Hastings Battleaxe travels in Portugal and Spain

Just back from 12 days in Portugal and Spain. We started in Faro, then spent a few days with my daughter and her family in their village, Sao Marcos da Serra. Then train up to Porto, for a touristy break which included a day-trip up to the Douro River vineyards.  We travelled on up to Santiago de Compostela, to see Philosopher’s son Tom. Spent a day in A Coruna, meaning we had travelled up the Iberian Peninsula from the bottom to the top.  Flew back from Santiago. Phew. Bit tiring but all good.

Very scenic view of the Douro Valley

Spent our first night in the excellent Hotel Faro, right on the waterfront.  I wrote about it, and Faro itself, last time we visited, in February 2022. Here is the link to that post. Battleaxe would still totally recommend that hotel – reasonably priced, well-situated and very well-appointed. Soon discovered the weather was going to be hot – sunny, scorchio, so we had to rush out and buy another couple of warm weather things – as it was, it had limited our packing ferociously – only cabin luggage and stuff we could easily carry.  Battleaxe had invested in some quick-dry pants and teeshirts, and forced Philosopher to do the same, plus we wore light non-iron quick-dry walking trousers. That all worked fine.

Then we caught the local train up to Messines, the nearest town to Sao Marcos. We kept on pronoucing Messines like the WW1 battle and failing to be understood, but in Portugal it is MessiNES. Clara’s husband Steve picked us up and we went to a supermarket. There has been far too much in the more left-wing English media about the plentitude of yummy food in these EU shops, so I won’t go through it again. See also the market in Porto, later. Sigh.

I also wrote about Sao Marcos in the post referred to above. The little family are making excellent progress in cultivating their piece of land – lots of veggies sprouting vigorously, and Steve has created a good irrigation system. Daughter Clara has now got a Portugese-based job, but it still involves working from home – don’t ask me what she does. Something around software development…

Daughter Clara outside their house

GD Eve seems to enjoy her life as she can have much more freedom than before. She takes herself off on long walks. We went on two with her, one of which was a bit knackering – heat that we weren’t used to, up into the hills, and she sets a punishing pace.  Second time was easier, along the river. However, the walks were lovely – the air is so fresh and clean, so many wild flowers, crystal clear water in the streams and rivers. That water will all dry up in the next couple of months, and the green will turn to brown.

One day we came across a shepherd, tending his flock like someone out of the bible. All the sheep had bells on.

Our guide gets well ahead of us…
Slightly dodgy stepping stones
Wild rock roses – they were everywhere

Although Steve is now an accredited Portugese resident and could do what ever job he fancied, he has built up a good base among expats, and does assorted work for them. These are not your stereotypical standard Algarve Brit expats that you see buying apartments on ‘A Place in the Sun’, these are probably wealthier, less conventional  people who buy quite large homes and parcels of land and still only visit a few weeks a year.

We saw one such establishment belonging to some Americans. In addition to the house and land, which was of course miles from anywhere, they had acquired horses, Shetland ponies and a goat (there were two goats but one had drowned in the swimming pool). Although they were paying people to look after the livestock, Battleaxe didn’t feel totally comfortable about the lives lived by those animals – so much time spent on their own. Why get animals if you are not going to be around to care for them? We visited another place where there were dogs… being fed by Clara and Steve… Yes, I know the Portugese themselves are a bit dodgy on animal welfare – there is a dog next door to the family who spends his life on a chain – but still.

We stayed in the same house as before, fortunately warmer this time. Again, a lovely, big place with a large garden area and a pool, but the Scottish owners rarely visit, and they don’t rent it out commercially either.

 

We spent time watching the storks who live on a nearby pole. This time the pair were sitting on eggs – they took turns to stay in the nest, and each time one returned they went through a complex, beak-rattling welcome display.

The family are going to Portugese lessons. It appears to be quite a difficult language – lots of Sssh and shush. Still, if like us you stuck to ‘Bom Dia,’ ‘Ola’ and ‘Obrigado/a’ it was OK!

We took the train up to Porto from the nearest main-line station – Santa Clara Saboia. When Steve dropped us there at 7.45 in the morning it was totally deserted – like out of a movie. But the train, when it arrived (on time of course), was ultra-modern Euro travel… airline-type seats, lots of space, TV screens, posh loos – all at 150km per hour. We went via Lisbon – recognised some bits.

In Porto, I had booked us into the modern Mercure Porto Centro Aliados for a bit of luxury. It was excellent – a good room – better than I had paid for, with a little outside seating area, a big garden plus pool, comfortable bar and eating area, fabulous breakfast buffet – yes, such things are back. I was afraid, after the pandemic, they might have gone for good.  Best of all, for us noise-phobics, the room was so quiet – I had read reviews that the sound-proofing was excellent, and so it was. Battleaxe would totally recommend.

