Some couples have very simple commemorations, and others are elaborate. I don’t know what the mean number of “special days” is for married people, but we have a few. We can’t put an exact date on when we met, or first corresponded, or a bunch of other firsts, but we’ve got a pretty clear idea of when the relationship per se kicked off. In honor of the 19th of these anniversaries to come around, we decided to rent a car and see something of Portugal other than Braga. Yes, after 3 months (and not counting trips to and from airports) we’re finally starting to expand our horizons within the country we live in. The first week of March has us in Viana do Castelo followed by Guimarães. (oooo fancy accents, they’ve gone native.) Let us begin in … *checks internet* … (really? siiiigh ok…) Viana of the Castle. The translation may be underwhelming but the place wasn’t.
John picked up our rental car on Wednesday morning. He hadn’t even thought about it, but this was in fact the first time either of us had driven a car in Portugal. While this made him momentarily nervous, the truth is that driving in Portugal is pretty simple. Like all of Europe except the UK, they drive on the right and the steering wheel is on the left. The main and secondary roads are in nice shape, with nice wide lanes and comprehensive pavement markings; this puts them close to the top of the list of countries we’ve driven in so far. Now, once you start driving in the towns and villages you’re as likely to end up on lanes that are one car wide regardless of how many directions traffic ostensibly flows, but that’s Europe for you. They are a lot less willing to knock down somebody’s house in the name of progress, so the horse path from the 1800s that the houses were built along is still the only real estate you get for driving a car. (And here’s some of our very infrequent travel advice: rent the smallest car you can comfortably you and your luggage into, you will inevitably encounter some tight spaces. We’ll tell more stories, but that’s for another time.) Anyway, it wasn’t long before the driving stopped being an active concern; we were back in the saddle.
We hit the road for Viana do Castelo. We kept to the most direct route on good roads, which meant the drive was a little more than an hour. Our actual destination was a pousada at the top of a hill, next to a Catholic sanctuary(? more on this later). Hang on, you say, what the heck is a pousada? Excellent question. A pousada is Portugal-specific term for an historical institution, such as a castle or monastery, that has been converted into an accommodation. Reports differ on whether these are government-owned or if there are simply arrangements with the government that allow such historical sites to be commercialized. In any case, this particular example is lovely, although as a restoration of an iconic, older hotel it may be the least radical. The rooms are comfortable and the views are, as promised, fantastic. Viana do Castelo is where the river Lima meets the Atlantic Ocean, so it has a dynamic coastline. We spent a couple of evenings hanging out in the enormous bar area, not our usual habit to say the least, just so we could enjoy the views out of the giant windows there.
We spent a nice morning the next day at the AXIS wellness spa; it was lovely but also a little janky. This is where partial language barriers can cause problems. Our meager Portuguese and the providers’ better-but-not-great English meant that we couldn’t sort out a few things, and we were delivered into the place by somehow bypassing the typical ditch-your-clothes-and-grab-your-robes dance, which the providers didn’t know what to do with. Also, the “hydrotherapy” turned out to be sharing an olympic pool with a couple of aquarobics classes going on, which made it not nearly so appealing. Still, getting rubbed by professionals (you’re welcome) is almost always a treat, and we left there feeling refreshed. We poked around Viana do Castelo a little more, mostly to determine that, yes, we needed to come back so we could devote more time to the place. We did have two meals on this leg of the trip that ranged from really really good to f#(*&@ fantastic; naturally you can read about these over on the ole Facebook page.
On our way out of town we made time to see the Cidade Velha, or “old city”. This is where there are quaint shops and houses from the 1700s or so, right? Well, no. Try a run from ~500 BCE through the end of the Roman era. It was great; it was also unremarked upon by any guide we’d seen or the hotel itself (you can see the site from the hotel’s pool, as in you can jump the fence and be on the grounds(!)). If we didn’t have our passionate-amateur level of understanding of these kinds of places we probably wouldn’t have known it was there, but the stone walls we saw behind a fence on the way to the pousada were suspicious, and the catwalks we saw a moment later were a dead giveaway. We passed through two trailer-sized buildings with a little gate between them; it seemed deserted so we slipped in. One glance told us the place was going to be amazing; sometimes these sites are a couple of stone circles and a lot of signage trying to pump you up about them. This site has a couple dozen home remnants, plus fortifications and a Roman-era garrison.
As we start to walk up the gangway, a woman comes rushing out from one of the buildings while waving at us. Long story short, there is in fact an admission fee of 2 euros. We offer to go back to our car and get our wallets, but when she realizes this hassle level she tells us not to worry and we can take care of it on the way out. Great. So we spend a lovely hour or so just meandering through the site, chatting about our best guesses for a whole bunch of things. (There’s not much point to a blow-by-blow account, one can only describe circles of rocks so many different ways before the interest runs dry.) On our way out we grab some cash and head back in to pay, and that’s when the visit was kicked up a notch. We more than half-suspected that anyone willing to work such a remote outpost on a Friday morning was really into their job. We had a great 15 minute conversation where she explained some things to us, utilizing hasty sketches on the back of receipts when our mutual pidgin talk failed us. She actually smiled shyly when she explained that one of the two sheep that are kept on-site to keep the grass cropped is actually named after her. (Awwwwwww!) We left both educated and elated. With that, we hopped in to our car and drove down the hill. Next stop, Guimarães.