Thursday, 29 January 2009

Portugal - Day 1, Frost, Beaches & a Sunset

When we left Stansted Airport on a six-thirty Ryanair flight to Porto there was a hard frost on the ground and the temperature was minus 3º centigrade and when we arrived less than two hours later in Porto there was a hard frost on the ground and the temperature was also minus 3º centigrade. It is unusual to get frosts on the west coast of Portugal and this had clearly taken people by surprise and at the airport there were shivering staff on duty to make sure we avoided the untreated icy patches on the short walk to passport control. Once through we were met by a lady from the car hire company who explained how cold it had been and why this necessitated the wearing of several layers of clothes, a scarf, a hat and a pair of woolly gloves. I have to concede that it was a bit chilly but I have to say that she seemed to me to be exaggerating the effect. Later we were told that on the day before that it had actually snowed and this was the first time that anyone here could remember such a weather event.

After picking up the car we put our watches forward one hour, as you do when you visit mainland Europe, and we set off for our hotel at the nearby town of Vila do Conde. Unusually for me this turned out to be very straight-forward and we drove straight to the town and followed the location instructions that turned out to be completely accurate. Consequently there was no reason for me to get agitated or to blame anyone else for getting hopelessly lost and within an hour of landing we were booked in to the Hotel Santana and settling into our room which was on the second floor and had a magnificent view over the river Ave and the Convent of Santa Clara on the opposite side of the water.

We only had two days in Portugal so we didn’t stay long in the room and we went back to the car and drove the short distance into the town. We were surprised to see the extensive remains of an old aqueduct so we parked the car and went sight seeing. The Aqueduto do Convento was a sixteenth century structure that was built to supply water to the Convent which was once the largest in all of Portugal but is now being converted into a Pousada hotel, which is the Portuguese equivalent of the Spanish Paradors. It was cold in the shaded narrow streets but the good thing about this frosty weather was that there was a clear blue sky full of a big sun and out of the shade it was really very pleasant indeed.

After leaving the town we drove to the sea front and were delighted to find an empty golden beach and a big Atlantic Ocean with huge waves crashing in over the rocks that fringed the edge of the water like steadfast guards on eternal sentry duty. It must have been a very cold night because the damp sand was still frozen and it broke with the snap of a dime bar as we walked across it right down to the rocks and the salty spray. I am not really a big fan of beaches and tire of them quickly but in the winter when they are deserted like this I can explore them for hours. The only other people were a jogger or two and some fishermen at regular intervals along the rocks.

Actually it was beginning to warm up and according to a street sign at a chemist shop the temperature was approaching double figures so as it was about midday we looked for somewhere to stop for a drink and choose a bar with outside tables and selected one in the sunshine at the edge of the pavement. This seemed to surprise the young girl at work behind the bar and she apologised as she chipped the ice of the table and wiped it down as she explained that she hadn’t really expected anyone to sit outside this early.

After the sun had warmed us through we left Vila do Conde and drove north to the neighbouring city of Póvoa de Varzim which was once the busiest sea port and had the largest fish market in northern Portugal and still has a busy port today where we could see fishing boats going in and out of the harbour. We didn’t stop at Póvoa but carried on along the coast road adjacent to the wide beaches and arrived in the village of Apúlia where we thought we might look for somewhere for lunch. It was a small fishing village with all of the gaily coloured boats parked at a safe distance from the rough sea that was pounding in fiercely again over the rocks. There were a couple of restaurants but they weren’t exactly what we were looking for so we walked along the beach to some windmills that were probably holiday lets but were all shuttered and abandoned today.

It was a busy little village and 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 a couple of old fashioned mini markets that are always a joy to shop in. Portugal is one of the poorest countries in Europe, and behind the tiled walls we could see that the houses were made of tin and through open doors and windows we could plainly see that the homes were simple and sparse. Although it is in Western Europe (in fact it is the most western mainland European country) Portugal did not begin to catch up with its neighbours until 1968 after the death of the dictator António Salazar and eventual entry into the European Community in 1986.

We left Apúlia but after a while the coast road disappeared into the sea so we were obliged to turn inland and pick up the main EN13 road to Esposende a few kilometres to the north. This part of Portugal is predominantly rural and agricultural and all along the sides of the roads there were vegetable stalls with local people selling their produce to passing motorists. And it looked good too and this must have been the season for potatoes, cabbage and onions because there were ample supplies of all of these. We crossed the River Cávado just south of the pine-fringed town and drove along the front looking for somewhere to eat.

We found just what we were looking for and came across a café bar on the seafront with tables on a terrace in a sheltered spot and in the full glare of what was by now a very warm sun. And then we discovered something else about Portugal that we liked very much indeed; compared with Spain it is very, very cheap indeed. With low expectations we ordered food from the menu at about €5 a plate and were surprised to be served with a quite splendid excellent value for money lunch, which together with a couple of beers and some glasses of wine came to less than €20, including the tip. It was really very warm now and although the locals were still wrapped up I was down to my shirt sleeves as we sat and lapped up the January sun. After lunch we continued north to an edge of town beach, which was much like the others and had a nice little beach bar where we sat in the sun and a bottle of beer and a pot of tea cost a very reasonable €2. This place is on my radar to return to very soon I can tell you.

By now it was late afternoon and our thoughts turned to alcohol supplies for the hotel room and on the return journey we stopped again at Apúlia and bought some wine and beer to take back with us. As Portugal produces 50% of the World’s wine bottle corks it was difficult finding a screw cap bottle so we had to make do with a very cheap bottle of local red wine with a plastic stopper and we worried about what exactly it would taste like?

The sun was dipping now and we wondered if we might be fortunate enough to see a sunset and so back at Vila do Conde we pulled into the car park and made again for the beach that we had visited earlier this morning. And we were not disappointed because as the sun went down over the Atlantic horizon it filled the sky with a vivid red sprawl that was the equal of anything we had seen in Greece a few months earlier. It seemed late for a January sunset at nearly half past six but we didn’t question the fact and we gleefully took pictures and enjoyed the moment before finally returning to the Hotel Santana for the evening.

We booked a table for eight-thirty and then went to the room to try the wine, which was a little unusual but quite drinkable, a bit like a slightly fizzy Lambrusco and after a couple of glasses we went to the dining room and although we had booked they seemed a little surprised to see us. After an excellent meal in a restaurant overlooking the river and the illuminated Convent we were tired at the end of a day that had started very early and so we had an early night and hoped that the weather would hold out for at least another day.

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