This Old Portugal Town is the New Must-See Destination

This Old Portugal Town is the New Must-See Destination
Historic Caminha sits on the banks of Rio Minho, separating Portugal from Northern Spain.|©iStock/Armando Oliveira

One long weekend in the tiny, Portuguese fishing community of Caminha… and my wife and I began looking to move here.

This quiet town of 16,000, tucked in the northwestern corner of Portugal, is surrounded by ocean, rivers, and pine-shrouded mountains and hills. Driving the coastal roads—water on one side, forested mountains on the other—one gets the feeling that the gods of geography took the best of the Smoky Mountains and the islands of the Puget Sound, mashed them together, and laid them across a narrow sliver of the Iberian Peninsula.

Caminha feels like a miniaturized Lisbon, with red-tiled roofs, white stucco walls, and building exteriors often wrapped in Portugal’s famous, glazed azulejo tiles. The tree-lined central square—more of a crescent, really—wraps around a large 16th-century fountain. Al fresco tables lure espresso-drinking retirees in the early morning hours, and local families in the evening.

"I understand why people come here," my wife Yulia told me as we walked through the diminutive Old Town. "It’s the perfect place to live a totally relaxed life."

Portugal: The Way It Used to Be

Caminha is a holdover of Portugal before tourism and modernity swept over Lisbon, the Algarve, and Porto, the latter of which sits an hour south of Caminha.

This ancient fishing village dates to at least the fifth century, when it was part of the Kingdom of Galicia that covered the northwest corner of modern-day Spain and Portugal. Frankly, the town doesn’t seem terribly far removed from that ancient past.

Parts of the fortress wall, once encircling the town, still stand in ruins. The well-preserved 13th-century Torre do Relógio, or clock tower, still fronts that central square, now packed with cafés and restaurants (and a delightful hotel called Design & Wine, which I’ll discuss below).

Next door sits Igreja da Misericórdia, a small Renaissance church. The remodeled Baroque and Rococo interior reflects the mental image many of us have of Old World European churches: extravagant carvings layered in gold leaf. The day I popped in, a female trio—guitarist, keyboardist, and vocalist—was performing a Portuguese version of Leonard Cohen’s Hallelujah. Caminha’s cobblestoned Old Town is quite small. Narrow alleys weave through centuries-old facades that house homes and shops selling fresh produce, locally-made clothes, and porcelain tiles.

You could walk the entirety of it in an hour… maybe less, depending on your desire to stop and take pictures, or to wander through the shops. Old Town feels far more local than you’ll experience in larger cities.

Eat Local in This Fishing Village

Caminha’s most prominent geographic feature is the two intersecting rivers that define the town’s northern and eastern borders: the small Rio Coura, which meets the much larger Rio Minho, separating Portugal from Spain, and which dumps into the Atlantic less than a mile away.

There’s even a small seafood market—Mercado Municipal—right alongside the Rio Minho where the day’s local catch is up for sale. Of course, if you’d rather someone else cook for you, good eats abound… and a meal for two generally won’t cost you more than $50.

Solar de Pescado plates up some of the best fish in an Old World Portuguese interior. I’m a fan of the sea bass and the clams à culhão pato… a big bundle of clams steamed in garlic, olive oil, coriander, lemon, and white wine. Delish.

Remo wins the seafood race if only because its second-floor outdoor terrace offers the best views over the Rios Coura and Minho.

For me, the best food locally is at Canto do Lobo, a narrow eatery of hardwood and original, Renaissance-era stone walls. Here, the kitchen is open to public view through a huge window. I’d return to Caminha just to order dinner here again.

But as Yulia said, Caminha’s really a place for escaping city life.

You come to amble the promenade stretching along the two rivers. You come to fly-fish the rivers for Atlantic salmon, sea trout, brown trout, and rainbow trout. You come to relax on the Atlantic beaches, or maybe learn to surf or kitesurf in a corner of Portugal where ocean wind is abundant.

And you come to explore the region, either by way of hiking, cycling, or touring in your car.

Small Beach Communities Locals Love

Over a score of hiking and biking trails snake through this corner of Portugal. Some trails skirt along the coast. Some meander through the hilly forests of Serra d’Arga National Park, where you might get lucky and stumble upon wild Gerrano horses.

The beach communities here are small and picturesque. Even in early October, they’re popular, though primarily among the Portuguese and Spaniards… mass tourism hasn’t found a home here yet.

Camarido Beach, where river meets ocean, is five minutes by car from the center of Caminha, or 25 minutes walking.

