Our day out in the Minho was amongst the most enjoyable of those first few days. One forgets that although Portugal is part of Iberia, it faces the Atlantic, and the north is subject to the very wet weather blown in from the west. The Minho is the greenest region, a rich farming country in theory , but in practise one of the poorest areas of Western Europe. I saw my first draught donkeys there, and many of the farmers looked haggard. The Minho, basically the area between the Minho River and the northern suburbs of Portugal, is famous for producing Vinho Verde, as the name suggests, a green wine. There is no real standard for Vinho Verde, it is grown mainly as a local wine, the vines lining the fields as hawthorns line British fields. Some grow on traditional poles, but many of them were on crooked concrete pillars, the green floppy leaves softening the stark grey walls. The wine ranges from a reasonable crisp fresh wine to vinegar. I only really found one or two glasses of the stuff I enjoyed.
On the whole, though, our time in Porto was a drag; we rummaged around the back streets of seedy townships, not particularly finding much of interest. Some people saw more than I did; Every day we split into groups and went our separate ways, always different parts of town. I always seemed to get either the grottiest or most tedious parts of the town. I would get glimpses of another Porto, one with vitality, commerce, beauty and trade, and although I have a deep seated love for this city as it was the first place aboard I had ever been to, I did not get the overview of the place I have always sought of other places thereafter. After nearly a week, we finally moved out of the dreary dorm and boarded an old coach for Lamego. Lamego is only about fifty miles inland from Porto but it took us nearly all day to get there. Instead of taking the direct route up the Douro valley, we started south out of Villa Nova de Gaia and turned down a relatively newly made road through the pine forests we had seen from the dorms. Barely ten miles out of Gaia the bus leaned to one side; the back axle having given way. We offloaded ourselves and our luggage and sat on the roadside for over an hour while a replacement bus was found. We then descended to the Douro valley and crossed at the first dam. Once the river was free flowing and the navigators who steered the port barges through a series of hazardous rapids must have been very brave or foolhardy. Now the river is a series of narrow lakes dammed every twenty miles or so. Motorised barges still ply up and down, but much of the trade is the series of long holiday cruisers that sail up and down from Porto.
On the north bank of the river, we rose steeply to the main road, and stopped for a coffee overlooking the gorge. The twisted rocks of the gorge jutted out into the river at various points, and the road wound precariously up the valley. At various intervals, stone breakers had their little shacks clinging to the roadside, a pile of large rocks on one side, a pile of small chippings on the other. We crossed the next dam and instead of following the Douro any further, we headed up towards a narrow pass, stopping briefly for some lunch at a small town called Cinfaes.
Above the town, we rose into the sheep grazed moorlands reminiscent of the driest Yorkshire moors, the little patchwork of fields in the valley below gradually petering out to be replaced by rockier and rockier ground. At the head of the pass, the haze stopped us from looking back, but beyond us, the mountains continued larger and more wild to the east. Every so often a little blue and white tiled church pierced the sky with its steeple.
We dropped down a dry valley, and although the green farms of the west never reappeared, the scenery became tamer. The road eventually led to a wide tree lined market place, the stalls being shut up for the day. At the end of the square was the most amazing set of steps I had ever seen. In the now familiar blue and white style, staircases concertinaed back and forth, the centres containing murals and the like. We actually drove up through a wooded parkland to one side to the hotel at the top of the stairs, but let me explain it from the base.