A short excursion today to the home of the 1970’s famed Mateus Rosé, although we found out that, in fact, this village wasn’t its home; the producer had bought the image rights to the castle.
A nice enough little village, the owner of the village shop especially pleasant and friendly (but so many Portuguese people are).
The castle (Manor House by UK standards) was interesting enough, but nothing on the scale or “antiquity” one might be expecting. We enjoyed a pleasant enough guided tour through the various rooms but nothing on show was especially memorable. Interesting but fairly ordinary for this type of venue.
The gardens were described on the guided tour as “mini Versailles”. Not even close. The layouts were elaborate but on a small scale. Many public parks in London and other major cities have equally formal displays. Again, pleasant enough, but not what one might expect.
However, warm sunny Portuguese weather, shady trees and a charming village atmosphere, drinking coffee in the little pavement café made for a decent way to spend the morning.
During lunch, we set off, back to Porto and home. The sun was out, the river calm and peaceful and the scenery as beautiful as always. The perfect way to spend a Saturday afternoon; balcony, book and the world slowly passing by.
Lisbon is a strange city. Great, but strange.
The streets are old and shabby; some shabby-chic, some just shabby. The people are stylish but there are beggars and street vendors/entertainers almost everywhere. Selling hot chestnuts seems to be a way to make a few Euros without begging.
There are also “Iberian” gypsies, who, we were told, are good-guys. They sell without permits, but never harass tourists (they just ask politely) and never steal or cheat. They’ve been a part of Portugese life for centuries. However, Romanian gypsies are appearing and they’re the exact opposite.
Iberian gypsies always wear black, but the Romanians have started to copy the dress to confuse their targets.
The local pastry is a custard tart, but not like any I’ve ever tasted. It’s in filo-like pastry and is served warm. There’s probably something illegal in them, because eat one and you’re addicted for life. The orginals were made by monks (or maybe nuns) and their bakery still exists (in private ownership) which is where we first tried ours. They make 25,000 (yes 25,000) per DAY in this café. One of four large café areas - the queue for outdoor sales is massive also.
The old Jewish Quarter is a maze of very narrow streets best explored on foot, but like all old large capital cities it also has its fair share of shops, statues, museums and churches (etc), many of which are well worth exploring.
Off to Porto tomorrow, taking the scenic route.
Our journey to Porto took us to Coimbra, Portugal’s first capital and site of its oldest University. Like Ox-bridge, it still retains a prestigious status, although, unlike Ox-bridge, fees are set by the State for all Universities and are all the same.
It has many more “modern” buildings (just a few hundred years old) but the original courtyard, together with the ancient library are still in use. The ancient library houses 300,000 books, some on display, the more valuable kept in its basement under natural environment conditions. Environment is a big deal in Portugal - they even control insects in the library with resident bats! No photos inside.
The students have traditional clothing; not compulsory, but worn proudly by most of them. They have many traditions associated with them: they are decorated with college ribbons on admission which have been blessed and on graduation their cloaks are ripped - the location of each rip signifying family, friends and lovers.
After touring the campus, we travelled to a local restaurant and were treated (it was a treat) to a traditional Portugese lunch accompanied, between courses, with Fado, Portugal’s folk music. Students from the University greeted us by placing their capes on the ground to be walked over - a symbolic greeting to “honoured guests”.
I had, until now, failed to even remotely enjoy one of these “folkloric” shows; always staged, touristy and performed by poorly trained immigrants to the country.
Not so this time. These were virtuoso performers from the University. Fado: a traditional melancholy song accompanied by Portugese 12-string guitar playing (somewhat like a mandolin) - no chance thought I. I was so wrong. The music is haunting, vaguely Slavic/Russian in tone and beautiful. You can view my poorly filmed videos here.
We arrived in Porto (Vila Nova de Gaia) late afternoon - what a beautiful setting - in glorious hot sunshine and settled in before dinner.
After dinner, an added “treat”; they decided to “night-sail” part of the river so we could see Porto-Gaia by night. Beautiful!
Then off to bed, exhausted but happy (and a bit tipsy from the amount of local wine and port we’d been forced to drink!).
This is a lovely city. If Rome was built on 7 hills, Porto was built on 70! Its an incredible elevation from river to town, and the town is like a roller coaster. Not an easy place for a stroll unless you're fit and healthy, but I guess the locals are used to it. Fortunately, we toured by coach and stopped at the various places of interest.
Tiled buildings are a feature of the city, exterior and interior, including the railway station. The local American Embassy (aka MacDonalds), however is something really unusual.
At the end of the tour, we visited a Port Wine Cellars for a tour and samples at 11:30am. Early for port, but it seemed a little ungrateful to refuse so “put on a brave face”.
We sailed along the Douro after lunch and enjoyed a quiet table for two for dinner. Super way to spend a special day.
All morning the ship sailed slowly (good plan, very narrow river!) through the most scenic part of the upper Douro. Another glorious blue skies day.
