Having enjoyed Spain and Portugal on our own in past years this trip provided the opportunity to experience regions in the north of both countries which were new to us. In Spain the theme of the trip and the path we would follow revolved around the ancient El Camino de Santiago, a series of pilgrimage routes leading to the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela believed to hold the bones of the apostle St. James. Our journey began in the northwest Basque region in Bilbao which has transitioned from an early industrial and shipbuilding center to a modern regional artistic capital. Visits to nearby Guernica provided a reminder of the horror of Spain's Civil War in the late 1930's and a contrast at San Sebastian the glamorous resort town with a spectacular ocean side setting on the Bay of Biscay. Our brief walking exposure to the 500 mile French Way pilgrims' route began in a cold mist on a mountain side near the French border.Fortified by espresso shops and pinxto (tapas) bars we moved on to Pamplona to experience the Saturday night outdoor festivities and walk the path of the annual Running of the Bulls just a week away. Continuing our walks on short segments of the pilgrimage route we moved on to medieval Burgos in Castile with its stunning Gothic cathedral. Our local guide showed us a genealogy proving we are all of Spanish ancestry. The pilgrims route next led to 2,000 year old Leon where we enjoyed astay in the Parador once a magnificent 16th century convent. Leon's renowned chocolate lived up to its reputation.Proceeding on we walkedthe Roman walls surrounding Lugo with their multiple gates and towers. The spires of Santiago's cathedral signaled our destination and we walked pathways leading to the church plaza where pilgrims were arriving at their destination, some having walked hundreds of miles over the past weeks. A figure of St. James resides over the cathedralhigh alter and in the crypt below lie his remains. Thick ropes hung from the ceiling hold the enormous incense burner which is swung across sanctuary at the end of the pilgrims' mass. A visit to the nearby Atlantic coastal community of Cambados to experience the life of its shellfish gathering inhabitants and to sample the local Albarino wine completed our Spanish portion of the trip. Entering northern Portugal via the Roman era hot springs town of Chaves we moved south to serious wine country. With its brilliant green steeply terraced vineyards rising above the winding river, the Douro Valley is truly one of the most beautiful wine regions in the world and the source of renowned port wines. A winery visit with superb wines and lunch heightened the experience. Our trip culminatedin the ancient city of Porto where Portuguese explores set out to discover new worlds. The river side Ribeira area and the hilltop cathedral district were highlights of this historic city. The places and experiences of our itinerary together with our outstandingtour manager made this a most memorable trip.
Our journey began on June 20 with an uneventful flight from Miami to Madrid, a 2 hour layover in Madrid and then a short flight to Bilbao, Spain arriving at 2 pm on June 21. Our hotel for the next 3 night, Hotel Abando, was very well located in the city center. After meeting Catia, our tour director and the young woman training for OAT travel, Diana, we went to our room to get settled. Bilbao, the capital of the province of Biscay, is situated close to the French border and the Pyrenees Mountains. Because of its location it is also near the beginning of the French Way, one of the routes of the Pilgrims to Santiago de Compostela. We went out for a short walk around the area through a lovely, serene park admiring the beautiful old buildings. Stopping at a local tapas bar we shared ham slices on a baguette and a tapas of chopped ham and veggies. After a 1/2 hour nap we joined a walk about the area with Catia and the group ending at the same tapas bar for a selection of tapas and a lamb kebab prepared on a grill. A delicious cold beer made the dinner complete.
6/22 The next morning we met in the hotel to meet our group and learn more about our endearing tour director, Catia. Catia has been a tour guide in Portugal for 14 years and has now been with OAT for three years. She has two children, a girl of 6 and a boy of 4 and lives with them in Lisbon, Portugal. Our 13 members of the tour introduced themselves and told a bit about themselves.
After this we got on our bus, met our driver,Diego, whom we would come to admire greatly as he maneuvered all sorts of difficult terrain, and were astounded at the comfort and size of our new bus. What a treat. We then had a panoramic tour of Bilbao. This small city is located 10 miles from the Bay of Biscay and has a population of 350,000. The city of Bilbao had previously been an industrial area as well as the center of ship building and iron ore mining.
By 1900 it was the wealthiest city in Spain. However the city was polluted and the river which had a 10 metres change in tidal height was also polluted from runoffs from the mining of iron ore. Following a series of earthquakes and civil war the city deteriorated and appeared to be lost. The city has now been magnificently resurrected helped in a large part by the location of a Guggenheim Museum.
