Well, we're here in Lisbon, now, and I finally managed to find an Internet connection!
Here's the deal...what follows is kind of a running log of our journey since my last update, and I haven't had time to really sit down and edit it, so it's longer and a bit more run-on than it would otherwise be, and probably contains details that on later reflection wouldn't really be of much interest to you, but...oh, well! Here it is, the director's cut, unedited. If you're not interested in the minutiae of this journey, I won't be offended, and may offer a shortened version of it when I get back. If you just want to see the photos, scroll down to the bottom and click on the link. Okay, so here's my rambling journal notes.
My last entry was from last Wednesday, our “uneventful” day on the boat, spent heading upstream, as I was recovering from my little malarial fever bit or whatever it was. I'm grateful to say that thus far it has never reappeared, and have felt quite good since.
Thursday morning, our tour took us to the village of Lamego, an extremely picturesque town located in the mountains alongside the Duoro river, surrounded by terraced vineyards. In terms of sheer beauty, definitely the most impressive place I've seen so far. At the top of a very high, steep hill, accessed by some 300-plus stairs carved out in a very ornate baroque fashion, was an equally ornate church, Nosso Senhora de los Remedios (Our Lady of the Remedies). Fortunately, there was also a road to the top, allowing us to view the church...without requiring its funerary services. But most of us did walk down the stairs.
By the time we returned to the ship, it was time for lunch. We ate in our typical regimented fashion...that is, don't dare use the wrong utensil for the wrong meal or you will completely upset the kitchen staff and possibly cause the boat to capsize. It's that serious. It's a French cruise company, after all.
After lunch, a bunch of us went up onto the sundeck to watch the beautiful landscape go by. And it is beautiful...very rugged landscape, terraced into very hardy and distressed vineyards sinking their roots into the slate soil, and producing that “nectar” which mortals refer to as Port wine. True Port wine can only be grown from select grapes grown in the harsh, semi-arid regions along the Duoro River. It's the nectar that really is Portugal's gold.
We have to traverse a series of locks to get to the most upstream navigable parts of the river...five dams and locks, if I'm not mistaken. (These dams, by the way, also provide about 60% of Portugal's power.) Mr. Sunshine, when faced with this fact, demanded to know “what kind” of power. (What other kinds of power do dams generate? Hydro-political power?) Of course, he has constantly been on the lookout for reasons why Portugal, or any other country that doesn't happen to be the USA, is vastly inferior.
A few miles later, we went under a rail bridge. Not such a big deal until you realize that there was a paper-thin clearance between the top of the boat and the bottom of the metal trusses of the bridge. Keep in mind that there were still 40 or 50 of us still standing on the sun-deck when this happened. As the bridge approached, we began to get a little uneasy. Should we be up here? Of course, we thought, nah, couldn't possibly be as low as we thought. The sun-deck's canvas shade had been hydraulically lowered so that the top of it was about three feet above the deck line...meaning that most of us stood three feet higher than the top of the shade. As the bridge approached, we realized that we were literally going to have to hit the deck. Imagine 50 people nervously laughing (or screaming) as we scrambled to get ourselves lower to the ground than the three-foot canvas shade. It seriously is a wonder at least someone didn't get decapitated. (Well, this is a French cruise company, and the French know a thing or two about decapitation...) We couldn't even sit up; all 50 or so of us who were up there had to lie down or crouch down low on the astroturf as we passed (quite rapidly I might add) under the metal trusses in order to avoid being smeared like warm butter across the top of the canvas sunshade. There was literally less than a foot of clearance between the sunshade and the trusses. We very nearly could have been one of those tragic stories that people eventually must admit that they laughed about when they heard it on the news. Of all the dangers you don't prepare for when you board a cruise ship...
I was grateful that Mr. Sunshine wasn't up there, because he would no doubt have provided us with a long lecture about liability and how in a civilized country no one would have been allowed to be on deck during such an event. I happen to agree that no one should have been allowed up there (even though it was kinda fun, once it became clear that all of us had kept our heads on our shoulders, literally), but don't tell that to Mr. Sunshine.
