Break for the border...
La Fontañera, Spain October 2021
“I’m positive!!”…in different times, the words uttered by my partner would have been met with delight and encouragement, but they were NOT what I wanted to hear the morning we were expecting our COVID PCR results.
We had just spent a very relaxing and enjoyable week at our wonderful lodgings right on the border of Spain and Portugal. Salto de Caballo in the village of La Fontañera was run by our genial German/Canadian host(ess)Tamara who had converted this interesting old smugglers house into a welcoming café with two adjacent apartments. We were intrigued by the history of the area, which was famous for the contrabandistas who used to hide out in the countryside during the Spanish Civil war to smuggle essential goods from Portugal into neighbouring Spain.
“It used to be a casa de la duda [house of doubt] in no man’s land,” explained Tamara. “The front door was in Spain and the back door opened on to Portugal – making it perfect for smuggling.” After coffee, bread, cheese and penicillin, the most sought after contraband was shoes and boots, and if you looked carefully you could still find the soles of discarded footwear scattered amongst the vegetation!
The back door now opened up into a delightful courtyard garden, complete with plentiful tables and chairs, shady nooks and a little plunge pool, overlooked by lime and fig trees and colourful shrubs. Aside from the dozens of local cats that Tamara had “adopted”, our fellow guests hailed from North London (fortunately not football fans) and the Isle of Eigg (I had to look that one up) and we all got along famously.
Sitting directly on the border did cause some confusion with our timings, as Spain was an hour ahead of Portugal, and we were never quite sure which time to use – not that we really cared. I delighted in the knowledge that I could probably justify another hour’s lie in by simply rolling over to the other side of the bed!
Our first few days were spent exploring the local countryside, which had plentiful walks amongst the cork and chestnut trees that the area was famous for. Although most of our week was spent visiting the pretty hilltop towns in nearby Portugal, we did drive to the Spanish town of Valencia de Alcántara (which seemed to be entirely populated by pensioners) to pick up some fresh fruit and veg from the Monday market.
Copious amounts of walking, eating, and of course, drinking were the highlights of the week. Tamara and her friend Victoria were keen to try out a new menu for the café and cooked us all a delicious French meal one evening. We guests were happy to reciprocate and took turns to provide shared dinners, accompanied by plentiful drinks and convivial company (although the mosquitos were a bit too convivial for Ian’s liking).
We had planned to drive back to Lisbon on the Saturday to travel to our next destination, the island of São Miguel in the Azores, where a negative PCR test was a requirement. We managed to secure a free test from a clinic in nearby Portalegre, with the help of the Azorean Government website and Google Translate, although the technician dressed in full hazmat gear was a bit disconcerting. Stopping off at the hilltop village of Marvão for lunch, and I left Ian “resting” while I walked around the castle walls and pretty cobbled streets, admiring the whitewashed houses and stunning views over the surrounding countryside.
Approaching the castle itself, my luck was in – it was …wait for it…”International Castle Day” so entry was free!
I had been intrigued to read about a local disused train line which had been converted into a rather unique tourist attraction. Rail Bike rather enterprisingly has built two-seater bikes which fit the rails of the old Castelo de Vide line. Setting off from the beautifully tiled old Beira- Marvão station, we passed through the wild landscape of the Serra de São Mamede National Park admiring the cork oaks and wildlife along the way. I thought that my legs would never forgive me, as it was quite hard going for a couple of oldies like us, and Ian was looking a bit worse for wear in the heat. Still, fuelled by a couple of cold beers, we managed to cycle the 16km to the bridge and back, almost keeping up with our young guides (who seemed quite impressed with Ian’s insider knowledge of rail track maintenance, if not our stamina!).
After a fun but exhausting day, we drove back to our apartment for an early night. Little did we know that our plans were about to take an interesting turn…
How Ian managed to catch Covid in the European country with the lowest case numbers, we’ll never know. And how I managed to avoid it was another miracle! Fortunately, Tamara was most understanding and said that we could remain in our apartment while Ian quarantined for the next 10 days. I spent the rest of the day having a “busman’s holiday” – cancelling and amending all our remaining travel plans. As disappointed as we were at missing out on our planned trip to the beautiful Azores, I comforted myself with the fact that there were worse places to be marooned (as I settled down in a lounger by the pool with my Kindle).