We visited the Old Town where in 1983 a huge flood affected all industry and transformed the city. We were impressed to see the old town’s narrow streets decorated with pride banners and flags celebrating Pride Month. The river is now clean and high tech industry has transformed the dirty, polluted city into its present form with 250 companies employing 20,000 workers. According to our local guide, John Adams was the first American tourist to visit Bilbao. We visited the New Square built in the 18th-19th century. In 1520 the main source of income was trading of grain and wool. Ribera market is the largest covered market in Europe and displayed huge collections of meat, fish, fruit and vegetables. A beautiful stained glass window was displayed over the staircase.
We then took a trolley to the Guggenheim Museum. This amazing building is jointly owned by the Basque Government and the Provincial District. An annual fee is paid to the Guggenheim Foundation. As mentioned previously this has been an important addition to Bilbao which has changed the perception of the city. The exterior walls are constructed of 33,000 pounds of titanium which change tone dependent upon the angle of sun and clouds. The building was designed to reflect the importance of the whaling industry as its architecture reflects the fins of a whale. Jeff Koontz sculptures were displayed on the surrounding patios including an enormous sculpture of a dog covered with living plants.
We entered a room devoted to structures reflecting “a Matter of Time”. 1200 tons of Cortin steel were used to construct a variety of enormous shapes whose names related to shapes such as elliptical, spiral and snake. Walking within or through these structures was an interesting experience.
We then walked across a bridge which had been constructed of glass tiles. This bridge quickly became a disaster as walkers slipped and fell on the slippery glass tiles. It is now covered with a carpet. Returning to the old town we enjoyed an expresso and after some searching stopped at a shop with hams hanging in the window. We certainly knew our sandwich was fresh.
That evening we returned to the tapas shop where we had our welcome dinner in their old, interior dining room. The meal consisted of cold pinxtot (tapas) of ham, baby eel and shrimp which were delicious. Then on to hot pinxtos of fish cakes, lamb kebab, salmon and cheese. This was accompanied by a good Rioja wine. Dessert was melon, kiwi, and strawberries covered with whipped cream and an excellent espresso.
6/23 Today we visited Guernica. a small town near Bilbao. On the way we were reminded that the iron ore in Bilbao contained no pyrite which increased its value and made the area famous during WWI.
Guernica was established in 1366 and was the seat of the Basque parliament where the government functioned in the 16th century Assembly House located on the site of the famous oak tree. This tree is one of the many saplings taken from the oak where the early settlers met to govern their colony. In 1937 the Germans bombed Guernica for three hours nonstop at the request of Franco who viewed the town as full of revolutionaries . This horrific tragedy was immortalized in a famous painting by Picasso. We viewed a tile depicting this painting here in the town.
We then met with a young woman of Basque heritage who is an activist in the local movement to make this region independent from Spain. She was quite emotional explaining to us that Basque is the first language of the region and is taught in the schools with Spanish and English as second languages. Children are taught about their generational heritage and continue to retain the surnames of their ancestors. During these years of political unrest in the Basque region many Basque men have emigrated to the US especially to Montana as sheep herders.
We then stopped for a delicious lunch of vegetable soup, boeuf bourginone and red wine followed by flan and espresso. After lunch we drove along the Bay of Biscay with views of the ocean and beaches. Stopping in the country we met two delightful sisters who are managing a local winery producing txakoli wine. The winery its located in their 300 year old ancestral home. Their family originally had an agricultural farm but the sisters were determined to form a winery. They grow only one type of grape in their vineyard bottling 10,000 white wines and 600 red wines annually. We sampled their lovely white wine as the sisters told us their story. Recently they built a second story onto the house and have turned this area into a B&B. They have 8 rooms with two lovely breakfast rooms. The rooms look onto scenic views of the vineyard and countryside. This was a cloudy day without rain and the temperatures of 68-70 degrees very comfortable after the heat of the first day. We also explored their gardens and fruit trees where we enjoyed a small but delicious pear.
That evening we walked to the pedestrian street near our hotel and enjoyed pinxtos of ham and a glass of beer. We cannot stop eating the ham which is really prosciutto and absolutely delicious.
6/24 Today we left Bilbao for Pamplona stopping at San Sebastian on the way.
This was a beautiful drive through heavily forested hills and mountains to the coast. On the way we stopped at an overlook to admire the famous shell shaped La Concha or shell beach San Sebastian is a lovely town with a heavy 19th century French influence. It is a luxury resort location on a par with Nice and Cannes but with a more dramatic geographical setting. The French royalty summered here and Marie Christina retired to the area. We visited a market here with a large variety of fish and shellfish including barnacles which we had never seen as food before. There were also displays of langostinos, monkfish (rape here in Spain), tuna and hake. We stopped to taste two types of sheep cheese.
