I was hooked on the Douro. I wanted to see where it came from, how it had grown into such a glittering monster, pulling in the landscape and finally Porto, on its way to the sea. In Brittanica.com it says:
Rising in the Sierra de Urbión in Spain, the river crosses the Numantian Plateau in a pronounced bend and flows generally westward for 556 miles (895 km) across Spain and northern Portugal to the Atlantic Ocean at Foz do Douro.
We were confident that in the next two days we could make a dent in the 556 miles, if we stuck to the edge of the river as far as the motorhome would allow. We headed east and drove all day in the winter sunshine. The river was the be all and end all. It glinted and blinked and squinted. It lazily smirked and then shone and beamed welcome from around a bend. It had all moods and knew all things. Each time we swung away I craned my neck to keep it in view. I leaned out of the window as we turned this way and that, photographing on the move, pretending I was a real photographer chasing a shot. The other drivers were confident and drove fast on the winding roads. But they were not like the Armenian drivers from our last road trip -their windscreens are intact to the last car, and they used at least one hand for the steering wheel. We climbed up and up and the roads twisted more and the buildings became smallholding rustic, in a winter mingle of russet and dark grey, of milky whites and yellows. Initially, the vineyards were smallish and garden-like, with their little houses tumbling down the hillsides into them. Even the lowliest patch of of flattish ground had three or four spindly vine trees on them, knobbly and knarled in their winter state of undress; nothing was left uncultivated. The little fields swooped down into small valleys and swung back up with the vines clinging onto the crumbly winter soil.
I read interesting facts from the guidebook about port wine and Scott maneuvered the motorhome with Manc skill panache as the roads got smaller and higher and the river faded into a silver stripe far below us. It was only as we neared the village of Folgosa that the landscape started to take on a more stately air. Something about the domed hills grew smoother and slicker. The straggly little winter vines stood a little taller and became uniform as they marched heel to toe across the fields. The earth was combed as neatly as a public school boy’s parting and the landscape peered at us from a distinguished distance. We saw declarations to the world in large signs – here was the Quinta of Sandemans with its dark-caped figure, of Fronseca and Taylor’s, their letters perched on a hill like a miniature Hollywood. There was something very British and aristocratic about it all. This was where the posh grapes went to school.
We stopped in Pinhao which sits in an enormous curve in the river, and watched a single orangey tourist boat slip into view. It was deserted and still, with a just a few local people sitting outside, chatting. We tried white port, and we bought a small ten year old tawny port – the only bottle we could afford – for later. It was the colour of the golden afternoon sunshine. I was looking forward to parking the motorhome in the middle of nowhere and being with the river, if it would let me. Walking back to the van, I was reminded of the welsh village where my grandparents lived. Little shops selling bread and odd places displaying clothes from before America found Europe, were only half open in dark shadows. Despite how busy this village must be in summer with its drinking and boating and laughing, in winter it reverted back to its own slow custom and went on as it had always done, untouched, like the Douro.
We climbed back up to the hills and used our app to find a parking site with water and waste facilities. It was an ugly car park, in a village which reminded me of suburbia in the north of England. Heavy smoke from a nearby burning field filled the air, the motorhome and our lungs. I hoped it was a wine growing custom, otherwise we were in the middle of an actual fire.
It was getting dark. Whilst Scott serviced the motorhome I got out the app and hunted for a better overnight parking spot. I found one which I thought we could make with the last of the light if we floored it. In our case it was less a mad dash and more a lumbering sway around hairpin bends in twilight, wincing at the teeth-jarring scraping noises of branches gouging out chunks of plastic from the motorhome roof, but we made it just as the sun set.
We were now high up, as high as it went, on a remote grassy hillside overlooking the Douro, which we couldn’t see, save for a slash of dark and silver far below, like a Zorro mark. Scott had proudly did what he called a Manc-skill test with a glass of water to try and level the van. We ended up sloping sideways but not forwards in the still night. I slept near the window so I wouldn’t roll out, having wasted half the ten year old port by drinking it after the cheap pink gin.
The day awoke to a cloud of swirling mist. It took all morning to minutely agree to reveal the river. It lifted so imperceptibly that I was not sure if the river was there or not. Each time I looked I sensed it rather than saw it. I felt things were less opaque but couldn’t be sure. By lunch time the valley of sunken silver was solid, and the Douro was still itself, but a callow and more mystical self, allowing me to see its middle-age, its skirts and promise of next summer’s flowering of sweet wine.
Scott drove us down the slopes of the Douro valley; we followed the curves of vined ridges until I fell asleep in the motorhome bed. There is a train that goes along the north bank of the Douro, skimming the water’s edge, taking its time in tunnels. Next year we will take Roxy 2, our kayak, on it and then paddle back to the sea. I love sleeping in trains, cars and boats. The rhythm of trains is comforting, like being rocked, but the unexpected shudder in the back of a van is like jazz. You don’t know what is coming next, so you surrender to it. You are presence itself as you rise in and out of sleep. We drove all the way to the towering, crashing jubilant Atlantic, the Douro long since swallowed into it to the north. At the beach at Peniche, wide rolling waves crashed in the dark and sand scooping winds struck us horizontally. The Portuguese of old had to face that coast every day – either take cover or sail off into it.
In my dream I am in a little cask-carrying sailing cruiser, winding my way down the inscrutable river Douro, making for the sea and the world.