Caminha, Northern Portugal, Portugal Saturday, May 9, 2009
We have spent several months now driving round the coast of the Iberian Peninsula and one thing we have not seen much of is a decent river. We have crossed countless dried up riverbeds, we have seen a few large but not
particularly attractive estuaries, such as at Huelva, and we have seen the river Guadalquivir in Cordoba and in Seville, which was, as most city rivers, attractive only as a result of man's interference. The estuary of this great river is of course in
the Donana National Park, and from where we stayed was only accessible on horseback. So it was a very pleasant change to see the great rivers of Northern Portugal, the Douro, the Lima, the Minho and the Vigo estuary just across the border in Galicia.
These are rivers that are attractive in themselves and complemented by man's work rather than made by them.
First the Douro, the best known of these. It is of course the river which flows through Porto and is famous for its vineyards. After we arrived in Porto we found that the campsite (Camping Orbitur Madalena) was not up to the usually reasonable standards of the Orbitur chain (which we had mostly been using since we arrived in Portugal), so we decided to limit our stay to a trip up the river and an exploration of the town. We spent a day meandering upstream following the course of this majestic river as it cut its way through the hills. It reminded us very much of some of the Rhine tributaries, such as the Moselle. Cruise ships and pleasure boats were chugging up and down stream, the hills were forested at first but then covered in terraced vineyards. This is the area of the Vinho Verde, the young white wine so popular in Portugal. Bridges are few and far between, but what there are, are great feats of engineering. There are also a number of dams on the river, serving to control the floodwaters which used to deluge Porto, and also providing hydroelectric power.
We stopped to look at one of these dams, the Carrapatelo, where the lock, at 141 feet, has the largest displacement in Europe. By comparison the total drop at Bingley Five Rise is 59ft over five locks. That makes the Carrapatelo lock 12 times deeper than one of Bingley's! We were fortunate enough to see a river cruise boat coming through it.
Further upstream the countryside gave way to more and more vines, as we approached the Port vineyards. Attractive Quintas dotted the hills, and the hills themselves have been shaped and terraced by man over the centuries. Sadly there was not enough time to reach the top of the Upper Douro, which lies at the Spanish Border, nor to visit the Solar de Mateus, the home of that rose wine which was the height of sophistication in the sixties and which single-handedly damaged the reputation of this fine region for a generation!
The following day we took the bus into Porto and wandered along the Ribeira, the old promenade along the north bank of the Douro, where elegant but somewhat dilapidated terraced houses rise in tiers above the waterfront bars and restaurants. It was amazing to see that these houses were just ordinary homes for ordinary people. In Leeds, Liverpool or London these would be a developer's dream, converted into flats selling for a small fortune. The main town above these was very pleasant indeed, with many narrow and picturesque streets between modern thoroughfares, delightful old houses and majestic palaces. The Cathedral at the very top could have been a great visit, but having climbed all the way up we found it was closed for renovation. However, having climbed that high we were able to walk out over the Ponte de Luis 1 for splendid views of both banks of the Douro. This bridge, the symbol of Oporto, is a world heritage site. Interestingly the top level of the bridge is both a pedestrian walkway and the modern metro line. The metro trains have to cross the bridge at walking pace. This is one of several amazing bridges in Porto, including one built by Eiffel in 1877.
We took the funicular railway back down to the Ribeira and lunched in one of the riverside restaurants. It was very pleasant sitting out on the riverbank until a bitter wind blew up and we had to beat a hasty retreat to the restaurant indoors!
After lunch it was drink time. Given that there are 58 Port lodges on the south bank, of which 20 do visits, we were spoilt for choice. We chose Calem, a brand not much known in Britain, but one of the oldest, and Sandemans, one of the best known. Chalk and cheese in their presentation, but basically the same principal. Sandemans was a bit gimmicky, with the guides dressed up in the Sandeman outfit (a Spanish Sombrero and a Portuguese students' black cape). I was particularly looking forward to being shown round by an attractive Sandelady who we spotted when we booked our tickets, but had to make do with a Sandeman who had a ponytail and acted like a robot. In both Lodges the port was good, and it was as well that the bus stop was just over the road.
A couple of interesting learning points: The city on the north bank of the Douro is Porto. The city on the south bank is Vilanova de Gaia, formerly Cale. It was from these two cities that the name Portugal (Oporto-Cale) derives. More strangely the Port lodges have always been on the south bank, because the taxes are cheaper. They have never been in Porto, always in Gaia. So why is it called Port? How about a glass of Vilanova de Gaia with your Stilton?
After Porto our next stop was the little port of Caminha, at the very northwestern tip of Portugal. It is situated on the estuary of the river Minho, which forms the border between Portugal and Spain. Our campsite (Camping Orbitur Caminha) was idyllically sited in wooded dunes on a promontory right at the river's mouth, with sandy river beaches on one side and the Atlantic waves breaking onto the sands on the other.
So far in Portugal we have had alternate weeks of good and bad
weather. In Porto it was cloudy and cool with a bit of rain, so we were due a spell of sunshine - and in Caminha we got it. It was warm and sunny every day, and in fact the temperature gradually increased to the point where we were seriously considering
swimming in the cold Atlantic! We weren't quite brave enough, but plenty of others were. We had arrived just before a bank holiday weekend, and the campsite, which was virtually empty when we arrived, soon filled up with Portuguese students celebrating
the end of exams and families out to enjoy the sun and sand. As a result, it was extremely noisy for a couple of days - in fact it reminded us of that manic weekend at Orgiva. So rather than sit in the sun and be deafened, we decided to drive out
and explore the area, which proved to be far more scenic and interesting than we'd expected.
