Travel: Rest your head in old Portugal

Jane O'Callaghan tours the Minho, the north-western province where crumbling manor houses are getting a b&b makeover

It was just a slow running river meandering through straggly vineyards but something about the Lima spooked the battle-hardened Roman legionaries on their route march through Hispania Ulterior. They decided it was the Lethe and refused to cross, fearing that the fabled waters of oblivion would erase all memories of their distant home.

You won't entirely forget the cares of the 20th century in northern Portugal. It's the most densely populated part of the country and the arched Roman bridge at Ponte de Lima, where Decimus Brutus eventually persuaded his reluctant troops to take the plunge, is just an hour's drive from the hustle and bustle of Portugal's commercial capital, Oporto. But the north- western province called the Minho remains the kind of old-fashioned place where Portugal's new-found prosperity has not entirely obliterated the agricultural traditions of years gone by.

Turn off the main road and the oncoming traffic includes long-horned oxen pulling wooden carts. In the Serra do Geres villagers still abandon their smallholdings to decamp en masse with their flocks to summer grazing high in the rugged granite mountains, spending six months of the year in rough stone shelters and following a way of life which has not changed much since the Romans came.

There aren't many modern hotels in these parts, one of the reasons why you don't find the Minho featured in many package brochures. But there is a wealth of interesting places to stay, thanks to a scheme whereby the owners of old manor houses are given government grants to restore their properties and give them a new lease of life as b&b accommodation. Many have now gone further and transformed barns and old stables on their estates into holiday cottages.

The leading light of the Turismo de Habitacao association is the Count of Calheiros, a Hugh Grant lookalike with floppy hair, blazer, cravat and Mark II Jag. When he returned from Brazil, where all the aristos prudently fled after the 1974 revolution, he spent five years and a small fortune restoring his crumbling 17th-century pile in the hills overlooking the Lima valley. Now b&b guests stay in a beautifully converted stable block or in the house itself, while families can lord it over their own three- bedroomed stone cottage with a pool. You can go riding in the surrounding countryside if you can handle the spirited Arab/Lusitano crosses which stamp and swish in their stable.

Breakfast is a simple affair as in most of Portugal but the coffee is strong, the hunks of bread wholesome and the home-made chunky marmalade bursting with fruit and flavour. Now the house is up and running, the Count ("just call me Francisco") has turned his attention to the wider environment outside his domain, and is busy roping in EU grants to develop rural tourism and promote local produce and handicrafts. He has already built a golf course and his efforts got an honorary mention in British Airways' Tourism for Tomorrow Awards this year. "We can't prevent industry but we can control it and try to preserve the landscape and the Portuguese way of life," he says.

Combining commerce and heritage is something the Portuguese seem to do well. At Quinta da Aveleda, the largest vinho verde producer in Portugal but still a family business, boxes are piled high in the warehouse awaiting shipment to Rio, Luanda, and New York. Outside are marvellously romantic 19th-century gardens, where paths twist through the woods and lead to a succession of mossy fountains, follies and black swans gliding on ornamental lakes.

The Minho wines have been highly regarded for centuries. English traders settled in Viana do Castelo, where the Lima meets the sea, 500 years ago. Today a growing number of British expats live in this charming little town, with its pleasant 16th-century square and good windsurfing off the beaches just down the coast. The Three Pots restaurant, which serves lamprey in season as well as the tamer local specialities of caldo verde, roast kid and bacalhau, is one of their favourite haunts.

I'd had some reservations about staying in manor houses after my first brush with the "stay with a well-to-do-family in their gracious home" concept down in the Algarve a couple of years ago - but this was different. Perhaps in the north they have more of a tradition of hospitality. Or perhaps the aristocracy are more natural hosts than the middle classes.

At Casa de Juste, owners Fernando and Ana Guedes (his grandfather created Mateus Rose) were charming people who enthusiastically showed us around their formal garden, vegetable patch, cheese factory and baroque family chapel. Our room had a 16th-century Manueline (Portuguese gothic) window, with ship's ropes twisting exotically into a boa's head. When they said they liked having guests in the house because it kept the spirit of the place alive, you believed them. And there was no problem getting breakfast at 8am if you had a busy day's sightseeing ahead.

NORTHERN PORTUGAL

GETTING THERE

Jane O'Callaghan travelled to northern Portugal with Something Special Villa Holidays (tel: 01455 852224). The company offers self-catering accommodation attached to manor houses in the Minho. One week's holiday during September costs from pounds 290 per person, including return flights and car rental.

Return flights to Oporto with TAP Air Portugal (tel: 0171-828 0262) start from pounds 150 including tax. A three-day fly-drive costs pounds 177 per person.

FURTHER INFORMATION

Details from Turismo de Habitacao in Ponte de Lima (tel: 00 351 58 741672).

An English-language website, www.manorhouses.com, gives details of local accommodation as well as background information about the Minho.

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