An ancient tale gave names to both a mountain range and a river, hence the wild lands of Serra da Cabreira, where the Rio Ave has its source. However, it was other words that attracted us to this remote area in the municipality of Vieira do Minho and we were heading specifically to the village of Agra, not least because it had a restaurant which contained a neat wordplay in its name – Agra na Boca. The other compelling reason was that the village is one of the Aldeias de Portugal. That is to say, it's a good example of an old traditional village, in this case in the minhota style, all narrow windy alleys, steep and granity.

Like so many of these hidden away places, once you get off the main road (though I use both those words advisedly) everything seems to take on a slightly dream-like appearance and the only surprising thing is not being surprised. It suddenly seems quite incongruous to be driving a car. Donkey and cart, surely? A bird of prey hovers over a rocky incline, quite possibly a hen harrier. Great long-horned cattle roam in the dip below the road. A flock of women are walking along one side of the road, spilling halfway across it. On the other side, a gaggle of men are doing the same. A few centuries fall away so fast.

Top class

We parked up and left the car, which had become an embarrassment to us in this place. We found the restaurant easily enough even though it is tucked away down a narrow cobbled lane with no signs of its existence until you get there; the village is tiny and there aren't that many hiding places. It's in an ancient granite barn and is rustically furnished. It is only open at weekends, requires you to book in advance, has a dress code of sorts (walking gear is alright but skimpy clothing isn't) and they only accept cash payments, so finding it owned and run by young vivacious staff almost came as a surprise. The menu offered a variety of tempting house specialities but we weren't to sample any of them as these were only for pre-orders for parties of six or more. They were, however, offering humongous beefsteaks from the local long-horned barrosã cattle and though neither of us usually eat beef, we decided to make an exception on this occasion. That turned out to be a good decision and we had forgotten how wonderful a really top-class, lightly grilled steak can be.

Somehow, we managed to eat three courses and, as a result, we clearly needed some exercise to burn it all off. The village offers exercise simply by being built on the vertiginous slopes of a hill and we chose the steepest ruelazinha of them all and tottered down to the fledgling Rio Ave at the bottom of the valley. Abseiling would have been an easier way to get down the incline but we had come without ropes. When I first met Bird River many years ago, it was as a dirty torrent of industrial sludge finding its way to the sea at Vila do Conde, so it was good to find it near to its source, pristine and cheerful. It had an old bridge of the most basic kind built over it – some granite slabs bound by rusty iron struts. Once upon a time it had served three water mills, the ruins of which still cling to the banks of the little torrent. There is a two kilometre walk by the side of the river to the waterfalls at Candosa where thick woodland covers the slopes on the north bank of the river. We were mindful that the area boasts otters down in the water and, up in the hills, wolves and wild cats. By the time we'd walked back and clambered the seemingly vertical track up to the village (a 1 in 2 incline), we had burned off most of the hefty barrosã steak but we still had energy left to explore the little village. The vertiginous cluster of houses appeared to be largely uninhabited, at least out of season, with a few cottages being left to ruin slowly where they stood. We marvelled at the height of the espigueiros (surely giants used to live here), the abundance of water springs and the daunting stone steps that led to almost every dwelling, the pitch of the steps again suggesting Brobdingnagians once dwelt here.

An elegantly dressed elderly gentleman had taken a table out onto the street, we presumed for the light. He was engaged in writing in a leather document folder with a fountain pen with a bottle of blue ink at hand. He was not concerned by the intrusion of two travellers from another time and place into his world. Judging by his beautiful cursive script, his concentration and the way he occasionally held out the page on which he was writing at arm's length to consider what he had written, I would like to think he was writing poetry. I placed him somewhere at the latter end of the nineteenth century. For a few spell-binding moments, so were we.


Fitch is a retired teacher trainer and academic writer who has lived in northern Portugal for over 30 years. Author of 'Rice & Chips', irreverent glimpses into Portugal, and other books.

Fitch O'Connell