Ponte de Lima and Monastery of St. John d’Arga: Paulo’s Portugal (part two)

An exploration of the Norte Region of Portugal with a local

Monastery de St. John de Arga, an 8th century monastery in the mountains outside of Viana do Castelo
The ancient Monastery of St. John d’Arga, nestled in the mountains outside of Viana do Castelo


In our last post, I talked about touring Viana do Castelo with Paulo.  The remainder of our visit with our friend  was spent exploring the stunning countryside around his hometown.  We went to an ancient village and then to an even older monastery tucked away in a forest.  We also drove a winding road through the mountains.  The next day, Paulo drove us from Viana do Castelo to Santiago de Compostela, Spain, where we would catch a bus to Madrid for our flight back to the U.S.  On the way to Santiago, he took us on a meandering path up the Spanish coastline, showing us some of his favorite Atlantic Coast beaches.

Ponte de Lima

The beautiful little village of Ponte de Lima, 30 miles inland from Viana Castelo, is distinctive for being the oldest town in Portugal.  It received its town charter in 1125 (the earliest city in Portugal to receive a municipal charter).

Centuries before that, it was a Roman settlement, and it takes its name from its bridge across the Lima River, which was originally built by the Romans several thousand years ago.  Only a small section of the Roman bridge remains; the remainder of it was rebuilt in the 14th century.  With its many arches, the bridge is a striking sight.

Ponte de Lima (“Lima Bridge”), the Roman bridge spanning the Rio Lima

The Romans believed that Rio Lima was the mythological River Lethe, one of the five rivers of the underworld and the one that caused complete amnesia in all those who drank from it.

We crossed the bridge (carefully avoiding the water) and examined the Igreja de Santo António da Torre Velha (“St. Anthony’s Church of Old Tower”), dating to the 18th century.  The front of the church is covered in azulejos, the distinctive blue glazed tile used to adorn many Portuguese buildings.  (We observed azulejo-covered buildings in Porto as well.)

St. Anthony’s Church of Old Tower
St. Anthony’s Church of Old Tower

The Portuguese Camino passes through Ponte de Lima and crosses the bridge on its way to Santiago de Compostela, Spain.

This statue, on the bridge, wishes pilgrims a “Bom Caminho” (Good Camino)

After admiring the church, we crossed back over the bridge and into the heart of Ponte de Lima.  We had a coffee on Largo de Camões, the main town square, and then spent the rest of our time wandering the streets of the old town and strolling along the river.

Ponte do Lima town square
Largo de Camões, Ponte de Lima town square
Chafariz Nobre (“Noble Fountain”), built in 1603, on the Ponte de Lima town square.
Torre da Cadeia Velha (also called Torre da Porta Nova), in Ponte de Lima.  An ancient tower existed at this site as part of the wall that enclosed the town, but it was significantly reinforced and improved upon in the 14th century, with construction of the tower concluding in 1511.  In the 20th century the building was used as a prison; it is currently an art gallery.
Tower Clock, Igreja Matriz (“Matriz Church,” also called Parish Church), in Ponte de Lima.  The church was built in the 15th century and remodeled in the 18th century and is an integral part of the Vaca das Cordas ceremony (below).

The bronze statue of an enormous bull below commemorates the Vaca das Cordas (“Cow of the Ropes”) festival.


The story behind the festival is this: It was believed that the Matriz Church (above) was built on the site of a pagan temple dedicated to the goddess Isis, whom the people of northern Portugal worshipped during pre-Christian times.  Isis was idolized in the form of a cow, and legend has it that when the locals converted to Christianity, they dragged their bovine idol through the streets of town until it shattered.

Vaca das Cordas ceremony, held in June on the day before the Feast of Corpus Christi, commemorates the moment when the people smashed their idol and renounced their pagan ways.  A bull is tied to the iron grill of the Matriz Church’s belltower window and prodded to run around the church three times.  Restrained by long ropes, it is then led through the town square and down the city streets until it reaches the riverbank.  The festival dates back to at least 1646, and the town’s description of the procession is that it is always accompanied by “wild antics and general excitement.”  Sounds like something that should not be missed if you’re in Portugal in June!

Vacas da Cordas (Courtesy Município de Ponte de Lima)

Serra d’Arga and Monastery of St. John d’Arga

In the afternoon, we hopped in the car and took a winding drive through the Serra d’Arga, a mountain and protected area in the Peneda-Geres mountain range. Serra d’Arga mountain has an elevation of 825 meters (2706 feet), and the drive allowed us to admire the expanse of the Minho River valley and several rural villages below.  Serra d’Arga is protected as a natural area due to its biodiversity in flora and fauna.

