I had been invited by the Portuguese Tourism board to visit Portugal on an all-expenses paid familiarisation trip where I would meet some local agents and see some of the sights of this often overlooked country.
I met Carlos, the Portuguese Tourism representative and the rest of the group at Gatwick and checked my luggage in at the TAP desk. Also on the trip were three ‘trade’ individuals from adventure travel companies, a magazine journalist, a food and lifestyle writer and a bird writer and judge (the first I have ever met). There was good news – we’d all been upgraded! We had a relatively uneventful flight of just under two hours where was all shared tales of our travels and I learnt what was just the beginning of my education into bird watching.
In Porto we were greeted by Manuel, our local guide for our visit. He looked very Portuguese with dark, tanned skin, a long brown ponytail and a bushy goatee. He was all smiles and welcomed us into Portugal with admirable vigour.
We drove from Porto to our first nights’ accommodation. Half of the group were dropped at Casa dos Pocos, a lovely B&B in Vilar Torpim complete with swimming pool, sauna, steam room and Turkish bath. The remainder of the group travelled on to the hilltop town of Castelo Rodrigo, a pretty, cobble-stoned settlement with commanding views of the plains below. Ana, our host at the Casa de Cisterna, welcomed us wholeheartedly into her home. It was the perfect getaway, stylishly adorned with an impressive attention to detail. Each bedroom was different and for me it was a first, with a bed suspended from the ceiling. I was interested in giving it a go, so rather abruptly declared my desires (I was later told it was very un-British of me).
Ana provided us with a first-class meal in her home with soup, salted cod, smashed potatoes (“not Smashing Pumpkins”, she declared, and one of my favourite bands as a teenager – was there no end to her appeal?!) and some delightful vegetables.
That evening we were treated to a visit to some local rock carvings. The Prehistoric Rock Art Sites in the Côa Valley are a UNESCO site with ancient carvings of numerous animals in an idyllic setting. I was in total awe of Ana’s passion for these carvings and although it was very late by this point, her enthusiasm and panache for describing these fascinating wonders had the whole group hanging off every word.
The following morning after a hearty breakfast with homemade bread and jams, some strong coffee and plenty of fresh fruit, we drove to the Faia Brava Nature Reserve. Our guides, both biologists, were truly passionate about this paradise and, as we strolled through the lush, green landscape, they pointed out numerous plants, flowers, trees and birds. We visited a bird watching hide atop a hill where rotting carcasses of cows and horse lay drying in the sun. They had been placed there by one of our guides for the healthy population of vultures that inhabit the reserve.
We ate a wonderful lunch of grilled sardines, a vegetable cake (new one on me but absolutely delicious!) and sandwiches, accompanied by the obligatory helpings of fizzy wine and ice tea. We kept a close eye on socks and shoes by the fire as they dried out the soaking we’d received from the long, wet grass.
To be continued . . .