Portugal’s big cultural vision – full version

My Guimaraes story was in the Express at the weekend. You can read it here.

But, as it has been delayed and took a hefty cut for lack of space, I’m running the full version here.

As ever, post your comments below.

Capital of Culture

As the lights go down, I take my seat for the late-night screening. The Baron, it transpires, is a Portuguese take on the Nosferatu story.

After the premiere we gather in the foyer of the Sao Mamede arts centre for post-screening drinks, elderly relatives of the cast rubbing shoulders with serious young men in black sweaters, who smoke with a faux-intellectual ferocity.

It’s a low-key start to this year’s European Capital of Culture in Guimaraes, a small, post-industrial town with a hard-to-pronounce name some 60km northeast of Porto. The other capital is Slovenia’s equally low-key Maribor.

But for film producer Rodrigo Areias, a black-and-white Hammer Horror pastiche is fitting introduction to Portugal’s post-austerity take on the capital of culture bandwagon. “Times of economic turmoil can produce great art,” he says.

Areias has programmed the cinema strand for the year-long event, including a series of experimental shorts by the British director Peter Greenaway and the French auteur Jean-Luc Godard.

He flashes a dark-eyed smile. “We already survived the big textile crash some 15 years ago, so we’re used to crises in the north of Portugal,” he says.

Low-key events

Guimaraes will celebrate the official opening ceremony this weekend (Jan 21), while next weekend (Jan 28) sees some 40 private homes across the city host small-scale concerts by local musicians.

The city may already host major international jazz and contemporary dance festivals, staged in November and February respectively, but Guimaraes’ moment in the cultural floodlights eschews headline-grabbing showcase events in favour of small, organic projects, and long-term residencies by a handful of chosen artists.

For Carlos Martins, the softly spoken CEO of the Guimaraes 2012 Foundation, it’s about turning economic turmoil across Europe to his advantage.

“We’re not the Guggenheim, we’re not Tate. But we can experiment. An old city can be a fantastic place for new projects,” he tells me over lunch at the Vila Flor Cultural Centre, his thick black glasses and casual trainers betraying his academic, rather than Eurocrat, roots.

“The more individual writers, visual artists and performers tend to come from the north of Portugal,” he adds. “They don’t have the comfort zone of Lisbon. We want to create a network of places here for artists to showcase their work.”

Heritage city

Guimaraes was the birthplace of modern Portugal in 12th century and it retains its medieval ambiance, rich in cultural heritage and historic buildings. The numerous churches are packed with examples of sacred art and the cobbled backstreets of the Unesco-listed old town offer glimpses of Baroque architecture.

Traditionally, the city lacked cultural spaces but Martins and his team of young, enthusiastic cultural programmers, are changing that.

The Platform for Arts and Creativity, the landmark new three-section arts centre on the site of former public market, receives its official inauguration on June 24 — a public holiday to mark the Battle of São Mamede.

It comprises a permanent collection of work by Jose de Guimaraes, the best-known living artists in northern Portugal, plus a series of incubator workshops, a library and restaurant, all built round a central plaza. The €25m project, designed by local architects Pitagoras, has a striking modernist design and complements the redesign of nearby Toural Square as a car-free central public forum.

Former leather and textile factories in the south-central Couros district, hub of the city’s industrial-powerhouse era, also house new arts spaces.

Art spaces 

At the Centre for Art and Architectural Affairs (CAAA), a former textile factory re-opened in October 2011 as a multi-purpose arts space with a pared-down, industrial feel, I catch a photographic exhibition of images rescued from the city’s Muralha Photography Collection.

Coming in March is a season of work celebrating the avant-garde American composer John Cage.

Later that day I delve into the labyrinthine streets of the Unesco centre, stopping to take in a visiting exhibition of contemporary ceramics at the Alberto Sampaio Museum.

After a short, black coffee under the shade of an olive tree in Oliveira Square, I find two small exhibitions at the Gallery Gomes Alves, a series of sketched nudes and a set of landscape etchings, both by young artists from Portugal’s rural Alentejo region. Tate it’s not, but it reflects the atmosphere of the city and the mood of the times.

The wider region

The next day I head out of the city, hiring a car for a self-drive exploration of the wider Minho region to explore the cultural identity of the north. I take the backroads, winding my way through lost-in-time villages and green-verdant smallholdings.

Vines and olive tress wrap their arms around canopies by the roadside; oranges and lemons ripen on trees ready for a February harvest. It may be January but the first vital signs of spring are already evident, daffodils opening to welcome the first rays of sun.

Just outside Ponte de Lima I find Count Francisco de Calheiros, the landed gentry owner of Paco de Calheiros. The 17th-century manor house has opened its doors to visitors under the count, joining a group of restored heritage properties turned luxury B&Bs as part of the Solares do Portugal group.

With a vineyard in the grounds and dinner in a banqueting hall, it’s very old money. The house will host some spin-off musical events from nearby Guimaraes during spring.

“Portugal was born in the Minho region and the area retains a strong sense of cultural identity,” says the count, sporting a rather natty green-tweed jacket tailored on Saville Row.

“The Minho has a folklore tradition of music and costume, a rich heritage of medieval monasteries and manor houses, and the only national park in Portugal.”

Afterwards I head into Ponte de Lima for lunch. Restaurant Encanada is a simple but bustling place, popular with locals, on the fringe of the river-facing market. A huge lunch of rojoes (pork, tripe and blood sausage), served with roast potatoes and rice, washed down with a chilled glass of the local vinho verde, and coffee, sets me back a very reasonable 17€.

There are no tourists, just two widows with tightly tied buns under their black headscarves and old men with crumb-filled moustaches, picking their teeth after the corn bread.

Guimaraes and the Minho may be keeping it small scale for its year-log cultural jamboree, but the culture of the north is still worth exploring. You just need an open mind, a strong stomach and a sense of curiosity to see another side of Portugal away from the high-rise beach resorts.

Low key, yes, but somehow quite charming.

Travel credits

TAP Portugal (0845 601 0932/flytap.com) flies daily from London Gatwick to Porto from £56 one way including all taxes.

Keytel International (0207 953 3020/keytel.co.uk) is the booking agent for the Pousadas de Portugal group (www.pousadas.pt) in the UK.

It offers short breaks, based on two nights BB, starting from £39pp per night at the Pousada Monte de Santa Luzia in Viana do Castelo and £32pp per night for Pousada Nossa Senhora da Oliveira in Guimaraes; details from www.keytel.co.uk/pousada-short-breaks.html.

Further information from guimaraesturismo.com; guimaraes2012.pt.

Visit Portugal: 020 7201 6666/www.visitportugal.com.

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