Early next morning I picked up the hire vehicle, a small black Smart Car and once I had become more or less 10% accustomed to the secrets of the automatic gear box we set off east out of Vila do Conde.
On the advice of the nice lady at the car hire office we planned to drive twenty miles or so inland to the city of Guimarães which in a survey published annually by the Portuguese newspaper Expresso is ranked second in the country’s most liveable cities. As might be expected Lisbon is rated first and Porto only third. As the first capital of Portugal, Guimarães is known fondly as the place where the country was born – ‘The Cradle City’.
I was enjoying driving this nifty little car but after just a few miles there was a problem. I always get a problem with hire cars. I am the most unlucky car renter ever. No one gets as many issues as I do with hire cars.
A warning light started to wink at me.
I am never completely sure what all these dashboard symbols mean, my first car in about 1974 had just two warning lights – one red one for an overheating engine and another orange one for low oil pressure but now there is a dashboard with as many flashing lights as the control panel of the Starship Enterprise. I looked around for the road map to place over it so that I couldn’t see it!
But I have seen this one before in a hire car in Ireland. One of the tyres was suffering from low pressure so we pulled into a service area, I had a look round and in the only engineering procedure with which I am familiar kicked each of the tyres in turn as you do in these situations and as they all seemed fine to me we just carried on and ignored the irritating little light as though it was an itch that couldn’t be reached and scratched!
I was glad to arrive in Guimarães without the embarrassment of having to call the emergency services and heading for the old town we eventually found a street with some vacant parking spaces. To be honest, I am not very good at parking at the best of times, the next time I change my car I am going to get one that does it for you, intelligent parking I think it is called, but the Smart Car at only nine feet long and with no boot and no bonnet is surely the easiest car in the entire World to park.
If it is I did my best to prove that it isn’t. I don’t like reverse parking, I especially don’t like reverse parking up hill and after I had found a space that I was confident that I could get into I proceeded to make a complete dog’s dinner of the simple procedure.
Lurching, lunging, backwards, forwards and after five minutes or so a small crowd of bemused bystanders were starting to form an audience, people were calling friends on their mobile phones to come and watch, newcomers were using doorsteps as terracing, people were peering over their balconies and I worried that soon we would need crowd control barriers. It was only with Kim’s assistance that I eventually managed to squeeze it into a space that I have to admit would easily have accommodated three Smart Cars.
I nonchalantly acknowledged the assembled crowd with a casual nod of the head as though to say ‘that’s how to do it’ and the giggling subsided and it started to disperse and then I tried to explain to Kim that the problem was that parking an automatic car without any form of clutch control was almost as difficult as landing a lunar module on the moon. She wasn’t listening, she was unable to communicate on account of suffering a fit of uncontrollable laughter. She said that next time I park a car she is going to make sure that she is wearing a corset so that she doesn’t split her sides. Kim is always helpful and supportive like this in these situations!
After she had calmed down and recovered her composure we walked through tidy streets and open green spaces without high expectation of Guimarães but we found a street map that indicated a Castle, a Palace and a UNESCO World Heritage site in the old centre and so we walked to the top of the city and into the grounds of the twelfth century fortress.
In 1881 the castle was declared the most important historical monument in this part of Portugal and in the 1900s a lot of work went into its restoration. We went inside and were struck by the fact that they hadn’t spent a lot of the renovation budget on basic health and safety. The Castle is a disaster waiting to happen, with uneven surfaces, irregular steps and almost completely without handrails or safety barriers to prevent visitors accidentally slipping off of the high battlements and becoming a permanent addition to the rocky foundations below.
After the castle we visited the Palace and without any explanation there was free admission today but where an officious attendant still insisted on issuing tickets and someone else insisted on checking them. Inside the Palace of the Condes de Castro Guimarães there was a small museum containing family portraits and other paintings, as well as furniture, china, silver and gold objects and local prehistoric finds. At just half an hour to walk round it was the perfect size for a museum and without crowds of other visitors to slow us down we wandered from room to room practically by ourselves.
From the castle we followed the cobbled Rua de Santa Maria, that didn’t look as though it had changed a great deal since the Middle Ages, down into the heart of the old town, where there are superbly restored historic buildings including a former sixteenth century Baroque convent of Santa Maria, now serving as the City council offices.
At the end of the street were two delightful squares with outdoor cafés and balconied houses, Praça de Santiago and Largo da Oliveira. At Largo da Oliveira is the Church of Nossa Senhora da Oliveira, with a Gothic shrine standing in front of it. There are many legends about its origins, but a popular story says it marks the spot where Wamba, elected king of the Visigoths, refused his title and drove a pole into the ground swearing that he would not reign until it blossomed and then as if my magic it sprouted immediately into spontaneous bloom whereupon he happily accepted the crown.
We walked right the way through the delightful streets of the old town and then reluctantly left Guimarães, one of the nicest places to visit in Portugal and returned to the car. Fortunately it was a whole lot easier getting out of the parking space than it was getting in and we drove out of the city and made our way to nearby Braga.