In 1494 just a few years after Ferdinand and Isabella sent Christopher Columbus on a journey to follow his whim and belief that the world was a small sphere and by sailing west he could shortcut his journey to the far East, Spain and Portugal signed the Treaty of Tordesillas that split the non-Christian world between them. To think of Portugal claiming and ruling half the world just 500 years ago is quite ironic considering how small it is today.
When I asked the pretty blonde at the hotel where I might get a map she smiled and confidently pulled out a city map of Porto.
“I mean of Portugal,” I explained. “And Spain.” She seemed defensive when I told her I'd walk to get it.
“It's very far. You must go to gasoline station to buy.”
On the way to the gas station the bookstore she didn't know about was able to fulfill my cartography desires and a dictionary for my linguistic pursuit of the Portuguese language.
“Where you go?” the beautiful blonde back at the hotel asked as we sprawled the map out on the counter.
“Marvao.” I proudly pointed to a tiny village that sits literally on the border of Spain and Portugal. “And i want to drive through the Douro.” Eager to wind my little Fiat around the vineyards of the Douro Valley.
“You will really get to know Portugal. By driving the small roads you will understand Portugal.” Her smile and eyes expressed appreciation and a bit of curiosity. There was no tour bus. No group. No planned itinerary with marked stops for box lunches and souvenir shopping. Nope. Just Time and I and a little $17,000 euro Fiat and a Michelin map. “That's exactly why were going,” I enthused while stuffing the map in my back pocket. “You want to come?” She wanted to, or so I wanted to believe. Loyal Portuguese girl — Dedicated to her employer.
“I must work.”
Work. Thankful that Portugal didn't occupy half the world, but even so driving nearly the length of the country would take a little work — tax our endurance and discipline — for sure we'd want to stop and taste Port on the way.
As we followed the river out of Porto the hillside scenery transitioned from industry and tightly spaced residential apartments to fertile green agriculturally rich and then to steep terraced vineyards. Trees lining the narrow “N” national roads have turned to orange, yellow and amber. After winding up, down and around these fertile hills seemingly in the middle of nowhere we'd encounter small, round and thick cropped hair women stilling beside a table of nuts, potatoes and fruit. I wondered what the average daily sales were? Where the customers came from and what it took to drag the fruit, nuts and taters out to the road every day. Sometimes these roadside stalls would be crowded with locals sitting in chairs, children staring at the road and into the cars that sped by.
The vineyards here have been farmed for centuries. The oldest vineyards sitting on steep terraced hills while the newer thanks to modern technology that aids farming and harvesting were narrowly spaced and steeply planted.
Our goal was to make it to Marvao by twilight. But the over 300km ride was rather ambitious for a couple of guys who went to sleep at 4am earlier that morning; rather it was afternoon when we finally ventured up the Douro Valley. All we could hope for was to make it at all — if we're lucky by dinner.
So when we called the tiny inn that's inside the walls of the tiny hilltop medieval village of Marvao we were happy to find rooms available and the kitchen would stay open until 10pm. But getting there by 10pm would prove to be a challenge.
Its not the fact that I learned before boarding the plane to Lisbon that in all of the European Union Portugal had the highest automobile accident and fatality rate. No this didn't scare me. Nor that the roads were narrow, winding and questionably marked with signs. or the fact that like any non-freeway or highway route would take you through both blazingly fast straight aways and then seconds later through sleepy towns where the only thing to do was cruise through at crawling speeds.
But the purpose of this journey was not a race. To dinner, a hilltop town or else. It was to experience the little towns with whitewashed or mustard yellow buildings. In the distance to see farmland that swept up hills dotted with houses and graced at the top by centuries old churches or small cathedrals. Or trying to follow signs through roundabouts and small towns dodging donkey drawn carts and children kicking soccer balls. Yes. We were here to take these moments in, albeit through the windows of our Fiat. But this was Portuguese country. Ours to experience. And ours to take in until we would roll into Marvao where we could mingle and taste the flavors of this town first settle by the Romans and now home to less than 200 people.
At three minutes before 10pm we rolled in — the kitchen open and servers happily waiting for us. Portuguese country and Portuguese hospitality and commitment to working. The country may be small, but it's huge in its desire to take care of its guests.
Photos: (1) Panarama of Duoro Valley; (2) The vineyards of Fonseca one of the world's leading producers of Port Wine.; (3) Tasting the wines of Fonseca in the Duoro Valley.