A Travellerspoint blog

Caravan Diaries: Pt I

The acquisition

I am not exactly sure what my inspiration was for buying a caravan. When I think back to my childhood, I can't think of anyone who had a caravan. Even through my adulthood, I've never really known people with caravans. Sure, when I was 8 or 9, my parents rented a tiny silver version and we did the sort of trip all of the Destination Experts on Tripadvisor would say was mad. Two parents and four kids (I was the oldest) in something that was probably no more than 14 foot long, from the top of the north to the far south in just a few days of long driving. My only distinct memory of that trip plays no part in my acquisition: being rolled up in a tarpaulin and sleeping outside on a very cold night in Greymouth. I don't see this journey as creating a thirst for buying a caravan.

If there was any particular cause, it was probably a very slow evolution from my first visit to Takaka, many years ago. I had gone across by bus and stayed in a backpackers, but was very envious of the freedom of those who had vans - they could go anywhere and sleep where they liked (this was well before the days of restrictions on freedom camping). So, I bought a van, not a campervan, just a van, an old Ford Econovan with a couple of caravan squabs in the back. I called him Webster and, yes, we went to Takaka one summer and explored many places and I slept whenever and wherever the need arose. He and I saw most of the country together but our ways parted under unfortunate circumstances some 8 years ago.

Apart from that childhood trip, I have only actually slept in a caravan twice. Once, I was doing a road trip from Adelaide to Sydney via Broken Hill and came across a town called Bogan: it seemed curiously appropriate to go to the camping ground and hire one of the static caravans they had onsite for the night. Then when I returned from a year away, in 2015, I did the same in the Takapuna Beach Motor Camp. Having been out of the country for a year, I had a wee plan to spend this summer doing a roadtrip around my own country and thoughts turned to a suitable vehicle. I wanted more comfort than an old van would provide, and was very tempted by the idea of a campervan. It is hard, however, to get a cheap one with a high enough ceiling to allow me to stand up. In addition, it would mean that every time I wanted to move, I'd need to pack up - bugger that! Thus was born the idea of getting a caravan.

This created a condundrum slightly easier to resolve than the question of whether the chicken or the egg came first: ought I buy a caravan and then the vehicle with which to tow it or would doing things the other way round be better. Obviously having a tow vehicle would make the purchase of a caravan easier, while the reverse was not true. Cheap caravans are necessarily old caravans and old caravans are necessarily heavy caravans, so I needed something with grunt. I looked briefly at utes and my brothers have Toyota Surfs and Nissan Terranos, but my selection process took me to a choice between a Land Rover Discovery or a Jeep Cherokee: the latter struck me as more reliable and easier to fix than the former, so a Jeep Cherokee it was. Hardly any came up in my home town of Dunedin, and only a handful in the South Island. Those that did were noticeably pricier than North Island Jeeps. Finally, 2 days before my birthday and just before I had to go back to teaching, I found the one I wanted - in Kerikeri. You can't get much further from home than there and still be in New Zealand. After a bit of anxiety, because the seller claimed to have "stuffed up" in accepting an offer I had made, he finally on the Thursday morning agreed. I had to arrange a last minute flight to Auckland (luckily most of the demand was by students returning to Dunedin so it was still quite cheap) and then a bus to Kerikeri to meet my vendor and take delivery. He was surprised that I would take the Jeep in whatever condition (I was equally surprised to find my supposed tow vehicle had no tow bar) but a deal's a deal: I transferred the money to him and set off: my first destination was the first of many petrol stations.
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Kerikeri is not far from where I spent my teens, so I took a memorial drive out the gravel roads to my family's former farm. On the way, I learnt the hard way that the Jeep doesn't much like gravel roads: we ended up exiting one corner sideways. Not a good start. This is the house I lived in (and a piece of the farm I lived on) from about the age of 11 until I went to University: my parents actually moved the very day I started there.
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I went to the local school for 5 years, so decided to see how the old place is looking: a few expansions but otherwise, much the same. My Form 1 year was spent in the second classroom from the right. The town itself had lost a couple of shops (it never had many to start with), but it was good to see it had retained its butchery and that the local service station seemed to have developed a pretty useful general store.
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Now for the caravan. I spent a couple of months at least looking on trademe and had up to around 30 caravans bookmarked. I only really had two requirements - it was not to be grotty and it was to have a permanent bed with a separate table. I looked at one near Balclutha but it tended towards the grotty, and had all its air vents sealed up with sticky tape to prevent flies getting in: removing them was imperative but would leave unsightly marks and cause difficulties if I wanted to paint it. Then the perfect caravan came up just over the hill from my house - a mid-70's Zephyr (made right in Dunedin by Modern Caravans) which had its beds stripped out and replaced with a proper bed at one end and a wee cafe style table at the other, with 1970's "leather" and timber kitchen chairs. This caravan had a bit of a sad history: the owners had bought it, only to find that they had been lied to, and it needed serious work to replace rotten framing and the like. They set to and did all that work, it took a couple of years, but before they even spent one night in it, their employer transferred them to Sri Lanka. Nonetheless, I bargained them down on the price and the deal was done: I had a caravan!
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My first trip in it was just an overnighter, down to the top of the Catlins near Owaka the weekend after I took possession. Of course, I had to get a few bits and pieces for it, and about 10:00 p.m. I was working out what I needed when an ad for Briscoes (who else, right?) came on, saying they were open till midnight. So, I went in to get some sheets and a duvet but somehow came out with more than $400 worth of stuff - caravanning is evidently an expensive hobby. The trip to Owaka was uneventful - the caravan is heavy so my speed was reduced somewhat but it tows well and rarely wobbled. The plan had been to stay at the old hospital there but it was closed, which gave me my first learning experience. I tried to back around into a sidestreet, but the caravan brakes locked on so fiercely when I started to reverse that all 4 wheels on the Jeep were skidding uselessly. I had to belt the handbrake with a bit of wood to make the brakes release, and there was no way my caravan was going to allow any reversing. Luckily, there was just enough room to do a U-turn and find another caravan park - the rather lovely Pounewa Motor Camp, which has cute cabins right on the water's edge.
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Luckily there were spaces I could just drive on to without having to reverse, but I couldn't have a caravan that would never go backwards so went on to the motoring forum on trademe to find out what the story was. It turns out that the braking system has the caravan slide up a shaft connected to the coupling, which is what it does when you try to reverse, but that there is a doohickey (I think the blokes on trademe called it a pawl) which can be deployed to stop this happening.
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Problem solved. I had a very nice day driving down the Catlins road as far as the Niagara cafe (leaving the caravan on the main street of Owaka) and back home again. My next trip was a bigger trial run: I had a conference in Christchurch, so stayed in the South Brighton Beach Caravan Park and then left the caravan in storage in Timaru to await further adventures.

