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Spanish Secrets: It's A Game Of Two Halves - First Half

A journey to watch a football match takes Craig Briggs on a drive through some of the most spectacular scenery in Spain and Portugal.

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Last month’s attempts to organise a romantic overnight stay at a rural retreat for Valentine’s Day had spectacularly failed. A forthcoming Uefa cup football match provided an opportune excuse to try again. The imminent arrival of Tottenham FC to the Estadio Municipal of SC Braga in Portugal was the fixture.

Although Melanie’s interest in the Beautiful Game doesn’t quite extend to watching a match, 90 minutes of tedium would be a small price to pay for a short trip away. Whilst I marvel at the on-field skills of athletic sportsmen, Melanie entertains herself with the theatre of passionate supporters which on some occasions can be more exciting than the game itself.

An extensive online search unearthed a dreamily enchanting country residence with rooms to let. I planned a cross-country route to avoid major highways and populated centres.

The trip began well. The previous day’s driving rain had cleared leaving a still morning with patchy cloud. Our journey took us to the city of Orense and on to the town of Celanova. Beyond this remote town, both the weather and the scenery improved. Unbeknown to us we’d entered the Sierra del Xures National Park.

The road twists and turns through lakeside scenery reminiscent of the English Lake District and the Highlands of Scotland. Distant craggy peaks dominate the skyline. Eventually we reached the sleepy village of Lovios, the last outpost of civilisation this side of the Spanish border. A narrow road rises into the mountains, following the natural contours of a steep river gorge. We stopped briefly at a vantage point to marvel at the area’s outstanding natural beauty. A sparkling waterfall cascaded over 1,000 feet down the sheer valley side.

As the road climbed its condition worsened. Years of use, severe weather conditions and a lack of investment, combined to turn it into a potholed track. We pressed on finally reaching the summit. Two abandoned border posts marked the boundary.

The environmental differences between the two countries are instantaneous. The sparsely vegetated forest floor of Spanish pine woods are replaced on the Portuguese side with a thick natural forest of oak, cork and eucalyptus trees. Even the air smells different.

The road surface improved but narrowed to something akin to a driveway. An undulating carpet of tarmac, wide enough for one vehicle, wound its way through centuries-old forests. This was the Parque Nacional da Peneda-Geres.

The first settlement of any note that we passed through was Vilar de Veiga. Architecturally the two countries are very similar, the exceptions being their places of worship and, on the Portuguese side, the lack of dereliction.

Spanish villages are littered with decaying ruins. In some cases entire villages lay abandoned, falling victim to time and the elements. Portugal is very different. Perhaps the shortage of land in relation to its population places greater importance on the upkeep of property.

Beyond Vilar de Veiga the road descends to the water’s edge of yet another lake. Ghostly shadows reflect in the rippled waters and bright sunshine bounces over the deep-blue surface. A long narrow bridge crosses the lake as it splits into two. We passed through rural villages, increasing in size as we travelled west towards our destination, the small town of Amares. In just under three hours we’d travelled less than 100 miles, through some of the most beautiful countryside in both Spain and Portugal.

Our home for the night was well signposted from the town. Before long we were bumping along a narrow cobbled lane, so typical of Portugal, deep into the countryside. As we rounded the final bend the lane widened allowing for parking. Large wooden doors guarded a grand entrance. A painted sign in Wedgwood blue on white ceramic tiles read – Quinta do Burgo.

The first half of our adventure had reached a satisfactory conclusion.

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