The opening ceremony in Toural Square, launching Guimarães as one of Europe’s 2012 Capitals of Culture. .The low winter sunshine creeps across Largo do Toural, transforming the 18th-century glass facades that line the western edge of the plaza in Guimarães, Portugal, into a wall of golden light. Old men in flat caps and fox-fur collars gather to discuss the latest grim economic news, while waiting for a €1 shoe shine from the bootblacks working beneath a fragment of the city’s medieval ramparts. From the Pastelaria Clarinha, an enticing aroma of freshly baked almond pastries wafts across the square, as it has for the past 60 years. There’s a timeless quality about Guimarães. The heart of this ancient city, a warren of cobbled lanes, granite mansions and baroque churches, is enshrined by Unesco among the treasures of world heritage. This year, however, the city, set among the green hills of Portugal’s northwestern Minho region, is getting a cultural adrenaline rush. As one of Europe’s 2012 Capitals of Culture, Guimarães is playing host to an invasion of contemporary art, modern dance and cutting-edge theater (www.guimaraes2012.pt). Related Article Marseille’s Cultural Renaissance .Sharing the title with the Slovenian city of Maribor, Guimarães has prepared a vast arts program that includes the latest ballet from Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker, concerts by New York’s multi-Grammy-winning Emerson String Quartet and a world-class jazz festival. German chanteuse Ute Lemper will perform cabaret classics and Portugal’s haunting fado music will go head-to-head with edgy Angolan-immigrant rap. There’ll be poetry broadcast into the cable cars that run up to Penha mountain above the city and exhibitions of radical artists like Michelangelo Pistoletto and Christian Boltanski. Octogenarian cinema legend Jean-Luc Godard will premiere his new movie in October. A former vegetable market, the 18th-century Vila Flor Palace and derelict factories have been transformed into theaters and exhibition spaces. Beyond all the cultural buzz, Guimarães holds a special place in Portuguese hearts as the cradle of the nation. One of Europe’s oldest states was born here in 1139 when local count Afonso Henriques rebelled against his Spanish mother, declared an independent kingdom, then rode south to recapture the rest of the country from the Arab rulers who had held sway for four centuries. “Guimarães is Portugal, the rest is just what we conquered,” is a proud saying in the city. The muscular bronze statue of King Afonso brandishing a broadsword outside his 10th-century fortress is a fitting place to start a stroll through the city. Sharing a hilltop with the fortress is the restored Palace of the Dukes of Braganza, a Renaissance castle that will host exhibitions and concerts during 2012. From there, the narrow Rua de Santa Maria curls down into the old town. The city’s most picturesque street, it’s enclosed by centuries-old houses made from great, gray blocks of local stone. Inside the old town, there are cozy cafés such as the Casa Costinhas, which was founded by nuns and still serves almond and squash pasties originating in the neighboring Santa Clara convent. Among the little stores, Meia Tigela and Verde Inveja showcase Portuguese products, from lavender or cherry-scented Confiança soaps, to strong red wines from the banks of the Douro river and colorful clay figures of saints, soldiers and roosters made in the nearby town of Barcelos. Although it’s packed with historical gems, the city is no lifeless museum piece. Half the population is under 30 and old town bars and restaurants, overflow with a youthful crowd in evenings, when the streets look their romantic best under the yellow lamplight. The Minho is justly proud of its cuisine, although its hearty traditions may not appeal to the fainthearted. Local favorites include salt cod with crumbled corn-bread, lamprey in red wine, or papas de sarrabulho—a steaming black mash that involves the heart, lungs, liver and throat lining of a pig stewed in the animal’s blood. If that’s not quite your cup of tea, the region is also renowned for the quality of its veal, beef and kid, and there is always fresh fish from the coast to be washed down with the crisp, young Vinho Verde wines produced in the surrounding countryside. Guimarães also has one of the highest-concentrations of historic small hotels and guest houses, which are another Portuguese specialty. On a hillside overlooking the city, the luxurious Pousada de Santa Marinha is located in monastery dating back to the 12th-century; just outside the city, the Casa de Sezim is an medieval manor renowned for its antique wall decorations depicting 19th-century life; and the lordly Quinta de Corujeiras produces its own Vinho Verde and traces its origins back to the time of Henriques. Corrections & Amplifications: The opening ceremony launching Guimaraes as one of Europe’s 2012 Capitals of Culture took place in Toural Square. A caption in an earlier version of this article incorrectly identified the square as the Palace of the Dukes of Braganza.

By PAUL AMES  – Wall Street Journal