Friday, September 24, 2010

September 20th to 23rd - Braga

Braga has the distinction of having the cheapest campsite that we've ever stayed in - €10 per night, rather than prices around €30 per night we've been shelling out on in Spain. OK, the campsite was far from palatial (the toilets looked like they'd been built in the 1950s, and hadn't been cleaned since), it was on a noisy road where someone had worryingly graffitied in big letters "curva do morte", "the bend of death", but the big bonus was that it was next to the Municipal Stadium, which had free WiFi live and direct into the camper van – this ensured that we foolishly wasted whole evenings watching X Factor on YouTube.

It's strange not really having a clue about the local language here in Portugal – in Spain, we at least had some idea how to converse with people, but here we don't even know how to pronounce anything. I asked the lady at the campsite, how to get to the Church of Bom Jesus, and she looked at me like I was speaking Swahili. After a couple more attempts, she worked out what I was talking about, and she pronounced it something like Bom Shesooosh. Basically, if you want to speak Portuguese, you have to speak Spanish like Sean Connery putting on a bad Russian accent.

Anyway, Braga's a nice historic town – not too lively, but fairly gentile. During Portugal's golden age, Braga was the ecclesiastical capital of Portugal, which has left it with an enormous number of churches richly decorated with the wealth brought back from Portugal's growing overseas empire, so we enjoyed wandering around all the baroque, rococo and neo-classical architecture of the attractive city centre.

For lunch, we stumbled on a lovely vegetarian restaurant – this is the first time in all our years of travelling where a veggie restaurant has seemed the best dining option – Tracy has never been so happy, and I think that this is the first day I've not eaten a single morsel of meat in about 15 years (thank God the Francesinha I ate in Porto is taking so long to break down in my steadily growing stomach).

On our final day, we went to the famous Church of Bom Shesooosh – one of Portugal's top pilgrimage sites, at the top of a very steep hill. Pilgrims who want to cheat, take the funicular, but we were made of sterner stuff, and climbed something in the region of 540 steps up a lovely but exhausting baroque staircase all the way to the top. If you're really pious, apparently you climb the steps on your knees, but struggling along on our self-sacrificing vegetarian diet, we restricted ourselves to foot power alone.

September 12th to 19th - A Week in Porto

After that nightmarish sleepless night in Tuy, it was a relief to be heading for the sanctuary of a campsite in Porto. Unfortunately, our 7 year-old guidebook didn't tell us that the city centre campsite that we'd stayed in 10 years ago had actually shut down two years previously, and so, on getting there and finding that it was now a building site, we had to head for the beach area, South of the city. This proved to be a blessing in disguise, because the camp site we found was really chilled out and the beach was beautiful (in spite of the 7 year old guidebook telling us that it was badly polluted, they must have spent a lot of money on cleaning it up, and putting in boardwalks and cycle paths all along the coastline). To make it even better, Portugal is way cheaper than Spain for camping (almost half the price), while a beer watching the sun set beautifully over the sea was only €1.40.

We were joined by Sally and Dave for a few nights, so we had a fine time of talking nonsense, catching up, playing cards, and sightseeing. We went into Porto to explore its slightly run down historic and hilly streets, its blue tile covered churches, and of course, tasting some Port.

We also took the opportunity to sample Porto's most famous culinary highlight, the heart-attack-inducing Francesinha – a cholesterol-laden Portuguese carnivore's take on the croque monsieur. Basically it's a super-size Scooby snack, consisting of a sandwich containing layers of steak, German sausage, Portuguese sausage, and other unidentified meat, then covered in a thick layer of melted cheese, and then soaked with a kind of spicy, slightly fishy gravy, and of course served with a plate load of chips too. Even though it doesn't sound great, and it's the kind of meal that would even defeat Joey from Friends, I quite enjoyed it, and of course, cleaned my plate, while Tracy munched on a puny cheese sandwhich.

This meat feast definitely set us up for the definitive post-prandial tipple, a glass of port - so we crossed the Douro River, and went to one of the Port houses to have a tour round their aromatic cellars, and then have a tasting of a few glasses of Port. As someone who rarely drinks Port (and only when I'm already drunk, and then wake up with an almighty headache), it was nice to have a sober glass and get to appreciate what I was consuming for once.

