Moving upriver

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.

Looking across to Spain from Portugal

Looking across to Spain from Portugal

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.

The town square of Vila Real

The town square of Vila Real

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.

Riverbank

Riverbank

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.

Looking serious as I emerge from under the suspension bridge

Looking pensive as I emerge from under the suspension bridge

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.

DSCI0372 - CopyIn 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.

Boats (including Carina) at anchor in the river

Boats (including Carina) at anchor in the river

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!

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The world’s greatest swimming pool

We are anchored on the west side of the Ria de Arousa, just off the beach of the pretty town Pobra do Caramiñal. After a few days of intense, oppressive heat, the clouds came over, offering us a welcome respite and a chance, at last, to go walking in the hills. The woman at the tourist office recommended As Piscinas on the Rio Pedras and we figured the 6km round trip wouldn’t be too much for the girls to undertake.

IMG_20140801_134011We walked out of town on a gradual incline, soon getting away from the main road and onto a walking track through the woods. Since arriving in Galicia, we have been struck by the profusion of eucalyptus trees and were so confused by their presence (and not trusting ourselves that that’s what they were, despite all evidence they were) that we turned to the Internet for answers. We discovered eucalyptus trees were introduced to the region from Australia only 150 years ago, for pulp and charcoal production, but quickly became a problematic invasive species, rapidly spreading over the hills and blocking natural wildlife corridors. Yet, despite the harm they cause, it is impossible to not be impressed by their beauty and aroma. Their slender silver trunks, stripped of bark, and dusky leaves cast a grey-blue glow on the land. Their soft swooshing as they sway in the breeze, and their unmistakable eucalyptus aroma, makes walking through these woods a joy to the senses. I can’t help but wonder what these hills were like before they took over.

IMG_20140801_135516We walked up the beautiful river valley – at times along a path than ran beside the boulder strewn river, at other times alongside small fields of vines or maize, the tinkling sound of the river always in our ears.

Katie contemplating the vines

Katie contemplating the vines

Upwards we went until the sound of teenagers alerted us to the proximity of the first pool on the upper reaches of the river. We climbed down the bank to a pool in the river where a family with four teenagers swam and ate their lunch. We ate our picnic lunch sitting on the rocks with our feet dipped in the fast flowing river, but then decided to search for more pools farther upstream.

DSCI4212We walked for another fifteen minutes until we reached the last of the pools, one of the most magical places I have ever been. The bedrock was smooth underfoot as we stepped into the warm river water, shallow enough in places for Lily and Katie to stand up, but deep enough elsewhere for Julian and me to enjoy a swim. A little higher up, a waterfall fell into a smaller pool. Julian and I took turns sitting on a rock underneath the waterfall. It was a natural Jacuzzi and we sat there with the water foaming and bubbling around us, massaging our bodies and roaring in our ears.

DSCI4195A natural water slide led from our pool to the next one downriver, lined with slick moss, and Julian entertained himself for ages by repeatedly sliding down. I tried it once and laughed so hard my sides ached. That first day we failed to convince the girls to have a go, but when we returned the next day, Lily eagerly went down the slide sitting on Julian’s lap.

DSCI4206Katie found a little pool all to herself and, holding on to a ledge, splashed and kicked her legs and had a glorious time. When not in the water, the girls foraged for juicy blackberries in the brambles.

My own little bit of paradise

My own little bit of paradise

The most wonderful thing, however, was that we had the place all to ourselves. Our own private piece of paradise. All along the 3km walk back home the girls asked if we could go back again. So we did, two days later. This time we shared ‘our’ pool with some other families, and later moved down the river to another pool that we had all to ourselves. What a treat!