The frontier town of Tui, our last stop in Spain before crossing over the border into Portugal, was anything but twee. The old town, topped by the cathedral and standing above the river Minho has a dilapidated but up and coming kind of air about it.
It’s all a layered mish mash of granite alleyways, compact housing (some derelict and some restored), stone walls, steps and glimpsed views of the river below.
On the hillside opposite Tui, on the Portuguese side of the river, Valenςa do Minho is reached via the handsome iron bridge designed by Gustave Eiffel. He of Paris fame.
Hot tip – don’t go across the bridge in your van. It didn’t look wide enough for a car and van to pass and it is really busy with cars presumably trotting across the border into Spain – land of the twenty cents a litre cheaper fuel. Portuguese cars were queuing up to get into the Repsol garage in Tui. Eiffel had thought of us pedestrians though and conveniently provided a footpath on either side of the bridge.
Safely nestled snugly within its fortress Valenςa is just lovely. Touristy but lovely. If you want some new tea towels, towels or bed linen then this is the place to come. It’s one of those places where seemingly every shop sells the same stuff. But tourist shops aside the all but intact seventeenth century double ramparts and the beautifully restored buildings within the medieval town are undeniably worth some of your time.
Heading south from Valenςa towards Ponte de Lima it felt like a weight had been lifted. The endless urban sprawl of the previous few days in Spain were a distant memory as we wound up and down through farmland and terraced vineyards in all their autumnal coloured glory. We arrived in Ponte de Lima to find the car park along the river was flooded after all the recent rain but we managed to bag a space on the pavement in front of the cafes just as a car was leaving. We found a better place to park for the night after a quick recce of the town so went back to move the van. Only the policía had shown up by then. Oh poo. Several car drivers and one Portuguese motorhomer were clutching tickets in their sticky mitts trying to state their case but plod was having none of it. They hadn’t quite got to our van so we got in hoping for a quick getaway but a uniform appeared at the window before we could make our escape. Now, not being able to speak the lingo of the country you are in does sometimes have its advantages and it turned out that this time was one of them. After Tim apologised in English and waved his hands about a bit the policeman just let out a big sigh and gave us a dismissive wave to say ‘oh just get out of my sight’. Tim gave him a thumbs up, a big smile and we drove off without a fine. Excellent.
We stayed a couple of nights in Ponte de Lima as it’s a pretty little town with lots of tiny bars where the beers were €1 each and we managed to pick up some superfast free wifi and, as it rained for most of the time we were there, we had the internet to occupy us. We’d parked up at the large carpark at the edge of the town next to some sort of exhibition centre and all was well. We were amongst a few other vans and the police did a drive past every once in a while so obviously weren’t bothered about us parking there. Saturday night passed without incident. Sunday night we were rudely awakened at midnight by a gathering of youths in several cars right behind the van. Sunday night is obviously a day off for the police which means its race night in Ponte de Lima for any young person with a car and a tank of fuel. We didn’t feel threatened by them as they really weren’t interested in us but I guess they gathered where we were because we were under one of the few street lamps in the car park. We always feel a bit twitchy whenever anyone gets gung ho showing off their driving skills in car parks though as you never know when they may lose control and plough into something. Like us. Fortunately on this occasion their own cars were parked in between the speeding cars and us so if they were going to hit anything it would be their own cars first. Thankfully after an hour or so they left us in peace.
I noticed in the morning that the van next to us had a bright lime green dog bowl outside their van. I thought ‘I bet they don’t have a dog’. I don’t think it would have been much of a deterrent for any would be thieves. The bowl gave it away really as it looked brand new and had fresh clean water in it. Our dog’s water bowl only ever stayed clean for a millisecond before one or other of them had slurped from it and dunked a mucky beard in it and then slopped most of the water all over the floor leaving bits of mud or gunk floating in the water left behind in the bowl. Anyway, I couldn’t imagine any self respecting rabid guard dog drinking out of a lime green plastic bowl.
Monday dawned with wall to wall sunshine and by ten o’clock it was wall to wall cars in the car park. The huge fortnightly market including livestock and birds was in full swing.
After a quick stroll around we escaped to the hills of the Parque Nacional da Peneda-Gerês, Portugal’s only National Park, to make the most of the change in the weather with a bit of walking. In the first year of our trip my favourite country visited was Portugal. Then it changed to Slovenia in the second year. Then this year after visiting Scotland it was a joint tie between Slovenia and the Highlands of Scotland. After a few days of walking in the National Park around the little granite village of Soajo my favourite country is now back to Portugal. How fickle am I?