At either side of the Minho estuary are hills, fortified since before Roman times. The towns along both riverbanks show evidence of fortifications and of the many battles between Spain (or Leon in the pre-unity days) and Portugal. Even the churches are fortified with battlements. In 1809 Napoleon's troops landed near Caminha at the start of the Peninsular war, but the locals beat them off. We drove 20 miles upstream to Valenca, which boasts not one but two fortifications, each enclosing a self-sufficient community, linked by a bridge. The town faces the Spanish town of Tui, with an amazing fortified Romanesque church on its hill. The two towns are linked by a double decked bridge, road below and railway above, built by our old friend Eiffel. Once again there is a matching pair of high hills either side of the river, and we climbed Monte do Faro on the Portuguese side for fantastic views over the two towns and the wide river as it meandered down to the coast.
We were there on Mayday. In Spain and Portugal this is actually celebrated on May 1st, not on the nearest Monday to May 1st as it is in the UK. Valenca was busy with tourists, mainly Spanish, and all its shops were open for business. That may not be saying a lot, because although there were several hundred of them, nearly every one was selling towels and tablecloths, which are very cheap in Portugal. In fact some shops were selling towels by the kilo. By contrast Tui was shut for the holiday, not just the shops but the churches and museums as well! The only places open were the petrol stations, all with long queues of Portuguese filling up with Spanish fuel, at 10 to 15 cents a litre cheaper than Portugal.
On another day we drove 15 miles south to our third river, the Lima, at Viana do Castelo. The coastline between Caminha and Viana is superb, with long beaches and small rocky headlands backed by dunes and gorse-covered hills. The huge Atlantic rollers were crashing on the beach, great surfing territory. Viana is a very pleasant town, with an attractive main street and many small old alleyways with Manueline and Renaissance houses and shops. Some very grand 16th century buildings flank the main square and of course, spanning the river, is yet another double-decked bridge by you know who.
Towering over the town is the Miradoura de Santa Luzia, a hill topped by a basilica, which, even though quite modern, has become a place of pilgrimage. It's not unlike the Sacre Coeur in Paris, but being built in the local granite its overall impression was a bit grim. The views were good though. On the hill behind the basilica lies an old Celtic village, subsequently taken over by the Romans. The remains of many small round houses surrounded by a Roman fortification were impressive.
It was in Viana that we met up with the piece of cod again. In an earlier blog I had jokingly mentioned the national dish, dried salted cod or Bacalau. Well, Viana was holding its annual Bacalau festival. Signs of festivity were everywhere. Garlands and banners, participating restaurants and bars, and the main exhibition hall given over to, surprisingly, a Bacalau exhibition. We could not resist, in spite of the overpowering smell. We were expecting tasting sessions, but all it consisted of was a sea of people sitting eating set meals at anything up to €80 a head. No wonder there is a shortage of cod in the UK! Advertised was a demonstration entitled "1001 ways to cook Bacalau". We did not stop!
At Caminha there is a little ferryboat, which carries 15 or so cars at a time over the river to A Guarda in Spain. At €3.10 for a car and two people it is good value. We crossed the river and climbed the hill at the other side to the Citania de Santa Tegra, another Celtic village of round houses at the top of a high hill. Here some of the houses had been reconstructed with thatched roofs. The views of the river estuary and the coast were wonderful, but even on a hot day there was a cool breeze, so goodness knows what it must have been like in winter. Those old Celts must have been very hardy!
We drove on up the coast to Baiona, at the mouth of the Ria de Viga. This is a lovely place, guarded by an old fort on a promontory overlooking the wide bay. There is a smart hotel (a Parador) inside the fort but it's possible to walk all round the battlements, with lovely views of the coast and the marina. Anchored here we found an old friend - another replica of the Pinta, one of the three ships that went with Columbus. Having seen where they began their journey, at Palos de la Frontera, we have now seen where one of the ships made landfall on the return voyage. Imagine the scene on the dockside - "Hi, honey, I'm home! We've discovered America, and I've brought you back some exotic vegetables, a parrot and a couple of Indians!"
Like all the towns up and down this coast, Baiona is a great place for seafood restaurants, and we decided to splash out for once. (Our usual lunch is bread and cheese, if in the caravan, or a sandwich if we're out.) We struggled with the menu, and the waiter didn't speak English, so we settled for a mixed seafood platter and wondered what would come. It was a huge plateful of things with shells, claws, feelers and other nameless appendages. We've tried and enjoyed many crustaceans in our time, but the dish held two we'd never eaten - razor clams and goose barnacles. Both proved to be delicious, although they looked ghastly, as did the huge spider crab! Armed with nothing but a sort of nutcracker, and a nice bottle of Ribeiro, we tucked in. The mussels, prawns, scallops, crabs and clams were no problem, but we weren't sure what to do with the barnacles. They looked like an inch-long black rubber tube with a white beak at one end. We discovered that if you snapped and pulled hard on the beak, a very rude-looking pink tube emerged from the black rubber, squirting you in the face. But they really were tasty. By the end of the meal the table was piled high with empty body parts and we were full, but exhausted. A messy but memorable experience.
Once the weekend was over, the campsite became quiet and peaceful again and we spent our days sitting in the sun or walking on the beach. One morning we went into Caminha and sat at a café in the picturesque main square enjoying a coffee and watching the passing scene. It was market day and there were some children in national dress manning a couple of stalls, a crocodile of cute tots from the local nursery school walked by and a tiny, wizened old lady in black sat enjoying the sun. It felt as if we were seeing the real Portugal and not something out of a holiday guidebook.
However, it was time to move on in the direction of Northern Spain and the ferry home. Next day we intended to head for Santiago de Compostela, as pilgrims have been doing since the Middle Ages. Would we be blessed by the saint and earn our scallop shell? The next blog will reveal all.