Wednesday 20 April 2016

Following the Swallows

We've been away. Not very far - just a few hours' flight across the continent - but when you live without phones, laptops and wi-fi passwords for a couple of weeks, you go farther away than the miles you travel, and take longer to come back. You switch off, become absent, but find yourself more present than before. Portugal is a country that rewards you for that; for being present, not just physically, but with all your senses undistracted and available. For this country is a feast for the eyes and ears and nose, for the touch and the taste.

In his novel 'Blindness' Portuguese writer and Nobel laureate José Saramago writes of an epidemic where people start going blind. Only, their blindness is not dark, but a stark, brilliant white. Towards the end of the novel, Saramago writes "I think we are blind, Blind but seeing, Blind people who can see, but do not see." He could have been writing about us, struck blind by the white glows of our screens, riders of another epidemic. Travel is my way of switching off and breathing, and only being in one place at a time.

All you need is a map, an instinct, and a few conversations. Strangers will show you the way, give you their time and their kindness, they will warn you of dangers, give little gifts to your child wherever she goes, they will point you to a tiny restaurant, barely a restaurant, where for ridiculously little money you will eat a meal you will not forget.


Our journey starts in Porto. A city crisscrossed with tramlines that weave their way around old balconied houses. From our high-ceilinged, sun-filled room, roads slope up and down walking us to the city's oldest bookstore, quietest church, busiest streets and most famous pork-stuffed sandwiches. But what charms us about Porto are its people. They surprise us. It's a big city with a small-town openness, a sense of generosity you don't expect in such bustling streets. We walk into a shop that is about to close for the day, we buy something for Chotto-ma, the man wraps it up, crouches down and gives to her, then brushes away the money we hold out. "I gift her," he says, "no pay."

That's how Portugal starts off, and continues.


From Porto, we take a train eastwards, deeper into the country, to a little town called Lamego. The train track often runs so close to the waters of the Duoro River we feel we're afloat: we're on a train, oh we're on a boat, a train, a boat! says Chotto-ma.

When we reach Lamego, we find a town lazing in the afternoon sun, it's benches busy with the gossip of town-elders, its fountains rimmed with children, and it's backdrop rising in tiers of holy drama in the form of a 600-stair cathedral. We take our cue from the town and pass our time sitting in outdoor cafes, reading, watching life go by, and learning new Portuguese words from people we meet.

And we climb. The 600 stairs to the cathedral. My muscles scream. Our climb to each tier is relieved by fountains of sweet, quenching water, and the shade of camellia trees bursting pink with flowers. And finally, when we reach the top, the view is glorious. You look down on rooftops and mountains and clouds lying beneath like a painting.

In Lamego, we meet more wonderful people, Chotto-ma walks out of places holding more gifts, we eat one of our best meals in a restaurant filled with locals, where no one speaks English and we point to other tables to show them what we want. We talk with our hands and our smiles, and everyone understands each other perfectly.

From Lamego, we make our way to the midst of the Duoro Valley, to gentle, terraced hills, green from the rains, cut through by the Duoro River. It is breathtaking. As our car curves through the gates of the quinta which will be our home for the next few days, we know this is going to be something special.

A quinta is a traditional country house, and ours is so rich in history that every room has a story to tell. And no-one to tell it better than its owner Maria Manuel Cyrne, Viscountess of all she surveys, and a woman of warmth and spirit. As a young girl, Maria grew up in this house, surrounded by beautiful things, running free amongst vineyards and olive trees. But her family lost the house and land when Portugal rose in revolution. They moved out, though the memories stayed. Maria spent her youth and adult life dreaming of returning to the life she remembered.

Finally in her fifties, she bought the house back, though most of its rooms had been destroyed, and of the intricately carved ceilings, only one remained. After painstaking work, the quinta now stands beautifully restored; it is home to Maria's immediate and extended family who live and work here. We had acres to explore, and crackling fires and sumptuous meals to come back to. And like in the rest of Portugal, for a price one cannot imagine anywhere else in Europe.


From the north, we take the train to the very rural south, to Alentejo, a region still without the smudges of tourism, where you can walk miles along a searing blue coastline without meeting a soul, and only occasionally the odd hiker. The landscape couldn't be more different from the valleys of the north. Here, the eye roams over long, flat stretches of rugged bush scattered with cork oaks and pines and olive trees and a coastline with craggy ochre cliffs rising out of the wild froth of the sea. The cliffs cup tiny coves and the beaches are empty except for a local walking his dog or a lone surfer cresting a wave. Along a beach, you discover a small family-run restaurant looking out to the sea, serving fresh fish grilled to perfection.

In Alentejo, we stay in a rural quinta in the middle of fields of yellow flowers, its whitewashed walls bordered with the region's traditional stripe of cobalt blue. A beautiful house originally built in 1826, inviting you in with old books, board games and hearty breakfasts; a restoring stop for hikers. We spend our days cycling for miles around, on rocky country roads lined with bush and sea, broken only by the sounds of cowbells and the chaotic chirping of nesting swallows. At midday, hot and hungry, we stop at the small town of Zambujeira Do Mar for a lunch of grilled dourada, or rice cooked with monkfish and shrimps, served with a pitcher of Alentejo's wonderful wine.

From Alentejo we take the train to our last stop. Lisbon, or Lisboa, or 'a boa-constrictor called Liz' as Chotto-ma likes to think of it. And like a boa-constrictor, the city is not easily squeezed into a paragraph, so I'll leave Lisboa for the next post. I hope you'll come back; take a walk with me in one of the most interesting cities in Europe. Until then, here's to birdsong, fields of yellow flowers, and to switching off!