So that excitement passed, and the landscape went from rugged and dramatic to drier and gentler; from grape vineyards to sporadic olive groves and finally, everything just started to look like the Yakima River valley as we headed for our most upstream destination, Spain, which we arrived at around dinner time.
The next morning (Friday) we got up early, and boarded our busses for Salamanca, Spain. It was about a 2 hour bus ride from our docking spot. It was actually a pleasant drive, through the rolling dry plains dotted with oak trees and olive groves and sheep and cattle. It was overcast, so it didn't make for the most dramatic of photography, but it was pleasant enough to look at.
Upon arrival in Salamanca, it was refreshing to finally be able to speak without using memorized phrasebook sentences. I reveled in my newfound freedom to actually interact unincumbered by language with people in town. And Salamanca is a beautiful university town, with an enormous cathedral...two of them, actually. Again, the overcast clouds threatened to make the rain from Spain fall mainly on the plain, and also didn't make for really stunning photos, but my dozen or so hours in Spain gave me enough of a taste to make me want to come back some day.
Upon returning in the afternoon, we actually met the boat a couple miles back downstream, back in Portugal, meaning we did a land border-crossing, my first land-crossing in the EU. It was a new experience to cross an international boundary without even a hint of customs. There was a blue EU “Portugal” sign (heavily tagged by someone), and that was it. It was about as complicated as going from Idaho to Utah, except here the language changes significantly. Well, actually, I guess that happens when you go to Utah too.
Saturday was a more relaxed day...actually got to sleep in. The boat left our dock around 8 and headed downstream a ways to another dock, where the busses picked up the tourists sometime after lunch. We took an incredibly scenic and treacherous bus ride along exceedingly steep and sheer mountain roads with some incredible vistas of the terraced wine country. We were then deposited at the Sandeman winery, near the village of Pinhao, where we took a tour of the Port wine production facilities. Sandeman, for those who may not be Port wine aficionados, is one of the larger and better-known Port producers. It was all quite slick and led by some young guy dressed in a black cape and black sombrero, all Zorro-like, as this is the trademark emblem of the Sandeman company. Since we are here precisely at harvest time, we got to see some of the grapes being crushed, the smell of which brought back all sorts of childhood memories of the fall crush back in our active vineyard days.
We were given samples of the Port wine, which was decent enough, but nothing special. But the view and the facilities more than made up for the unspectacular Port. We were then spirited (pun intended) back to Pinhao, where we visited a wine museum, and were given a sample of some 12-year-old vintage Port. At the same time, we were given a demonstration of a different way to open a wine bottle. Metal tongs, the ends of which were designed to perfectly encircle a wine bottle's neck, were heated in a flame until glowing, and were then placed around the neck of the bottle for a few seconds. When the glass was heated enough, ice water was poured over the neck and the temperature shock, in theory, would make a clean break. After a couple of tries, they eventually got it to work. But man, when they poured that stuff...now THAT was a stop worth making. I like Port wine okay, but it's not the first thing I reach for. This stuff, I would reach for. Of course, I'm sure it's 50 or 60 Euro a bottle, so don't anyone expect me to bring back samples.
Sunday we boarded our trusty coach early in the morning for a trip to the village of Vila Real, another very picturesque town in the steep, green mountains along the Duoro River. We took another road that was just screaming to become one of those “bus plunge” stories you read about in the international news section of the newspaper, as in, “Portugal Bus Plunges Over Cliff, Kills 45.” Absolutely spectacular scenery, and by some miracle we did not become a part of it. The Death Bus disgorged its passengers at the Mateus estate, a beautiful, classically baroque home surrounded by meticulously manicured gardens. I was just admiring the whole scene when Mr. Sunshine comes up behind me and croaks, “Well, all these places start looking alike after a while. Don't they? I mean, come on.” I very nearly turned around and smacked him.
We returned to the ship, and from there we continued our journey back downstream toward Porto, our final destination. It was a relaxing afternoon, just watching the scenery slip by. This really is a beautiful country.
Well, that's more than enough for now. I'll post the next few days' travels next time I update the blog.
Here is the link to my Facebook photos: click here.