Once we’ve settled onto our pontoon at Vila Real de Santo Antonio, tidied up and had breakfast, I pause for the first time. We are on the outside pontoon with nothing between us and the river. The river is still, but lively with terns, swooping and diving and shrilly chattering. Occasionally a fish leaps from the water, flying through the air for a split second, splashing back into the river, disturbing the peaceful surface with an expanding pattern of concentric ripples. Across the still river, only 500 metres away is Spain. A different country, a different culture, a different language, a different time zone. It’s surreal to be in one country and yet be so close to another. I’ve done it before, driving through Europe and on the Canadian side of Niagara Falls. But the political lines that are not always so arbitrary never cease to amaze me.
We’ve had a tough night of sailing, so we don’t get up to much on our first day back in Portugal. Julian takes the girls out for a walk and a picnic while I catch up on some sleep and in the afternoon I return the favour, strolling with the girls through the pretty white-washed town of Vila Real, old men drinking coffee in the town square, groups of men and women, young and old, gathered in and outside bars watching a football match on TV.
We leave Vila Real at 8am the next morning to take advantage of the currents on the flood tide that will carry us up the river. Our destination is Alcoutim, a Portuguese village 22 miles up the river.
Beyond the small towns of Vila Real on the Portuguese side and Ayamonte on the Spanish side, we are quickly into countryside. The first thing I notice is the smell. A deep, fresh, rich, earthy smell of the river and its banks, that makes me want to inhale deeply, fill my lungs, get drunk on this heady air.
The banks on this stretch of the river are flat and muddy, with herons and egrets standing still on long legs or carefully high-stepping in the shallows, scanning the water for fish. The terns are ever present, reminding me, as they always do, of the Point out beyond Arviat.
Two miles upriver from Vila Real we pass under the suspension bridge. I’ve flown and driven across international borders before, but this the first time I’ve gone under one. Beyond the bridge the gently rolling farmland is dotted with the occasional olive, orange or almond grove, herds of sheep led by a clanging bellwether resting under the trees from the already hot sun.
Abandoned dwellings are dotted on the slopes of the riverbank – tiny, white washed houses with windows and roofs missing or in various states of disrepair.
As we carry on up the river, rounding long curving bends, the landscape subtly changes. Gradually the muddy banks give way to lush green hills sloping down to the bamboos and tall reeds that flank the river. Even above the noise of our engine I can hear the birdsong and I look forward to reaching our destination so we can cut the motor and listen to this orchestra.
In places, where tributaries feed the river with silt, the Guadiana is no deeper than 3.5 metres, and we navigate carefully. We draw almost 1.9 metres, and we don’t want to touch the bottom. But for most of the trip up the river we have 9 metres or more and we comfortably chug along, slowly and with enough time to take it all in, take photos and spot birds on the river banks.
It takes us less than four hours to reach the twin villages of Alcoutim, on the Portuguese side of the river and Sanlucar on the Spanish side. Both are tiny and white washed, rising steeply from the banks of the river. There are plenty of boats at anchor here already, and we motor around, trying out a few different places until we find a place we like. We drop the anchor, turn off the engine, and sit in the cockpit taking in the sights and sounds of the place.
The air is electric with birdsong, accompanied by a goat’s bell in the field closest to us. On each hour four church bells ring – two on each side of the river. Occasionally an outboard motor hums as a dinghy crosses the river between the two countries. In a field nearby, on the Spanish side, a farmer tends his orange trees.
It’s time to inflate the dinghy and get ashore!