Winding and Wining Through Portugal and Spain

portuguese-countryside

The steep hillside of Soajo, in northern Portugal, has stone cart-paths that have existed for centuries.

Arga de Sao Joao, with some 70 inhabitants and perhaps five times as many sheep and goats, became our home away. It was in this mountain village in the coastal northwest of Portugal that we rented a restored, 300-year-old farm cottage called Casa das Pires. Except for the random toll of collar bells, like wind chimes, and the bleat of sheep, the airy serenity of early autumn in the Serra de Arga mountains and panoramic views toward Spain reigned undisturbed.

The cottage was both a delightful online find and a bucolic gateway to day trips in the Minho region in northern Portugal. At our leisure, after a breakfast in the morning sun on a terrace under the cottage’s portico, we would choose broad beaches or mountain hiking past monasteries or wandering around coastal towns such as Caminha, with its fish markets and shelves of vinho verde, Ponte de Lima and Ponte de Barca, and a bracing climb, following stone cart paths worn by the centuries, in Soajo.

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In Bilbao, La Salve bridge creates a pop of color on the horizon.

The road to Arga de Sao Joao began for us in Spain, in the city of Bilbao, and Frank Gehry’s sculpted and resplendently curvaceous Guggenheim Museum. Nearby, on the waterfront promenade, is Santiago Calatrava’s slender and luminous White Bridge. By car, we journeyed west from Bilbao along the rugged coast of Galicia to fabled Santiago de Compostela with its flocks of pilgrims, where we spent a night in the magisterial Parador Hostal de Los Reyes Catolicos.

Those cultural cornerstones savored and stowed, we headed south toward our principal destination, Portugal.

In Arga de Sao Joao, we walked on cobblestone paths past stone corn cribs and ubiquitous grape vines, greeting neighbors as they guided sheep to graze or emerged from fields, as several women did with canopies of harvested grasses for silage or cabbage leaves draping their heads. We purchased North Atlantic fish called dourada (sea bream), goat cheese and freshly baked breads, and wine from city markets, and ate on our terrace and lazed outdoors, surrounded by fragrant lemon trees and fig trees, and mists rising across the valley.

After a week of this Iberian tranquility, we were seduced, and had to force ourselves, gently, into the car for the next legs of the journey.

Pinhao, on a bend of the Duoro River in the terraced hillsides of wine (or, more accurately, port) country, is also along a rail line — the “grape train,” as it’s known. The charms of quaint Pinhao are picturesque, primarily, but Lonely Planet mentioned a good and reasonably priced place to stay on the main street that boasted, in guidebook speak, of “a humble but well-regarded restaurant.”

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Frank Gehry’s design for the Guggenheim Museum Bilbao is one of the city’s most famous landmarks.

The book was all too humble in its estimation. The Restaurante e Residencial Ponto Grande served a prix-fixe dinner (at a most modest price) that included a welcoming flask of port; vegetable soup; bread and sardines; a pitcher of red wine; a bulging platter of stewed pork ribs and cabbage; a side dish of beans and pork; a salad of lettuce, tomato and onions; rice; grapes; fruit cocktail; and a finishing glass of port. (The next evening’s dinner — same price, potions, and portions — also featured the same abundance.) 
Our snug lodgings upstairs came with a balcony overlooking the town, river, and train station, a particular delight at night. A lonely train station in a country village, aglow in lamplight, and adorned with mosaic landscapes fashioned from brilliant ocean blue tiles and gold trim.

For all its pleasures, Pinhao was also a short drive from several lushly fertile and steeply terraced vineyards and wine-producing plantations, called “quintas,” and their tasting rooms for varieties of port.

Reluctantly, we moved on once again, this time to South of the Duoro Valley, between Viseu and Mangualde in the Beira Alta region of central Portugal. Here we spent a final few days hiking along the Dao River. We walked through farmland, forest, and vineyards, and, hopping along a makeshift roadway of boulders through a riverbed, we arrived at Alcafache, a renowned healing spa with sulphur springs in the vicinity of an ancient Roman army encampment.

During our weeks in Portugal, we visited a few cities, notably bustling Porto and the elegant Coimbra, with its stately 13th century university. But mostly, we indulged our appetite for this country in the sensual pleasures of its countryside.

All photos by Liesbeth Slosberg

Steven Slosberg worked as a journalist for Connecticut newspapers for 35 years, including more than two decades as a columnist for The Day in New London. He also has written book reviews for The New York Times and the Hartford Courant and has published freelance stories in The Times, the Boston Globe, Harvard Magazine, Connecticut Magazine, and Connecticut Explored, among other publications. He is a graduate of Oberlin College and lives in Stonington, CT with his wife, Liesbeth.

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