Saturday, September 01, 2007

The Douro Valley

As alluded to a couple posts down, our day trip through the Douro River region was the highlight of our trip. We stumbled onto the day accidentally and as a result of some trials and tribulations, so it was a nice reminder of how to make lemonade out of lemons, and, well, why the little things (demonic dogs included) aren't worth stressing over.

The company who ran our trip was called (I think) Living Tours. I've looked around for them on the web, but without success. Most tourist operations in Portugal are local affairs, so you can't book a lot of excursions online or in advance from afar. Anyway, we were picked up promptly at our hotel at 9:15am on Sunday morning by a friendly driver, Fernando, and a woman who we think was Fernando's mom. We loaded into the back seat of a small, modern minivan and set off to pick up the other two people who'd be joining us, a middle-aged married couple from Spain. They didn't speak any English, but Rob speaks a little Spanish, so we were able to communicate a bit throughout the day. Fernando transitioned seemlessly between English, Spanish, and Portuguese.

It was a rainy morning, the only bad weather we had in Portugal. Up until that point we'd joke if we spotted a single cloud in the sky and say, "Wow, the weather is terrible today." Portugal's summer weather is just gorgeous. Our itinerary for the day was four towns and a vineyard in the Douro region. Lunch was included and we'd be back at our hotel before 7pm.

The first town was Amarante. There we saw an old cathedral and a historic bridge. The rumor about Amarante is that the town and just about everything in it was founded by a hermit/monk named Goncalo. The hermit is now a saint, buried in the town's cathedral. Touching the tomb of Sao Goncalo is supposed to bring you luck -- especially if you're unmarried and desiring a mate. Not surprisingly then, the stone on the carved hands, feet, and face of Sao Goncalo atop the town are significantly worn down from all the attention from luck-seekers.

Here's the outside of the cathedral which is attached to the town hall/small art museum dedicated to a local cubist painter from the early/mid 20th century who is a bit famous.

A view from inside the cathedral.

The cathedral also housed beautiful cloisters.

Here's us in the cloisters. Can you tell that right before the camera lashed we were debating about where to stand so we'd be appropriately off-center? :)

Just outside the cathedral was the town's famous bridge, where locals held off the French who needed a river crossing in 1809. (I imagine the river was a bit more ferocious then). The defense of the bridge allowed the townspeople on the other side of the river to flee to safety before the French made it across and burned down many of the homes in the town.

A view of the bridge and the river (a small river that leads to the Douro River).
Me on the bridge with the countryside behind.

Next we arrived in in the Douro Valley, just across the mountains. We caught some gorgeous views of the rivers, loved the wind-power-generating windmills surrounded by clouds atop the mountains, and drove through the town of Regua -- the region's main stop in the transport of port from the region down to Porto and Gaia. We crossed the Douro River and headed into the small town of Lamego.

The lower bridge is the one we crossed. This is the Douro.

We saw two of Lamego's main attractions, its cathedral and its shrine. The cathedral dates back to 1129, although not much remains of the 12th century structure. I think most of today's cathedral is from the 16th century. It is gorgeous from the outside, but we didn't spend much time inside because there was a mass going on.

This is Rob in front of the ornate entrance to the cathedral.

We did get to take some time looking around the cloisters, also from the 16th century, which housed some special rooms, although we didn't know what the rooms were used for precisely.

Here are the cloisters with the cathedral rising up in the background.

This is the alter inside one of the rooms just off the cloisters. The gilded carvings reminded us a bit of what we saw inside the Ingreja de Sao Francisco in Porto the day before.

Next our guide drove us up into the hills of Lamego to spare us the climb up 600+ stairs to the Sancutary of Nossa Senhora dos Remedios. You may have heard of a Portugues shrine on top of a hill where pilgrims climb hundreds of stairs on their hands and knees to show their religious devotion. Ironically, doing this is supposed to bring you good health (tell that to your knees). The town has a pilgrimage festival beginning in late August and culminating on the main climbing day of September 8th, so we saw decorations all over the town in anticipation of the big day.

Here is the shrine, dating back to the 12th century, and the last of the stairs leading up to it. Multiply these stairs by about 12 and you'll get a sense of the total climb.

This is the view looking down from that first landing. The decorations on the small metal posts are for the August/September celebrations. You can also see the gorgeous mountains surrounding the town in the background.

Next it was time for lunch and at a "scenic overlook." We were expecting sandwiches at a picnic area, but we were enormously mistaken. We headed back towards Regua.

We stopped at a restaurant with this view of Regua from across the Douro.

More of the view here. Forgive my photography. It does no real justice to what we saw, which was nothing short of breathtaking.

We ate here, at the Restaurant Torrao, and it was the very best meal we had during our entire trip. AMAZING beyond words. Did I mention how amazing it was? But I've got to get some cleaning done, so I'll finish blogging about the Douro trip later today.

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