“If you are reading this in another country and are not familiar with the marine delicacy (the whelk), you may get the same experience (from eating it) by finding an old golf ball, removing the cover and eating what remains. The only difference is that the golf ball has a little more flavour” Bill Bryson – ‘Icons of England’
As we descended towards the Douro there was a change in the landscape as we entered the vine growing terraces of the grapes that produce the famous port wine.
At eight hundred and ninety seven kilometres the Douro is the eighth longest river in Western Europe (the eighteenth in all of Europe) and flows first through Spain and then Portugal and meets the Atlantic Ocean at Porto. This part of the Douro Valley, and for about one hundred kilometres towards Spain, has a microclimate allowing for cultivation of olives, almonds, and especially the grapes and the hillsides are scattered with picturesque quintas or farms clinging on to almost every improbable vertical slope dropping down to the river where tourist boats were making the daily return trip to Porto.
Now it is cruise boats that use the river but traditionally, the wine was taken down river in flat-bottom boats called rabelos to be stored in barrels in cellars in Vila Nova de Gaia. In the 1950s and 1960s, dams were built along the river to regulate the current and to produce hydro-electricity which put a stop to this and now Port wine is transported in tanker trucks, which is less romantic but a lot more efficient, less dangerous and cost effective.
We arrived in Peso Da Regua and parked the car and walked into the town which had interesting shops and houses with colourful tiled walls in bright blues, greens and yellows. There were some 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 explore.
Portugal is one of the poorest countries in Europe, and behind the tiled walls we could see that the houses were made of corrugated 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.
It was almost mid afternoon and we needed something to eat so we set about looking for a café or a bar but something suitable was difficult to find and so with options running out we choose a simple place on the road next to the river and made selections from a restricted but satisfyingly cheap menu.
Micky selected the local sausage, I choose hake and the girls went for what they thought was the safe option of a fish salad, but if they were expecting John West tuna they were in for a nasty shock because when it arrived it was a plate of black eyed beans and chopped egg and a couple of grilled fish complete with heads and tails arranged on top.
Portugal is a seafaring nation with a huge fishing industry and this is reflected in the amount of seafood eaten. The country has Europe’s highest fish consumption per capita and is among the top four in the world. Fish is served grilled, boiled, fried or deep-fried, stewed or roasted.
Cod is the type of fish most consumed in Portugal and it is said that there are more than three hundred and sixty-five ways to cook it, one for every day of the year. In recognition of this Portugal has been granted an ‘Exclusive Economic Zone’, which is a sea zone in the Atlantic Ocean over which the Portuguese have special rights in respect of exploration and use of marine resources. For the record it is the third largest Exclusive Economic Zone of the European Union, after France and the United Kingdom and the eleventh largest in the world.
Kim will eat mostly anything and Christine reluctantly finished hers but I would not describe Sue as a seafood enthusiast at the best of times and she really prefers her fish either in breadcrumbs or batter. I wouldn’t say that she is a fussy eater but when it comes to fish she doesn’t really care for things that slither, float, or crawl about the seabed so she pushed this ugly critter around the plate a couple of times and then tried to cover it up with her knife and fork in a way that we used to try and hide uneaten food as children. It didn’t work then and it didn’t work now and this gastro incident was a serious setback in Sue’s journey towards more adventurous dining.
I wish I could show a picture of the meal but I was laughing so much I forgot to get the camera out!
We left Peso Da Regua for the return journey to Porto and I saw a sign that said ninety-five kilometres and I calculated that this would take about an hour and a half. Unfortunately this was a sign for the direct route back using the motorway and I choose mistakenly to take the N222 which turned out to be a minor road that followed the river valley through a succession of gorges and detours that added a further fifty kilometres to the journey. And it was hard work as well as the road clung to the side of the vertical mountain side and twisted and turned in every direction, around every corner there was danger and oncoming traffic and from the back of the car the girls kept up a chorus of complaints as they were thrown from side to side as we went up and down and up and down all the way along.
All along the route there were cherry trees loaded with ripe fruit and every few hundred metres or so there were local people selling them from makeshift stalls at the side of the road. Mostly old folk it has to be said who had probably been sent there at first light and told not to go back home until everything was sold.
The journey took an absolute age but at least the scenery was stunning through verdant vineyards and strikingly steep river valleys as we followed the river almost to Porto before thankfully leaving the minor road to join the motorway network that took us back to Vila Do Conde and the Hotel Santana.
It had been an excellent day out and we were glad to be back, especially Sue who had to visit the bathroom to bring back what little bit of fish she had eaten at lunchtime and which had been shaken about inside her on the drive back.
There was no chance of gastro adventure tonight so Sue and Christine stuck to tomato soup and definitely were not tempted by the starter of tripe. Tripe it turns out is a local speciality and locals are sometimes known as Tripeiros, or “tripe eaters” and I tried a little bit but I thought it tasted quite offal so I was inclined to agree with the girls that this wouldn’t be something that we would be ordering again.