Braga & Porto, Portugal
After another fairly successful driving lesson where I only stalled once (embarrassingly in front of border patrol officers) we entered hilly Portugal. This is where Danny took over the driving. We never expected to see so many hills given how close Portugal is to the coast. The steep inclines combined with numerous twists and turns meant our travel time was a long one. At least the scenery was worth looking at.
On our way to our first town, Braga, we stopped briefly at Guimarães and took a walk around yet another old town (I don't think there are any modern towns in Europe). We walked up a hill to the Archbishop's palace and the castle, both of which shut 10 minutes before we arrived (even the one hour time difference from Spain didn't help us). That was the end of our adventures in Guimarães.
Then it was on to Braga, through heavy traffic. This time we didn't mess around with TomTom or downloaded maps; instead we stopped to ask a local where the campsite was. He gave us great directions, however the campsite was closed. At this point we were desperate for a shower, not having had one since Madrid. Without much of a choice, I ended up taking part in another freezing cold hair washing episode in the sink. At least we can still have decent meals when camping on the street: Danny-made risotto paired with Bordeaux wine. I never knew how good it would be to travel with my own private chef.
We found a quiet place to stay the night, or so we thought. At about 10:30 p.m. the horns started. Danny guessed that a soccer game must have just finished, because every single resident in Braga decided to get on their car horn for no other apparent reason. It didn't stop for two hours. To add to the misery, in the middle of the night a book suddenly fell off the shelf above me and hit me on the head. The bolt of adrenaline it sent through me kept me awake for the rest of the night.
Braga claims to have the oldest church in Portugal (I have no idea how old it is though). It was a little creepy, with dark, evil-looking sculpted heads protruding from the walls and ceiling. Overall it wasn't bad as far as churches go.
After not finding much else to capture our attention in Braga we headed back to the van to get going to our next destination. Apparently the van had other ideas - it wouldn't start. You know that sinking feeling when you hear the "click" of an engine rather than the roar? We had that. We had no idea why we would have a flat battery – nothing had been left on and we were connected to a second battery to run our interior lights. We even tried to swap our car battery and second battery but this didn't make a bit of difference.
There happened to be a car repair shop nearby, and after chatting to one of the mechanics he agreed to check out the van at 2 p.m. (it was now 11 a.m.). Rather than sitting around and waiting we bought some jumper cables, stood by the car and tried to flag down anyone who was in a bigger car than us. Obviously, that was not so easy. Someone did eventually stop for us and we connected our engines but nothing happened. Now we were wondering if it was a flat battery or if there was something else wrong with the car. We had no choice but to wait for the mechanic.
As promised the mechanic arrived at 2 p.m. with a massive battery and jump started the van easily. He tested the battery with his battery gauge and said it was fine. He even turned it off and on again, no problems. Huge relief. Plus we only had to pay him €10 to come out, which was loads better than €100+ for a new battery, or worse. Now that we had overcome our obstacle it was time to hit the road again.
We drove up a hill just outside of Braga, where there was a stairway leading up to a church. Apparently it is often climbed by pilgrims on their knees. There was no way I was climbing 500 steps on my knees, so I took the easy option and walked up while Danny drove the van to the top to meet me (we didn't want to turn off the car in case it wouldn't start again). On the way up I passed little chapels and fountains, plus I was rewarded with wonderful views over Braga. The church at the top was way smaller than expected but it was set in beautiful gardens.
After my stair-climbing workout we drove to Porto, the home of port and therefore a major drawcard for Danny. Danny was getting sick of winding roads going up and down mountains, so he elected to take the tollway, our first toll so far on our trip. It was a smooth, quick and definitely worth the €5 we paid (even though that €5 could have bought us a bottle of wine).
We found a caravan park in Porto without too much hassle (which these days means driving around for half an hour trying to follow directions we found on a map located at a bus stop). It was the cheapest caravan park we had stayed in yet and, as an added bonus, right near the beach. We could even see the ocean from the park. It was a lovely, sunny day, so we walked along the beach for a while and watched the sun go down.
The caravan park had a mini supermarket which mostly sold alcohol. Danny bought a bottle of white Portuguese wine, which came in a one litre bottle (or 100 cL as they say over here). It turned out that their "white wine" was slightly fizzy, like an almost-flat champagne. It wasn't the best wine we had tasted.
We tried to watch a movie on the laptop but the screen kept cutting out on us. It appeared as though the melting fiasco may have created more damage than I thought.
Blue skies, cool breeze, temperatures that don't give you hypothermia: spring is finally here. 19°C = perfect. We even left our winter coats in the van.
