Bounded by the Tâmega and Douro Rivers, Marco de Canaveses is in the granite highlands of Northern Portugal. One glance at mountains, evergreen forest, river valleys and vineyards and you may be ready to lace up your boots.
You may also want to sample local flavours, as Marco de Canaveses is a seriously fruitful wine region, producing fresh “vinho verde” at more than 20 estates. History buffs can hunt down medieval Romanesque churches on the Rota do Românico (Romanesque Route), or ponder the moody ruins of an unfinished 18th-century palace.
Let’s explore the best things to do in Marco de Canaveses:
1. Obras do Fidalgo
The facade of this abandoned palace keeps watch over a vineyard.
And it’s no everyday palace, as this would have been the finest and possibly largest in Portugal.
The long facade was completed in the middle of the 18th century in an extravagant fusion of Baroque and Rococo.
The portal is loaded with ornamental scrolls and vegetal motifs while each window has a regal pediment.
There are many explanations for the sudden abandonment; one theory is that the Spanish architect passed away, another is that it was the owner died.
Records show that the landowner António de Vasconcelos Carvalho e Menezes lived for another 40 years after work was halted, so the site remains a mystery.
Below the picturesque Serra de Montedeiras is a village that has an extensive Roman archaeological site from the end of the 1st century.
A network of ancient roads converge on Tongóbriga so it’s fair to assume that this would have been a prestigious city.
The ruins are a Portuguese National Monument and have a forum, necropolis, large residential quarter and a baths.
At the baths there’s a pedra formosa, a type of monolith found at many Galician and Northern Portuguese pre-Roman sites and a sign of Tongóbriga’s Celtic influence.
3. Igreja de Santa Maria de Marco de Canaveses
Álvaro Siza Vieira, one of the most celebrated Portuguese architects of the last few decades, drew up this minimalist church in the mid-1990s.
It’s a sight to behold, whatever your religious persuasion: The building is all white, and has angular lines and a main wooden door ten metres in height.
The church positioned carefully on a hillside and has a long low window on the right side of the nave to bathe the hall in natural light.
The design is all about simplicity and purity, so there’s hardly any decor beyond an understated marble baptismal font.
4. Museu Municipal Carmen Miranda
Did you know that the silver screen star Carmen Miranda was born in Marco de Canaveses? The town’s municipal museum adopted the name of its most illustrious native in 1985 when it received some of her possessions as a donation.
Together with photographs and other memorabilia there are a few items of clothing and footwear belonging to the star, sent by her museum in Brazil and Rio de Janeiro’s Elos Clube.
The rest of the galleries in the noble turn-of-the century mansion are devoted to ceramics, liturgical art, coins, ethnographic displays of farming implements and revolving exhibitions by regional artists.
5. Museu da Pedra
Humans have been quarrying granite in Marco de Canaveses for as long as they have lived here.
This material is ever-present, in structures both new and prehistoric, from palaces to megaliths.
So the town is as good a location as any for a museum that investigates stone and its relation to people.
You’ll be given scientific facts on its mineral composition and will see how granite continues to employ people in the town.
The exhibition of carved artefacts brings home the chronology of human development in this region.
6. Rota do Românico
In the middle ages the northwest of Portugal was the first region to be re-conquered from the Moors.
A multitude of Churches sprouted up soon after, so north of the Douro there’s a payload of Romanesque heritage from the 11th to the 13th centuries.
This is now the subject of a special tourist trail, the Rota do Românico.
And Marco de Canaveses has eight churches, chapels and monasteries to discover on the route.
Their interest lies in the masonry, on the corbels and capitals, which are usually carved with animal or foliate motifs.
Many are also in idyllic countryside, like the delightful Chapel of the Senhora da Livração de Fandinhães anchored to the side of a green valley.
7. Igreja de Santo André de Vila Boa de Quires
This 12th-century Romanesque church may be the pick of Marco de Canaveses’ medieval heritage.
Like most of the buildings on the route it has gone through a few updates over the centuries.
These are in the chancel, where there’s a Rococo altar, and frescos on the ceiling and the arch separating it from the nave.
But there’s original 12th-century masonry in the facade’s window and the capitals of the main portal.
Here the archivolts are trimmed with a geometric pattern and rest on symmetrical capitals etched with images of plants and beasts.
8. Ponta do Arco
This bridge on the Ovelha River is also on the Rota do Românico.
Although quite when it was built is a bit of an enigma.
The prevailing theory is that it might be a little newer, and date from the late medieval period or early modern age.