Lunch was at Morgan Kompany. We began with smooth and creamy squash soup, followed by fish balls, fish spread and hummus. The starters were a vegetable stack of eggplant, zucchini, onion and goat cheese and then an egg roll. This was all accompanied by red wine. We then enjoyed white wine with the entree of hake with a tasty sauce. Dessert was a sorbet and cheese cake followed by espresso.
After lunch we drove to Pamplona where we arrived at Pamplona Catedral Hotel which was an old convent. Our room was a suite with a kingbed room and then an adjoining room with 2 lounges, a safe and a desk. A walk in shower in the bath was a delight. The dining room, the original chapel, was elegant with hanging chandeliers
That evening we enjoyed dinner beginning with a fresh green salad with walnuts, raisins and goat cheese, a vegetable soup, spring roll followed by yogurt. The square near our hotel was filled with people partying, eating and just hanging out. Being a Saturday night probably contributed to the party atmosphere.
6/25 Today we were introduced to the famous area of the running of the bulls. Named after Saint Fermin who was murdered with his head cut off and body cut in two, the running of the bulls commemorates the saint by each individual running wearing white clothing with a red scarf around the neck and a red sash around the waist. We walked this 900 meter run which winds through the city. The bulls complete this run in 3 minutes which ends at the arena where the bullfight will occur later in the day. We began our walk at the pens where the bulls are held until 8 am. Along the beginning of the run, barricades are erected to prevent runners and bulls from deviating from the street. Behind these barriers are spots where medical personnel wait to assist the injured. When the run begins there are 6 fighting black bulls and 6 white and brown bulls to make a pack. Bulls always stay in a pack unless they are separated. This will cause them to panic and injure anyone in the way.
We then walked to the main square where we enjoyed good espresso at Hemingway’s favorite cafe. We returned to the bus and drove up a mountainous road to the French border where we began the El Camino- the Pilgrims’ Way. We walked .8 of a mile at the beginning of the way ending in the small village of Roncasvilla,. We then stopped at the “passport station” where we had our passports stamped to validate our beginning the journey. During the Middle Ages, the three great Christian pilgrimages were Rome, Jerusalem and Santiago de Compostela in Spain. It is believed that the bones of St. James are held in the cathedral here. “The Way of St. James” is comprised of walking routes from various locations in Portugal, Spain and France that lead to Santiago de Compestelo. After our first short walk we stopped for lunch in the village and then walked another 1.5 miles of the Way through a forested area. It is believed that Charlemagne was defeated in battle in this area.
Later in the afternoon we had another discussion on the Basque Independence issue. This gentleman presented the Spanish position and unlike the previous speaker was factual and unemotional about this difficult issue. His premise was that the Spanish government had provided the Basque people with many of their demands and to separate from the Spanish government would lead to hardships for the Basques who had little economic independence nor political support in the Parliament.
6/26 Today we walked 2 1/2 miles to the Puenta de la Reine – the bridge of the queen – in the town of Navarra built by Queen Muniadona. This was again a pleasant walk in the countryside. The actual pilgrims who were walking this “Way” usually arise early and walk during the morning stopping at a village about 20 miles away. They then rest at a hostel or hotel until the next morning. We observed many hikers as we drove through the countryside and in the villages. These “pilgrims” include the faithful performing a true pilgrimage for a variety of reasons and groups of hikers both young and older ages.
Our next destination was west to Burgos driving through acres of wheat fields and vineyards. Burgos is a historic city of the 16th century Castilian kingdom. This city contains many historic 14th and 15th century buildings During our tour of the city we learned that El Cid was buried here and saw a statue in his honor in a large square.
St. Benedict the founder of the Benedictine order, lived here and invented the rosary which he formed by compressing numerous rose petals into round balls. We walked 6 miles today enjoying this historic UNESCO World Heritage city. During our drives today we enjoyed viewing golden wheat fields, miles of broom in full yellow bloom and red poppies along a mesa viewing both mountains and beautiful valleys. Spain is the 2nd most mountainous country in Europe and contains over 1,000 churches.
As we neared Leon we viewed more agricultural fields of corn, potatoes, squash and wheat. We arrived at our parador in time for dinner. this parador is a magnificent structure which was a convent in the 1500s. Lovely tapestries, a serene garden surrounded by walkways and many beautifully preserved rooms provided us with a restful and historic setting.
