The flight to Portugal left in the early evening that arrived at Porto airport just before nine o’clock and by the time we had collected the hire car from an office just a short distance from the airport and driven the twenty kilometres to the hotel Santana at Vila do Conde it was just after ten so we had to be quick to get to the restaurant before it closed. We had an excellent, reasonably priced meal and then because everyone was tired went straight to bed ready for an early start in the morning.
The weather had been changeable over the last few days and when we woke on Friday morning it was a bit dreary with low cloud over the River Ave outside our bedroom windows and it was difficult to predict just what sort of day it would turn out to be. We had planned to do beaches today but the weather looked unsettled so over an excellent buffet breakfast we decided instead to go to the city of Porto. The sensible way to go to Porto was by using the convenient city Metro that had a stop nearby but Kim persuaded us instead to drive most of the way with a plan to park the car at a station close to the city to get the Metro for the final few stops. I didn’t agree with this and as the driver could easily have overruled this decision but I went along with it all the same.
So we set off and drove for twenty kilometres to the city suburb of Matosinhos and everything went well and we effortlessly found our way to the edge of the city until at a roundabout, Kim, who had previously been paying no attention whatsoever to the road signs, in an extreme outburst of feminine interference, suddenly declared (with confidence) that she knew the way and foolishly I followed her wild directions and predictably we were lost! I don’t know why I did that because unless she had had an overnight navigational brain implant that I didn’t know about there was absolutely no way that she could have known where we were going and so we ended up driving around in circles until we came back to the same roundabout and this time I took my preferred option, which turned out to be the correct one after all.
I didn’t care for Matosinhos that much, it was the busy commercial port end of the city and there was a lot of traffic and with no sign of anywhere to conveniently park the car I made a unilateral decision to abandon the Porto idea and drive instead to the Douro valley which was already on the agenda anyway for one of our days in Portugal. Without plans we were unsure of the direction however and spent some time on the Porto motorway network until we found our way back to the airport and discovered the signs for our first intended destination of Amarante.
It took us about forty-five minutes to drive to the interesting little town which is famous for being the birthplace of an unnatural amount of artists, painters and writers, a sixteenth century convent and an attractive eighteenth century bridge across the river Tâmega. It was here on the 18th April 1809 during the Peninsula War that a small band of Portuguese soldiers held the bridge against the might of the invading French army for an incredible fourteen days. Needless to say the French troops weren’t too pleased and afterwards took their revenge on the local inhabitants and set the buildings on fire before moving on towards Porto.
After parking the car we walked through unremarkable streets until reaching the river and in an adjacent square declared it time for the first refreshment of the day. There was still no sign of the sun but even under white overcast sky it was still warm enough to sit outside and we ordered beer and sampled the local speciality of “papos de anjo” (angel chests) which is a traditional sweet egg pastry made from whipped egg yolk that is baked and then boiled in sugar syrup. They were ok but we didn’t call for seconds! If you want the recipe go to http://www.maria-brazil.org/papos_de_anjo.htm
Amarante is an interesting little town and the annual festivities, which take place in early June, are known as the Festas de São Gonçalo, and perhaps because of the romantic-sounding name (Amar is the Portuguese verb to love), one of the traditions of this local celebration is to give a phallus-shaped cake to the one you desire. Luckily this was May so there was no embarrassing exchange of inappropriately shaped gifts this morning!
Later we walked around the pretty town and its seventeenth century mansions, with colourful balconies of painted wood brightly decorating the narrow streets, its restaurants with elegant terraces overlooking the river and the beautiful bridge of São Gonçalo, which leads directly to the great monastery that bears the name of the same saint. Away from the main street we walked through twisting back alleys with cobbled streets, past washing lines full of clothes outside tiny houses with only the most basic facilities and in need of urgent repair and attention.
Leaving Amarante we crossed the river as we drove south towards the Douro and immediately began to climb up the side of the Serra Do Marāo, the mountain that overlooks the town. This took me by surprise as I had not anticipated this, I don’t know why but I had expected the Douro to be in a wide river valley and this was not the case at all and we quickly climbed to over a thousand metres up a winding potholed road with never ending twists and turns through woodland and forests and golden yellow hillsides of flowering broom. When we reached the top the road then began a descent down the other side towards the town of Mesāo Frio where we stopped again and walked around the little streets that were deserted for the siesta and then continued on our journey towards the next town of Peso Da Regua.