We arrived in the metropolis of Barca D’Alva around lunch time. Two cafés and a shop apart from a few houses. This village came from the land that time forgot. It reminded me of the sort of place you see on an Attenborough documentary from the high Andes.
Whilst waiting for llamas to come down from the hills we popped in to the small shop (green awning in the photo) and found where the llamas were stabled. It smelt like… God knows what… but whatever it was it must have gone off years ago!
The riverside was quite pleasant, however.
Docked there, just beyond the bridge were 2 other cruise ships, one of which should be a cautionary note to anyone booking with an unknown or sight-unseen agent or company. (The blue one is UniWorld, the brown one is Third-World!).
The excursion was to Castelo Rodrigo. We decided Castelo Not-to-go would be better as it was described as a high hill-top fortress, we were tired and tomorrow is to be a full day trip to Salamanca, Spain. Sun deck, books and a nap in the sun. Perfect.
Tucked away in the hillsides of the Douro valley is a small village famous for its Moscatel wine. A little village that provides what might have been the best excursion of the tour.
It practically died out when new rules covering what grapes, and the altitude at which they were grown, destroyed the local economy. After many years, a local family succeeded in overcoming the regulations, formed a village-wide cooperative bringing all the would be producers together under a single label and created Portugal’s most admired Moscatel label.
We visited a local bakery, where (again as part of a bread making cooperative) traditional small loaves are produced and “exported" throughout the Douro region and as far as Lisbon. Each small bakery makes about 1000 of these per day, hand kneading the dough and cooking the bread in ancient wood-fired ovens (not unlike traditional pizza ovens).
We visited the village's modern Moscatel production where all the growers bring their harvest each year and where this absolutely delicious wine is produced. They forced us to sample the product. 11am? Who cares!
The visit to the Museum was an eye opener. Innovative interactive exhibits reminded me of a mini Techniquest in this sleepy Portuguese backwater!
And then the high spot of the excursion, if not the whole trip. A visit to the Quinta whose family had led the rebirth of the village, hosted by the son of the family.
We were told he had been nicknamed the Portuguese “Mr Bean” (but not to tell him). The moment we met him we knew why.
Not only is he a close look alike, his mannerisms, gestures and way of speaking were so like Mr Bean’s I wondered if he already knew his nickname and deliberately played along. Whatever the reasons, he was amusing, eloquent and highly entertaining.
We briefly toured the traditional production facilities and then we were treated to a fabulous 4 course lunch (maybe 5, 6 or even 7 courses, if you include canapés, the main course including 3 meat items where all 3 were served and “seconds” offered plus multiple desserts from a dessert buffet table). Local wines, Moscatel and grappa flowed freely. Between each course “Mr Bean” told interesting and sometimes funny stories about the Quinta and village. A local band (made up from workers from the Quinta) played on an accordion, drum and guitar.
Canapés in the garden, with Moscatel. Lunch in the restaurant
What an incredible day out. The scenery on the journey back was beyond spectacular, but (sadly) couldn’t be photographed from the coach.
Unable to fly from Porto to Cardiff (except via Outer Mongolia, or some other ridiculous route) we took the train from Porto back to Lisbon.
The station in Porto is massive, but clean and easy to find your way around. An on time comfortable trip to Oriente (Lisbon Airport) brought us to another massive station, clean and impossible to find your way around.
It’s on about 5 levels, platforms at the top, street on Level 3, all the levels being a Henry Moore-like sculpture of arches and walkways. The locals are very friendly and helpful, otherwise we might still be there.
We’d never been so confused by a building in our lives. “That’s a one off,” we thought. And then we arrived at Lisbon Airport. It’s beyond description, but I’ll try.
The place is full of pillars so there’s no clear line of sight anywhere. It has over 100 check-in desks, not in the same place but in different “wings” of the building. They’re in groups of about 25, but each group is not sequential. The signage is intermittent.
When you’ve checked and dropped your baggage you need to find the boarding gate. These are arranged in some still to be determined arrangement of letters and numbers somewhere beyond security. They’re arranged around a duty-free shopping area and food court that wraps around on itself, and has only one exit from “the dark-side”. If you miss it, round you go again.
However, when you’ve found your gate it has a large comfortable seating area with a view of the apron. I left to go to the loo. Found that, but it was a serious challenge retracing my steps.
Take off to Schipol, on time. As good as home - Schipol’s transfers are a dawdle, we’ve done them many times.
And so it was, until we boarded the aircraft for Cardiff, well on time. Why hadn’t we left the stand for 15 minutes.
The Captain speaks: “We still have engineers trying to fix a technical problem. We should be ready to go in about 5 minutes.” Just what you want to hear. Faulty aircraft having a quick fix. Very reassuring.
Fifteen minutes later: “We still can’t fix the problem with one of our flight computers. It’s been suggested we completely power down the aircraft to reboot the systems.” That sounded like a call centre in the sub-continent. “Switch it off and back on and with a bit of luck it might work.” The aircraft went completely dark and silent. Then everything back on.