For dinner this evening we enjoyed prosciutto and garlic soup followed by delicious monkfish(rape) and shrimp brochette with a fine wine. Dessert was crepes with cream and chocolate. Leon was established as a Roman camp in 20BC and has been settled continuously for more that 2,000 years. It is a favorite stop for pilgrims on El Camino.
6/29 We first visited the church of San Isadora this morning. This famous bishop was highly literate and is called the saint of the internet. The church itself was built on the ruins of a Roman temple of the 2nd Century. The church was begun in the 11th century and completed in the 17th century. On the sidewalks we observed bronze sandals imbedded in the concrete. This symbolized the Roman area within the city and represents the left sandal of the first step of a march.
Leon is noted for its chocolate. We enjoyed a morning break in a cafe where we each enjoyed a cup of hot chocolate and churros. The hot chocolate was more like liquid chocolate sauce and the lovely Spanish pastries were dipped into the hot chocolate and then slowly relished
.We continued our tour observing the House of Gaudi built between 1891-1892. Anton Gaudi was born in 1852, the son of coppersmiths. He learned this trade in his family ‘s business. In 1868 he moved to Barcelona where he studied architecture and built many mansions and churches. He was a deeply religious man who built a home for his ailing father and niece outside of Barcelona. In 1891 he was recommended to a fabric company in Leon. He built these three buildings as a family home and workshop. Unfortunately he was run over by a tram and died in 1926.
We then visited the Santa Maria Cathedral which contains the second largest number of stained glass windows in Europe, Chatres is number 1. This was a lovely structure and we were moved by the beautiful stained glass. We learned that a religious structure is called a Cathedral if it is the home church of the local bishop otherwise regardless of size or elegance it is a church.
We enjoyed free time to explore Leon. Lunch was at the Bodega Regia where Warren enjoyed a lentil soup and Marilyn, a lovely mixed salad. The entree was escappoline veal accompanied by a bottle of superior red wine. Dessert was an ice cream torte which was delicious. We found this restaurant on a side street and noticed that the complet menu for noon was quite reasonable. Since the restaurant itself looked most inviting and definitely old we took a chance. Although we were greeted kindly by an elegant maitre d’ we soon realized that we were going to have a language barrier. After much talking and Spanish/English translating we were able to select what we wanted for our meal and were ushered to a table in front of a lovely stained glass window. The food was first class and the service and atmosphere a real treat.
After a brief siesta in our room in the Parador we joined Catia and some of our group for a tour of the Parador. Catia led us through the many ancient rooms dating back to the 14th century when the parador was a convent. She told us about the traditional belief among the pilgrims of this time that Friday the 13th was a day to avoid danger. The Knights Templar who inhabited the convent would accept valuables from the pilgrims and give the pilgrims script in exchange. There was high probability of the pilgrims being robbed of their valuables on their journey and this allowed them to collect money against their valuables for their use along the way. These same knights fought agains the Muslims who attacked the area. The Pope and the King later decided to confiscate the properties of the Knights by decreeing that they were heretics and were to be killed on October 13, a Friday. Forever after Friday the 13th was a feared day.
The convent accepted pilgrims who were walking the “Way” and also nursed those who were ill from the 12th to 15th century. The convents preserved knowledge during the Middle Ages. In the 1400’s the Ottoman Empire invaded Spain and refugees brought knowledge of the arts, literature and religion to the convents.The Renaissance and the rebirth of humanity architecture reflected the change in attitude from the art of reaching for God through soaring spires to lower architecture and the appreciation of man. The convents which still accepted the ill were built outside the city center to avoid spreading disease to the populace.
This same building was a horse stable in the 1800’s and a prison from 1932 to 1939 where Franco kept 7,000 men and 300 women prisoners. From 1960-1970 the Spanish government transformed this building into a Parador.
6/28 Today we visited La Medulas or the gold mines outside Leon. This territory over 100 km was the largest opencast gold mine of the Roman Empire. The Romans channeled the waters from the headwaters into the mountains and allowed the water to cut channels into the mountains to wash the gold down the mountainside.
Heather branches were used to catch the gold flakes as they passed through the rapidly running water. At the end of the run the branches were burned and gold was extracted from the ash.We had a 3 mile walk through the area of the most important gold mine in all of Europe
After lunch, we continued on to Lugo, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and the only city in the world still completely surrounded by Roman Walls. We walked half of the 1.2 miles along the top of the wall and then walked down into the town of Lugo. Within the town we were able to observe the 4th century Roman Baths and the Cathedral and Bishop’s house.