View of Serra d'Arga from the monastery
View from the Monastery of St. John D’Arga

We stopped at the Mosteiro de S. João D’Arga (“Monastery of St. John D’Arga”), tucked away in a forest on Serra d’Arga.  The monastery is dedicated to St. John, and its construction dates to the 8th century.  Paulo pointed out that the monastery is much older than the Cathedral de Santiago de Compostela and its famous Camino, and the monastery was once a pilgrimage site in its own right.

Monastery of St. John D’Arga

Monks once lived here, and the medieval dormitory that housed them has been restored and is now used for youth summer camps and other groups.  Paulo went to one of these camps as a teenager.

Ancient oak tree adjacent to the monastery

We walked through the pine forest, and Paulo described how he had explored these hills as a kid and that he still comes here to hike the quiet trails.


We could tell that the Serra d’Arga was special to Paulo, and it was obvious why.  The forest was lush and green and reminded Dale and I of our hikes through Pacific Northwest terrain.  We walked down to a babbling creek and experienced a moment of profound stillness, with the only sounds being the calls of the birds and the water flowing over and around the rocks.

Paulo and I, strolling through the pine forest

On a hillside near the monastery, we saw a small group of wild Garrano horses, an endangered breed of horse native to northern Portugal and the Spanish region of Galicia.  The Garrano has ancient roots.  It’s believed that these horses have existed since prehistoric times, and a depiction of a horse with similar characteristics has been found in Paleolithic cave paintings.  As far back as the Celts, the Garrano has been used as a pack and work horse.

Garrano horses, on a hillside near the monastery

The Garrano breed is endangered due to predation from wolves and a lack of interest in breeding them for agricultural use; modern farming equipment has made them close to obsolete.  Paulo pointed out that many of the horses are feral, having been set free at one point by their owners.  Fortunately, efforts are being made to preserve the breed, and it’s possible that one of more of the horses we saw had been released into the wild for breeding purposes.

Paulo’s favorite spots along the Galician coastline

Our visit with Paulo was too short, and on our third day we had to return to Spain, but Paulo’s tour wasn’t quite over.  He graciously volunteered to drive us to Santiago de Compostela, but instead of taking the direct route up the highway, he took us along the Spanish coastline and showed us some of his favorite beaches, including ones that he’d been vacationing at for years.

Coastline, O Grove, Spain
Sanxenxo, Galicia, Spain.  Sanxenxo has some of the most exclusive and expensive beach resorts in Galicia

We stopped to check out the ruins of a tenth-century lookout tower near A Lanzada, a long stretch of beach on the Grove Peninsula between the towns of Sanxenxo and O Grove.  The area around A Lanzada has inhabited by humans as far back as the 8th century BC, and Phoenician and Carthaginian traders made A Lanzada one of the most significant trading posts on the Iberian Peninsula long before the Romans came.

Remnants of a fortress tower
Remnants of a fortress tower

The medieval tower was part of a castle built to defend the peninsula against various invaders, including Muslims, Vikings, and pirates.

Nuestra Señora de La Lanzada, Sanxenxo

At this same site, we saw a chapel called Nuestra Señora de La Lanzada (“Our Lady of the Spear”) a small, Romanesque building constructed in the twelfth century on the remains of a much older one.  The chapel is well-preserved, and an ancient fertility ritual (the “bath of the nine waves”) still takes place here.  Essentially, the belief is that if a woman enters the sea here at just the right time, she will be blessed with fertility.  Granted, I was difficult to figure out what the “right time” was; the optimal period for enhancing one’s fertility varies depending upon the source.  Some believe you should enter the water in August on a night when the moon is waxing; another potentially potent time is the night of San Juan (the summer solstice).  And some healers recommend that the woman enter the waves at midnight on a Saturday with a full moon in any month without the letter /r/!

Regardless of the moment the hopeful mother-to-be walks chooses to enact the ritual, the process is the same: she walks nine times around the chapel, each time repeating this prayer: “Our Lady of La Lanzada/For the son you had/Make me pregnant.”  The woman then enters the water, withstanding the “bath” of nine waves while repeating the prayer.  The waves are rough in this area and the risk of drowning high, so participants must be tied around the waist with a rope to avoid becoming victims of the sea.  The ceremony concludes with dinner and an offering to the Virgin Mary.

Note: A Lanzada beach is popular with surfers and beachgoers, not just hopeful mothers, so even if you’re not looking for anything other than a good tan, it’s still a beautiful place to visit–just be careful about when you enter the water!


Paulo dropped us off in Santiago and we said our goodbyes.  We were grateful to Paulo for his generosity.  As in Spain, the economy in Portugal has been hard-hit, and at the time of our visit Paulo was having to spend long stretches working out of town and away from his family, so we were grateful for the time that he spent with us, showing us his beautiful part of Portugal.  Thanks, Paulo!