The captain seemed a wise old owl, not easily fooled: “I’m not satisfied, so I’ve asked for a replacement flight computer to be brought. This will take a while to fetch and fit. Sorry”. Free fruit juices were handed out (What! I needed something much stronger!).
Thirty further minutes: “I’ve decided this aircraft is going nowhere tonight. We’ll transfer you to a standby aircraft. We have asked for buses and baggage handlers to come to the aircraft.” I was very pleased, not with the added delay but it seemed preferable to an aircraft repaired with rubber bands and a lucky power restart.
Fairly quickly, the vehicles arrived and off we went to our shiny new fully working aircraft. On we trooped and got ready for take-off. Then the cabin crew came around and asked everyone to unfasten their seat belts. The aircraft had to be refuelled, hot (with engines running) so this was a precaution in case a speedy evacuation was needed. These guys sure help you relax.
Fortunately, the Fokker-70 wasn’t a fokker - it managed not to become an inferno of fuel, plane and passengers.
Cardiff, at last, 2 hours late.
Who cared? Home at last.
Today we set off on a two hour drive across the border to Spain and Salamanca. One of those places you’ve heard about but don’t know why.
What a really beautiful town it is. An ancient University city, filled with fine old buildings, churches (lots of these… this is Spain!) elegant shops and cafés.
This was the day when (as happens at least once) something has to go pear-shaped. It was lunch!
We were taken to this splendid 5-Star-GL (GL added in Spain for “plus”) hotel on the edge of the old town. Escorted to the 7th floor restaurant with beautifully laid tables. We were there for lunch and an “authentic” flamenco performance.
The food was… well appalling compliments it. A buffet of assorted salad items, just cut up, no dressings or mixing; cold omelette (tortilla) and under-cooked under-spiced paella, also none too warm.
And then the “flamenco”. Three slightly rotund ladies (looked like mother and her daughters) accompanied by CD tracks (by some Spaniard, who seemed to be screaming in pain from toothache) began to stamp their feet and scream in sympathy. Next, the mama began to sing solo plus backing track guitar. Not Monserrat Cabillé by a long shot.
The standard was fully defined by, after several repetitions of this pattern, Mama burst into song again with “E Viva España”. Could it get worse? Well, if finishing off with “Volare” sung in Italian isn’t, I have no idea what is.
The city was beautiful and well worth investing more time than we had. But if you visit eat elsewhere!
A seriously long day today.
Awake at 3:30am, taxi at 4:30am, KLM to Amsterdam at 6:05am and after 4 hours in the lounge at Schipol, 3 hours to Lisbon.
These lounges are, however, worth the time and trouble. Comfortable chairs. Tea, coffee, pastries and cakes freely on tap. Unlimited Wifi. Beer, wines and spirits are also free, if you can take that sort of thing at 9am. I couldn’t. Quite a few people could. Lightweight I guess!
The KLM food was as exciting as ever (yawn!) but as usual, on time and comfortable.
The Hotel Tivoli, Lisbon, is a pretty good venue. About 5/10 minutes walk from the “downtown” shops and attractions; near enough to walk, far enough away to be quiet and peaceful. It does suffer from 5-star syndrome: wonderful public spaces, bars, restaurants and shops. Just about average rooms with overpriced room-service, seriously overpriced restaurants and “get-a-mortgage" mini-bar. What the hell? We found a great little restaurant in town.
Totally cream-crackered the plan is for an early night to recharge for a busy city tour and sightseeing tomorrow.
Idyllic rural dawn. Locals going about their day (6:30am).
A morning cruising along the Douro, took us through the river’s largest dam and a spectacular lock. 35 meters.
We docked in Régua and after lunch travelled to Lamego, the site of a sacred shrine of the Virgin Mary, famed for its healing power. (Very Catholic, very superstitious in these parts!). Known as “The Church of our Lady of the Remedies”, it is approached by a 625 step, seriously steep staircase. Those seeking help climb this on their knees (which probably also need healing on their arrival). We approached by luxury coach!
The church holds the statue of the breast-feeding Madonna, which is the destination of the Pilgrimage. (My thoughts strayed to ‘Allo ‘Allo and the Von Klomp portrait - very sacrilegious!).
The town of Lamego is a pretty little place with old buildings and churches, beautiful in the clear skies and seriously hot sunshine. We visited the local market (smaller than Cardiff’s!), strolled around and finally collapsed in a café for rehydration.
We returned to the ship, which had relocated to Pinhão, but en route, were forced to visit another quinta, Sandemans' Quinta do Seixo. You needed a drink when you got there! It was located way on top of a steep hillside, reached by a private road about (it seemed) 2 inches wider than the coach and windier than a corkscrew! Two way traffic! About 2km long. The views were beautiful and white knuckle frightening at the same time. We sampled the port and closed our eyes (scarier on the way down!) returning to the ship for dinner.