After our stop in Lugo we continued west and finally arrived in Santiago de Compostela. The word “Santiago” is comprised of saint and James ( tiago). The scallop shell worn by the pilgrims and the marker of the Way throughout our trip is the sign for Saint James. The symbol painted on the shell is a cross and a sword
6/29 Today we began our day in Santiago de Compostela. We walked the final mile of the “Way” into town with numerous pilgrims to the sounds of bagpipes greeting the pilgrims. Some of the people who had walked the 500 miles or less were jubilant. Some running the last few yards while others were hugging, crying and cheering as they joined together in the square. It was quite a remarkable sight. We had our passports stamped once more and enjoyed the festivities in the square.
Legend has it that the apostle James’ body was returned from Jerusalem where he was murdered to Santiago where his remains were buried on a hill. In the 9th century a shepherd watching his sheep followed a bright star to a site where the bones were found. At first a chapel was built on the site but as more and more pilgrims came to worship the cathedral was built. The Moors destroyed the cathedral in the 10th century but protected the bones. In the 18th century the front facade was added but the rest of the cathedral remains as it was in the Romanesque style of the 11th-13th century when it was rebuilt. DNA tests of the bones have determined that Saint James was of 80% Celtic origin.
After a quick lunch of a ham sandwich and beer, the group went to a small restaurant to try the local delicacy of boiled octopus. We were shown the fresh octopus before boiling and then waited a short time until the octopus was cut into small pieces and served with boiled potatoes.While we were waiting for the octopus the manager brought fresh cooked sardines. It is currently the season for sardines. The octopus and sardines were delicious but some of our group chose not to partake.
We are now in the province of Galicia which has a total unemployment of 20% but individuals between 20 and 30 experience a rate of 50%. This is an area that still believes in spirits and witches. The people of Galicia are Celtic sharing the same historic origins as the original peoples of Ireland and Scotland. Out in the countryside we stopped for our evening adventure. As we entered the area of the home we were directed to notice the corn storage shed on pilings. This was a typical way that the farmers protected their grain from rodents and other creatures.We went to the restaurant to observe the tradition of protecting oneself from these evil spirits. The dining room had a spectacular view of the countryside with gently rolling hills. We first enjoyed a delicious meal which began with ham and cheese platters and razor clams, which were tasty, somewhat reminiscent of little necks but much larger. We then had a delicious entree of veal and potato accompanied by an excellent red wine. Dessert was a scrumptious almond cake.
We then watched while one of waiters came out dressed as a good witch and mixed a brew to chase the spirits away. This brew consisted of sugar, orange and lemon peel, coffee beans and a large amount of clear alcohol. It was then set on fire and as it burned we were each served a flaming cup. During the preparation a long incantation was said which Catia, stirring the brew as it flamed, read in translated form. A brother and sister bagpipe team then entered and played traditional bagpipe music while we sipped our brew which was surprisingly pleasant. We then all danced to the bagpipes. The sister was dressed in a black 19th century wedding dress valued at 2100 Euros. She explained the brides at that time wore a large amount of gold on their chests and to show off their gold they chose to wear black. A great fun evening was enjoyed by all of us.
6/20 Today was spent in Cambados, a small Atlantic coastal fishing village near Santiago. As we stopped for our local guide we noticed a hungry seagull availing itself of someone’s groceries stored in a bicycle basket. Our local guide was a woman in her mid fifties who digs clams every day 12 months of the year. She belongs to an association of 225 persons. There is a 6 person board who governs the number of kilos of shellfish each person can collect in one day. They can collect only until 5 pm and all shellfish collected must be sold on that day. No fish can be sold on the next day. Each person earns between 900 and 1,000 euros a month. She shared with us that the work is very hard especially during the cold winters.
We then visited the nearby fish market where we observed numerous types of fish and shellfish harvested by the locals.Some fisherman fish during the day and others during the night. I do not think we have every seen a market with so much fish and shellfish. It was very crowded with buyers and our guide told us that most of the fish would be sold by the end of the day.
