Driving The Douro (Ellie’s Week 14)

Mon 30th Nov – Mon 7th Dec

It’s funny, after having really enjoyed free camping in a multitude of aires, it felt really weird (and a lot less fun) being on a campsite again. But needs must, and as we had yet to find a solution to our inverter problem we were in desperate need of electric (in order to fire up the laptops and catch up on about three weeks of blogging).

There are definitely worse places to stay than Vila Cha, it is one of a collection of little fishing villages running along the coast.  The buildings were a combination of traditional cottages and contemporary apartments, there were lots of cats, and the beach had a long boardwalk running across its dunes from which to admire the big waves.  Other than that, things were pretty quite.

After having already spent a day and a half at the campsite (and only managing to scratch the surface of our blogs), we were beginning to get a bit stir crazy.  So on Monday morning we packed our metaphorical bags and walked about three and a half kilometres to the train station to catch a train into Porto.  We hadn’t known quite what to expect and (after our recent time in Biarritz, San Sebastian and Bilboa) were beginning to feel bit city-ed out, but I was so glad we had made the effort as Porto is an amazing city.

It is funny when you visit a city, because each one seems to have a different feel, with the evolution of it’s architecture mirroring it’s development and giving it its own unique character.  In Porto dramatic squares greet you as you walk down the hill from the train station towards the harbour.  Huge colonial-looking buildings, decked in murals of hand-painted blue and white tiles, shine magnificent in the midday sun, their doors and windows framed by stonework surrounds.  The streets narrow as you make your way further down the hill towards the old town and the colourful patchwork of buildings that cling to the edge of the harbour.  Along the riverfront the huge Dom Luis Bridge towers overhead, dwarfing the visitors below as they look across the Douro River to the neighbouring city of Vila Nova De Gaia.

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Feeling ourselves getting peckish (but determined not to repeat our previous mistake in Biarritz) we scouted around to find a suitable restaurant in which to enjoy a tasty meal.  Down a narrow street, one road back from the quay we spotted Postigo do Carvão, a traditional Portuguese brasserie-style restaurant that was bustling with people, so we grabbed a small table on one side of the restaurant and settled down to enjoy what turned out to be a delicious lunch.  As we listened to the quite hum of people chatting and admired the green pillars, old photos and open kitchen behind the bar at the back we began to feel very relaxed, Matt tucking heartily into a large ‘steak’ steak and me enjoying a tasty salmon steak.

After lunch we said goodbye to our friendly waiter and meandered around the little streets of the old town looking for a place in which to sample some Port.  As luck would have it we stumbled upon a little Port shop called ‘Vinologia’ that specialised in Port from small producers.  We were served by the lovely Giana, who gave us a glass of White, Tawny and Ruby Port to sample. Feeling a little merry already having already enjoyed a bottle wine with lunch we were in quite a chatty mood, and Giana happily indulged us answering our questions and giving us tips on where to visit in her eloquent english.  Needless to say, we emerged twenty minutes later having spent twenty euros on a lovely bottle of vintage Tawny Port.

By this time Matt and I were feeling a little flirtatious and giggling a lot as we meandered through the streets, up the hill towards the Clérigos Tower.  I think people must have thought we were nuts, particularly when Matt decided to play hide and seek on the way to the cash point and hid behind a bin  holding my wallet and credit card.  He got some very funny looks, as the people on the other side of the road seemed to be trying to work out whether he had just robbed me or not!

The Clérigos Tower is a famous Porto monument from which you can get a 360 degree view of the city.  It was 3 euros each, but seemed like a good idea, so we handed over our cash to a couple of Vicky Pollard-esque cashiers (who were clearly bored stiff and more worried about their nails than anything else) and headed up the tower.  The view from the top was magnificent and we hung out up there for quite a while spotting landmarks and taking photos as the sun started to set in the hazy sky.  We had regained our senses a little by the time we had climbed down the 240 stairs, so we headed back to the station via a mini supermarket rammed with people (and piles and piles of salted cod or ‘Bacalhau’) to stock up on essentials.

