May 22, 2017 – Monday
We managed to actually get on the road by nine o’clock, partly due to the fact that there was no heavy partying the night before. Our goal today was a new country: Portugal!
Just short of the Portuguese border was our next stop: The Celtic ruins and hill fort of Santa Trega dating from the first century BC. The Celts apparently were going for the view because their settlement was at the top of one of the highest points of land in the area. The paved road left the town of A Guarda and immediately snaked its way up to the top. We could see the Atlantic coast on one side and the Minho river on the other before all was lost in the clouds. At the very top of the mountain was a gift shop, a restaurant and a parking lot. The thin clouds raced passed us, an indication of the high winds that frequented this place. We parked at one end and popped into the restaurant for a quick bite to eat, with me almost losing my hat to the wind! It reminded me of the strong winds found at the top of Mt Washington in New Hampshire, but with more pre-historic structures.
The restaurant, gift shops and parking lot were mostly empty, with less than a handful of vehicles or people visible. Considering that the view was minimal, I didn’t give this much thought as we climbed the steps that led to the rocks towering above the parking lot to explore further. The stairs circled around the top and then down the Atlantic side, the blue waters hidden in the wispy clouds. We were following a rough path that led behind the gift shop and into another area of stone ruins. These looked much more modern than the anticipated Celtic ruins but there was no information visible.
Looking across to the second peak
Wandering through the grassy yards we continued down the slope. The clouds were blowing away and another hill opposite of where we stood became clearer. More paths were followed and we were again at the top of a hill, looking down at A Guarda far below us, and small farms on the Atlantic coast now visible. I realized that we would continue to head downhill in order to reach our actual goal, the Celtic ruins, so I offered to run back up to the parking lot and grab our vehicle and meet the guys at the site.
The town of A Guarda below
The Atlantic coast
When I rounded the corner of the gift shop I was surprised to see that it was full of people and vehicles. A couple of buses had arrived and the passengers now streamed across the lot and ogled the trinkets on the gift shop walls. Judging from the vendors just now setting out their blankets and wares, I guess that we had arrived earlier than the usual tourist. I was ok with this! I parked the van near another random abandoned stone building where the guys happened to be and we walked together down the last bit to the settlement.
It was interesting how large the site was, and how close the buildings were to each other. While most of them were circular, some were more oval than others, but a 90 degree angle was rare. The reconstructed structure was informative, and showed that most buildings had small entryway before stepping over a small threshold into the heart of the home.
Inside (with fire pit and seating area)
Reconstructed walls are indicated by the flat stone
With our desire for pre-historic ruins satisfied it was time to continue to our next stop: Porto. I had heard great things about this city, including that there was too much to see in one day, let alone the few hours that we planned on spending here.
One of the problems with knowing almost nothing about the geography of a place is trying to understand where you are in relation to where you want to be when first entering the city. This was the problem in Porto. The city is large (over a quarter of a million people) and built on the hills on both sides of the river. Seeing the historic-looking structures on one of the hill top gave us a target to head for, but seeing something in a city does not mean that you can get there. Our search for a parking spot took us down a few steep, narrow streets until we found ourselves at the bottom of the hill – and at the entrance to a large parking lot. Brilliant! We found a spot in a corner and prepared to explore the city on foot.
Looking for a place to park
Dan and I immediately spotted the motorcycles. They were clustered together in two of the parking spots and were fully kitted out for long-distance travel – and had Swiss plates. Our countrymen were among us!
Swiss motorcycles in Porto
Bilbao has nothing on these balconies!
We were at the riverside and headed for the more lively direction available to us. We had stumbled upon Tourist Central. The snack we had back at the windswept mountain top was a long time ago and it was time for some real nourishment. We decided to find a place on the sunny river bank rather than on one of the inner streets and with surprisingly little deliberation we took our seats at an outdoor table and waited for the server to swing by. We waited a long time. He knew that we were there, but he kept walking by our table to hand out drinks, or check on another table, but he never approached us. We had just decided that we had waited long enough and stood up to leave when he finally brought the menus to our table. He gave us an annoyed look when we told him that we were leaving, although we did not tell him why.
Five minutes later we were seated at a busy waterfront restaurant with a server handing us menus and taking our drink orders. It was a good change, and lunch was good too. We continued our seafood consumption, but I kept throwing steaks onto my orders, since I don’t order them that often in Switzerland; I love a good cut of beef. During lunch we gazed at the view across the river: a hillside full of Port houses. Porto is known for many things, but primarily as the source of Port. Why Port and why here? In 1703, something called “the Methuen Treaty” came into being. During the war with France, English wine drinkers couldn’t get a regular supply of French wine, so Port merchants were permitted to import their drink at a low duty. It didn’t hurt that the already fortified wine would coincidentally survive the trip to London. Continued English involvement in the Port trade was can still be seen in the English names of many Port brands. Most of those brands were across the river from us – and they would be our next destination.
Lunch at Café do Cais
Porto did not have as many bridges as Ourense, but what they had were taller and more majestic. As we walked along the river front I was struck by the boat traffic on the water. There wasn’t a lot of it, but many of the boats I saw were of an unusual style and they intrigued me. I would have to investigate this later!
