Sometimes time passes very quickly on our trip especially when we are fully engaged in what we are doing. This has been the case for the last three weeks or so.
We had a tremendous time with Workaway host, Lucas, and his parents, Maria and Arjen in the mountains of Galicia. His sister, Kalki, also joined us at the weekends for visits home from college in Santiago. For the first week of our stay, we overlapped with another workawayer, Cliff, from Aberdeen so there was quite a house full.
Workaway was set up to promote fair exchange between budget travellers, language learners or culture seekers and the host families, individuals or organisations that are looking for help with a range of varied and interesting activities. In exchange for about five hours work a day, workawayers get food and accommodation and an amazing opportunity to learn about the local lifestyle, culture and community.
This was our fifth workaway, we did three in Germany last winter and another in France this Spring with our friend Rosi. All have been marvellous experiences and have enriched our travelling experience enormously.
Lucas invited and encouraged us to join in all the events and activities in which he participated. This included Galician folk music evenings, the improvised drama group, parties at his friends’ homes, and celebrating the festival of San Juan (the Spanish equivalent of midsummer).
In exchange, we worked a few hours each day on his family’s bit of land. Following his own Workaway experience last year in South America whilst on a gap year after leaving school, Lucas came home full of enthusiasm to create a permaculture plot in the land his parents’ owned and create a place where he wants to live. Thankfully, his parents are really supportive of what he is doing. The plot of land, about a hectare in size, includes a derelict, thick stone walled house with a courtyard typical of the area. Arjen is redesigning one former, corner building to create a new home with views across the valley.
Our jobs varied with the weather and the moon, as Lucas is experimenting undertaking tasks based on the lunar cycle. The first week was unseasonably wet and wet even by a Fort William, Scotland standard. We cleaned up and sorted out a couple of empty beehives Lucas had adopted and, dodging heavy, cold showers, weatherboarded a henhouse that was also being given a new lease of life. The next day its first residents arrived and the day after, an egg.
Once drier warmer weather arrived, we weeded, strimmed, mulched, and watered the rapidly growing garden vegetation. Jerry has been missing his garden at home, so he particularly enjoyed working in the vegetable plot. When it got hot we created a pond for wildlife and irrigation, helped Pedro, the stone mason, start rebuilding a section of the boundary wall, dug house foundations, cleaned years of washed in soil off a section of the stone pitched lane alongside the courtyard and barrowed piles of soil, sand and stone to new locations around the plot.
When it got really hot, Lucas took us to his favourite wild swimming spots on the local river. Here we swam with the trout and sunbathed on the warm rocks. Though as the water was still rather cold from the previous week’s rain, Jerry more often than not stayed on dry land. The memory of warm Caribbean seas lingers on in his heart.
San Juan festival is big in Galicia. It is a time to get together with family and friends, have a bonfire, cook baked potatoes in the embers, and party the night away. Traditionally, party goers leap over the fire in a cleansing ritual. This has apparently resulted in some rather nasty burns when the reveller doesn’t quite reach the other side. This year, our host family held their first party on their own land. It was a beautiful evening, with an almost full moon. As the sun set and dusk gathered in, the street lights of villages on the other side of the valley twinkled in the gloaming. Everyone brought food and drink to share, and we sat around the bonfire chatting and watching the flames lick around the logs
Maria and two friends sang and played traditional Galician and Spanish folk songs for a while and there was dancing on the grassy slope. We lingered until 2am when it was hard to keep our eyes open, but a few of the hard core locals continued until 9am before wending their way home.
The party gave me an opportunity to practise conversing a bit more in Spanish (locally known as Castellan). One of our reasons for staying in Europe this year and coming to Spain was to learn and improve our Spanish ready for our time in South America. I had completed the Duolingo android app Spanish language course before leaving home, but most of what I had learned had then sunk deep into the recesses of my brain. Slowly, during our time cycling the Camino to Santiago, I had been dragging some of it back to the surface. Staying with a Spanish speaking family gave us ample opportunity to listen and attempt basic sentences. I have to say, everyone was very encouraging and gave us a lot of helpful tuition. Lucas practised much at being patient whilst it took me four times as long to say anything.
