When we woke up there was some disappointing cloud over the hills in the distance but I was much happier when I was able to confirm that these were away to the north and today we were planning to drive south into neighbouring Portugal.
Breakfast was an unusual affair and certainly not up to the same standard as the previous night’s meal and consisted only of a unnecessarily large lump of cake that was dry and claggy and almost indegistible but the Spanish guests weren’t complaining and we forced a bit down to be polite. The tea on the other hand was surprisingly good and we discovered later that, unusually for Europe, people from Northern Spain and from Portugal are rather partial to a good cup of tea. Indeed the Potuguese claim to have introduced it to England through the marriage of Catherine of Braganza to King Charles II.
We left the hotel and because it was about a hundred kilometres to the border we took the direct route south down the E1 motorway, the Autopista del Atlantico. I usually try to steer clear of the motorways because of the tolls and although this was costing a couple of euros at worryingly regular intervals it was a good decision because it was a nice easy road to drive without a great deal of traffic, probably because everyone else was doing what I usually do and avoiding the tolls and using the congested coast road instead. And it was an attractive route as well that took us through green pine forests and spectacular rural scenery with occasional glimpses of the azure blue sea.
The coast of this green corner of the Iberian Peninsula is known as the “Costa do Marisco” which translates as the seafood coast and the ninety-thousand fishermen from the Galician coastal ports provide all of Spain with fifty per cent of its fish and that is quite a lot because, after the Portuguese, the Spanish eat more fish per head than anyone else in Europe.
The motorway took us first past Pontevedra which we were seeing now for the second time, this time in a better mood, and then over a suspension bridge and the city of Vigo, which is the largest fishing port in Spain and finally to Tui, the last city in Galicia, before crossing the River Minho into Portugal. We had our passports but they weren’t required and we drove effortlessly into another European country, left the motorway and drove down the south bank of the river and on towards the coast. After the motorway the quality of the road surface deteriorated on the coast road but it was enjoyable motoring and there weren’t too many cars about.
After a short while we came to Caminha, which is an ancient fortress town overlooking the river Minho and is rich in historical and architectural importance. It didn’t look too promising down on the river but a short walk to the centre revealed a most appealing town with manorial houses and medieval defensive walls, a Gothic church, and a very attractive main square with cafés and a 15th century clock tower, which was sadly covered in tarpaulin while they carried out repairs.
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 all of the houses had metal balconies that reminded me of pictures of Latin South America and Cuba.
Portugal is one of the poorest countries in Europe, and behind the tiled walls we could see that the houses were made of tin, but it is the seventh safest country in the world and the fourth biggest consumer of wine, after France, Italy and Germany, and so we choose a table at a café to help them maintain this statistic.
The place had an easy ambiance and a lazy appeal that made us reluctant to leave but there were other places to see so we returned to the car and moved on. But not very far because just a few kilometres away at the fishing village of Vila Praia de Ancora we stopped again and scrambled over the rocks and down to the Atlantic Ocean, which smelt fresh and clean and the waves rolled in and crashed over the defensive line of rocks and threw salty spray up into the air.
There were deep rock pools alive with creatures that reminded me of family holidays in Cornwall and seagulls flew overhead and kept scanning the shoreline in search of lunch. In the centre of the village the fish market was just closing up for the day and the seagulls were gathering and looking for scraps so I had to drive carefully to avoid a collision with an excitable bird because I am certain that Hertz would have charged me for that.
Next stop was the busy town of Viana do Castelo, which is spread along the north bank of the Lima estuary and is famous for its handicrafts and colourful regional costumes. I carefully parked the car and we walked through the fishermen’s quarter where the restaurants were all serving rustic helpings of fresh fish to the men who had recently come in from the sea. In the main square were the churches and the convents and the town hall and down a side street we selected a little restaurant and ate more fish at a pavement table and watched the people of the town going about their business.
It was early afternoon and really quite hot and the town had a soporific feel that made me think of my favourite Al Stewart song ‘Year of the Cat’:
‘She comes out of the sun in a silk dress running like a watercolour in the rain, don’t bother asking for explanation she’ll just tell you she came from the Year of the Cat… By the blue tiled walls near the market stalls there’s a hidden door she leads you to, these days she says I feel my life is like a river running through, the Year of the Cat’
And then we moved on again, in land this time towards the ancient town of Ponte de Lima with a bridge that crosses the River Lima into the town that has twenty-four arches, four of which on the south bank are the original Roman construction. Ponte de Lima, reputed to be Portugal’s oldest town and we strolled slowly through a tranquil assemblage of solid granite houses, some aristocratically ornate, lining streets that wind down to the stupendous Roman bridge.
It was really hot now and we walked across the bridge and watched some men optimistically trying to catch the huge carp that we could see clearly swimming in the water below and teasing the men on the bridge above.
They were big fish and had been around a long time so I don’t think they were going to get caught this afternoon. Before we left we had a drink at a shabby roadside bar under the welcome shade of strategically placed umbrellas and then we left and returned to the motorway for the drive back to Spain.