It was dark as we got on the train and we began to turn our thoughts to the slightly scary prospect of our three and a half kilometre walk back to Heidi.  Sure enough it was a slightly hairy experience and knowing how crazy some of the local drivers were we walked through the pitch black wood ready to leap into a ditch at a moment’s notice.  But we made it safe and sound feeling very satisfied with our day.

The next day and a half was spent knuckling down to more blogging and organising our hundreds of photos.  By noon on Wednesday we were feeling very stir crazy and desperate to get out of the campsite and back on the road in search of adventure and free aires.  I had read about a place called The Coa Valley Archaeological Park (about 120 kilometres east of Porto) which I was really keen to visit, so we headed in land towards the Douro Valley, stopping at our next aire in a place called Regua.

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Peso De Regua was by far the most dramatic aire we had stayed at, and also the most efficiently designed, with 12 fully serviced bays (electric, water and drainage) over looking a steep gorge at the bottom of which flowed the Douro River.  The view was equally spectacular looking up as it was looking down, as three enormous bridges towered above us straddling the gorge.  To access a bay required a key which was obtained for 3 euros from the adjacent sports bar (a recurring theme amongst many municipal aires).  The jovial chap who opened up for us found it most amusing that Matt chose a bay in-between the bridges rather than directly underneath, assuming that he was wanting to avoid being flatted in the event of an overeager vehicle taking a nosedive onto Heidi.  In actuality I think Matt’s choice was driven more by his desire for a quite night’s sleep than fear of mortal danger, as he had sized up the neighbouring motorhomes and taken a punt as to who would be the least disruptive (one that seemed to pay off).

The next morning Matt went for a quick stroll around the town whilst I went to take a closer look at bridges, enjoying the shadows cast by the arcing steel girders as the sun illuminated the valley.  Once Matt was back we set off for Foz Coa.  Matt had deliberately psyched himself up to take a scenic road that routed itself along the Douro river and then over the mountains (having scanned google maps to reassure himself that it was do-able).  Indeed both he and Heidi seemed to take the journey in their stride which was fantastic, as it meant that we got to see some spectacular views over the mountains looking down on the thousands of concentric terraces that line the Douro Valley.

For the first part of the journey we followed the river, the sides of the valley stepping up high above us on either side.  As we headed towards an enormous dam our eyes caught glimpses of large placards and signs nestled amongst the vine covered terraces indicating the ‘Quinta’ (the Portuguese version of a French ‘Cave’) to which they belonged.  Passed the dam we encountered some larger Quinta, one of which was the famous Sandeman (a well known Port brand in England) before our road turned off to the right and we began to wined our way up into the hills.

I was really relieved that Matt did not seem at all anxious despite the several hundred foot sheer drops to our right.  This may have been because the road was actually very good or the fact that he was not sitting on top of them like me.  Not being overly fearful of heights, I was in my element as each twist and turn lead to ever more breathtaking views of tiny villages and lines of rusty leaved vines and slivery olive trees.

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The four and a half hour trip seemed to fly by and we had soon reached the little village of Freixo De Numao where we planned to stay for the night in a cobbled air next to the football ground.  When we arrived we saw that another motorhome had beaten us to it and said hello to a Scottish couple and their lovely black labrador Cassi.

It was in Freixo De Numao that I started to become a little anxious about the plethora of seemingly stray or semi-stray dogs that seem to wander freely around many of the towns and villages in Portugal.  We encountered a small pack near the Aire (two young ones, one Todd-like one and a very playful, slightly nippy one) who were friendly enough.  But as we explored the village amid much barking and growling I began to become a bit apprehensive (particularly as one smaller dog who ran at us from a farm building only just stopped short of attacking us thanks to Matt’s dominant stance).  This feeling was slightly compounded when we were greeted by an enormous slightly bitey St Bernard-like dog who seemed to be visiting our pack and who was somewhat over exuberant in his greeting.  Although he was almost certainly harmless, it did seem a bit touch and go at some points, but we made it back to Heidi in one piece for our drive to the Museum.