So now we are cycling in Portugal and it will be a while before I get some more practice. Though having similar roots, I do recognise quite a few words in Portuguese.
We left Galicia just over a week ago, saying a sad farewell to Lucas, Maria and Arjen as well as their two dogs who had walked with us to work and back each day.
Our route was south down out of the Galician mountains to the River Miño that forms the northern border between Spain and Portugal. We had crossed this river twice before, once by bike and once walking, on the Camino Francés and the Via de la Plata respectively. This will be our last crossing. We turned west and headed down stream to find a campsite for the night.
Our first port of call in Portugal was Porto. Jerry had first visited this city on board Lord Nelson, a square rigged sailing ship, about 10 years ago. Having become storm bound in the harbour for a couple of days he had time to visit a port house for a tasting and take in a bit of the city vibe. He was keen to return to explore it further. There can’t be too many people who have only arrived in this city in recent years by sail and bike.
Porto lies at the mouth of the River Douro. It rises somewhere in the middle of Spain and flows several hundred kilometres westward to reach this old city of worldwide fame. Here the drink port, produced in the vineyards upstream, was stored before exporting – much to the UK. Well, I say in Porto, the city that gives the drink its name, but actually it was all stored in the port houses across the river in the much less well known town of Gaia. We walked across the high bridge on a very hot afternoon to visit the Ramos Pintos cellar, where Jerry had been previously. And it would have been rude not to try any…..
The next day, in search of something a bit different we went on a tour of the Palacio da Bolsa. The old commercial centre and stock exchange of Portugal. Built in the 19th century, it took about thirty years to complete and is a showcase of Portuguese artisan skill from the period. Each room is decorated in a different style demonstrating both the European and Moorish influences on this country.
We thoroughly enjoyed wandering around with our tour guide and seeing some non-church/monastery architecture at close quarters.
After this, the sea was calling and we walked the 5km along the river to watch the Atlantic waves spraying up and over the protective breakwaters at its mouth.
Serendipity led us to a nearby park for a late picnic lunch and to a local folk festival. Here people from surrounding areas dressed in traditional costumes were parading, playing folk music and dancing. A delightful time to sit under shady plane trees and while away a couple of hours listening and watching.
Leaving Porto on Monday, we decided to cycle up the Douro valley to see the port wine vineyards. Summer has arrived and, if there are no clouds, by midday we are too hot and sweaty to cycle any more. We have taken to getting going on the bikes around 7am in the relative cool and then stopping for a long siesta. We have changed to eating our main meal during this siesta, giving it time to settle while we doze in the shade.
The Douro has carved a deep V shaped valley and three times in the last few days we have had to climb up the steep sides before dropping back down to the river. I love this kind of cycling, there are views down to the river to enjoy, as well as the joy of reaching a hard strived for crest and a exhilarating whoosh down the other side.
And this is a beautiful valley, the number of vineyards increased as we cycled upstream until they completely cover all the valley slopes. Everywhere is terraced with well crafted shale stone walls. And there are large white signs with black lettering announcing each vineyard’s name.
Yesterday we called into Quinta do Tedo to learn more about port wine manufacture and taste their table wines and port wines. Delicious, but as we still needed to be able to cycle we just had a wee taste of each and left more than we drank. Port wine is only fermented for three days and then strong spirit is added that stops the fermentation process, keeping the sweetness of the grapes. Then it is matured for 11, 18 or 24 months in oak barrels before bottling and drinking. Ruby and tawny ports can be made lower in the valleys where the temperature is higher and the vines for white port wines needed cooler temperatures so are grown much higher up.
Tonight we are camped high above the River Douro at about 700m. We are on a municipal campsite with free access to the outdoor swimming pool. Here we have shown our foreignness, particularly me in my full swimsuit. All the women here, regardless of size and shape sport colourful bikinis. Our tan lines are also interesting, stopping at the cycle short, and T-shirt sleeve level with white skin beyond. Here all the bathers are bronzed to their bikini or trunk.
We have one more day following the river and then we will turn south out of this wine region. Life is good.