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May 31 2008

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European Wander ’08

Part 12

Braganca to Porto and back – Portugal – 617 miles (by car)

12th Map

24 July

Branganca

Braganca is quite a small town which has expanded with lots of new apartment blocks and villas springing up along the outskirts. The roads are wide and the roundabouts, like many in Portugal, have urban sculptures such as the pair of bulls outside our hotel and this interesting one that caught our eyes.

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Sculpture, Braganca style

We spent the day wandering round Branganca. The old town part has lots of narrow, slate ‘cobbled’, streets with tall terraced houses, some of which have been beautifully restored, cheek by jowl with derelict properties. A lot of renovation is taking place so maybe in a few years time it will have fewer derelict buildings. This might actually detract from some of its charm as it’s interesting to see some of the ways that the houses have been extended.

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The house on the right has an entire storey made from corrugated iron which is not un-typical

A significant part of the old town is enclosed within the city walls – houses, churches and museum etc. – and it is interesting to see how cities like Rochester may have once looked. The castle is in good condition (probably renovated) and the main tower has been turned into a military museum; the floors are all solid wood and again it gives a good feel for what castles would have been like before they became ruins.

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A street inside the walls – showing renovated properties vs. derelict properties.

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The town inside the fortification

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Enjoying walking round the walls

We went into the ‘mask museum’ – we didn’t realise that was what it was until we were inside – and it was really interesting. Every year they have a series of festivals where people dress up and wear masks. Most of the masks are hand carved from wood and some are made of tin; each town in the area has its own speciality. We were told the area has a strong Celtic background which is evidenced from the use of bagpipes and we were surprised to see Morris dancing is done here too.

We went into the church and were horrified at the tacky ‘candles’. We are used to seeing the ‘memory’ candles and a box for the 1 Euro to light one (which presumably covers the cost). This one had the usual box for the money but instead of lighting a candle, 1 Euro would light a dim bulb in the shape of a candle for an hour, if you paid 2 Euros it would stay lit for longer; ugh!

25 July

Branganca – Porto about 135 (car) miles

We wasted most of the day trying to sort out a hire car. We’d been assured one would be ready for us at 11.30 – it was 4.15 before we finally drove away in one. Eventually we found out what the problem was – someone had booked the car for us in a town called Mirandela, some 38 miles away!

We drove (well, Kevin drove) to Porto taking the most direct route which was A roads and motorways and didn’t we have fun in the motorised skateboard that the Peugeot 107 is. The only way it make it go up hill is to thrash it to death. It rained a lot of the way so we didn’t mind being in the car. The roads were busy, many with ‘no overtaking’ lines, and it would have been difficult to get past the traffic on the bike so we’d have been eating the spray while trying to clear the fog off our visors and ‘enjoying’ the slimy road conditions. Every cloud has a silver lining.

26 July

Porto

We spent the day exploring Porto which is another typically Portuguese mixture of modern and old in some state of disrepair or renovation. As in Braganca, there were quite a few buildings covered in tiles which, in some cases, seem to have been added to the buildings in the 1920’s.

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One of the many tile-encrusted buildings

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One of the squares

As we wandered round we heard a tinkling musical sound and, as we followed our ears to it, saw that it was one of the churches chiming mid-day. As it was by now 12.05 it must have been a very long chime!

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More sculpture

Porto has a very ecological transport system – the buses all run on ‘natural gas’ and they have trams. Unfortunately the tramlines aren’t sacrosanct and car drivers just leave their cars across them. This tram had to wait about half an hour before the police came along and removed the car!

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Trams vs. cars

27 July

Porto – Guimaraes – Porto 169 (car) miles

We decided to drive one of the routes we had previously planned for our bike ride. This would take us up the coast and then back down again via a town called Guimaraes which had been recommended to us for its castle. We shortened it a little as we had forgotten to ask whether we were insured in the car for Spain and the safest option was to assume we weren’t. The route was, as predicted, very interesting. It took us through lots of small villages along the sea front (Atlantic), most of which were very busy with it being the start of the main holiday season. We drove through a tiny village that was just gearing up for some celebration – lots of large lights were being erected. We also passed by an enormous Sunday market which just went on and on. After we left the seaside we travelled through some more forests and it was sad, but understandable, to see huge swathes of the Eucalyptus forest being chopped down. It reiterated that these were a crop and at some point they would need to be felled. On the other hand, we also passed through acres of new forest –  rows and rows of tiny Eucalyptus trees starting the next cycle.

The castle at Guimaraes is interesting – it has been voted as one of Portugal’s top 7 sites by the Portuguese; there is both a castle (keep and walls) and a Palace. The Palace has been fully renovated over the past 50 years or so and shows how it might have looked in its heyday. One of the unique features of the palace was its chimneys which are very slim, round affairs made of rounded bricks.

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The palace, showing the renovated chimneys and roof

After the palace we wandered over to the castle and scaled the steps to the walls. It was amazing to be able to just climb up to the heights without having hand rails or protective fencing as we would expect in the UK. We wondered how many people falling off the walls had prompted such a Nanny reaction in the UK. Most of the places we’ve been to in Europe have a ‘visitor beware’ policy and we don’t hear of hundreds of accidents. Perhaps the UK owners are just afraid of being sued if such an accident did occur.