Having a very low boredom (and sympathy!) threshold, I abandoned Ian in his sick bed and continued my exploration of Portugal’s medieval pathways and picturesque villages over the next few days. Castelo de Vide was one of the highlights of the Alto Altentejo region being one of the best preserved medieval towns in the area. Its flower-filled cobbled streets led up to (yet another) castle with spectacular views. Inside was an exhibition of photos depicting the 1974 Revolution which was fascinating to read about. Wandering back down into town, I had hoped to buy takeaway pizzas, but the shop seemed closed, as was the impressive Olympic sized outdoor pool…Obviously despite the busy sidewalk bars and cafes, the “tourist” season was considered over in this part of the world!
The following day, I took a walk leading from the town’s cemetery (which was surprising hard to find!) up through pine lined pathways to another hilltop viewpoint overlooking Castelo. Those medievals must have been a fit lot! I’m surprised that their enemies had any puff left to go into battle by the time they reached the citadels. Meandering my way back up to the town I passed fields of pomegranates and quinces and was ready for a quick snack and a cold drink before driving back.
Much as I appreciated the glorious countryside I felt like a change of scenery, so the next morning, I planned a boat trip on the Tegus River which flows from Spain all the way to the Atlantic in Lisbon making it the longest river in the Iberian peninsula. It was around an hour’s drive to the boarding point in Cedillo so I set off in good time. After a scenic drive through pretty flat terrain and fields of cows and goats (were these the “plains of Spain”? ..if they were, there was certainly no rain today), I wended my way down to the shoreline only to find the jetty pretty deserted. In my best Spanglish, I tried to ascertain from some fishermen “Donde esta el bote?” but their answer was lost in translation! Slightly peeved, since I had made the departure time as per the website, I discovered some (pretty unkempt) uphill paths to miradors overlooking the impressive hydro power station. On my way back to the car, I was surprised to see the boat coming around the bend of the river! By the time I’d made it back to the shore, it had offloaded it’s hordes of Spanish picnickers, but didn’t look as though it was embarking any time soon. It was then that the “centavo” dropped…I was in Spain but my watch was still set at Portuguese time, so I had literally missed the boat by an hour! What an idiota
Tamara cheered me up however, but offering me a huge slice of her homemade carrot cake on my return..
The next day she had a booking, so we had to move across the road to her neighbour’s, who let us rent a room for the night. This was very comfortable and even had its own sweet little thatched roofed shed, where I threatened to banish Ian if his cough got much worse.
By the end of the week Ian was thankfully feeling a bit better and tested negative! He felt up to a drive and a change of scenery, so we had a road trip to Elvas. Fortunately, one of the buildings that “Elvas had left” was the amazing star shape Santa Luzia fort . We felt like we were on the set of Game of Thrones as we walked through its maze of interconnecting walls and tunnels, even more so when we stumbled upon a camera crew filming a battle in the grounds.
Just as impressive was the 16th Century Amoreira Aquaduct which spans the valley as you drive into town. It’s over 7000 metres long and is constructed on four levels making it the largest in the Iberian peninsula and certainly the biggest I have ever seen! Driving right into the town involved squeezing through a stone gateway not designed for modern cars but we made it and found a nice little café in which to people watch. Determined to explore, I left Ian convalescing with a beer, while I walked down to the square through a busy pedestrianized shopping street – it was nice to see a bit of life, as most places we’d visited thus far had been quite sleepy.
On our last full day, we went to visit Estremoz as Tamara had recommended its lively Saturday market. The town itself is dominated by (you guessed it) a large Gothic castle and its medieval lanes lead down to a large fountain and a massive public space where the weekly market takes place. The square is laid out in a compass mosaic with the town’s pillory post at the centre. They do like a pillory in this region as most towns had one.
The market was full of colourful stalls selling everything from flowers, fruit and veg to livestock and toys, and half was taken up with what looked like a cross between a boot sale and an antique fair. Ian saw a micro mosaic that he quite liked but didn’t quite feel up to haggling in Spanish.
We awoke to cloudy skies on our final morning, so bid our farewell to Tamara and her feline friends, and set off for the long drive back to Lisbon. Our host even surprised us with a souvenir of homemade quince jelly (a cross between an apple and a pear – intriguingly translated as “marmalade” in Portuguese – quite delicious!). Aside from our unexpected extension, our stay at this delightful lodging house had been fabulous and we vowed to return and to recommend Salto da Cabello to friends and family for a peaceful break.
We discovered this magical place courtesy of this Guardian article.