Week 15/16: Porto, Douro Valley, Peneda-Gerês, Santiago de Compostela and a looooong drive to Italy


We had planned to head west from Sintra, on our journey back through Spain, but when we checked the weather forecast, Porto was enjoying equally good weather, so we headed north instead. We found a dog friendly hotel, the Catalonia Porto, with a good parking lot nearby and spent 2 days exploring the city.

Porto is a fascinating city, abound with contradictions. It has clearly been a place of wealth, with streets lined with neoclassical and baroque buildings, lavishly decorated churches, the port lodges, the Bolsa Palace (stock exchange) etc. and yet so many buildings are derelict – left to the ravages of time and near collapse. The city is also a major tourist destination – the beautiful waterfront Ribeira district is a clear draw, as are the port lodges in Vila Nova de Gaia, and yet Porto retains a feeling of not being overly commercialised – there isn’t much evidence of “chain” restaurants or shops, there’s a slight aged or grungy feel to much of it, and its residents seem to just be getting on with their lives. With some exceptions, Porto just didn’t feel like it overly pandered to it’s tourists, which was refreshing after the glitz and international nature of Lisbon.

Here’s a rundown of the things we most liked about Porto:

1. Wandering through it’s narrow hilly streets – Like Lisbon it’s a very hilly city, sitting on the steep slopes of the Duoro river valley. So you get a good workout wandering through it’s narrow streets, and have lots of interesting vistas that suddenly appear, with their fascinating mixes of over-the-top and rubble-piles

2. Tasting Porto food specialities – in line with its unfussy vibe, Porto’s local food specialities include Cachorrinho – basically a hot dog on a toasted bun with spicy sauce, Prego – a steak sandwich, Tripas à moda do Porto – a tripe and bean stew, and Franceshina – a ham, sausage and steak sandwich covered with melted cheese and a tomato beer gravy (their version of a croque monsieur). We enjoyed the first two at Cervejaria Gazela, a buzzing beer hall around the corner from our hotel, washed down with a mound of batatas fritas and a bottle of Dao wine. Aileen tried the tripas stew at Casa Bragança – It was tasty but she needed a nap afterwards. We didn’t bother with the franceshina.

3. Visiting a port lodge – one can’t visit Porto and not be fascinated by the odd square-mile of warehouse looking structures across the river, with very familiar names emblazoned on their sides – Taylors, Grahams, Sandeman etc. We decided to do a tour of the Ferreira port lodge, which has the distinction of being the only lodge owned by Portuguese. Antonia Ferreira played a major role in the development of the Portuguese wine industry as well as expanding and improving the port business she inherited when she was widowed at 33. It was interesting to learn how Port is made – wine is made at their vineyards deep in the Douro valley, which is then transported to the warehouses in Vila Nova de Gaia where aging takes place because the location enjoys milder temperatures and shade being north facing, and was also convenient for onward exportation to the big port drinkers of the world – the UK! The walk over the Ponte Luis I bridge is also well worth it, as you get amazing views of the Duoro river with Porto on one side, and Vila Nova de Gaia on the other.

4. A nice meal at Atrevo – we were also keen to try a more modern restaurant (one can only have so much grilled seafood with potatoes), so we had dinner at Atrevo, a small restaurant in the Bonfim district near our hotel. It was a lovely 8-course tasting meal with a heavy focus on seafood. Our favourites were the tuna carpaccio, a crab and small prawn “sandwich”, and the cod with a buerre blanc sauce.

5. Gawking at fresh food at Mercado de Bolhão – the Bolhão market sits in a beautiful neoclassical building that has clearly been recently renovated as it’s very clean, but still has excellent local produce – meats, fish, cheese, fruits and vegetables – for Porto’s residents and tourists alike. Rue Formosa, the road the market sits on also has a number of good looking delis piled high with produce, and with “interesting” window displays.

For Harry Potter fans out there, we did try to visit Livraria Lello, a beautiful art nouveau bookship with an iconic red staircase, but there was not only a queue, one had to pay to get in!?

Douro Valley

From Porto, we decided to head inland to check out the steep vineyard lined-slopes of the Duoro wine region. We parked up in an area de autocaravanas in Peso da Régua, along the banks of the Duoro. It was very nice indeed to sit in the sunshine by the river surrounded by terraced hills with vineyards. We enjoyed a wine tasting and some nibbles at Garrafeira Gato Preto on our first night.

The next day we did a walk from Mesão Frio , which ascended quite steeply up to Miradouro de São Silvestre do Cima do Duoro, a miradour with a swing (!) and amazing views of the Duoro valley. The walk then descended quite steeply past vineyard terraces, and some tiny little villages with pedestrian-only streets where old Portuguese men and women smiled and said hello as Zeus walked by. The steep terraced slopes and gently flowing river were visually striking but were also a good reminder of how hard it must be to work the land. The very steep ascent back to Mesão Frio was hard and Aileen needed a lot of encouragement to amble up the hill. We passed nice looking Quinta de São Bernardo and decided the area would be a nice place for a luxury retreat in the warmer months – lots of wine, nice lodgings, gardens and/or pool overlooking the Douro, sunshine bliss.