It’s a romantic old structure with a cured back and an ogival arch.
The mossy granite boulders strewn on the riverbed and green foliage on the banks complete a charming scene.
On one on the banks you may spot a small shrine: These are quite common on old bridges for the simple fact that they weren’t always stable, and travellers would often say a quick prayer before crossing.
9. Parque Fluvial do Tâmega
In 2008 the banks of the River Tâmega were regenerated, letting people to get down to the water for activities, or just sit and watch it flow by.
If you’re up for water-based fun there’s a small marina here now, with 40 berths attached to the Nautical Club, which also has a riverside restaurant.
The park also has a fishing pier for people with rods and licenses.
And if you’re just here to admire the scenery there’s a picnic area on the left bank by the Igreja de São Nicolau.
Concerts sometimes take place here in summer and there’s another bar with a terrace for a cool beer or glass of vinho verde.
10. Praia Fluvial de Bitetos
The coast is up to an hour away, so the next best thing for a hit of sun and sand is a river beach.
There are a few in the Marco de Canaveses municipality, but the cream of these has to be Praia Fluvial de Bitetos on the right bank of the Douro.
There’s a pleasing belt of sand, recently made totally accessible to people with disabilities.
The water quality has been rated as “excellent” and the river has an advantage over ocean beaches as there are no dangerous currents.
And besides all this the beach faces an enchanting scene of granite outcrops and high, rocky banks coated with woodland.
11. Rota dos Vinhos do Marco de Canaveses
The local wine is vinho verde, which can be red, white or rosé.
It’s a young wine, harvested and consumed early.
This grants the whites, made from grapes like Alvarinho and Arinto, a satisfying crispness and acidity.
One way to journey through Marco de Canaveses’ mountains and river valleys is on the wine route that has been plotted by the tourist office.
The trail proposes more stops than you could hope to fit into one trip; there are 21 in total, all producing the regional vinho verde.
Many like Quinta de Tuías are on historic estates with splendid manor houses from the 17th and 18th century, while Quinta da Samoça is a boutique up-and-coming producer already winning awards.
12. Parque Aquatico Amarante
Upstream on the Tâmega there’s a waterpark hugging the steep left bank of the river.
In a long, narrow plot with sublime views there’s a multi-lane slide, a couple of flumes.
One of these, fast mountain, has only just been opened and isn’t for the faint of heart.
Down the slope from the slides are two pool, one for everyone and another just for the tiniest members of the clan.
The whole park is ensconced in greenery, with hundreds of sun loungers and parasols for parents who will appreciate the gorgeous vistas of the Tâmega.
13. Days Out
The town of Amarante is 15 kilometres up the Tâmega and worth every minute of the drive.
Don’t miss the photogenic riverfront from the left bank, and the elegant the Ponte de São Gonçalo in front of its namesake Manueline church.
In the former convent joined to the church there’s an acclaimed modern art museum.
This is dedicated to Amadeo de Souza-Cardoso, a modernist whose life was cut short just as he was gaining recognition.
Two World Heritage cities are in range at Marco de Canaveses: At the mouth of the Douro is Porto, with the vibrant Ribeira quarter, divine Baroque monuments and rich port wine heritage.
And Guimarães, the medieval cradle of Portugal, as the birthplace of the first king, Afonso Henriques and the seat of the Dukes of Braganza.
14. Endoenças de Entre-os-Rios
In the southwest corner of the municipality a very atmospheric event unfolds on Maundy Thursday.
On both banks of the Tâmega, just before it enters the Douro there’s a candlelit procession that illuminates the whole valley with slender streams of light.
Even the boats anchored on the river are illuminated by dozens of little lanterns, in a ritual that dates back more than 300 years.
Endoenças de Entre-os-Rios is organised in partnership with neighbouring Penafiel and is in Portugal’s National Inventory of Intangible Cultural Heritage.
15. Outdoor Recreation
The countryside in Marco de Canaveses begs to be experienced on foot, and there are seven official “PR” footpaths to make this possible.
It’s a joyous environment of vineyards, mountain ranges cresting at almost 1,000 metres and rugged river valleys.
You could hike to a medieval church on the Romanesque Route, or the ancient ruins at Tongóbriga on the PR6. From June to September you can hire canoes or paddleboards for some fun on the Carrapatelo and Torrão reservoirs.
And there are leisure parks along the banks of the Douro and Tâmega, for you to soak up the scenery and hire watersports equipment.