Never make assumptions. Very important! Don’t guestimate that you can drive 200km’s in 2 hours as you can on the streamline highways of Canada. In Northern Portugal a drive of 200km’s can take 6 hours. Just trust me on that one. Never assume that your map and/or your GPS knows what the hell she’s talking about. Never assume you can just get a room when you arrive either. While driving the relatively short distance (so we thought) from Salamanca Spain, who’s conjoined cathedrals both old (12th Century) and new (16th) are extraordinary and worth a few hours of your time, to the eastern trickle of the Duoro River Valley in Northern Portugal we learned some very valuable lessons.
1) you won’t be there for lunch.
2) lunch in Portugal is from12 – 2, not like in Spain where is it more like 2 – 4. However, after each, or both, you will have a hard time finding food anywhere until at least 7pm (or 9 in Spain).
3) when you do get there in time for lunch, you will be served squid or some other kind of fish no matter what you think you may have ordered.
4) there WILL be potatoes.
5) sometimes you must stop for sheep in the road and shepherds with rustic walking sticks…and cell phones.
6) a distance of 50km (as the crow flies) can be as much as 100 actual km’s driving.
7) the snobby british GPS lady telling you where to drive is full of shit.
8) the GPS map of the Duoro Valley resembles a tangled plate of spaghetti or a toddler’s scribbles on the wall.
9) it may be helpful to utilize a map that is more current than 1995.
10) try not to show up in wine country during wine festival with no hotel booked or you will end up driving dark winding roads begging and praying for a bed.
11) something that looks only wide enough for a wheelbarrow can be an actual road.
12) busses will drive down these narrow, curvy, death defying roads at full speed and they won’t care if you are heading straight for them.
13) Portuguese people are friendly, soft spoken, kind and funny. The train conductor cackles, the cook giggles into her sleeve and the waiter belly laughs from his toes to his eyebrows when he sees my cheat sheet of key worlds written on my hand. Obrigado!
We thought it would be a quick morning drive. We were mistaken. The country was beautiful and we know that because we saw a lot of it from every angle. We weren’t exactly lost, we were in an area called ‘the unmapped zone’ on our new/old car GPS and the map we had been generously given didn’t have the new highways on it as it was almost 20 years old. The roadsigns weren’t much help either as they indicated towns so small they weren’t on our parchment map either. So we drove. On and on and one until we reached the border of Spain and Portugal and the holy grail for the day, the Duoro. It was spectacular! High cliff banks plunging to the evergreen waters below. Ooooh Ahhhhhh, this was worth it! Then the road pealed away from the river and spit us back out into dry semi arid farm country for another 4 hours of scrub trees, rock retaining walls, futuristic wind farms and sheep. The spooky thing was we didn’t see any other cars travelling either. For hours. We suspected there had been a nuclear winter and nobody bothered to tell us about it. Then we realized it was Saturday and everyone was likely tucked in doors with family or enjoying a siesta.
We were hungry and the sun was dripping lower toward the mountainous horizon. Classic tale of poor planning and optimism. Finally we arrived in a small town and spotted the Tourism Office. Naturally, as it was the wine festival and the weekend, it was closed. A kind woman on the side of the small street sensed our confusion and generously called her friend who had a what was described in sign language as a very pretty Guest House. It was full. Thanks anyway. We spotted a hotel, hooray! At this point I was willing to throw the budget out the window and take any room available. As I entered the lobby the woman behind the desk looked at my cautiously. I tried to ask for a room. She patted my hand and (I think) told me I was crazy. “Hotel full”. “Whole town full”. “Try next town, bigger”. Off we go for another 30km’s which equates to about an hour in these parts. As darkness fell we descended into a lush, quaint town on the banks of the gorgeous Duoro called Pinhãu. Optimism sparked in my heart. Turns out it was the first day of the annual harvest festival and every room in town was taken. There was no room in the Inn (bonus points if the lapsed Catholic in you gets that one). Another generous man in the town’s swanky hotel apologized as they were hosting a wedding and bursting at the seems. He called the other 5 hotels in town (one he pinched his nose and called anyway… ‘not nice’). All full. He called the next town…Pesa da Regua and booked us a room in a big chain hotel for twice our nightly budget. Desperation + hunger = exasperation…We’ll take it!!
