day 12 :
wednesday, 6 june
We departed Santiago de Compostela after breakfast and headed south to see the five Rías Baixas ("Lower Rivers"). The trip was going smoothly until we encountered a closed road, which didn't sit well with our GPS; it tried to route us onto the same highway via a different entrance, which was also closed. Not being very familiar with all of our GPS features, we eventually gave up on it and used our maps. We later learned that we could've used a nifty feature to mark the road as blocked so it would have re-routed us. Paper maps were still problematic because there were numerous closed roads in this area. Nevertheless, we finally arrived at the mirador we were aiming for, and had a hazy view of all five of the rivers that make up the Rías Baixas.
Galicia is famous for its hórreos – granaries built from wood or stone that sit on pedestals to keep the food away from animals. We saw a few on our drive to Santiago a couple of days ago, but our Michelin guide said that the nearby town of Combarro had some well-maintained examples near the water, so we stopped by for a few minutes to wander around the waterfront. Then it was onward to Portugal – we crossed the Minho River, which divides the two countries, and suddenly we were at a loss as to how to read the road signs. The Portuguese radio station sounded eastern European, what with all of the sh and jz sounds at the end of the words. Once we got used to these differences, we quickly realized that Portugal has a lot of similarities to the U.S. The major roads are wider, straighter, and in better shape than their counterparts in Spain (owing to their more recent construction, no doubt). The radio stations tended to stick to a single genre and played numerous songs in a row, unlike the eclectic Spanish stations that play a Euro-dance track right after a classic American rock song, and then the hosts talk for thirty minutes or more before spinning a Megadeth speed-metal tune. We also discovered that mealtimes are on an earlier schedule than Spain, and that people don't seem to linger quite as long over a meal as they do over the border.
Using our Karen Brown Portugal guide, we followed her river route itinerary along the Minho River, which features a series of cute little towns made up of brilliantly white buildings. As the temperature climbed to nearly 35 degrees Celsius, we could see why the inhabitants favored the heat-reflective color. Vila Nova de Cerveira had an unusual display of reindoor sculptures made from spare metal parts (complete with hoof prints on the streets in town), and a beautiful water sculpture near the church. A few kilometers further on was Caminha, where people were wandering under the tents of a large outdoor flea market, trying to avoid the brilliant sun beating down. We wandered until we found a café with outdoor seating on the main plaza, and managed to order a couple of sandwiches by pointing at our menus. It was at this point that it really hit us how little we know about the Portuguese language – we felt practically fluent in Spanish by comparison. But, as we've usually found on our trips, people tend to be very patient and helpful with helpless tourists, so the language barrier never ended up posing a serious challenge for us.
Eric finally remembered that the time zone changed when we entered Portugal, so we adjusted our clocks and drove on to see Santa Luzia, a large modern basilica built on a bluff overlooking the town of Viana do Castelo. We then headed south to Porto. We had heard that Portuguese drivers are aggressive, and that there are more traffic accidents here than other places in Europe. Based on our experience today, we'd tend to agree with this generalization. As we were getting close to our highway exit for Porto, traffic started to slow down in the rush hour, and suddenly there was a four car accident in the lane next to us; each driver had been tailgating the person in front of them, so the fender benders were no surprise. We took our exit, and wound through many different streets and traffic circles to get to our hotel in old town, dodging cars that swerved in and out of lanes with no warning. Eric double-parked the car in front of the hotel for 15 minutes while Dawn waited for a large Scandinavian tour group to get checked in ahead of us. We only had to drive two more blocks to the parking garage, crossing a very busy road along the way. As we waited for a break in traffic, a taxi driver waiting behind us honked his horn at us (he thought we were crazy for waiting – nobody waits, just go with the flow). When a car did stop to let us out, we pulled out and came within inches of having the front-end of our car totaled. An impatient driver had swerved out next to the stopped car to pass him, not realizing that he had stopped to let us out. Fortunately, the driver slammed on his brakes and barely missed us, and we managed to recover and pull out onto the street. The events of the day reassured our previous decision to simply walk or take taxis around Porto – driving here is far too treacherous!
After lugging our belongings to the hotel and getting a complimentary upgrade to a corner suite, we walked across the Dom Luis iron bridge to tour the Port district, called Gaia. It turned out that it was too late to go tasting at one of the Port cellars, which typically close at 6PM, and we didn't know quite where the recommended Port bars were located, so we cut our tour short and relaxed for a bit. We hailed a taxi shortly before 9PM and had an enjoyable ride to dinner; romantic songs played on the radio as the setting sun cast a vibrant reddish-orange glow on the Douro river.
We dined at Bull and Bear this evening, a nouveau cuisine restaurant recommended by a friend, and on eGullet. One dish, hake crusted with olives in a green sauce, was nearly identical to a dish we had several days before at Toñi Vicente in Santiago de Compostela, except this fish was more tender and the olives had a wonderfully intense flavor. We found it interesting that this dish had apparently achieved a trendy status among Iberian Peninsula chefs. The meal was quite good, with just one minor exception. That was the risotto, which was extremely tasty, with lemon and herb flavors, but the rice was hard and needed to be cooked for at least another ten minutes.
For our evening entertainment, we counted how many cell phone conversations were going on in the restaurant. People always answered their phones, talked while the rest of their table continued without them, and occasionally the phone would get passed around the table so everyone could talk. At one table of three, two diners talked on their phones for a long time, while the third person just sat and stared, eating their food as it arrived. We hadn't seen dinner cell phone behavior like this before and haven't seen it since; perhaps it's unique to this area?