Moledo Breach is two or three minutes farther on. It’s a wide, long crescent of sand backed by pine forest and overlooking Forte da Ínsua, a monastery built on a rocky sandbar in 1392.

Portuguese kings once fortified it with cannons to ward off English and French privateers that regularly invaded Caminha and the region.

The farthest is Âncora Beach in the Lilliputian village of Vila Praia de Âncora… named for the anchor that a 10th-century king supposedly tied around the neck of an adulterous queen before tossing her into the ocean.

In light traffic, Âncora is a 10-minute drive from Caminha, and the beach here is seemingly endless, with plenty of sugary sand.

Local tourists show up in season to pack the beachfront mom-and-pop hotels and apartments, but you’re not likely to find the jet-set clientele that populates the Algarve down south, or Cascais, the beach community where Yulia and I now live.

You’ll find affordable beach accommodations for less than $100 per night.

Despite its size (population: 4,600) Âncora is known across Portugal for its seafood. The town even hosts the popular Sea and Sardines Festival in July.

To be sure, the ocean all along this region of Portugal is not the Gulf of Mexico, where the water feels like a bath.

These are North Atlantic waters, on the same latitude as New York, Oregon, and northern Japan. In other words, expect cold. Only in September does the ocean nudge above 70 degrees.

More often, the temperatures hang out in the low- to mid-60s… not that such shiver-inducing water stops the Portuguese from diving in. This is northern Portugal—the Seattle of the Iberian Peninsula—so it tends to be wetter and cooler during the year than you’ll find in Lisbon or the Algarve.

From Âncora, Yulia and I headed east, past Caminha and toward Valença, the "big city" (which, frankly, isn’t much bigger than Caminha) about 25 minutes away.

This is where you’ll find the only highway bridge connecting Portugal with Spain. But you’ll also find the 19th century Ponte Velha International Bridge, a steel and concrete structure connecting Valença to Tui, Spain, and a favorite crossing for hikers and cyclists.

The drive from Caminha to Valença is lined with villages. On one side, the Rio Minho flows toward the Atlantic. On the other are piney hills and mountains, often shrouded in fog.

I lived on Bainbridge Island in Seattle for a few years, and spent a lot of time driving around Puget Sound and the Kitsap Peninsula. This area reminded me of those drives.

Off the Beaten Path, But Not For Long

Though I spent just a long weekend here, my gut tells me Caminha is coming into its own now.

Real estate prices, while substantially cheaper than Lisbon, Porto, and the Algarve, are inching higher as demand escalates for second homes, vacation/rental property, and primary homes for those like Yulia and me who want to live between trees and sea.

We found, for example, a nice 1500 sq. ft. four-bedroom, three-bath house for around $200,000. The property overlooks the Rio Minho, with a view of Spain just beyond. The interior needs new paint and modern kitchen cabinets to replace the dark wood of the 1980s, but beyond that, it’s ready to move in.

My bet: Before this decade is out, that house will be worth $350,000, if not more.

There’s a noticeable amount of gentrification happening in Caminha’s Old Town. Here, people are snapping up 17th–20th-century stone houses in need of total rehab, from the stone walls to the roof… and they’re turning them into gorgeous, modern townhouses and rental properties.

Some of those homes sell for well under $100,000. Another $100k could yield a show home that fetches well in excess of the total investment as Caminha’s star rises… or a home that serves as the roost for a retiree, a digital nomad, or a family seeking an outdoorsy lifestyle rather than urban living. Or it would be a great rental property during the summer and holidays, when the Portuguese converge here.

Stashed away from the typical tourist circuit that begins and ends at Porto, Caminha is well off the beaten track. And maybe that’s its greatest strength… it’s not overrun by foreigners chasing their next Instagram moment.

If Yulia and I can find the right property soon, there’s a good chance my future columns will all come from a home office somewhere in or near Caminha.

Where to Stay in Caminha

During our time in Caminha, Yulia and I stayed at Design & Wine Hotel, and we’ll be back, in large thanks to the large, comfy rooms and small, heated swimming pool in the basement spa. (The quietude and warmth of that basement is seriously narcotic.)

This is a modern, four-star hotel built into a centuries-old building right in the heart of Caminha. The Old Town Central Square is directly across the street, and Rio Minho is just behind the hotel, making it a convenient location for exploring the town. I spent my mornings at cafés in the central square, sipping cappuccino, and nibbling on croissants, and baguettes with cheese and the Portuguese version of Spain’s jamón (ham).

Our weekend away cost us €375 ($397) for two nights… a steal for a holiday stay in the dead-center of town.

But be warned: Some of the bathroom and shower walls are glass, frosted in the right places, but still challenging when traveling with kids.