Posted by NZBarry 23:08 Archived in New Zealand Comments (0)

Lisbon

sunny 16 °C

I was only really in Lisbon to catch a train, and did very little thinking about what I'd do for the few days I had to wait for it. Nonetheless, I found enough to keep me so busy that I never got to explore the historic inner city, which is a shame because it is one of the oldest cities in the world. I did catch a bus which skirted the centre, going through a labrynth of streets which were decidedly not designed with buses in mind, and it seems to have all sorts of interesting nooks and crannies. I was staying in a really cool loft about a 15 minute walk in from the centre, and explored the area between there and the University of Lisbon - nothing particularly touristic, but probably a good cross-section of typical life in suburban Lisbon. Just up from where I was stayng, there was a pretty big version of the Spanish Department store, El Corte Inglés, which had some good food outlets and was quite fun to wander around - I had dinner there one eveing and was a bit disturbed to find that several people were smoking: something I don't recall seeing anywhere else on this journey. Dinner was a not very good deconstructed burger with very fake looking sauce. Amused by the beer they were selling, however.
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Something else that stood out was the large number of really good bakeries: they gave me plenty of opportunity to try out the local sweet, Pasteis De Nata, which is a custard tartlet. They tended to look a bit burnt on top and generally a bit munged, but they were delicious: unless you were dining in, bakeries would only sell them by the half dozen or so, which led to me eating one or two more than might have been optimal for my health. I also found something called a farton - apparently they are really Spanish but are plentiful in Lisbon: a very light pastry about the same diameter as my thumb and maybe twice as long, they come with a dusting of sugar in bunches of half a dozen.
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farton

