We were slowly pedalling our way up a windy stretch of road, with olive trees and vineyards all around us, the sun beating down on our heads and a view of the Douro River far below, at the bottom of the steep banks separating Spain and Portugal. “Hi,” said a voice from out of nowhere and, unexpectedly, in English. Very few people in the last few weeks have spoken in English to us. Normally we find ourselves muddling through in Portuguese, comparing our knowledge of French words with what we are hearing and trying to work out the general message. “Hello,” we said back, without really knowing who we were talking to. We turned our heads to the left and there, a few feet up in a sloping field of almond trees stood a slight, short man working his land, dressed in farmer’s overalls. He continued speaking to us in English, with a Portuguese accent but also with something very familiar in his voice. “Geez, how do you guys stand it? I mean, climbing a hill like this. Do you train or something, eh?” It was the last word – not even a word, more of an inflection – that gave it away.
Only people from one part of the world talk like that. “How come you speak such good English,” we asked, our suspicions already formed in our minds. His response confirmed it. Our man had lived in Canada for a few years – Chatham, Ontario – before deciding that the Portuguese mountains were more appealing than the Canadian winters. “It’s the pace of life. It’s more relaxed here, eh,” he told us. He threw us down a green almond to eat (yes, you can eat green almond nuts and they’re not bad at all, if a bit sour) and explained how he also had plots of olive trees and grew grapes for making the fortified Port wine that the region is famous for. “I go up the hill every day to my parents’ house for lunch. Maybe I’ll see you later,” he added as we waved goodbye and continued our climb towards the town of Freixo de Espada à Cinta.
There we found a sleepy little town with lots of shady squares, perfect for a long lunch. With the temperatures well above 20˚C and the sun burning away in a clear blue sky it’s important that we take at least a couple hours off before starting again in the afternoon. We didn’t hit the road again until long after midday but we still found it hard going and progressed slowly over the series of hills. Life got more interesting again towards the end of the day as we forked off the main road and towards a series of tiny villages.
Approaching Vilarinho dos Galegos we took a break at the crossroads while a car pulled up and the driver rolled down his window. “You are, how you say,” he said, stopping to look at a woman in the passenger’s seat before turning back to us: “Perdu?” “No, not at all. Just taking a break,” we said, repeating in French as we weren’t sure which he understood better. “Ah, good. You are the GPS then!” he shouted inexplicably before driving off the way he’d come from. It seemed to us that maybe he was the one who was lost.
Just a few seconds later a white van screeched to a halt next to us and a young woman, maybe in her mid-twenties, started to talk to us. After determining we didn’t speak Portuguese, she said excitedly in English: “You want to come see my donkies??” Who could refuse an invitation like that? “Sure!” we said, not quite sure what we were getting into. She started to explain how she was part of a group trying to save a type of donkey in danger of going extinct and they had a sanctuary we could visit and maybe afterwards we could come share some wine with her family because they loved adventurers like us so we were very welcome. If that sentence seems long, that was about how she was talking, very quickly and without taking a breath! She circled the town on the map and said just to go to the church and look for the donkeys. Sounds like an adventure so that is tomorrow taken care of. After all this excitement we thought we’d better find a place to camp so just down the road we found a disused field and tucked ourselves into the back of it for a quiet night ahead.