Chapter 27 Bragança

Wednesday 16th and Thursday 17th August 2017

Fires in the Forest (1910) Laszlo Mednyanszky

Fires in the Forest (1910) Laszlo Mednyanszky

On Wednesday and Thursday I take a break from Kite and the sea and head inland to the north of Portugal, where I have been invited to spend some time with my friend Maria and her family. After pondering taking a three and half hour coach ride, I have plumped for the luxury of a hire car, if a Fiat Panda can ever be called luxury.

From google maps the journey to Bragança looks like motorway all the way. I settle in for a fast but boring journey. It is anything but. Don’t get me wrong it is fast, or at least as fast as I can get the poor little Fiat to go while respecting the speed limits. What it is not, is boring. The road is beautifully engineered, passing through mountains and over valleys via a stunning array of tunnels and bridges. The two hour drive seems to be over almost as soon as it starts and, before I know it, I’m pulling up outside Maria’s parents house. Maria shows me to my room in the flat on the top floor and then takes me downstairs to meet her parents.

As appears customary across the Iberian Peninsula, the wine, the bread, the cheese and the pork products are soon brought out. I do my best to talk with Maria’s parents in my extremely poor Portuguese. I am drinking her father’s home made wine which is quite palatable and before you know it my sobriety has disappeared. Maria and I decide to walk into Bragança. The city is apparently responsible for the tea drinking habits of my own country of birth. One of it’s residents, Catherine de Braganza was to become the queen of the restoration monarch, Charles II. It is she who is credited with bringing the habit of drinking afternoon tea to Britain. This contrasts with the explanation that I know from Asterix in Britain, where tea arrived in the northern isles much earlier, brought by the indomitable Gaul. There are some similarities between the two tales however. This part of Portugal is a land of Celts that never was completely subdued by the Romans.

Maria has lived in London for more than 25 years and, as we walk into the centre of her home town, she points out the changes that have occurred since she grew up here, when the residents still used to wash their clothes in the river that is now tamed by a surrounding park. We admire the old and often derelict buildings that are built into the cliffs above the waters as we follow their course downwards. Eventually we cross over and start to climb up towards the castle. By the time we reach the top we feel we have earned a beer so we sit at a cafe, eventually deciding to eat in the attached restaurant where, as the sun sets, we admire the beautiful views across the town.

At 9pm Maria, who is a staunch catholic, has a service that she wants to attend at the church so we part ways agreeing to meet in an hour. I have my own mission. Today would have been my father Ray’s 97th birthday and I have been prompted by more than one of my children to have “A Guinness for Ray”. Sometimes it seems that there is nowhere on the planet that does not have an Irish bar. I can imagine that no sooner had Henry Morton Stanley uttered the immortal lines “Dr Livingstone I presume” he received the response “Do you fancy a pint in that Irish pub over there?”. However as I frantically search for a Guinness in this Northern Portuguese City it seems I have finally found one of the few places that doesn’t have an Irish bar. In the end I settle for a lager with a Jameson’s chaser hoping that will do. I get talking to the Portuguese guy next to me; because he lives in Paris, the conversation is in French. At 10 I make my excuses and head off in search of Maria.

I find her not far from where we parted, she takes me to a pasteleria where her uncle Francisco, who was also at the service with her, is having his customary coffee and pastry. I spy a pool table in the back and suggest we play. As our game is coming to a conclusion I notice a couple of English kids hanging around looking like they would like to play. I suggest this, but the proprietor is not happy with the thought of children playing on the table in case they rip the baize. We end up sitting and talking to Eliza and Cassie and their long term foster dad Bill (not their real names). The kids are delightful and I suspect testament to the power that love has in mending us now matter how broken we become. We move on from the cafe and end up sitting all together watching some music in the square. Eliza entertains me with her stories, then at one point Cassie comes up to me and whispers in my ear “Is that a mohawk?”, “Well it’s a little wide and it has grown out a lot but basically yes” I reply. “I knew it” she counters as she walks away smiling. What a fantastic job Bill and his partner, and indeed Eliza and Cassie, have done.

The next day Maria and I head to the beach, which in these parts means a beach by a lake. The lake is lovely if somewhat crowded. We find a patch where Maria can be at least partially in the sun, while I can enjoy the shade. The day passes quickly chatting and people watching and all too soon it is time to drive Maria back to Braganza and to return to Porto. The enjoyment of the drive back is marred by just one thing, as I realise that the clouds I can see in the setting sun are not clouds at all, but rather smoke from the forest fires that have been raging in the country this summer, causing more that 60 deaths.