Nothing had prepared us for the incredible sight of that is the Coa Museum.  But as we came up the drive we started to get a glimpse of the breathtaking building perched on the edge of the hillside overlooking the point where the River Douro and the River Coa converge.  The building, designed by two young Architects from Porto (winners of a public tender in 2004) was an astonishing example of contemporary architecture.  Built into the hillside and constructed from huge concrete blocks, its arrow shaped form revealed a maze of interesting angles illuminated on the outside by the sun as it passed across the sky and on the inside by clever washes of light which highlighted it’s dramatic structure.  The exhibition inside was just as beautifully constructed.  A series of large dark rooms contained minimal yet evocative imagery juxtaposed with luminous exhibits and archeological discoveries.  The imagery, sounds and journey demonstrating the sense of the pride with which this archeological park and the ‘Gravadas’ (rock carvings) within in it were regarded by the local people and academics who had been working hard to preserve them.

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That afternoon we took our first tour to Penascosa (one of the three sites open to the public).  To get to the site we had to drive to the nearby village of Castelo Melhor, park Heidi, walk down the cobbled streets to the designated meeting point running the gauntlet of more stray dogs (who luckily seemed more interested in attacking one another than us) and then bundle into a beaten up 4 x 4 with our ebullient guide and three fellow site-see-ers (who had come from the another motorhome we had seen parked up in the carpark).  As our travelling companions were French the tour was given predominantly in French which enabled us to refresh our gaelic tongues a little whilst enjoying the incredible scenery that the off-road journey down to the site afforded us.  Once at the site we were taken to see four different rock faces ornamented with Palaeolithic carvings of horses, aurochs, bison and deer.

For those of you who have not heard of rock carvings that adorn the Coa Valley you are not alone (hardly any motorhomers we have spoken to both before and after had heard of them).  They were discovered during the preliminary works for the building of a large dam in the late 1980s.  After much scandal, scientific study and petitioning (under the slogan ‘As gravuras não sabem nadar’ –  ‘The carvings don’t know how to swim’ ) the building of the dam was prevented and the site was declared UNESCO world heritage in 1998.  The carvings themselves are considered to be of huge archeological significance providing new insight into the artistry and culture of Paleolithic man.

One of our three french companions on the tour (an elderly white haired gentleman) seemed incredibly knowledgable about Palaeolithic art and took pains (in his gentle erudite manner) to fill in any gaps, speaking slowly enough that Matt and I could understand his french.  I found this to be incredibly interesting and half suspected that he might be some kind of professor in his own right, but I am not sure that our good natured guide was to impressed as I think he felt that he was in danger of being upstaged and so a subtle (but friendly) rivalry ensued.

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That evening Matt and I drove back to dine at in the restaurant in the Coa Museum where we had enjoyed a coffee earlier in the day.  Despite being the only two guests in the entire restaurant (which could seat about 100 covers) we had a fantastic evening and were really glad that we had honoured our reservation.  I enjoyed a delicious starter of giant prawns cooked in local port or ‘Gambas Salteadas ao Molho de Vinho do Porto’ (a dish that I plan to perfect) followed by a rather large, rather sumptuous steak again cooked in Port with Port soaked apples, with a large and very tasty baked apple cooked in Port to finish (as you can see, I was fully embracing the Port theme!).  Matt also enjoyed a delicious meal, joining me on the steak for his main course, but enjoying a tasty starter of two different kinds of local sausage (a bit like black and white puddings crossed with chorizo) and a rich almond topped chocolate mouse for desert.

After dinner we enjoyed a bit of banter with our restaurant manager and chef who, along with the security guard and ‘Nu Nu’ (another off-duty restaurant manager) were watching a local football derby between Academica De Coimbra and Benefica (their home team).  The security guard very kindly agreed to us staying in the museum car park overnight which meant we were able to indulge in a few glasses of port that Nu Nu and his friends insisted on giving us.

The next morning I began to feel very much at home as I pottered down to use the loo imagining what it would really be like to live in such a building.  We had awoken to a thick mist and although it clouded the breathtaking views, the Museum was still as impressive as ever.  At 9.45 we headed down to meet our guide for our visit to ‘Canada do Inferno’ the second of the three rock art sites.  This visit was an incredibly multi-lingual affair as our portuguese guide could not speak English, and so spoke French to us and Spanish to our companions (a Spanish couple from Caceres), I had no problem understanding her French, but was happily surprised to find that Andreas (one of the Spaniards) spoke incredibly good english as he had spent a lot of time in England and Scotland.  He and his partner Maria were also great company and had an eclectic range of interests spanning architecture, art, nature, culture and vintage cars.

