Wednesday, 26 June 2013

Adventure in the Iberian Peninsula - Galicia and the Duoro Valley.

The Iberian Peninsula ( see map) is made up of Spain Portugal and Andorra. 

When  my OH opened the latest Saga the brochure last year and saw 'The Jewels of the Iberian Peninsula' - an easy paced escorted tour - on offer  he said,"We can't not book this!"

The Galician part of the tour was to cover places which we had planned to go to on the Gold Wing motorbike/trike some years ago when we were able to ride. We had planned to travel through France, across the Spanish border and along the northern coast of Spain through Asturia and the Picos de Europe into Galicia. A friend had enthused about a little place on the west coast called O Grove. Santiago de Compostela was also on our list. The route and all the hotels were planned but it was not to be. So this was a dream come true. Especially as the second part of the escorted tour was to Porto and the Duoro Valley - a place of which I had dreamed  for many years.
So we booked it, we went, and were enchanted.

Galicia, Spain.

Flying from Gatwick necessitated an overnight stop each way. The Best Western Moat House was an excellent choice with a secure parking package. Flying into Porto we had a longish drive to our destination of Hotel Galatea on the far west coast near Portonovo, Sanxenxo. (Pronounced San-shen-sho which gets over the difficult 'X')
Galicia is made up of many inlets and Rias - what we would call estuaries. The coastline is truly amazing and enchanting.
Driving past Vigo we learned about the mussel beds / platforms in the sea before crossing the Ria de Vigo. Stopping at a service station for a coffee, I was happy to find a map of the area. Another one to add to the collection on my travel shelf at home but a selection of which I had forgotten to pack!
There were many included excursions with well-placed optional ones which gave the opportunity for further exploration or a simple relax.

The Rias Baixas. O Grove and Isla La Toja; Combarro; Sanxenxo.
The tiny island of La Toja ( Toxa in Galician language.) is reached by crossing a bridge from O Grove. On your map, look for Pontevedra and follow the coast road to the left and north.  The tiny church in La Toxa is completely covered in pink seashells and other lovely colours. The little museum showed how the famous black soap with health-giving properties was made. Of course there was a shop!
Granaries in Combarro, Pontevedra, Spain.
Heading south we reached the tiny village of Combarro (near Pontevedra). We didn't go on the tour of the historic part as the road was so steep (for us) but contented ourselves with photos of the granary houses, built on stilts  so that the rats couldn't get to the grain, and a warming cup of coffee and brandy while the rain cleared up. We later stopped in the delightful village of fishing village Sanxenxo before taking the short ride back to our hotel for lunch.
La Coruna on the northern coast was a full day trip. Our guide showed us the ancient Tower of Hercules  lighthouse. Again, as the road up was long and steep we spent our time in the park below, enjoying our packed lunch and the birds vying for crumbs. After a panoramic drive around the coast and through the crystal city - so called due to all the balconies enclosed in glass which shines in the sun - passing the new huge marine which is being built, we rested in the the Piazza Maria Pita for some free time to explore. 
Facing us was the most beautiful, grand building with three domes which glistened red and gold in the sun. I think it was the city hall. We could have wandered into the old part but decided to just rest after exploring the narrow streets off the Piazza and enjoy the sunshine.
An unexpected discovery the following day was the little cove just down the road. We
had opted for a day to ourselves and wandered out of the hotel. After lunch, with the sun getting hotter and hotter, I grabbed the chance for some sunbathing. After all I had new swimwear!

Santiago de Compostela for my husband was the pinnacle of the tour. Meeting our dedicated Santiago guide Pedro, we toured around the old part, really just in the area around the cathedral. As I bobbed here and there taking film, my husband was attached with an 
invisible rope to the guide. I commented to one that "If he gets any closer, he will be on his shoulder". We were privileged to be able to attend the Pilgrims Mass. Also, we were fortunate enough to witness the famous thurible - The Botafumeiro - being swung.  In addition to many individual pilgrims arriving in the square footsore and weary, a large group of police had arrived en mass.  The top brass were seated at the front and there were bishops and possibly an archbishop present, so there was obviously a special occasion. It was wonderful to wander down the narrow streets afterwards, find a bar for lunch and savour the sights and sounds. Later we sat outside a bar and found inside a wine shop in the back room with labels of all kinds.

Transfer to Portugal. Baiona, Valenca and Ponte de Lima.

Baiona is on the coast of Spain. With a fort, harbour, and cafes it was a good stopping place. It was also the first stop which Christopher Columbus made on his return from the New World. There is a replica of his ship in the harbour. Shops open late (for us) in Spain. A good job as I would have bought that beautiful top which caught my eye!. The coastal drive took us over the border to  the walled town of Valenca where lunch in the sunshine under the trees awaited us - all included. We were delighted to see the little train trundling round. " That's for us afterwards" we agreed. The afternoon stop found us in Ponte de Lima where we settled at a cafe for a cool drink by the river. This is one of the few towns where they still have bull-running. Under a tree is a sculpture of a huge bull pawing the ground. We were now in the northern part of Portugal.

Porto and the Duoro Valley.

Our hotel in Portugal - Axis Vermar in Povoa de Varzim north of Porto (Oporto in English) - was as comfortable as the previous one in Spain. Again we enjoyed waiter service but only at lunch-time.  Sunday brought our scheduled half day trip to the city of Porto and a bodega. Our guide took around the town with much getting on and off the coach at various points to look at the sights. The cathedral is high up and we were glad of the coach ride up to it from where there is a panoramic view. 

Then it was on to the Graham's Bodega and tour of the cellars. Naturally there was a tasting - tawny and ruby - followed by a look around the shop.
The Duoro Valley was the realisation of another dream for me. 
This full day trip would take us through the mountains where the countryside changed as we headed east. Our first stop was the in Amarante in the mountains where there was an old church on the river, and a convent with cloisters; and of course, a cafe for the all important comfort stop. Then it was on to Peso da Regua on the Duoro river where we had an arranged lunch stop to consume our packed lunches in a cafe and time to look around if we wanted to. (We weren't always eating and drinking!). On the top of the mountain, dominating the valley, was a huge figure of the famous Sandeman man with his long black cloak and sombrero. I remember one of my aunties always bought Sandeman sherry at Christmas (from Spain).
Crossing the river, our driver took us deep into the valley with mountains rising on either side. These were mountains with a difference though. Not covered in the usual trees, these were covered with rows and rows of vines growing on terraces as they [vines]cascaded down the mountainsides.
Reaching the Sandeman bodega, we were greeted by a young lady dressed in the long dark student's cape and sombrero. After a tour of the bodega we had a tasting - this time of white port and ruby. From the terrace outside there were the most stupendous views across the valley and, I was told, the little village of Pinhao across the river. 

Our tour manager encouraged us to have a group photo; everyone put their cameras on the table so that she and the guide could take about twenty photos quickly.
We spent the last two days, quietly around the hotel and the area. Povoa de Varzim has a long sea front and an interesting old town. It was delightful to see the groups of school children having games on the beach. Each group(class) had a different colour hat for identification. 
With more items in our treasure chest of dreams being put into our memory box of adventures, we were ready for home.

Rosalie xx
(Copyright Rosalie Marsh 2013)