flock to the Amarante market to seek out the produce and other food that local families have been selling for the last 100 years. It’s amazing in many ways, but one of those is that the market has helped the area keep mass grocery stores from taking over.
You can find anything from in-season produce to local acorn-fed pork products, hand-carved flour mixers, artisan crafts, and other things like flowers, clothes, and more. It’s a great non-touristy experience to really see what life is like for the people who live here.
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As a result of COVID regulations they split the market into two separate areas during the time I visited, so there was the covered (but open-air) section where the food was, and then a stretch along the river that had clothes and such.
If you have time and the weather’s nice, a little downriver on the left bank of the river is Parque Florestal de Amarante, a peaceful park created in 1916.
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Pick up a phallic-shaped sweet to improve your chances in love
Back to our sainted priest, São Gonçalo…let’s get a little dose of scandalous medieval history as explained to me by my awesome driver and tour guide, Fernando. What is the legend of Saint Goncalo?
Amarante legend has it that their favorite local religious man recognized a matchmaking opportunity to help older unmarried women find husbands. As with all good legends, the details are a bit fuzzy, but it involved phallic-shaped sweets, the priest’s influence in some way, and…that milkshake brought all the older boys (men) to the yard.
This likely has roots much further back in pre-Christian Celtic times and possibly was hijacked and rebranded (as many pagan rites were), but regardless, this fun saucy tradition from one of the most conservative and staunchly Catholic enclaves of Europe has staying power.
During the São Gonçalo festival every year, the town celebrates the “matchmaker of old women” (RUDE) with iced, cream-filled (SUBTLE) cakes called bolos de São Gonçalo. And year-round you’ll see the doces fálicos (literally “phallic sweets”), for sale.
Walk the town’s narrow cobblestoned streets
As with anywhere in Portugal, the ambiance of the streets and buildings is a huge part of the draw. I love the detailed, colorful tiles that line the facades, the ornate balconies, and other little details.
Stop briefly and take in the plaques on the wall that commemorate massive floods (cheia) from 1909, 1939, and 2001.
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Sample earthy vinho verde and meats in an adega
I’d spent the previous day touring wineries and eating an amazing multi-course meal, so this morning we were exploring the everyday side of Portugal’s wine. Adega basically translates to “wine cellar”, and tends to feature petiscos (Portuguese tapas), simple hearty meals, and the local vinho verde (veen-yo vair-day).
This is a great working man’s spot to stop in for a smoked meat sandwich, some soft local cheese, tapas, and earthy wine.
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Vinho verde isn’t a type of grape, but rather a style of wine particular to parts of Portugal. It’s picked and bottled early, and best consumed soon after that while it’s still young (“green”, as the name suggests). The whites are fresh-tasting and sharp, and usually have a very slight effervescence to them.
I’d had vinho verde before (bottled, from stores and bars) and really like it. I didn’t have a clue that there were red (tinto) vinho verdes though, and so this was my first time trying it.
I’m told that the reds are typically light and fruity, but my experience (here and in Porto) was that they’re deeply pigmented, quite acidic, and a bit rougher to sip. Hence our cheese, olives, and “smok-ed” meats.
So hopefully I’ve inspired you to consider a stop (or a stay) in Amarante on your Portugal adventures! This small city has so much to offer, and would be a shame to skip over.
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