Sunday, September 12, 2010

September 11th – Fright Night in Tuy

From Santiago, we headed South to the pretty town of Pontevedra, another stop on the pilgrim route. As we got there at lunch time, the whole town seemed pretty empty, but it had an attractive and historic centre, and every second building seemed to be a bar or restaurant which was a good sign. Unfortunately they don't have a campsite in Pontevedra, so we weren't able to sample the nightlife, and instead we headed further south, to the Spanish side of the Portuguese border, to the town of Tuy (pronounced "Twee").

Tuy doesn't have a campsite either, but it does have a parking spot just outside of town, set aside for campervans (although it was just us tonight). Tuy also seemed a pretty quiet place, the streets up to the historic centre were pretty deserted, the peace only being broken by a grungey bar blaring out rock music to no-one. We kept on going, and found the action – a lively street where the evening paseo was going on. We found a bar which was perfect for people watching, and reflected on how civilised Spanish society was – families and friends of all generations all mixing together on a Saturday night for a quiet drink.

After a nice meal, we retired to the van for a peaceful night's sleep – or so we thought…..

By now, the grungey bar had turned its sound system up to top volume, and seemed to be attracting the full cast from "From Dusk Till Dawn", who seemed to be passing our van all night long, shouting loudly. At 2am, we were woken with a fright by an idiot who thought it would be funny to bang the side of the van.

At this stage, Tracy was totally unable to sleep, and went down to the back of the van in readiness for our next attack; just as well…

At 4.00am, she heard someone fiddling round the bikes on the back of the van. She opened up the blind to be faced with another moron attempting to steal our bikes. The good thing was that in the darkness, her ghostly white face silently appearing at the window out of nowhere, literally scared the living daylights out of the moron, who was struck motionless for a second, before letting out a primeval scream and haring off into the night like he'd just seen a monster. This ungodly scream roused me from my semi-slumber, and prompted a foul mouthed tirade to see him on his way. Tracy and I now selected our weapons of choice in the event of further attacks – I was going to wield the awning turner like a double-ended light sabre, while she was going to use a plastic broom handle, to clean the scum off the streets of Tuy.

At this point, the realisation sunk in that we'd never get a good night's sleep here, so we packed up and hit the road at 4.30am, to find a motorway service station for a proper quiet night's sleep!

September 10th – Our Camino to Santiago

When faced with a badly injured finger, the average person will turn to God for deliverance from pain, so it was lucky that we were in Santiago de Compostela (the third most holy place of pilgrimage in Christendom, after Jerusalem and Rome), for me to pray for a fingerly miracle.

Most pilgrims to Santiago have trekked for hundreds of miles over 30 days or more, so even though I was severely injured, we rejected the option of getting the bus into town, and bravely walked the whole 3km from the campsite instead . Fortunately, it had turned back into summer again, and we had a lovely day exploring this beautiful city, full of historic churches and streets, and dodging the hordes of less-than-fragrant pilgrims, who were in various states of euphoria and exhaustion at finishing their pilgrimage.

In fact, there were so many pilgrims that there were long queues to get their certificates at the Pilgrim's Office, and an even longer queue snaking around the streets, to get into the Cathedral to embrace the statue of St James – the official end of the pilgrimage. I suspect that I'd be fairly annoyed having trekked across the whole of Spain through rain and shine for a month, only to have to wait around for hours at the final destination, due to sheer volume of pilgrim traffic.

At lunch, we sat next to a table of pilgrims whose relations had clearly been strained by the whole experience, and were now at breaking point. We kept our heads down as they bickered their way through the meal, thanking their lucky stars that they wouldn't have to spend another minute in each other's company by the end of the day. This prompted a lengthy debate about whether we would one day do the Camino – definitely not in August or September.

September 9th – Nailed it in Santiago

A late start meant we got to the campsite in Santiago slightly frantic with hunger – in my rush to get lunch started, I wasn't concentrating as I put the collapsible table up. Big Mistake.