Tourism has only really lightly touched this area as the village caters mostly for locals with a couple of cafes, two hardware shops, a bakery and two mini markets. Some of the housing has been restored for holiday accommodation and there is a little tourist information office in the centre of the village but it doesn’t feel too much like a holiday destination. Not at this time of year at least.
Shepherds still walk some of their cattle up through the town in the morning to their pastures returning again in the early evening. Flat capped elderly men mingle in the village square and inside the cafes chewing the fat. Black clad widows tend to washing or sit outside their front doors enjoying the warmth of the sun.
We enjoyed three days here at the excellent aire on the edge of the village with a view of the twenty or so espigueiros (grain houses) on the rocks overlooking the valley beyond.
We frequented the cafe owned by Manuel who was born in the village but left at the age of fourteen to live in New York and work as a truck driver for forty years before returning to the village ten years ago. He was a very modest chap shifting from foot to foot whilst telling us, in perfect English, a bit about his life and life in the village. Or I should say poifect English as he had a New York/New Jersey twang. Think Marlon Brando in The Godfather!
We said a cheery Bomdia to anyone we met on our walks and one couple out tending their vines chatted to us in French telling us they had both been born in the village but had lived in Versailles just outside Paris for thirty two years and had returned to the village to retire. I would have never expected I would be practising my French in a tiny Portuguese village.
It was hard to tear ourselves away from the area and in a way I wished we’d stayed longer but the need to press on south was strong as we only have a couple of weeks before we need to be in the Algarve for our next Helpx.
So onwards it was then to Portugal’s second city, Porto. We stayed at the cheap as chips Campismo de Salgueiros campsite on the coast five miles or so south of Porto. It’s a tad scruffy and has dated facilities but the welcome was warm, the showers were hot and it was just a mere three minute walk to the beach. €7.10 a night with EHU, €4.75 without. What’s not to like?
It was actually a great place to be and we could have spent a week there had we had more time as after you’ve done Porto there are plenty of cafes to frequent and beach walks to be had. A bus would have taken us into Porto but as it was a lovely day we decided to walk in and get the bus back. From the campsite it was about a two hour gentle stroll (the route doubles up as a cycleway too) along the seafront and along the banks of the river Douro into Porto and was an excellent way to arrive as it brings you in on the southern side of the river with splendid views across the water to the UNESCO Ribeira neighbourhood.
We couldn’t have had a better day weatherwise and I think we saw it at its best. I can’t say we did anything cultural (not unusual for us) as all we did really was poke about and mooch around in all the nooks and crannies that make these sorts of places fascinating to explore.
We loved it and would definitely recommend it as a weekend city break. You can take in a cruise on a barcos rabelos, one of the traditional boats used to take wine down the river from the Douro port estates or join a tour of one of the many port wine lodges or just drink it all in from one of the many pavement cafes lining the waterfront.
If we hadn’t walked into Porto we wouldn’t have discovered Afurada, a compact area of colourful fishermen’s houses about four or five streets deep behind the small marina on the south side of the Douro which wasn’t mentioned in our guide book.
We knew it was going to be something special when we saw the clothes drying area next to the river and the community washing tanks nearby.
When we passed on the Saturday there was just one lady with a face mask on presumably cleaning the tanks with bleach but on the Sunday it was a hive of activity with washing being scrubbed, slapped and soaked in the tanks. It’s amazing that this tradition still lives on.
As the campsite didn’t have a washing machine we’d carried our washing the half hour walk to the nearest laundrette that morning and we’d been feeling mightily pleased with ourselves at getting three weeks worth of washing done whilst troughing pizza slices and pastel de nata’s from the Lidl next door. That was our work for the day done!
Anyway, the Afurada was a joy to saunter around.
We’d arrived after the lunchtime rush but it was still pretty lively with the charcoal barbecues in front of the restaurants still in full flow so we stopped for some lunch.
I don’t really do fish but I had the sardines cooked on the grill. I’d like to say I thoroughly enjoyed them but I’d really rather have had grilled courgettes! Still it gave me my weekly dose of omega 3.
So, another week has gone by and we’re heading further south now to Coimbra.