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Most people stay on the ‘safe’ edge

The walls didn’t look particularly robust although we noted that they had successfully resisted a siege. The stones on the top looked like they would be easy to topple over and the overall feel of the castle exterior was of a Disney castle. Maybe this is where Disney got the idea from.

We paid our 1.5 Euros each to go right to the top of the keep. The final set of stairs were more like a ladder but the treads of the steps were lop-sided, one being a ‘left’ and the next being a ‘right’ (more like spiral steps). We spent quite a long time at the bottom watching people coming down, making mental notes to ourselves to ‘mind our heads’ at the top. Unfortunately two parents in charge of a small child failed to do so and we all winced as the child screamed after bumping her head. Happy to report we managed to go up and down without mishap (all those years fighting with Dive boat ladders has helped and at least these steps weren’t moving!).

Just as we got back into Porto and our hotel’s road we stopped at a junction and saw another one of those sculptures. This one made me jump, then laugh, as it moved – it was actually a man dressed up in a suit and bowler hat with white makeup.

28 July

Porto – Braganca 189 (car) miles

We needed to return to Braganca in the (forlorn) hope that the bike might be ready today, so we drove back along the route we had planned for our original trip to Porto. This was another online suggestion and a very good one it turned out to be. The 107 is not a bike but Kevin managed to have its wheels squealing (and me!) and it coped quite well with the bends and hills. It was a very twisty road, up and down following the gorge carved by River Dorou for miles. There are dams at strategic points along the river and the result is a very wide river-come-lake winding through the valley.

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Sometimes one bridge just isn’t enough!

We passed through acres of vineyards, most of which seem to be destined for port (yum yum).

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Guess whose port these grapes will end up in

At one stage we got lost through a village (OK, I missed the turn – I was being Mrs. Sat Nav’s voice as we don’t have the car kit with us so we have no audio output) and ended up ‘off roading’ for a while – we’re not sure the 107 is an ideal vehicle for this type of road but it coped without complaint.

We finally got back to Braganca to learn that the bike won’t be ready until at least Wednesday. The tentative prognosis is failure of the fuel pump. We’ll see.

28 and 29 July

Montesinho Natural Park 125 (car) miles

We had a nice couple of days wandering round the Natural Park, which is a mixture of mountains, farmland, forest and picturesque villages. We headed out for two villages as advised by the Park Information lady who told us that if we were lucky we would see people working in the fields and we would see the traditional buildings. Well, we didn’t see anyone working in the fields – it was well into siesta time by the time we got there – but we did see some people working on buildings in a hamlet which looked like it hadn’t had any modernisation at all.

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As we were walking through the first village we saw this man popping seeds out of their seed heads.

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A typical village main road

It’s a bit strange going into these villages. Most of them are on a main road but as the outskirts appear the tarmac disappears to be replaced by cobbles. The village streets are usually very narrow with only enough room for a single vehicle. Luckily there was very little traffic around despite it being high season here. We speculated on why they would have kept the cobbles and decided that it probably helps to keep the traffic speed down (and it does look nice!).

The villages on the whole are a good mixture of some very nicely renovated cottages and some very derelict buildings, some are just facades with a pile of rubble behind. We assume this is part of the natural lifecycle of the villages – places become derelict after people die, new families move in and renovate and so the cycle continues. A lot of the houses have first floor balconies that are suspended with large timbers, many of which look very woodwormy and extremely dry and some are held up by a single large sliver of slate at each end. I wouldn’t want to stand on some of the balconies in case they gave way. Many people keep chickens in their ground floor and have steps up to the living quarters.

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Precarious balconies all round!

The ‘brickwork’ wasn’t much better either! The method seems to be one of putting together as many different sizes of rocks and hope that they’ll make a wall. If there are any gaps, fill them with smaller stones. In one of the villages a lot of the houses had some very nicely cut large stones for windows, doors and cornerstones. As this was the only place that these were in evidence we speculated that they may have been recycled from a nearby ancient Roman building.

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There are still some original buildings around

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Which brush up quite nicely!

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There were lots of trails around…well you just have to don’t you?

During our drive round on Wednesday we drove along part of the Spanish/Portuguese border. Clearly with both countries being in the EU it’s no longer a ‘working’ border, but there are still stones showing where the border is and on the Spanish side is a 5m wide swathe of cleared ground, presumably ‘just in case’.

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Left leg in Spain, Right in Portugal

As we’ve been driving through Portugal we have seen many rivers that have plenty of water still in them (unlike the dried up riverbeds we saw in Spain). The water on the whole is beautifully clear and there are lots of fish attesting to the purity of the water; at one place we saw 3 or 4 small snakes swimming in the river.

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The water was crystal clear

We made our slow way back to the hotel (our average speed over the past 2 days has been about 15 mph) and the good news that the bike was now fixed; as predicted the fuel pump had packed up. The guys at the garage had also jet washed it so we’ll start the next stage of our journey on a nice clean bike.

So that’s it from Portugal. We’ve had a really great week here and, while we could have done without the expense, we’re rather glad the bike broke down; we both really like the country and want to return again. Braganca looks like an up-and-coming area and it will be interesting to see how it develops over the next few years.

Onwards and upwards, towards the Picos mountains, then the Pyrenees and then into France and home.

Hopefully the next instalment will have some bike pictures in it!

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