Somehow, the collapsible table lived up to its name and promptly collapsed onto my finger, crushing it massively painfully and severing the nail just above the quick. Cue, a lot of pain, a lot of blood, a lot of swearing, a weakening of the knees, and a wasted day trying to stop the bleeding rather than going out sightseeing as intended.

Only the day before I had been boasting to Tracy that I have an incredibly high pain threshold, so I can only imagine that the pain that I was experiencing was something akin (or stronger) than childbirth – after all, when they torture someone, they know that the way to get them to confess is to pull out their finger nails, they don't make them give birth on the spot.

As ever, Tracy was a tower of strength and sympathy, administering that essential painkiller - a stiff gin and tonic – and wrapping it all up in blood soaked gauze. It finally stopped bleeding just before bedtime, and the good news is that I'm excused washing up duties for the time being.

September 5th – 8th A (La) Coruňa

It turns out that the Rain in Spain doesn't fall Mainly on the Plain, it falls Mainly in La Coruňa (A Coruňa in Galician). So, it appeared as if summer had ended and autumn had finally caught up with us, as we had a couple of days of wet and changeable weather. This is a place where you need to go out for the day, prepared for every weather eventuality – if you wear shorts it's guaranteed to rain, and if you wear jeans, it's going to get sunny and hot. So, we went out with pac-a-macs and sunhats, umbrellas and sunscreen – all were used over the course of each day.

Whenever we've been to La Coruňa on a cruise, we've always headed inland to the magnificence of Santiago de Compostela, so it was nice to spend a little time exploring the city itself. La Coruňa's main historical claims stem from times when the English were either mortal enemies or faithful allies. This is one of the ports that the Armada set out from in 1588 on their abortive mission to invade England, and so, Sir Francis Drake returned the complement by attacking the city a year later – the attractive main square is named after a local heroine who alerted the city that the dreaded English were about to arrive.

Later, in the Peninsula War, La Coruňa was a British base in the war of liberation for the Spanish from a French invasion. We visited the well tended burial place of the mortally wounded British General Sir John Moore, in the old town. Other than that, there's not a huge amount more to the city, other than exploring the old town, admiring the "gallerias" (the impressive window-fronted multi-storey houses facing out to sea), and enjoying the bustling atmosphere.

But the best thing about La Coruňa is the excellent food – amazing seafood and fantastic pulpo gallego (Galician octopus) – so this made the basis of a lovely day catching up with our friend Lisi, from Azamara (the Azamara Journey happened to be in port on the 7th). So, we gossiped, drank plenty of wine, ate way too much, and wondered when our peripatetic paths would cross next.

Our final day was spent as Tracy perfected her final essay of the academic year – after this, it'll be revision all the way until her exam in October.

Monday, September 6, 2010

September 4th – Betanzos

For our final night with Ade and Lucie, we moved on to Betanzos, a historic town outside of La Coruna, where we also met up with Nobby, an Anglo-Spaniard friend of theirs who was staying nearby. Betanzos doesn't have a campsite, so we decided to risk it by parking up for the night in a "quiet" side street.

There's not much to Betanzos, but it's a pretty place that gets quite lively on a Saturday night. Nobby took us to an excellent pulperia, where we had the best Pulpo Gallego (Galician octopus) we've ever had, and we did a crawl round a few tapas bars, on our epicurean quest for culinary excellence at rock-bottom prices.

Once we'd decided that it was late enough for all the rowdy youngsters to have gone to bed, we went back to our salubrious roadside campsite. However, it appears that 2am, is about the time everyone else was going out, as we listened to a chorus of shouts and manic laughter in the street for the next hour – fortunately no-one paid the slightest attention to us and we survived the night.

September 2nd & 3rd – Viveiro

As we crossed the border from Asturias to Galicia, the coastline got wilder, the roads less busy and the countryside even greener. On the way to Viveiro, we stopped off at Mondonedo – a quiet little inland town that must have once been a big cheese in the Middle Ages, (the size of the huge Cathedral, unfortunately shut when we got there, and the Bishop's palace, showed that the town had been an important ecclesiastical centre on the pilgrim route to Santiago), but now it's pretty sleepy.

