Valença is situated in the far northwest of Portugal, on the left bank of the Minho River, from which the Minho district takes its name. It is essentially a frontier town – the river acting as a natural border between Portugal and Spain.
Valença do Minho, as it is often called, is an historic town which hasn’t succumbed to the shabbiness often associated with a border town. It has a clearly defined area, delineated by stout double walls dating from the 17th century, which cast no doubt on Valença’s historically defensive role, a function which served Portugal well during her chequered past with neighbouring Spain. This fortification is a focal point of the town, with its four well-preserved gates and twelve ramparts.
An early 12th century name for Valença was ‘Contrasta’, translating as ‘opposite’ a clear reference to the settlement facing Spain across the water.
What to do in Valença
Valença, like so many European towns and villages, was subject to many invading occupations and suffered at the hands of Romans, Barbarians, Moors, Asturian Spanish, and Napoleon’s French armies. Today Valença’s invaders are more likely to be tourists or day-tripping Spaniards looking for bargains on market day.
Most of these visitors enter Valença via the old road and rail bridge which crosses the Minho River. It’s a quaint way to enter another country, somewhere halfway across the complex steel structure, the traveller goes from Spain into Portugal. There is a new bridge a little south of the old one, but the Gustave Eiffel-inspired crossing, constructed in 1879 has a special magic all of its own.
The town inside these impressive walls is an attractive, busy place with a variety of shops, four good restaurants, and plenty of accommodation, notably the Hotel Pousada de Valença or Pousada São Teotónio.
The hotel is situated in the highest part of the town, which provides its guests with magnificent views over the Minho valley and Spain.
São Teotónio figures greatly in Valença. He was born in Ganfei, not far from Valença and was the confessor of the first King of Portugal, Alfonso Henriques. He was the first Portuguese person to be canonised, and is the town’s patron saint.
Because of Valença’s unique border position it makes an ideal base for exploring both Northern Portugal and Galician Spain.
What to eat in Valença
Indulge yourself in the distinctive flavours of the Portuguese kitchen. Valença local gastronomic specialties include arroz de sarrabulho (rice stewed with pork meat and blood) and bacalhau à Gil Eanes (codfish with milk and potatoes). Sample a bottle of the local vinho verde (literally, “green wine”) grown only in the Minho region.