Our little private sitting out area

In Porto, we did all the required tourist things – think vintage trams, cable cars, walk across historic double-decker Dom Luis bridge, aperol spritzes in viewpoint cafes, gilded churches, historic produce market groaning with delicious food, obligatory tourist-trap French Empire cafe. To be honest, Philosopher and Battleaxe are getting a tiny bit jaded – or old and confused – whatever. We can scarcely remember the number of gilded cathedrals we have visited in various European cities – they all merge into one. Same with tourist-trap cafes. Always perfectly preserved Empire or Art Nouveau, over-priced, white cloths, speckled mirrors, snooty waiters in cutaway jackets and tourists taking photos. Funnily enough, we don’t seem to have that many such places here in Britain… Porto definitely grew on us over the time we were there. By our last day we were really enjoying it. The weather was fabulously sunny, too. Anyway, here are some photos.

Postcard view of Porto
Obligatory vintage tram
Obligatory French Empire tourist trap cafe

 

Dom Luis Bridge
Obligatory cable car

Obligatory food market, of course groaning with produce
Another tourist from Hastings?

For one day, I had booked us a day-trip up the Douro Valley. Had originally planned it to be by boat, but it turns out that the Douro has dams/weirs on it to regulate the water flow down to Porto. The locks in the dams are only open from late April for the summer season. Also, in my ignorance I had assumed that the vineyards are just outside the city – they are not – we had to travel for an hour on a coach to reach them. But it was all very interesting and well organised. We stopped at a little town called Regua for our first port and wine tasting plus lunch. It also had a good iron bridge across the Douro. Then to the wine district proper, where we stopped at the Kopke Quinta de São Luiz. The vineyards are all on little terraces down the side of the river valley. Anyway, a highly efficient Scotsman gave us a tour and another burst of port tasting.  The views from the Quinta were spectacular.

Then, we went on a river boat, from nearby Pinhao. It should have been a highlight of the day, but for me it wasn’t – the boat was uncomfortably crowded, and to get a good observation space I had to balance one cheek of my butt on some metal cover thing. Views were great though.

Food in Porto? Well, sssh, for lunch we raided the breakfast buffet and made ourselves a take-away. Evening? We ate in the hotel a couple of times, and out a couple of times. Trust Battleaxe to try the local ‘speciality’, a franceshina. It is a multi-layered sandwich with steak, bacon, sausage, smothered in melted cheese and floating in a pool of spicy sauce. I think it was the most filling thing I’ve ever eaten…

To get up to Santiago we had to take a long-distance bus, not train, because – again, little did I know, the Spanish railways run on a wider gauge to the Portugese ones. However, bus was fine.  In Santiago, I had booked us into a lower-rent 2 star hotel – the Hotel Montes, in the old town, just round the corner from the Cathedral. It was a very quaint old building, but I was dreading that it would be very noisy, as our room overlooked a very pretty little square – full of bars. I guess in the summer it would have been different, but for us, the weather was mostly cold and wet, which kept people indoors. Our room was huge, with a sitting area with a sofa and an old stone fireplace – more a suite really. It was absolutely fine – clean, pleasant staff, comfy bed. But – all the bathroom fittings were wobbly, and the breakfast was basic to say the least.  Coffee, toast, orange juice and a couple of little cakes that had seen better days. Still Battleaxe would recommend as long as you take some industrial strength ear-plugs. I’ve written about Santiago before as well, on our previous vist in 2019. Here is the post.

View from our hotel window

Before meeting Tom we went to the Cathedral – in 2019 it was partly closed for repair. That’s all finished now, and the place is truly enormous and quite spectacular.

We met Tom in his University canteen for lunch one day. A three-course meal – which was good – for 6.40 euros! Apart from that we found a a really good tapas place – not touristy slop.

If Philosopher and I are truthful, Santiago is not turning out to be one of our favourite cities. The old town is very cramped and dark, and full of youth. The rest of it is quite plain. So, on our last full day we took the train to La Coruna. We were a bit clueless, hadn’t realised that Coruna is a big city – but we really liked it. It has a lovely waterfront lined with old glass galleried buildings, a pleasant old town area, nice shopping streets, interesting buildings, a handsome main square and several beaches. It felt very open and spacious.  We saw the tomb of Sir John Moore.

Sir John Moore’s tomb

There was an absolutely huge P & O cruise ship docked right in front of the town. A new ship, and their largest, the Arvia. Would you believe it takes 5,000 passengers… with its 20 decks, it looked like a massive block of flats. And of course, the city was full of Brits! No way would we want to go on that ship…  Anyway, we won’t have to. Battleaxe would totally recommend La Coruna – there was obviously lots we didn’t see.

So, home time. By the end, we were both very tired, and happy to take the short flight from Santiago back to Gatwick. It was quite a gruelling trip, but all very interesting.

 

 

 

2 Comments

  1. Heather
    April 3, 2023 / 6:36 pm

    Steph – please don’t get blasé about travelling – you are, after all, very fortunate to be able to afford and do it. Those of us who read your blogs get pleasure from travelling with you. We have all chosen our lifestyles – mine include rescue dogs and I don’t regret that but it which means I can’t travel as I used to, so it’s great to read your thoughts and experiences.

    • June 29, 2023 / 2:32 pm

      Thanks Heather – I guess I was just tired whne I wrote that…

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