We next visited a gourmet fish cannery which opened in 2009. It cans predominately sardines and exports to the US and Australia. Persons work 8 hours per day and are dependent upon the arrival of the truck carrying the sardines. 12-15 people manage 30-40 women. The sardines’ heads, guts and tail are removed and the fish cleaned. It then goes to a alt water bath to finish the cleaning. The sardines are then placed one by one on a toaster for about 15 minutes. Following this they are placed in cans belly up. Oil is then placed in the tin . Each tin will contain approximately 40 sardines. Approximately 3-4,000 cans are produced each day. Everything in the factory is done by hand which may explain the wholesale price of 4-5 euros per can. The Pena family has maintained this business for 2 centuries.
We drove into the country to a local winery. We were served calamari, peanuts and bread along with the homemade wine drunk from small bowls. The owner told us through a translator neighbor that he does not separate the grapes from the branches during the harvest but uses the branches as a filter during the gentle pressing of the grapes. The liquid is placed in stainless steel tanks for 10-15 days for natural fermentation to occur. There is no temperature control. The wine is then transferred to another tank. In 6 months the wine is ready to be filtered again. A basil branch is placed at the entrance to his home to let his neighbors know the wine is ready. Harvest occurs for 2-3 weeks in September.
We then visited a 14th century palace still owned by the aristocratic family. This palace had lovely 14th century tapestry. The woman conducting our tour was a direct descendant of the military family who initially owned the palace and grounds. She showed us a painting of her great great grandfather, the Marquis of Figaro, .
7/1 Today we left Spain and entered the country of Portugal. As we drove Catia pointed out the many eucalyptus trees growing along the road. These invasive trees from Australia absorb all the water and minerals from the soil preventing other plants and trees from growing , the leaves are toxic for any other use. Fire burns very fast when in the area of these trees and the leaves can fly up to 1.2 miles spreading the fire rapidly.
These trees were initially planted because they grow very fast and can be cut every four years . They regrow after cutting therefore providing a constant source for the paper industry. The recent Portugal fires were fueled by eucalyptus where 60 people were killed 45 of whom had been killed in their cars trying to escape the area.
We arrived in Chaves and were given time to walk around the local market. Chaves is also the site of hot springs which a few of our members enjoyed while we visited the market. We especially appreciated the lovely floral arrangements being completed as well as the fish and cheese displays. As we drove to our home-hosted meal Catia gave us some facts. Portugal has 10.5 million populations compared to Spain’s 46 million. The city of Porto where we will end our trip is the 2nd largest city in Portugal after Lisbon.
We were dropped off at our home-hosted home and were greeted by two women whom we learned were the mother and the former babysitter of the young man who was our host. These were delightful women who greeted us warmly and led us into the home. The son is a neuroscience Phd who earns 600 euros per month and pays 500 for his apartment and a loan to the bank. His mother and his babysitter whom he refers to as his grandmother served us a lovely meal beginning with a delicious soup of carrots, zucchini and leek. We then enjoyed spaghetti with chicken and chestnuts. Dessert was a delicious torte, port and coffee. The son told of us a trick used by the Germans to detect a spy by asking the person to count 1-2-3 with their fingers. A German counts beginning with the little finger and an American beginning with the index finger as we proved when he asked us to perform this task before his explanation. We also learned that a number of families in this village were repatriated from Angola after the war. After dinner we joined the rest of the group in another home where the hostess sang Fado songs to us. Fado is the collection of traditional Portuguese songs.
After leaving our hosts, we stopped in Chaves. Chaves means key in Portuguese and is viewed as the key to Portugal. There is evidence that this area has been occupied since early Paleolithic times and has been continuously occupied since Roman times. We visited the Roman bridge, the Cathedral and the Castle. We then left to drive to the Duoro Valley.
This was a spectacular drive through rolling hills and terraces of vineyards one above the other. This is the only area authorized to produce port wine . Twenty percent of these 250,000 hectares can produce port wine. We arrived at the Vintage Hotel on the Duoro River late in the afternoon . We had an elegant room with a balcony overlooking the river. Dinner in the hotel that evening was a real treat. We began with puff pastry stuffed with chicken and spinach which was followed by a stack of veal, potato and julienne vegetables. Red and white wine accompanied the meal.
7/2 Today we drove along the Duoro River which we were told is a micro-climate. The mountains protect the valley from harsh weather and the slate stone in the soil heats during the day and releases heat at night maintaining a constant temperature. Roots of the grape vines reach 45 feet into the soil preventing erosion. Climbing the steep hills of the vineyards is very hard work since machines cannot be used to pick the grapes or care for the vineyards.