The following day we booked a tour of Aneto, a small vineyard run by 2 brothers. Grape growing has historically been a family enterprise, and their grandparents had divided their land amongst their 14 (!) children when they passed away. The Montenegro brothers were the first in the family to foray into wine making. It was interesting to learn about what grapes they grew in which plots. Their more western (cooler) plots grow white grape varieties and Pinot Noir. Their eastern plots deeper into the Duoro Valley (hotter) grow the varieties typical of Duoro red wine – Touriga Nacional, Tinto Roriz, Tinta Francisca, Tinto Cão. We were also surprised to learn that they make late harvest wine with noble rot Semillon grapes. The Botrytis fungus requires very specific conditions hence the style of wine is made in specific locations like Sauternes in France or Tokaj in Hungary.

Illness strikes in Peneda-Gerês

From Duoro we headed north to Soajo, a mountain village in the Peneda-Gerês national park. We looked forward to doing some walks, some cycling and the promise of good facilities (loo, showers, bike cleaning station).

On arriving we had a good surprise. The campervan parking was next to what looked like a cluster of ancient burial tombs, which turned out to be Espigueiros, 300 year old grain stores. By the campervan site there were about 16 clustered on a granite outcrop and we later found others scattered through the village. Each store is constructed from shaped pieces of granite with narrow slits to allow the passage of air through the store and supported on granite mushroom legs to prevent rodents from getting at the grain.

Unfortunately this was also the time at which James began feeling unwell.
Being sick is not much fun and in the confines of a campervan, there are some additional challenges, but at least Soajo was a nice place to take it easy for four days. We observed the dramas of stray dogs, cats and their feeders. There were also cows, goats and horses meandering through the place (plus their bells to alert Zeus of their impending arrival). We watched widows decked in all black doing their daily walk to the cemetery close to our site (and one carrying a haybale on her head). As James began to feel better, we did some short walks and got an interesting tour of another campervan that a Swiss couple had designed and had custom built, a very impressive bit of engineering and packaging.

We left feeling disappointed we hadn’t really explored what seemed to be a beautiful area with lots that would interest us, but we were also relieved to feel better and move on, particularly since it had been a stressful time for Zeus who felt he needed to guard us against the menagerie of stray and grazing animals.

Santiago de Compostela

From Soajo we headed back over the border into Spain and to Santiago de Compostela. Santiago de Compostela is the capital of Galicia and is famous for it’s Cathedral, allegedly on the burial site of the Biblical apostle St. James. It’s also the final destination for the (hundreds of) thousands that attempt the camino each year. We visited the exterior of the Cathedral. It is very big, the scale and drama is impressive, but it left us somewhat unmoved. Neither of us are religious so it didn’t have an emotional significance. Maybe if we were practicing Christians or had just completed the Camino de Santiago mega hike, it might have been different. That meant the touristing activities were completed quite early and we could dedicate the rest of the day to a food crawl. Highlights included:

  • Octopus with clams (Galicia majors on seafood)
  • Tortilla (egg and potato variety served as free accompaniment to beer at Bar La Tita )
  • Grilled pork served on potatoes (Raxo con patatas)

On to Italy!

We’d been mulling different ideas of how to head back across Spain and how much time we wanted to spend in Spain vs. seeing other parts of Europe. As always the weather played a part in the decision too. We didn’t want to travel through the center of Spain as it was too cold, and a period of very wet weather was forecast for most of Europe. So we abandoned any plans of seeing the north coast of Spain. We decided that we weren’t going to get much out of the experience in the rain and it’s do-able as a future trip. Instead we opted to do three long driving days:

  • Santiago de Compostela to Puente San Miguel near Santander – rained nearly all day so decided to push on with longer driving days than we’d origanally intended
  • Puente San Miguel to Carbonne near Toulouse – more rain, back into dog-friendly France (enjoyed an arrival drink at a local bar with Zeus in tow)
  • Carbonne to Latte, Italy – The rain had stopped when we woke up so we had nice riverside walk with Zeus followed by some much missed croissants. A bit of road debris hit us on the autoroute – it originally sounded like a puncture but turned out to be a bit of the underside of the van was broken. James successfully removed it with kitchen scissors whilst stopped on the hard-shoulder. We’d originally planned to get as far a Nice, but campsite was full so pushed on to Italy!

Latte, Italy

Latte is just on the Italian side of the border with France and on the coast. We appeared to snag one of the last spots at the campsite. This was a relief. After 3 days of driving we were ready for a rest and to take care of some other life admin which included:

  • Cooking food for Zeus
  • Doing a big load of laundry at the local launderette
  • Having a showers
  • Writing our blog 🙂

Latte town centre consisted of the campsite, a Conad city, the launderette and a pizza place – all very handy!

The Conad appeared to be small supermarket, but it was like an Aladdin’s cave that extended under the hillside, and one was left in no doubt that they were in Italy with the ramshackle nature – pants next to meat, stationary next to pasta. The shelves were overflowing with lovely Italian food, and the shelf of spring greens was a glorious sight to behold. We stocked up and enjoyed some nice meals in the van. There appeared to be a lot of French crossing the border to stock up on ciggies. The store also had a very good cafe were we had our first much appreciated helpings of Italian pasta.

James also managed to squeeze in a short road ride in the hills above the coast, something he’d been keen to do after feeling under exercised following being sick.

A nice discovery for us is that Italy is dog friendly. We found we could take Zeus in cafes, restaurants, the launderette and more recently Aileen heard barks emanating from supermarket shopping carts at a Carrefour and said hello to a dog by the chicken section. This has been a much appreciated change after 2 months in less dog-friendly Spain and Portugal.

What’s next?

We plan to explore the Ligurian coast and depending on the weather, either take the ferry to Sicily or not!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s