SANTO TIRSO

GOING BACK IN TIME

SANTO TIRSO

GOING BACK IN TIME

The history of Santo Tirso reaches back to the early medieval ages. In 987, the first monks of the benedictine order arrived at this picturesque spot and decided to build their first monastery, around which settlers gathered. Just north of Porto, it is a world of its own.

THE LIVES of the monks and villagers who settled in Santo Tirso way back were determined by the seasons, the crops, and the water from the Ave River, the three defining factors that remain important today. Lifestyle may be different, but the beauty of the area remains.

Teahouse with a View

Called out by my caffeine addiction, I started my little tour in Parque D. Maria II. Designed in the 1870s on the edge of the hill, where the ‘modern’ city of Santo Tirso starts, it is decorated with branchy trees and a little pond, where ducks and geese enjoy an afternoon bath.

For years, a charming gazebo has awaited musicians that used to give joy to the local people. Now, for most of the time, it remains only a beautiful architectural decoration and brings to mind the era of outdoor concerts where people could listen to live music, in the shade of plantain and Gingko trees. The sun is still very intense, but the yellowish leaves that crack under my steps foreshadowed the inevitable end of the summer.

A teahouse located nearby gives the sense of the epoch and encourages me to rest on the terrace overlooking a spectacular silhouette of the monastery. With such a view, a cup of strong coffee tastes even better than usual. The monastery is surrounded by a halo of nearby mountains. In the background, the Ave River heads to the sea.

When the bell rings to announce midday, I close my eyes and envisage this place after Sunday mass, years ago, when families came here for their midday tea and pastel de nata. The whisper of the leaves swinging in the air recalls the rustle of long dresses that scrape the ground. Scattered conversations make this place vivid.

Between a sip of hot drink and a bite of torrada, I notice that the pyramidal cupolas are decorated with white and blue azulejos. They shine proudly in the sun like they would give off signals of light.

The Monastery
I go down through the steps and well-maintained green area. I no longer look at the church from above but, rather overwhelmed with its Baroque structure, I gaze at it towering above.

In 1098, thanks to Count Henrique and his wife, Teresa, who donated the land to the monks, Santo Tirso’s monastery became the richest and most significant in the whole country.

I go inside. The rows of wooden benches are empty. The echo of my steps fills the air. Polychrome statues hold their insignias, pointing their painted eyes up towards the sky or looking down, silently searching for believers.

The glory days of the order of São Bento are still visible in rich and good quality polychromes on the vault, and gilt-wood altars, like the one in the presbytery where holy Mary, together with a small group of putti, is reaching the gates of heaven.

I leave the church through the cloister. It seems to be forgotten. The surrounding area is very messy. Burned plastic candles disfigure the beauty of this place. Plastic bottles stuck in the niches of the cloister show that we are in a time when nature has been ruined by human behaviour.

But it wasn’t like this before, when the Benedictines took care of this place. Their gardens and orchards were famous, as well as all the healing mixtures they prepared using only natural ingredients. They were trying to be independent from the outside world, yet never stored crops, preferring to give them to others. According to their idea of life, they fully trusted God, who was supposed to take care of them no matter what.

What remains from the old life of the monks are forgotten gardens that wait to be rediscovered. I imagine them in full blossom, with the smell of ripe apples, sweet roses, and herbs that could heal most illnesses and soothe the pain.

On the bank of the river
I leave the monastery and follow the road down to the river. It’s a perfect place to transfer to the world of calmness. On the other bank, the monastery, with its big garden, towers over the hill. After the bend of the Ave, a big vineyard stretches on the little hill, giving an idea of how this place may have looked when run by the monks.

The vines have their first grapes, which have started to ripen in the sun. Little constructions that look like garden pavilions appear regularly on the way, providing shadow for grape pickers and giving them access to the fresh water from the river.

On the water, an arthropod makes circles that diverge from its small legs, becoming larger and larger, then disappearing on the surface. In the silence of the late afternoon, the vineyards, rivers, and the monastery create an indescribable landscape.

Art of looking into the future
While all around you can still hear the echoes of the old times, the modern era marks its presence on each corner of this town. Santo Tirso is dotted with over 50 outdoor sculptures, scattered around the city.

Close to the train station is the building of Santo Thyrso Factory. It was created during the industrial revolution. As one of the biggest textile producers for years, Santo Thyrso was a place of hard work for seamstresses. In the ’80s, the noise of spinning machines was interrupted, and the factory was abandoned. In 2010 it got its new shape. Nowadays, it’s a creative centre, a space to rethink textiles, where younger-generation brands such as less.buyless give a new, more sustainable approach to fabrics and fashion.

Through the old memories of the town enchanted in the walls of the Baroque abbey, medieval cloister, and the romantic vibes of the D. Maria II park, Santo Tirso looks brightly forward. Surrounded by the trails in the natural areas, full of stunning wildlife, tied with the ribbon of the river, a spectacular feeling is created of a veiled yet progressive town which draws from its past, respects the present, and proudly looks into the future.

Travel tips

  • By car, from Porto, it is a 20-minute drive
  • A cab, a ride will cost between €23 and €28
  • By bus, it should take 35 minutes and cost €3-€4. With Covid-19 restrictions in place schedules may be impacted, so check in advance of travelling.

WHERE TO EAT
Alentejano O Cansêras is particularly popular, and serves are wide range of dishes including the most popular Alentejo specialities. Also in the heart of town is Restaurante 15, where the cooking is distinctly Portuguese. If you are driving it is worth heading for Maia, just 16km away – Don Forno and Tomar de Sal are among the restaurants worth a visit.

WHERE TO STAY
There are various options, from hotels like the 4-star Cidnay Santo Tirso in the centre of the town, and century-old quintas. Booking.com shows a good selection.

WORTH SEEING
In addition to the Monastery and the Sanctuary de Nossa Senhora da Assunção, there are the bronze-age ruins which date back to the 9th century and are remarkably well-preserved; the Municipal Museum and its extension, the Museum of Contemporary Art where you can learn about the town’s contribution to the art scene – there is modern sculpture from international names in virtually every park – it is not for nothing that Santo Tirso calls itself the European Capital of Contemporary Sculpture in Portugal.

The five-day festival that leads up to St Benedicts’ Day on 11 July is regarded as one of the region’s most important religious events. The streets are adorned with overhead decorations and there are church services, drum parades, processions, theatre performances and fireworks and in the evenings a series of pop and fado performances.

Words: ANNA ZIELANZY

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