We stopped to visit the Pacheca Vineyards. Our guide, Rui met us and began our tour. This vineyard owns 620 olive trees as well as the vineyards. In 1760 the government began controlling the wine region. There are 500,000 hectares total in the region while only 40,000 hectares are used as vineyards. The Pacheca family was the first owner in 1738 and it has been a family business ever since. They own 5100 hectares and produce 250,000 bottles per year.
Their reserve wine is produced on the oldest vines of 50-60 years. They have 6 different grapes. Rui stopped at a grape vine and showed us some grapes that were fully formed clusters while other were still small. Maturation is different on the same trunk and these differences produce a different taste. The Gran Reserva is made from one particular grape. It is important to plant the vines in the right place for solar exposure and humidity. All port includes at least 4 types of grapes. All red wines include one reserva. In 1961 300 stones were placed in the district to mark the limit of the area for port wines.
As we looked at the acres of vineyards in this valley we wondered where they found enough people to handpick the grapes. This vineyard employs about 40 workers from Eastern Europe. There is a corporation which brings in the people from these countries and houses them.
We asked about the tradition of stomping the grapes. Only red wine is produced from stomping grapes. For 4 hours workers stomp arm in arm in the pits which extracts tannin, sugar and the flavor from the grapes.
Port wine is sweet and fortified with 19-33% alcohol. The institute controls everything about the production. The tank called the lager is where the wine ferments for one week. Port ferments for only 3-4 days resulting in a higher sugar content. White port is made from white grapes. Rose port is made from red grapes but the time to stomp is limited. Tawny port is aged in small barrels which results in more oxidation since the wine is exposed to a greater surface of the barrel. Ruby port is aged in larger barrels resulting in no oxidation and a longer period of aging from 2-4 years. Three to four drops of brandy is added to the barrels to stop fermentation. One small barrel provides 550 liters of port while the large barrels provide 16,000 liters.
After our tour we enjoyed a lunch prepared by our group. We had salted cod, octopus and a salad accompanied by superb red or white wine followed by creme brûlée, tawny port and espresso. Quite a nice experience.
In the early evening we had a delightful boat ride on the Duoro. The boat we were on was a copy of the boats used to transport barrels of port to the harbor. In the late 18th century the English came to Portugal to export port and import textiles. There are many British names associated with the vineyards in the area. Sixty percent of the olive oil consumed in Brazil is produced in Southern Portugal.
7/3 In 1926 the dictator Salazar was controlling Portugal. The population was illiterate and had no sense of what was happening in the country. He distracted the population with 3 F’s, football(soccer), Fado and Fatima or sports, music and religion. This set of facts was given to us as we drove to a meeting in a small village, Favaios . We walked to a small open air bakery where we met Rosala. At 13 she left her family of 10 siblings to become a housemaid for Salazar in Lisbon. She said that he was like a father to her and the other 7 girls who worked for him. From the ages of 15-19 she stayed in Salazar’s home. At 66, she now runs her home bakery producing 7-800 loaves a day. We enjoyed her fresh bread and jam and a glass of moscatel. This was a very special morning meeting Rosala, hearing her story and watching her lovingly making her loaves of bread.
During our drive we passed cork trees. Cork trees must be 25 years old before the cork bark can be removed from the tree. Cork can be removed again in 9 years. The date of removal is written on the stripped tree to assure the bark is not removed before the 9 year period. Cork trees can live for 250 -300 years. Three million corks per year are produced in Portugal. About 10-15 years ago a handicraft industry was developed in which all sorts of items are now produced. Before the cork is used in handicrafts it must be boiled to make it flat. It is then pressed to produce a sheet 4 inches thick. This sheet is then cut to produce a large variety of handcrafts. Cork is extremely resistant to the elements and will not stain.
We asked Catia about the healthcare in Portugal. There is a national health system provided to all residents which is funded by taxes. All maternity care is free at public hospitals. Catia did say that new mothers are in large rooms with others but they receive, in her opinion, the best care. If a person earns less than 600 euros monthly he or she will receive totally free health care. Dental care is very expensive but is free to children until 18 years. In the public system there is a long wait for specialists. Prescriptions are obtained from the family doctor and available within one week. There is private health care available at a high cost.
We drove along the river arriving in Porto. Porto is one of the oldest cities in Portugal being inhabited for the past two thousand years. The name Porto gave Portugal its name since the city was originally called Portus Cale in the ninth century. Portuguese sailors were the world’s leading explorers in the 14th and 15th centuries and Porto was the initial port for many explorations.
