Getting there…

Had a wonderful journey across the south of France, and Spain.

Slept in a town on the Santiago de Compostela route, called Cuidad Rodrigo – I arrived in the dark, so the layout was all a little medieval with small cobbled roads and three story townhouses. I parked outside a shop in the main road, having learned my lesson long ago, to not drive willy-nilly into the old part of towns like this, just because another car does, unless you know for sure you know a route back out. Which your car, and your driving abolities, can handle!

Wandering around, I found an absolutely charming hotel, which had an available room and even offered free parking. I signed up and went to get the van, carefully investigating all the one-ways and super-narrow roads on the way back but then realising that the hotel was actually only a block from a main road in another direction.

Cheerfully driving up to the hotel, I turned where the receptionist indicated, seeing no driveway but ever hopeful – and saw this cornered precipice. No lies. Anyway, she seemed to think it was a perfectly normal place to park a van, so I drove down, the roof touched as I entered the truly tiny garage beneath, directly facing a wall, so a 3 point turn to actually get into the parking spaces deeper inside. I was sweating by the time I got my backpack to the lift. Not so much from getting in, as the thought of doing that in reverse – up a 40 degree slope, on a corner. It didn’t really bear thinking about. My spanish is a little better than my portuguese, so I went to reception to whine about the parking. The receptionist, a sturdy looking woman my age, seemed to think it was absolutely no problem at all, and made vrooming acceleration noises very enthusiastically. Horrors.

Anyway, not one to worry about things like my van with all my most valuable personal belongings being buried under a small hotel in central Spain for the rest of the century, I went off exploring. What a brilliant place! The hotel was in the grid of small streets I assumed was the medieval town, but actually those older areas of towns like this are usually not so squared off. So I should have seen the surprise coming, following a happy-sounding family up the hill towards what looked like the hilltop cathedral. I was hoping to see the inside of the church it being Sunday evening and time for mass, when the family suddenly disapeared in front of me – crime-series style – cue da doom da doom style music.

I crept closer, and there was a longish uphill tunnel in the huge stone wall we’d been walking alongside. All beautifully lit, and christmas lights visible on the far side. I entered and it was a Harry Potter moment – the old village, probably more of a large walled hillfort, is behind a 5 metre stone wall in the centre of town, and (as I observed in the light, next day) on a fairly substantial hill on the middle of a large plain. Its a maze of tiny interleading cobbled roads, cute little shops and restuarants, squares and gardens, at least two large churches both holding mass, noisy bars and busy cafes, and a lot of brightly lit townhouses. So strange to look into a truly ancient stone house, and see a really funky scandi-looking light fitting shining out.

As it was truly dark and I’d been driving all day, I ducked into a really local looking place, a largish cafe with loads of oldies sitting around chatting and drinking wines and coffee. I asked for a coffee at the counter and went to sit down, but when I asked about a menu the waiter looked horrified. It was only 7:00. They only start taking dinner orders at 8:30. Welcome to rural spain, I think its even later in Madrid and at the coast. So funny. His manager was a lot more tourism-orientated, and offered me the English menu, I think planning to just take the order and let me sit with my coffee till the kitchen opened. Why not! It was a very pleasant meal in any case, you could say they practise slow food. And the oldies (8-10 to a table, about 5 tables) kept the place hopping till well after I left, as well as producing a good amount of body heat – it was one of the warmest restuarants I’ve eaten in so far!

As with the ferry, you know I made it out the hotel parking as I’m writing this from POrtugal a few days later… actually, the receptionist was dead right. I manoevered into starting position, aimed for the top which I couln’t see at all, gave thanks for my extremely expensive international car insurance in advance for the potential repairwork, put my foot down, and literally flew up without any scrapes or embarrassing backsliding.

In fact I bounced out just behind some painters I’d seen pull up in a large van early in the morning, and I think knowing they were there was a part of my confidence. I often attack problems by offering myself outrageous solutions if the one I’m trying doesn’t work. And in this case, the alternative solution was to ask the driver of the painter’s van, to drive my van out the parking. How exactly I was going to explain that to him in Spanish, was all part of the magic I like to attract, but in the end it wasn’t needed. They did hop out the way when I came charging out, as I may have slightly overdone the revs, but the van was loaded to the gills and I really didn’t think she’d fly up easily as she did. One of the many learning moments I’ve had this trip. 🙂

Cuidade Rodrigo is quite close to the POrtuguese border, but I only left midmorning, with plenty of time to kill as my new cottage home was at that time still without an electricity connection. Driving across the border was an adventure even on the wide roads, with mist and a deep thick fog. There was a particularly magical moment just after the first portuguese language signs, where a rainbow formed in the light mist alongside the road, and as the light shifted and I drove, it followed me. Must have been a trick of the angle of sunlight, but there seemed to be a column of rainbow coloured light teasing me from the side of the road, for some time.

I explored some of the northeastern towns and villages, that part of Portugal is ancient and very beautiful. The countryside is full of tiny plots mainly full of olive trees, each area separated by ancient weathered rock walls, grey and green with moss and lichens. Its a very wet area, in places there is water just running along ditches and along the side of the road, houses have steeply pitched rooves and big gutters. Apparently there is a lot of permaculture work happening around there, I didn’t see any obvious signage but will definitely go back and visit again.

One town had a fireman’s festival going on so I sat outside in the winter sun, at a small cafe and drank some milky coffee (galao) while watching the men. Portuguese bombeiros are volunteers, but its a serious job in most towns in the central and northern regions, as massive interleading pine and eucalyptus plantations have created an ever increasing fire hazard. Mid summer rarely passes in this region without a bad fire. They wear the most fabulous red sweatshirts, and are mostly tall and husky, I’m on the lookout for an available one who speaks a bit of english and does carpentry in his spare time 🙂

Calling ahead, I found out there was still no electricity at my cottage. So I drove through to nearby Coimbra and looked for a hotel. After driving around the main streets for about an hour and seeing just two hotels signposted but absolutely no place to park nearby, I realised I was just being old-fashioned.

Stopping in a quiet suburban road, I logged into the internet on my smartphone, connected to (sorry for the ad – there are other sites, but I used this one in Costa Rica and it was just as effective), found a list of Coimbra hotels with secure parking by price and locality, and chose one with loads of stars, close to the freeway and to where I’d parked. What a fabulous find. The Hotel Dom Luis sits on a hillside site on its own, overlooking one of those four-leaf-clover intersections on the main national freeway, high enough that the noise is a subtle wave-crashing sound in the distance, but also overlooking the Coimbra river and the old part of town on the other side, which is beautifully lit at night. Stayed a couple nights in the end, trying to avoid moving into a cold damp stone house in midwinter, without the support of electricity….