I did see one building which really impressed me and thought it must be an art gallery - more than a little disappointed to find out it was a sprts stadium, the Campo Pequeno bullring.
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My other exploration was of Belém, which is about 6 km from the centre of Lisbon, at the mouth of the Tagus River.
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According to the people in my loft, there is a cafe here which is ground zero for the Pasteis De Nata industry: I did go in but was so overwhelmed by the queues that I went elsewhere for my fix.
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I was here for the Carris Museum - which means nothing unless you know that Carris is the name of the organisation which runs public transport in Lisbon. The museum is more commonly known as the tram museum: the first stage was a static display of photos and documents providing an account of Lisboan public transport, which started with horse-drawn trams. The oddest thing I learned was that the company was originally started by two brothers, one of whom lived in Brazil which is where the company was initially based. Maybe he had telegraph, but still it must have been enormously difficult to get a transport network up and running when you live the other side of the plant in the 19th century!
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I wish I could write as neatly as that! To take us to the tramshed, they laid on a tram
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Being a tram museum, there were naturally a large number of trams and I geeked out and took photos of practically all of them, then when I went into the bus shed did much the same there! I'll just provide a selection - the first is a horse-drawn tram which looks very heavy.
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The last is a Thames Trader - I included it for sentimental reasons, as a truck like this was one of the vehicles I learnt to drive in, way back when I was about 14 or 15. Outside, there was a very sleek and modern tram
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I wasn't quite done with my exploration of transportation history, as nearby is the National Coach Museum, which was two large pavillions crammed full of coaches - one was very dark so I couldn't get any photos but I took more than enough in the other pavillion.
Museu Nacional dos Coches

Museu Nacional dos Coches

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That last photo was the front of an early version of a Popemobile - a coach given by the King of Portugal to Pope Clement XI in 1716. They sure knew how to decorate their coaches in those days!
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That last one is almost spartan by comparison. Just down the road a bit is the Mosteiro [Monastery] dos Jerónimos - an absolutely huge building which took exactly 100 years to complete, starting in 1501. One of the key functions of the monks here was to provide spiritual assistance to navigators and sailors, as many (including Vasco da Gama) set off from here on voyages of discovery.
Mosteiro dos Jerónimos

Mosteiro dos Jerónimos

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I didn't go in, because the day was drawing on and the plan was to check out the Berardo Collection - as a young man, José Manuel Rodrigues Berardo ran away to sea and made his fortune in the gold and diamond mines of South Africa, and gifted his collection of modernist art to Lisbon. As with all modern art, some exhibits left me wondering - is this art or inventory?
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A few things caught my eye:
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One exhibit in particular had me entranced - it was a space set up a bit like a room, albeit a slightly disordered one, with three or four different women's faces projected onto exhibits, and recordings of their stories playing.
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Posted by NZBarry 04:50 Archived in Portugal Comments (0)

Coimbra

sunny 15 °C

Coimbra was the capital of Portugal for a bit over a century, from 1131 to 1255, and was a Roman town before that. These were not the reasons I chose to stop off on the way to Lisbon: every so often people on the internet put out collections of the most spectacular libraries in the world, and one which regularly features in such collections is the Biblioteca Joanina, which is part of the University of Coimbra. Built in the early 18th century, it has been described as a "baroque fantasy of exotic carved wood, intricate arches, and gilded patterns". The University itself was started in 1290, oddly enough in Lisbon, not Coimbra, but apparently the students and the populace of Lisbon didn't get on and it was moved to Coimbra in 1308. It ping-ponged back and forth between the two cities a couple of times before finally settling in Coimbra for good in 1537, in the former Royal Palace. Surprisingly, apart from a 200 year period starting in the 16th century, it was the only Portuguese university until the early 20th century.

I arrived on the Saturday and had a good look around the outside of the university but because I'd got a bit lost getting there (which is pretty stupid since it sits directly above the centre of town), I decided to put off the pleasure of touring the university until the next day. Unfortunately, the library had a very strict no photography policy, and several people were chastised for not observing it. I did manage to sneak a couple of photos onto my tablet under the guise of typing notes on it but couldn't really get any photos which really demonstrate the luxuriousness of the library. Luckily there are photos on the internet which I have been able to snaffle. This is still a working library, although the texts are rare and, I suspect rarely consulted: having big groups of tourists coming through every 30 minutes or so (they only allow entry at fixed times) would be quite a distraction for any user.
Biblioteca Joanina

Biblioteca Joanina

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Downstairs, there was a feature I have never seen in any library I have ever visited: a small and very dark prison for students (and "scholars" i.e. staff!) who broke the rules - makes the 50 cent a day fine for late returns of library books look ridiculously lenient. There was another collection of books on this floor as well - totally unglamorous but still hard to get photos. The library is named after King Jao III, who made things happen so that the University could settle on its present site: his statue is just outside.
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Entry to cells

