Wednesday, 12 November 2008

Galicia - Day 3, Portugal

When we woke up there was some cloud over the hills in the distance but I was much happier when I was able to confirm that these were away to the north and today we were planning to drive in the opposite direction into neighbouring Portugal.

Breakfast was a similar affair to the previous day with huge chunks of bread and jam but the Spanish guests weren’t complaining and we forced it down to be polite. The lady serving breakfast seemed to be impressed when I tried a bit of basic Spanish and refills kept coming regularly after that. The tea was surprisingly good and we discovered later that, unusually for Europe, people from Northern Spain and from Portugal are rather partial to a good cup of tea.

We left the hotel and because it was about a hundred kilometres to the border we took the direct route south down the E1 motorway, the Autopista del Atlantico. I usually try to steer clear of the motorways because of the tolls and although this was costing a couple of euros at all too regular intervals it was a good decision because it was a nice easy road to drive without a great deal of traffic, probably because everyone else was doing what I usually do and avoiding the tolls and using the congested coast roads instead. And it was an attractive route as well that took us through green pine forests and spectacular rural scenery with occasional glimpses of the azure blue sea. The coast of this green corner of the Iberian Peninsula is known as the "Costa do Marisco" which translates as the seafood coast and the ninety-thousand fishermen from the Galician coastal ports provide all of Spain with fifty per cent of its fish and that is quite a lot because, after the Portuguese, the Spanish eat more fish per head than anyone else in Europe.

The motorway took us first past Pontevedra and then over a suspension bridge and past the city of Vigo, which is the largest fishing port in Spain and finally to Tui, the last city in Galicia, before crossing the River Minho into Portugal. After the heart stopping moment in Slovakia when we travelled to Austria without passports this time we had our documents ready but they weren’t required and we drove effortlessly into another European country, left the motorway and drove down the south bank of the river and on towards the coast. After the motorway the quality of the road surface quickly deteriorated on the coast road but it was enjoyable motoring and there weren’t too many cars about.

After a short while we came to Caminha, which is an ancient fortress town overlooking the river Minho and is rich in historical and architectural importance. It didn’t look too promising down on the river but a short walk to the centre revealed a most appealing town with manorial houses and medieval defensive walls, a Gothic church, and a very attractive main square with cafés and a 15th century clock tower. Especially interesting were the houses with colourful tiled walls in bright blues, greens and yellows. There was one of those old fashioned hardware stores that you rarely see in Europe anymore and all of the houses had metal balconies that reminded me of pictures of Latin South America and Cuba. Portugal is one of the poorest countries in Europe, and behind the tiled walls we could see that the houses were made of tin, but it is the seventh safest country in the world and the fourth biggest consumer of wine, after France, Italy and Germany, and so we choose a table at a café next to the town’s renaissance fountain to help them maintain this statistic.

The place had an easy ambiance and a lazy appeal and we walked around the streets that led to a church at the top of the town. The Rua da Corredura was the town’s main street but the shops were evidence that the people of the town don’t have a lot to spend and the hardware shops in particular had only basic items for sale which we have probably not been seen in the UK in over fifty years, especially the outdoor washboards for doing the laundry.

The steep street of Calçada de Santo António took us to the church with a large well-maintained graveyard full of impressive crypts and tombs, which must cost far more to build and maintain than the people could surely afford. Kim and I went into what we thought was a church but turned out to be a Franciscan convent and school and we were immediately intercepted by a four foot high, hundred year old nun who seemed pleased to see us and insisted on providing us with a short tour of the church and an explanation of the building. This was all in Portuguese of course but we nodded along in the way that you do when you cannot understand a word that is being spoken and this seemed to encourage her to carry on. S he gave us all some pictures of St Francis, for good luck I think, and then she gave us perfect directions to return to the car that was parked next to the estuary looking out over the river back into Spain. On the way back we went into a little shop and bought tea towels and tablecloths and I worried about that in case it signified a turning point in my life because I have never done that sort of thing before!