I’m now questioning our casual attitude of “we’ll just find a place when we get there”. In the internet era, everything seems to be booked in advance. Exhausted we bucked up and collapsed into the hard, disinfectant aroma of a place we swore we would never stay. No charm, no view, no local flair or quirky furniture. Bleck.
The next morning I searched all my ‘go to’ spots for a place to stay. booking.com, AirBnB and even some UK sites for ex-pats flogging the condos they bought when they were drunk. No luck. Then I saw it, at the bottom of a winding road a 7 room guesthouse known in Portugal as a “Quinta” or estate farm. These places are called “Turismo Agricole” or a working farm that hosts people as a way to supplement the grape income. Some of them are just amazing. Quinta de Ermida was so small it wasn’t on our map (what else is new). With fresh eyes and a new perspective we set out to find this place using intuition, fairy dust and GPS coordintes. We found it!! The house was operated by a brother and sister team who’s father had owned the property before them. Perched on the bank of the river it was Shangri-la for us. Charming, rustic with bustling dog population for Lyla to dote on. We checked in for 2 nights and ended up staying 3 because Antonio and his staff were so sweet. If it hadn’t been raining every day we would have stayed longer and enjoyed the pool.
The Duoro Valley itself is a marvel. A feat of both natural beauty and engineering. The terrain is so severe that the grapes are planted in skinny rows along daring terraces that are barely wide enough for a tractor. They are perched on hand built rock retaining walls that have stood that way for centuries. This could be why the vines are still harvested tenderly by hand. Tradition plays a big roll but so does geography. Apparently grapes like to be stressed. This makes them sweeter. Technically speaking there is no watering allowed in the valley so the grapes can have roots as long at 6 meters deep. If the grapes are as stressed as I was in the passenger street they should be sweet as candy. We were invited to ‘clip grapes’ by our proprietor Antonio which was a very exciting prospect but because of the rain it was impossible while we were there. When I asked him if the rain was a problem for him he said with a big pouty lower lip “big problem, 2014 not a vintage” followed by what I’m sure were Portuguese swear words. Being declared a ‘vintage’ year is a major feather in the cap for any farm or winemaker. Basically, this year sucked for all of the valley. Good thing they have a lot of amazing table wines, port and vino verde stored away in the cellar with which to drown their sorrows.
From Ermida we explored the surrounding area including stomping grapes at another Quinta called Pecheca where they still use the traditional methods of crushing the grapes by hand…or by foot in this case. Women are paid about $30 a day to gently massage the tasty juice from the skins for six to eight hours. We enjoyed some wonderful dinners ‘a la casa’ and did a day trip on the train to Porto, Portugal’s second largest city. Either a 90 minute train ride or 2.5 hour drive, take your pick. Over the last few years, Porto has been a growing tourist destination, mainly because Ryanair now provides cheap flights. Porto won the European Best Destination 2012 and 2014 awards but from our view it is (sadly) more dilapidated than we expected. There is ancient charm and then there is urban decay. Gorgeous well kept or renovated buildings are often attached to crumbling ruins that just look sad. Still, we enjoyed a delicious omelette lunch with (naturally) some vino tint to wash it down.
Then had a wonderful afternoon exploring the town, tasting a few different Ports at the famous Port houses of Cockburns and Burmeister. For centuries these wines have been transported down the Duoro in sailboats and barrels. We learned about history and port making traditions along the colourful Ribiera district before heading back on the train. Thank goodness Lyla noticed we skipped a few stops and were actually home or we would have been in the dark in the wrong town…again. To get to our Quinta we had to cross the train trestle bridge in the dark and sneak through the back gate to the house. The perfect way to end a few days that have been challenging but interesting and fun.
I assumed Portugal would be cheap, easy travelling, that we would find a great place to stay and that Porto would be so endearing we would want to spend a week there doing day trips. Wrong, wrong, wrong and wrong. Those were assumptions and they were totally my fault. I’m learning to ask a LOT more questions and do more research before jumping in and committing. Because you know what happens when you assume.
Love from Portugal,
xo ~ t