To begin our exploration of the city we started at the Stock Exchange. In the 19th century the son of King Charles closed all the monasteries.This particular monastery next to the Church of St. Francis became the commercial exchange center for the city. We toured this amazing building marveling at the granite sculptures and paintings representing the wine transport industry and the judgements of courts. In one painting we remarked that the queen was not wearing her crown which was placed beside her. We were told that in 1640 it was decreed that no king or queen could be painted wearing his or her crown. A 19th century reception hall was in the Moorish style and was dazzling to behold.
We then walked next door to the 16th century St. Francis Church which was extremely ornate covered with 600 pounds of gold leaf. This display reminded us of the power of wealthy inhabitants in this era.
After this we walked to a restaurant where Catia had arranged for us to try the Francesinha- little French sandwich- which was anything but little. The sandwich consists of slices of ham, steak and sausage between bread covered with melted cheese and served with a beer sauce. Warren and I shared one sandwich which really did not meet our expectations.
7/4 Today we spent on our own exploring the upper city of Porto. We walked along the river until we came to the funicular which took us up an astounding steep climb to the upper city. We spent all day walking around the narrow streets near the Cathedral admiring beautifully tiled buildings. At lunch we had an orange juice, plate of prosciutto and vegetable soup. Today has been much cooler and very pleasant. We finally made our last purchases of a small cork bag for me, an olive dish to replace the Greek one we broke and a gift. As we returned to our hotel along the river we stopped to enjoy a group from the Medical School who were entertaining with Portuguese music. After returning to the room around 4 for a rest we joined the group for dinner by the river at a very pleasant restaurant.
7/5 This is the last day of our trip. Today we took the funicular up to the upper city. We explored a totally separate area from what we had done yesterday.Catia directed our attention to a lovely 17th century church covered with beautiful blue and white tiles. These tiles depicted stories from the bible and were intended to tell these stories to the illiterate populace. We then visited the central square where we admired the lovely old buildings. Our student discussion took place in a quiet cafe where we enjoyed espresso while meeting Jove ( John), an archtectural student at the University.
During Salazar time 3 or more people gathered together were considered revolutionaries and arrested. Students designed a suit and cape to be worn during this time to standardize the dress for all students. The cape was wrapped around the student at night to remain less visible to the militia. In recent times the capes have been used to display badges of courses completed and cities visited or lived in. Jove also told us J.K. Roland, the author of the Harry Potter novels, lived in Porto when she was beginning her books. She was quite poor and spent her time in a local bookstore where she had a desk on which she wrote. We visited the bookstore which is now unfortunately a tourist trap with persons lined up for the opportunity to enter the store for 4 euros and view where she wrote. It was so crowded that we could barely walk up the stairs to see her desk and view the hundreds of books displayed on first and second floors at rather outrageous prices. The cape worn by the students inspired Harry’s “invisible cape” in the books. Jove also shared a tradition the students observe at graduation. Each student asks his/her friends, relatives and acquaintances to write a few words about the student on a piece of paper. At graduation all of the pieces are collected in one place and burned.
Jove then proceeded to tell us how education works in Portugal. In high school one must choose between sciences, arts, economics and literature. For an architectural school one must score high in math and geometry in the national exam. . Salazar encouraged education for all of society. The cost of education is 900 euros per year for a public college or university. In order to remain in school a student must pass each year except the first. If a student does not pass the first year he/she must take the national exam again. A private college will cost between 300 and 500 euros per month but will provide better career opportunities. People frequently leave Portugal to go to other countries to improve career opportunities. Portugal therefore loses brain power. Classes are taught predominately in English. Jove was an interesting student and did share that he feels he must leave Portugal to find a job in architecture even though we have observed a large amount of building and rehabilitation of old buildings in our travels. Apparently this work is done by large corporations with little opportunity for new local hiring.
At lunch we went to the Escondidinho, a 17th century building which was most attractive with lovely glazed tiles preserved from the past. We enjoyed a delicious squash soup followed by chicken, french fries, cabbage and mushrooms. Dessert was a lovely panna cotta with enormous blueberries grown by the owner of the restaurant.
After lunch we visited the old railroad station where we viewed 1950 tiles depicting historical events and everyday life. Our Farewell Dinner was excellent. We tasted puff pastry stuffed with goat cheese and served with tomato jelly. We then had cod and potatoes which were delicious. For dessert we had a chocolate cake and slices of pineapple. Of course the meal was accompanied with good red and white wine. We all reviewed our trip and its highlights and then headed back to the hotel to pack for our return to the US. We all agreed this had been an excellent experience with an outstanding group director.