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The old part of the University is on a quad (although one side is open to give views of the river) but the general public can only go in and see the chapel (when there is no service underway) and the main building of the old palace, which had a big (and very dark) room in which they conduct examinations, as well as a smaller room to examine senior students. In this building I noticed another unusual feature: back when the King was in residence, there was a ceremonial guard, the Royal Guard of the Archers (although they were actually armed with halberds i.e. an axe blade topped with a spike mounted on a long shaft, which has a hook or thorn on the back side of the axe blade for grappling mounted combatants). When the King left, his halberdiers went with him, but the University formed a replacement guard to police the University - which it retains to this day.
Main Palace Building

Main Palace Building

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hall of halberds

Most of the teaching and research work of the University is done in a modern campus alongside this quad.
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Down the other side of the hill from the university, there is a nice looking botanical garden and a very visible sign of the Roman period: an aqueduct.
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One thing that struck me as I walked around was the enormous number of churches - just outside the University, there were three clustered together, and several others not so far away. It turns out that these were originally established as University colleges - using the same model as Oxford and Cambridge - but the system of colleges was abolished in the 19th century. Many of the buildings are still in use as churches, although some have found other uses - including the Santa Cruz Cafe set up in the church of that name, at the upper end of the main pedestrianised shopping street.
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Cafe Santa Cruz

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The food, unfortunately, was not great but it was a nice space in which to enjoy a beer after my walking about. Walking in Coimbra is not as easy as in some places, because of the University being on top of the hill and the various steps, near vertical laneways and passages to get about - but they were enjoyable to explore because they contained interesting wee shops and bars.
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Because Coimbra has been around for a while and is a significant city, it has a variety of interesting buildings - some obviously past their best but manifesting a sort of faded elegance (except for the last building).
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Others have been kept up, and remain very stylish.
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Some were standouts - particularly the Colégio Rainha Santa Isabel and the Fundação Cefa. It struck me as appropriate that in a country which takes its sports and religion seriously, the Coimbra sports stadium (a cathedral to sports if you like) and the Coimbra Cathedral were side by side.
Colégio Rainha Santa Isabel

Colégio Rainha Santa Isabel

Fundação Cefa

Fundação Cefa


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I would have liked just a little bit more time in Coimbra - I had a fairly quick walk up the pedestrianised shopping street, but it looked like it would have been worth a dawdle and I barely touched on the river. Still, it was a fascinating place to spend 24 hours.

Posted by NZBarry 16:44 Archived in Portugal Comments (2)

Provesende - Coimbra

sunny 15 °C

I didn't know anything about where the Quinta Manhãs D'Ouro was, except that it was 9 km up the hills from Pinhão. It turned out to overlook a medieval village called Provesende: Magellan was born just up the valley. The village was originally settled by the Moors, and legend has it that it takes its name from the dying words of the local Moorish leader when the place was taken by the Christians. For once I was very pleased to have to rush in the morning - I had to get back to Porto to return the car - as it meant that I was up to see the sunrise over the Douro and the village.
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Although where I stayed was called a quinta, it wasn't really - the people who own it are in the grape growing industry, but this place was more of a small hotel, with just a handful of (very comfortable) rooms and a restaurant - I could imagine spending a week there.
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Quinta Manhãs D´Ouro

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Some parts of Provesende are in better condition than others - the north end tended to be in the poorer condition
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The central village was at the south end - I was still very early, so there were very few people about, although I did encounter this rather aggressive little dog
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and neither of the cafes I saw were open: one has been set up as a wee museum I would very much liked to have seen. I think the last photo in this group is of a bar, but a particularly small and old one
Cafe Central - Provesende

Cafe Central - Provesende

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Cafe and Museum - Provesende

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These next photos are just of buildings that caught my eye as I wandered
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The plan had originally been to backtrack to Porto on the same small road, but there was no way I would be back in time to return the car, so had to forgoe the charming byways of Portugal for its motorway system.
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These motorways are toll roads: although I had no prepaid toll card, I thought it would be a simple matter to pay at a toll booth. Not so: the first toll point I came across was unmanned and demanding that I put a card in a slot in order to be let through the barrier. Awkward. Luckily there was a lane for commercial operators with tagged vehicles with no barrier - I was able to back up and go through that lane, knowing that they have a system of photographing vehicles and paying after the event. So when I came across the next toll point, I just swept through but at the third one, just outside Porto, I came unstuck: it was manned, and to get through without a prepaid card cost 60 (SIXTY!) euro. I really had no option but to submit to the extortion.