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Maria, who had a really sharp eye and a passion for wildlife spotted one of the highlights of our tour (alongside the carvings of course), a striking purple semi-carnivorous flower that looked a little like a strange kind of orchid, which apparently was very rare.  Having first spotted one, we then caught site of more and more popping out around the flat rock faces upon which early humans had chosen to make their mark.  On the way back up the hill we chatted with Andreas and obtained some great recommendations from them of places to visit in Spain.  We were very touched when back at the museum Andreas gave us his phone number and invited us to give him a call should we find ourselves in his neck of the woods as he would be happy to be our unofficial guide (an invitation we most definitely what to take up!).

Having spent a thoroughly memorable couple of days in the Coa Valley, we said our fond farewells to the museum, the valley and it’s riches and headed South West in the rough direction of Lisbon.  First stop was Rodao, a small town 68 kilometres away, which in theory we had intended just as a quick stop over.  But having arrived to find a comfortable aire in a small car park near the river and having visited the local tourist office we decided to stay for two nights and take advantage of an 8km walk that the lady at the tourist office had recommended to us.  That evening we enjoyed a quite drink in a trendy new bar overlooking the river before getting in a good night’s sleep in anticipation of our walk (though unfortunately Matt did not have much luck in that department due to a number of confused roosters who mistook 3am for dawn).

The next day we set out, me clutching the end of our red broom handle (masquerading as a walking stick) to ward of any unwelcome attention of the wayward canine variety.  Luckily the only dogs we saw, whilst being quite vicious looking, were chained to poles (although I could well imagine that they would be happily let off if their owner decided that he was fed up with having a public footpath crossing his land).  My broom handle turn out to be more useful as a walking stick as we made our way up the steep pine covered hillside towards the top.

About half way up Matt and I stopped in awe as about nine or so giant birds of prey circled into view.  They were so majestic in their flight, the sun glinting off their enormous wings, that Matt and I stood still gazed in wonder for a good 20mins hoping to capture the perfect photo.  Soon they began to glide away, so we carried on up to the top of the hill crowned by a tiny turret, and stood on a viewing platform.  From there we watched them circling down towards the ‘Portas de Ródão’ (a natural monument formed of two colossal banks of quartz rocks creating a natural doorway across the Tejo River).

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At this point as I write this, I am gleefully teasing Matt, as we had had a bet as to what these great birds were.  Matt had thought they were some kind of eagle whilst I was fairly confident that they were vultures.  After some quick googling this afternoon I can in fact confirm that they were Griffon Vultures (so a tasty bottle of artisan olive oil is coming my way!).  I have to say that even I was surprised by this, as it is hard to reconcile those elegant silhouettes with the ugly creatures that you see caricatured in cartoons and feasting on corpses to the sound of David Attenborough.

After saying goodbye to these feathered ghosts we continued the remaining 6 kilometres of our walk (or 7.5K as it turned out to be).  It was great to be out in the fresh air surrounded by trees, admiring the incredible views.  Although I may be overstating the ‘fresh’ bit a little, because as well as being located in an area of outstanding natural beauty, the far-side of Rodao is also the site of huge paper making plant, whose 30 or more chimney stacks belch out a noxious smoke (that smells a bit like ripe Camembert) which seems to hit you every time the wind changes.

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The last leg of our walk led us back through the town past an impressive looking museum which apparently contained the remains of fossilised tree trunks along with more examples of Palaeolithic art (which unfortunately was closed).  We were knackered by the time we got back to Heidi, but managed to drag ourselves to the riverside bar to enjoy one quiet drink in the approaching twilight, before collapsing into bed.  The next morning we took a final walk around the town, admiring the beautiful orange trees and bauble-like berries and seedpods that festooned the autumnal trees, before heading on our way.

Ellie x


2 thoughts on “Driving The Douro (Ellie’s Week 14)

  1. It sounds like you’re having a wonderful time and experiencing some very special places. Beautifully written as well. Xxx

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