The Year of the Cat

In the morning there was some disappointing cloud over the hills in the distance but I was much happier when I was able to confirm that these were away to the north and today we were planning to drive south into neighbouring Portugal.

Because it was about a hundred kilometres to the border we took the direct route south down the E1 motorway, the Autopista del Atlantico.  I usually try to steer clear of the motorways because of the tolls and although this was costing a couple of euros at worryingly regular intervals it was a good decision because it was a nice easy road to drive without a great deal of traffic, probably because everyone else was doing what I usually do and avoiding the tolls and using the congested coast road instead.  And it was an attractive route as well that took us through green pine forests and spectacular rural scenery with occasional glimpses of the azure blue sea.

The coast of this green corner of the Iberian Peninsula is known as the “Costa do Marisco” which translates as the seafood coast and the ninety-thousand fishermen from the Galician coastal ports provide all of Spain with fifty per cent of its fish and that is quite a lot because, after the Portuguese, the Spanish eat more fish per head than anyone else in Europe.

The motorway took us first past Pontevedra and over a suspension bridge and past the city of Vigo, which is the largest fishing port in Spain and finally to Tui, the last city in Galicia, before crossing the River Minho into Portugal.  We had our passports ready but they weren’t required and we drove effortlessly into another European country, left the motorway and drove down the south bank of the river and on towards the coast.  After the motorway the quality of the road surface deteriorated but it was enjoyable motoring and there weren’t too many cars about.

After a short while we came to Caminha, which is an ancient fortress town overlooking the river Minho and is rich in historical and architectural importance. It didn’t look too promising down on the river but a short walk to the centre revealed a most appealing town with manorial houses and medieval defensive walls, a Gothic church, and a very attractive main square with cafés and a 15th century clock tower, which was sadly covered in tarpaulin while they carried out repairs.

Especially interesting were the houses with colourful tiled walls in bright blues, greens and yellows.  There was one of those old fashioned hardware stores that you rarely see in Europe anymore and all of the houses had metal balconies that reminded me of pictures of Latin South America and Cuba.  Portugal is one of the poorest countries in Europe, and behind the tiled walls we could see that the houses were made of tin, but it is the seventh safest country in the world and the fourth biggest consumer of wine, after France, Italy and Germany, and so we choose a table at a café to help them maintain this statistic.

The place had an easy ambiance and a lazy appeal that made us reluctant to leave but there were other places to see so we returned to the car and moved on.  But not very far because just a few kilometres away at the fishing village of Vila Praia de Ancora we stopped again and scrambled over the rocks and down to the Atlantic Ocean, which was fresh and clean and the waves rolled in and crashed over the defensive line of rocks and threw salty spray up into the air.  There were deep rock pools alive with creatures that reminded me of family holidays in Cornwall and seagulls flew overhead and kept scanning the shoreline in search of lunch.

Next stop was the busy town of Viana do Castelo, which is spread along the north bank of the Lima estuary and is famous for its handicrafts and colourful regional costumes.  I carefully parked the car and we walked through the fishermen’s quarter where the restaurants were all serving rustic helpings of fresh fish to the men who had recently come in from the sea.  In the main square were the churches and the convents and the town hall and down a side street we selected a little restaurant and ate more fish at a pavement table and watched the people of the town going about their business.

It was early afternoon and really quite hot and the town had a soporific feel that made me think of my favourite Al Stewart song ‘Year of the Cat’:

‘She comes out of the sun in a silk dress running like a watercolour in the rain, don’t bother asking for explanation she’ll just tell you she came from the Year of the Cat… By the blue tiled walls near the market stalls there’s a hidden door she leads you to, these days she says I feel my life is like a river running through, the Year of the Cat’

And then we moved on again, in land this time towards the ancient town of Ponte de Lima with a bridge that crosses the River Lima into the town that has twenty-four arches, four of which on the south bank are the original Roman construction.  It was really hot now and we walked across the bridge and watched some men optimistically trying to catch the huge carp that we could see clearly swimming in the water below and teasing the men on the bridge above.  They were big fish and had been around a long time so I don’t think they were going to get caught this afternoon.  Before we left we had a drink at a shabby roadside bar under the welcome shade of strategically placed umbrellas and then we left and returned to the motorway for the drive back to Spain.

This was a really relaxing drive as we travelled along the elevated sections of the motorway at the same height as the tops of the pine trees we admired the views all around.  Galicia has preserved dense Atlantic forests where wildlife is commonly found and is relatively unpolluted.  The untouched countryside is composed of green hills, steep cliffs and estuaries and is very different from what is traditionally imagined as typical Spanish landscape.   An important geographical feature of Galicia is the presence of many fjord-like indentations on the coast.  These are called rías and are divided into the Rías Altas, and the Rías Baixas and they are important for fishing, and make the entire coastline an important marine area. They also make for long journeys because the roads follow the coast and seem to go on endlessly.

The reason for driving to A Toxa was simply to see its only famous tourist attraction; the small twelfth century church of San Caralampio set in beautiful gardens and which is completely covered in scallop shells.  We crossed the bridge from O Grove to the island and by a combination of a stroke of luck and by driving the wrong way down a one way street we found it almost immediately.  It had been a long way to drive but it was really worth it and the church looked magnificent in the late afternoon sun and framed against a perfect blue sky with its gleaming scallop shells bleached white by the sun.

We left A Toxa and followed the coast road, which was tortuously slow drive through all of the little coastal towns on the way and culminating in a massive traffic jam in the scruffy town of Villagarcia de Arosa.   It had been a long but rewarding day and I was really pleased to reach the hotel bar for a glass of cold beer and a plate or two of appetizers before eating once again in the hotel.  The restaurant was interesting, there was a section for the coach party and a separate part for others including a table for a team of road workers who arrived late, still in their work cloths, and quickly demolished plates of specially prepared food.  We had fish again of course, a last drink and a game of cards in the hotel lounge in the company of the Spanish coach party from Alicante.

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