After that, I was determined to get off these damn toll roads before I suffered any further damage to the pocket, but I had planned my route before I left and really didn't want to get lost by going off the plan. Nonethess, when I saw a sign indicating the general area in which the railway station is located, I took the off-ramp and in a huge strok of luck, after taking a couple of random streets, found myself back where I started. It was then a simple matter of having a quick beer and hopping on the train to Coimbra, the former medeival capital of Portugal and rather a delightful place.

Posted by NZBarry 16:47 Archived in Portugal Comments (0)

Now the fun begins: driving Roman roads in Portugal

sunny 15 °C

Before leaving this part of the world, I really wanted to go further up the river to where the grapes are grown, and because I'd heard that the river itself was worth exploring. There are trains which go up it - they had gone all the way to Spain but now stop just short of the border - but they don't follow the river very closely at the beginning, aren't very useful if you want to hop out and wander around on a whim and taking photos through grimy train windows is less than optimal. On the other hand, the advice I received was that the best part of the river was up near the Spanish border but the road doesn't go near the river there whereas the rail line runs along its banks. The solution was to rent a wee car - a diesel Ford Fiesta for 31 euro for 24 hours - but dump it along the way and swap for the train.

I really had no desire to just get on a motorway: this was very much about the journey rather than any destination (which turned out to be just as well), so declined the kind offer from Avis for a toll pass, which would have only cost a couple of euro. Instead, I took the minor road that ran, more or less, along the south bank of the river: every few kilometres there was a sign indicating this was a road built by the romans. The rest of the signs were not very helpful - in the numerous villages I had to pass through, I could not see the river so at several intersections was reliant on roadsigns but they would only indicate the next village, rather than any name I could recognise: it turns out my intuition was pretty good as I never made a false turn. These little villages tended to have no parking spaces, so people would just stop their vehicles at random points and quit them to do whatever it was they had to do, and it was rather a narrow road, possibly not widened since the romans built it - all in all, it made for an interesting drive (particularly as I had no idea what the road rules might be). But it was wonderful - I liked the wee villages clustered along the river and the way they optimised the use of the rather hilly terrain through terraces and saw my first quinta not far out of Porto. Obviously, since I was driving, diving into a quinta to taste some port was not an option (although I suspect most were closed for the winter anyway).
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Quinta de la Rosa, Douro Valley

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Quinta do Noval

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It was in Pinhão that I dumped the rental car outside the railway station - I couldn't see any signs indicating there were parking restrictions and I had to just hope that it would be safe there until after dark. The railway station had a wonderful set of tiled murals, but I couldn't hang about because the next train up the river was due to leave. I can't say it was the most modern or fastest train I've been on, and there were only a handful of passengers - maybe half a dozen in total made it the whole way to Pocinho, which is the end of the line. The river between these two towns (apart from the fact there was a railway line running along it) was pretty remote - hardly any signs of habitation, although every so often a road would snake over the hills to connect a quinta or the occasional hotel to the outside world.
Pinhão Railway Station

Pinhão Railway Station

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Technically, Pocinho was my destination, but apart from the station, a few houses, some sort of processing plant across the river and a very closed social club for railwaymen, there was nothing there: very much the end of the line.
End of the line @ Pocinho

End of the line @ Pocinho

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I had about an hour's wait before the train headed back, and was very much at a loss for what to do, so after taking the five minutes to see the sights, I just got back on the train - mysteriously, there were quite a few more people leaving than had arrived. Things did not go very well on the journey back to Pinhão: it was very dark, so I had only just been able to work out we had arrived in Pinhão when the train was on its way again. Luckily, a family as well as a couple of other solo travellers had also failed to get off at Pinhão: they could alert the conductor to the fact we were still on the train (he really should have been able to work it out). This led to prolonged phone calls by the conductor - he arranged for us to get on the next up train at the next station: 35 km down the line at Regua. At least there was time at Regua for a quick snack and a beer before finally arriving in Pinhão. My travails were not quite over: I was staying in a quinta on top of a hill outside Pinhão and had created detailed directions for myself, but they didn't seem to correspond very well to the realities of the roads leading out of town. I knew I had about 9 km to go: it turned into a process of trial and error, going up a couple of roads for 12 km before I found the right one.

Luckily the receptionist at the Quinta Manhãs D'Ouro was able to put together a scratch meal of delicious local cheeses, breads and charcuterie and pour out a couple of slugs of port for me to enjoy: in fact, the evening ended up going so splendidly that I deemed it to be New Year's eve.

Posted by NZBarry 16:47 Archived in Portugal Comments (0)

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