We returned the way that we had come and onto the motorway and back into Spain. This was a really relaxing drive as we travelled along the elevated sections of the motorway at the same height as the tops of the pine trees we admired the views all around. Galicia has preserved dense Atlantic forests where wildlife is commonly found and is relatively unpolluted. The untouched countryside is composed of green hills, steep cliffs and estuaries and is very different from what is traditionally imagined as typical Spanish landscape. In a very short time we were back at Pontevedra where we left the motorway and headed west out to the coast and to the resort of A Toxa at the end of a long peninsula. An important geographical feature of Galicia is the presence of many fjord-like indentations. These are called rías and are divided into the Rías Altas, and the Rías Baixas and they are important for fishing, and make the entire coastline an important marine area. They also make for long journeys because the roads follow the coast and seem to go on endlessly before reaching anywhere.

The reason for driving to A Toxa was simply to see its only famous tourist attraction; the small twelfth century church of San Caralampio set in beautiful gardens and which is completely covered in scallop shells. We crossed the bridge from O Grove to the island and drove straight to the church. It had been a long way to drive but it was really worth it and the church looked magnificent in the early afternoon sun and framed against a perfect blue sky with its gleaming scallop shells bleached white by the sun. The place was extremely quiet with no shops or restaurants but we were hungry now so we drove back to O Grove, parked the car and looked for somewhere to eat. We found a sea food restaurant with pavement tables just catching the last of the day’s sun before it dipped down behind the waterfront buildings and we enjoyed more sea food, well, some of us enjoyed more seafood, and afterwards we walked around the busy little harbour where they were preparing for a major festival that was due to begin sometime during the following week.

We left A Toxa and followed the coast road and got mixed up at a roundabout where we missed the road to the new motorway and ended up instead on the coast road where we crossed the Rio Umia and arrived in the town of Cambados, which didn’t look especially promising but we had lots of the afternoon left so we parked the car and walked into the centre of the town, which rather took us all by surprise.

Cambados is at the heart of Albariño wine country and there were lots of shops with tempting offers. At the top of the town was a large square with leafy trees, cobbled streets, stately houses with original balconies and the neo-classical church of San Bieito where, this being Sunday, there was a service taking place inside. In Cambados the most famous houses are those of the vineyard owners and the wine merchants, the Royal Hospital and next door, built on the remains of the old seventeenth century stately home, the National Parador of the Albariño. The was a friendly little bar next to the five star hotel so we sat in the last of the day’s warm sunshine and had a last drink before returning along the coast road to Pontescures.

The journey was slow through all of the little coastal towns on the way and culminating in congestion in the scruffy town of Villagarcia de Arosa and with my patience only just holding out I was pleased to get through it and onto the relatively open road back to the hotel. It had been a long but rewarding day and I for one was really pleased to reach the hotel bar for a glass of cold beer and a plate or two of appetizers before eating once again in the hotel. The evening meal was interesting, Sue and Christine bypassed the main meals and went straight for the sweet and Micky had a beef kebab that had lots of chicken bones in it and when questioned the hotel owner looked surprised and declared this to be a good combo!

At the end of the meal I requested the bill and surprise, surprise he had forgotten about the free meal offer and charged us for everything. I challenged this but he explained that we had messed him about by not accepting the truck stop hotel, this had cost him money and he couldn’t therefore honour his free meal offer. Excuse me! Messed him about? I don't think so! I was the one who nearly lost all my friends! We were the ones inconvenienced by his faulty plumbing story but he wasn’t budging and I wasn’t in the mood for an argument so said no more and soon after that he disappeared and we didn’t see him again, and we never will because this is a hotel that we will not be returning to.

The next morning we woke early, had breakfast and I practiced my Spanish again and it was worth it because after that the breakfast lady brought us croissants as well as bread and lots and lots of tea. After that we drove without incident back to the airport returned the car and waited for the flight that brought us back to Stansted in time for lunch at a nearby country pub where Sue and Christine choose fish, cooked English style, as they prefer it, and I think they were glad of that!

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