We crossed the Douro River on the Luís I Bridge, a two-level metal arch structure. We were on the lower level; it was a busy bridge with narrow sidewalks that were full of people. The traffic lanes were narrow and I worried that the bus mirrors would clip someone – or me – as they drove by. I was happy to join the land on the other side and have some space to walk in. Porto looked much more impressive from this side of the river, with massive stone structures towering on the larger hillside and more variety of buildings and winding streets. Technically we had left Porto behind, as the area across the river is called Vila Nova de Gaia, or just “Gaia”.
The Port houses were a mishmash of styles and levels of extravagance. The first one that we entered was Kopke. Dan had heard of the name but none of us knew anything about it. Kopke quietly boasts that it is the oldest Port wine company, with a history that stretches back over four centuries. Four centuries! That’s a lot of centuries.
The shop was tiny, the walls lined with bottles of Port on display and a counter at the far end. It was difficult to move around in the shop with the presence of the three other patrons and the two employees, but eventually the other customers left and we were able to ask for a tasting. The woman smiled and led us upstairs.
The room upstairs was just as small as the room downstairs, but there were fewer shelves of liquor on display and more room for the large tasting tables. The four of us sat at one of the three tables and our hostess brought out the tasting menus. I explained that I had to drive later (cough, cough) and she smiled cheerfully and said “I have just the thing for you!” The guys studied the tasting menus, made their choices and placed their orders. Shortly our hostess returned with a tray full of chocolates. Apparently each Port has a chocolate pairing – and my glass of water got its own plate of chocolate accompanying it. Then she brought out trays of Port glasses filled with the rich amber liquid. We were all surprised: these weren’t “tastings” – these were full-sized portions of Port! I would definitely be driving this afternoon.
Let the tastings begin!
I enjoyed watching the expressions on their faces as each glass was raised and tasted. The chocolates were carefully matched to each type of Port. It took a long time to work their way through the Port – each one had five glasses of Port to drink! I helped them a little bit with the chocolates but to be honest, there was already enough on my own plate to keep me satisfied. Eventually all of the glasses were emptied and the chocolates consumed. We stood up from the table, went back down the stairs and proceeded to choose which bottles to buy. It looked like we would have a few more boxes to pack into the car.
From Kopke we continued down the waterfront but the guys were not impressed with what they saw. I think that we had chosen the classiest tasting room in Porto; I guess that’s why they are the oldest one.
We popped into one more tasting room but it was a tacky, “get the tourists through the door as fast as possible” sort of place and we were not comfortable there. We had struck gold with the first stop and knew that it was pointless to continue our search. Instead we went across the street to the cable car. Yes, Porto has its own cable car. It didn’t cross the river but it did climb the hill to where the tall Luís I Bridge crossed back to Porto. Dan and I waited outside while Aaron and Craig fought for space in the crowded ticket office. They came out with more than just cable car tickets: there were free tastings at a tasting shop nearby. Free tastings are not to be refused so we walked back across the street and hunted for the address down empty back streets. I made a joke about how this is how people wake up in a bath tub full of ice and missing their kidneys, because they were tempted with the promise of free drinks. But we eventually found the (legitimate) tasting house and went in. A single glass of Port was poured for each of them but it met with lukewarm appreciation. Yes, it was free but it was not worth the purchase of a bottle. We went back to the cable car to see more of the city.
View from the cable car
Looking across at the other side of Porto
The Luís I Bridge across the Douro River
The cable car rose up the side of the hill and deposited us at the same level of the upper deck of the Dom Luís I Bridge. The view downriver was simple and serene, and the view from this height was all-encompassing.
Looking downstream and towards the Atlantic
Upstream, looking at Porto
After crossing the bridge, we meandered our way through the old town of Porto and eventually made it back to our parking lot. As we neared the river I noticed more and more cars: it was rush hour in Porto. This would be fun!
Mural in Porto
Detail of Sé do Porto
The car was where we left it, we packed our new purchases into the ample space at the back and I took us out into traffic. Dan was my navigator and he led us through the clogged streets and out into the countryside.
As you might have guessed, there are no photos from this section of our journey because I was driving and, well, Dan doesn’t take photos. So trust me when I tell you that the landscape was beautiful. We had traveled out of the limited sprawl of Porto’s neighboring towns and worked our way inland. The road was a fast, wide motorway that cut across the hills and eventually rejoined the Douro River. But not before a torturous and delightful romp through the vineyards that cover the hills on either side of the river.
Aaron had found us an AirBnB in Pinhão, a tiny village on the shore of the Douro. While I had only driven for two hours, we were already half way to Spain. The address we were given by the host of our AirBnB seemed vague – and somewhat remote. While the town of Pinhão sits proudly on the banks of the river, the hills rise steeply behind it and the GPS told us to climb those hills. We eventually found our apartments and were impressed: the building had a stunning view across the river, the rooms were large and there was a pool. We were here for two days and settled in immediately.
View of the front of our apartment
View from our apartment
It was late by the time we had settled in and we decided to drive down the hill and visit one of the few restaurants that would still be open. Our host recommended LBV 79 and we went directly there and barely got a table. Our food was hot and tasty, but not spectacular. We were happy to return to our apartment and relax in the twilight.