We caught the bus from the caravan park into Porto and headed up to a market, which mainly sold fruit, veggies and flowers. It wasn't inspiring enough to stay for long. Next we walked along a rail bridge, which had the popular Porto views seen in all advertising material for the town. It also showed just how hilly Porto is. You would have to be fit if you lived here. I then released Danny to discover the world of Port on his own.
I walked around Porto aimlessly, seeing the major sights and walking along the riverfront (where a locals were lying around trying to get a tan. It wasn't that warm). Up close, Porto was not the prettiest of towns. It's old, but not the nice kind of old. From far away it looked amazing. No wonder that picture from the rail bridge is so popular.
As I was still sick I spent most of the afternoon sitting in a park that overlooked the city, reading in the sun and eating ice cream (to help my sore throat, of course). After several hours I finally met up with Danny, who was slightly intoxicated from all the port he had sampled and slightly broke from all the port he had bought. While we were walking down to the waterfront for dinner, we stumbled upon another bar which had 100 different types of port for tasting. Needless to say, he stopped here too.
We eventually reached the riverfront, where we grabbed a pre-dinner drink (because Danny needed more alcohol). My sangria was great; Danny's gooseberry beer was not. We moved along to another restaurant for dinner, which was clearly a tourist trap. In Portugal there is a tradition of bringing out a range of appetisers that you don't ask for and you pay for only what you eat. You don't have to eat any but sometimes they don't tell you that they are not free. Luckily this waiter did tell us, because this was not a custom we were used to. We held back from the offerings and ordered off the menu instead, where the price was clearly stated.
Danny selected a local specialty, the Francesinha. I wouldn't recommend it if you have high cholesterol or heart problems. It's a gigantic sandwich filled with ham, sausage and steak, the whole thing is covered in melted cheese and it sits in a bowl filled with a tomato and beer sauce. And comes with a serve of fries. Danny enjoyed it but I don't think he would go for it again anytime soon. I went safe and ordered a steak, however when the plate came out I couldn't actually see the steak. It was covered with chips, salad, cheese, ham, egg and a load of rice. I didn't understand the rice.
I think Danny mentioned 10 or 20 times how much he loves Porto.
The next day we caught a train along the Duoro Rail Trail, which loosely follows the Duoro river through the countryside of Portugal. The main town, Regua, was two hours away. For the first hour the scenery was fairly boring, but then the train found the river and the port-growing region and it was beautiful from then on. The near-perfect reflections of the countryside in the clear, still water was mesmerising. The only factor ruining the trip was the screaming kid for almost the entire two hours. Seriously, how could he keep it up for two hours? At Regua most of the passengers jumped off, including the kid, but we opted stayed on until the end (Pocinho), another one and a quarter hours away. Much to our annoyance, another screaming kid boarded the train for this leg of the journey.
We thought Pocinho would be a semi-big town, where we could wander around, find some lunch, maybe sit by the river for a while. We couldn't have been more wrong. There are only two shops in Pocinho (both cafes), and neither were near the water. We decided just to pick up a snack then jump back on the train to Regua, which seemed like a much bigger town and far more touristy. On the train I fell asleep, waking up an hour later to find that we hadn't even left Pocinho yet. I asked the driver what time the train would leave and he replied that it would be about another hour (despite the timetable stating that one should have departed an hour ago). We returned to the cafe to see if they could do a baguette or something for us for lunch – they couldn't. So it was back to the train to sit around again, knowing that now we wouldn't have time to visit Regua.
Once we at last started moving, instead of screaming kids it was a drunk Portuguese man, grasping a five litre bottle of wine and singing at the top of his lungs. The carriages were all open, so we couldn't escape him or the noise. Plus he was encouraged by a few people in the surrounding seats, so he didn't stop for the next two and a half hours. Even my iPod turned up full volume couldn't drown him out. I was so tired and sick that I was about ready to strangle him. When he finally stopped (I'm not sure if he got off or passed out), the first screaming kid got back on the train and sat across the aisle from us. Still screaming. There were no spare seats so we couldn't move. We were so glad to finally get off that damn train.
We headed down to the waterfront for dinner again. Our appetisers were cold, samosa-type pastries with a miscellaneous purée inside. When dipped in the classic Portuguese piri-piri sauce, they were delicious. For mains, we ordered pizza. After our success with pizza in Paris, we thought that maybe decent pizza was a Europe-wide phenomenon. Not so at this restaurant. Particularly the bolognese pizza (enough said) with bases as thick as books and not cooked through. It was a struggle to finish them. Fair to say that today wasn't our best day.