We then reached Viveiro, another attractive little port, on one of Galicia's Rias Altas, a series of estuaries on the north coast, the so-called "Costa del Muerte", the "Coast of Death" (a reference to the treacherous sea conditions for shipping rather than anything more scary to modern tourists…. we hope). The town had a mile-long beach of fine white sand (pretty much empty now that the August crowds had gone home), and an attractive medieval town, the other side of the river.

We made the happy discovery that Viveiro's busy tapas bars vie with each other for custom, by bringing round platefuls of delicious free tapas to anyone drinking there. This clever marketing strategy works a treat with penny-pinching English travellers whose eyes light up at the first mention of the word "free" – having got a seat outside in a prime people watching position, we didn't move all night (apart from when a passing pigeon pooed on my head from a great height, much to the amusement of my unsympathetic compatriots).

On our second day, we ambitiously attempted to walk up to the top of the hill behind town – it was much steeper than we thought, but the views were great and we felt virtuous that we'd walked off all the fried fish that we've been throwing down our throats the last few days. Virtuous enough in fact, to repeat the same food and drink combo that evening, all over again.

August 31st & September 1st – Cudilliero

With tears in our eyes, we took Anita to Asturias airport and said goodbye, before heading back to the coast to the fishing village of Cudilliero, to say hello to Ade and Lucie who were joining us for a few days.

Having settled into our campsite on the edge of town, we set off to cycle into Cudilliero for the evening. What we didn't realise was that we were staying right at the top of a hugely steep valley, which wound down to Cudilliero's port at the bottom. The cycle ride down was scary enough, while we tried to block out the thoughts of cycling back up the North face of the Eiger at the end of the night.

Cudilliero has the feel of a Cornish fishing port – tall houses crammed together, clinging onto the steep hillside, and opening out to a small central square in front of the port full of bars and restaurants. We ate wonderfully fresh sardines, tons of calamares (fried, grilled, stewed) and tried our hand at Asturian cider again – it was reassuring that our first impression hadn't been a false one, it was still as horrible as ever. Trying to put off the cycle ride back, after dinner, we went for "just one more drink", and we stumbled out at 1.30am, before a lung-bursting, leg-burning, life-threatening mountain climb that would have defeated a sober Lance Armstrong rather than a couple of boozed up out-of-shape trundlers like us.

The next day, we sensibly decided to walk rather than cycle, and Adrian treated us to a high speed tour of the Asturian coastline, as we visited the famous El Silencio Beach (supposedly one of the most beautiful in Spain – nice, but not that nice); Luarca – a bigger version of Cudilliero with unbelievably good value menu del dias; and then onto a surf beach, where our good intentions of swimming, were soon put once we'd stepped into the icily cold water.

August 29th & 30th – Gijon

All week as we prepared to go to Gijon, we'd been mispronouncing its name - it turns out that you say it something like "he-hone", rather than goujon. Anyway, the guidebooks don't really do this city justice – because much of the city was destroyed in the Spanish Civil War, and the city is home to a huge steel works, it's normally described as industrial, a bit scruffy and working class (and not in a good way); but we found it really attractive, well organised, and even a little bit sophisticated.

Our campsite was in a beautiful location, on a cliff overlooking the wide bay and beach below us, and our pitch was in the perfect spot for a G&T sundowner watching the sun set behind the town. When we arrived, the place hadn't seemed so perfect - the campsite was like the last day of Glastonbury, as loads of lethargic youngsters took down their tents to a cacophonous backbeat of thumping dance music. Thankfully, that Sunday was the last day of the mainstream holiday season, and most people cleared off, allowing us to enjoy the views (and G&Ts) in peace.

Gijon's long sandy beach was still packed to the rafters though, and its promenade became a bit of an assault course to make your way through the crowds doing their funereally slow evening paseo. It seems that Gijon must have had a bit of a makeover, because there's lots of cycle paths and cliff top walks to do around the coastline, and while the city's architecture isn't exactly overly impressive, there were still a few historic buildings in the old town to have a look around.