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Spanish Secrets: A Taste Of History

…Ancient rocky outcrops, weathered by time, stand like stone sculptures in an art gallery… Craig Briggs and his wife Melanie drive through the spectacular heart of Galicia, then cross the border to lunch in the Portuguese fortress town of Valenca.

For the real flavour of Spain, and Portugal, read more of Craig's columns by clicking on Spanish Secrets in the menu on this page.

With only a remote possibility of morning frost, we decided it was time to re-stock our garden pots and tubs with colourful floral displays. This enjoyable exercise gave us an excuse to visit the garden-centre in the seaside resort of Biaona.

The milder coastal weather hastens summer varieties into bloom far quicker there than our inland home.

The drive to the coast took us through the city of Orense and along the main highway to the historic town of Tui, before joining local roads to Biaona. This route through the heart of Galicia is spectacular.

It’s a journey that ten years ago would have taken the best part of a day, but can now be done in less than an hour and a half. The old road follows the course of the river Mino as it meanders through the Spanish countryside.

The new highway ascends high into the mountains allowing only fleeting glimpses of the dark twisting river but opening up a previously unseen panorama.

High in the mountains huge smooth-faced boulders were deposited by melting glaciers, a testament to pre-historic ice-ages. Ancient rocky outcrops, weathered by time, stand like stone sculptures in an art gallery.

On the Portuguese side of the river, forested mountains stretch as far as the eye can see. On the Spanish side, newly planted pine forests and mature eucalyptus woods surround once isolated villages. Tiny hamlets are scattered along both sides of the river border and old stone bridges arch from bank to bank joining the two countries.

The one constant along the river’s course are the many vineyards, old and new, large and small, patches of earth worked to cultivate grapes for the production of wine. This natural elixir, once highly prized by the Roman Empire, is now enjoyed by the rest of the world.

After arriving at our destination we stroll around the kaleidoscope of colour, absorbing the warm fragrant air. With our plants chosen and the inside of the car bursting with bloom, we begin the second part of our day trip - lunch in Valenca, a fortress town perched high above the river Mino on the Portuguese side of the border. Within its fortified walls lie a labyrinth of narrow cobbled streets and alleyways. All manner of shops, cafes and restaurants line these historic byways.

We entered the fort from the south, parked the car, and made our way along the newly restored footpaths to the northern ramparts. Tucked away down an alley, to the left of the northern gatehouse, is the restaurant Prata do Mino. We’re warmly greeted by a waiter and led to a table.

Being lunch time the restaurant is busy with hungry diners. I decide on the salmon, caught locally in the river Mino, a tradition which has lasted centuries. To accompany our meal we choose a local Vino Verde; famously Portuguese, this young white wine has a sweet flavour and natural sparkle.

I listen enviously to the waiting staff as they slip fluently from Portuguese to Spanish, Spanish to Gallego, then into English.

After a satisfying lunch we wander back through the streets in search of more historic flavours. No trip to Portugal would be complete without buying a bottle of port.

My choice on this occasion was a 2001 Fonseca LBV, a deliciously sweet and syrupy fortified wine, with a rich and aromatic nose and a velvety smooth taste which gently caresses the throat.

Walking back to the car we pass a coach party of English tourist. They’re listening intently to their guide as she explains the turbulent history of the fort. I can’t help thinking that their thirst for knowledge and hunger for history, would be best served by visiting the restaurant Prata do Mino, rather than looking at a stone statue of some long since departed bishop.

Who knows, maybe next time?

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Copyright © 2006 Craig Briggs


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