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Guimarães, Portugal: Women, Hearts and History

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What is that saying again… Behind every great man stands a great woman?

That this would apply to a small Portuguese city was a bit of a surprise, at odds with my initial expectation of a more macho history. At first sight Guimarães is a typical town of the North: massive Catholic churches dedicated to Mary, orange-tiled roofs, stone houses and winding cobblestone streets (thankfully filled with outdoor cafés).

Guimaraes, Portugal

The center of Guimarães is on the World Heritage List because of its traditional building techniques and its place in Portugal’s history

Mumona Dias Guimaraes

Statue of Mumona Dias (Julio Reis via CC)

Like other towns in the region it is an engaging mixture of history, charm, industriousness and ambition.

Already a UNESCO World Heritage Site, Guimarães was named 2012 European Capital of Culture, a title shared with Maribor in Slovenia. Both cities, coincidentally I’m sure, are staunchly Roman Catholic, societies in which women should know their place – and stay home.

Except things don’t always happen the way they’re supposed to.

Leaning over a delicious café cheio, the Portuguese version of a long espresso, my guide Catarina Placido warns me to look more closely.

Guimarães, she said, was home to two historically outstanding women, who did anything but stay home.

The first was the powerful wife of the Count of Portuscali, Countess Mumadona Dias, who ruled Portugal’s Northwest for more than two decades after her husband’s death. Around 950 AD she founded the Monastery of Our Lady of the Olive Tree (there’s not much left of it) and built the Castle of Guimarães (below) to fend off Muslims, Normans, Vikings and assorted unfriendly foreigners. By commissioning a street to connect the castle and the monastery, she also gave birth to the town.

No countess, no Guimarães.

Fortress of Guimaraes, Portugal

The sturdy fortress, built in the 10th century, was degraded and almost demolished in the 1830s until its eventual rehabilitation in the mid-1900s.

The Cradle of Portugal

The second notable and historically vital woman of  Guimarães was Teresa, wife of Henry of Burgundy, Count of Portugal. Teresa was still young when her husband died (the women do seem to outlive their illustrious husbands) but she had already given birth to the man who would become the country’s first king.

Like Mumadona before her Teresa became a leader. She built armies and fought – and won – wars (one look at those fierce eyes and the enemy probably melted away in fear). She also took a Galician lover, whose interests she would defend – this would get her into trouble.

Teresa’s penchant for war would eventually pit her against her own son: he dreamed of an independent Portugal, while she (and her lover) wanted no such thing. (At the time the country of Portugal was ruled by the Kingdom of Leon in what is now central Spain.)

Heart symbol Guimaraes European City of Culture 2012

Mother and son fought and Henry won, declaring himself King of Portugal, the first of a line of monarchs who would rule for eight centuries. The date of his victory, 24 June 1128, is celebrated annually as the day Portugal was born.

Without Teresa, there might well have been no Portugal. Two women, two histories.

The central role played by Guimarães – and its women – is something Vimarenses (as they are called in honor of the city’s original name) don’t let visitors easily forget.

One last woman-centric tidbit: the city’s symbol for the European Year of Culture is a heart. Could this be at least a passing nod to the city’s feminine side? The people of Guimarães could, after all, just as easily have chosen a spear.


  1. Lesley Peterson on October 3, 2012 at 4:37 pm

    Fascinating post! Love the glimpse of architecture and that the city chose the heart for European Year of Culture. Sounds a welcoming, interesting destination.

    • Leyla Giray on October 3, 2012 at 6:43 pm

      It is – surprisingly so. It doesn’t have a particularly large student population, and it’s the most catholic city in Portugal yet there was a buzz and definite energy around. I only stayed a short time but I’d certainly go back.

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