Carry On Up The Douro Part 2


By Dave Thomas
August 25 2017

     Pinhao, Barca d’Alva, Castelo Rodrigo; what gorgeous places these were. But we still hadn’t signed Chris Wood or anyone else for that matter even though Sean D was saying he was still keen to sign new additions. Leeds were adamant he wasn’t for sale and even a £16million bid had been rejected according to internet (now back on) reports.  And the Chelsea game was looming, early relaxed indifference being slowly replaced by slight trepidation.   

    By now, too, the scenes of hooliganism at Turf Moor during the Hannover game were being flashed around the world on BBC World News. It was a surreal moment, on a boat, up the Douro, switch on the TV to see what’s happening and up pops Burnley and the sight of Hannover nutjobs leathering the nearest Burnley fans and any steward unfortunate enough to be in the middle.douroboat_250817_a

     The boat was filled with Americans, average age 70 probably, so that anyone in their 20s or 30s stood out like a sore thumb. One such was CC, that’s all I knew him by, on the boat with his fiancé, both in their 30s and he in a Chelsea shirt…a Chelsea shirt. Others came from all over the USA, California, Nevada, Arizona, New York, Atlanta and Philadelphia. An English couple we befriended were from Huddersfield so that he was understandably over the moon with Huddersfield’s success and foray into the Premier League. Like us, he took an away defeat in the first game for granted.

     With so many Americans on board and surrounded by so many accents it was hard not to slip into it.  ‘Well Hi Dave,’ one woman said every morning well impressed by my gallantry one day when I’d offered my seat in the shade of an olive tree while we sipped port at a quinta, after another huge lunch.

     It was always tempting to reply, ‘why howdy ma’am, you look just swell this fahn mornin’.’ But I managed to resist. Nor did I dare to ask any of them had they voted for Trump, who by now was seemingly losing his grip on sanity and like Nero and Caligula centuries earlier, firing anyone who offended him, but in this day and age fortunately unable to have them assassinated.  

     Next up was a visit to Castelo Rodrigo which meant heading into the breathtaking countryside to reach the medieval hilltop fortress town that looked down on miles and miles of a flat plateau that stood at over 2,000’. The boat would sail on without us and meet us further upriver at Barca d’Alva. My ears had pricked up the evening before during the evening briefing where the tour guides quickly outlined what was on offer the next day.

    ‘This is almond growing country,’ she explained, ‘and the café in Castelo Rodrigo makes the most wonderful local delicacy, the Almond Pie.’

     ‘Hmmm,’ I thought, ‘this sounds good; this needs to be investigated and researched.’ dourvillage-250817_a

     By now we were quite near the Spanish border and from Castelo you could across peer into the hills of Spain. The village itself was a maze of cobbled streets, criss-crossing the hilltop. At the very pinnacle was the old ruined castle, below that the obligatory church. Being so close to Spain, Jewish refugees from the Spanish Inquisition centuries ago fled to Castelo and set up their own community. The afternoon was getting hotter and hotter; the cool of the café seemed a good idea, a cold drink, and a slice of Almond Pie. But as we sat there waiting to order, Pete’s phone pinged with a new text message and it brought news that made us gasp.

     ‘We’ve sold Andre Gray,’ Pete announced looking at us in a state of near-shock.

     So were we all. ‘He’s having his medical this afternoon,’ added Pete.

     It wasn’t that he was being sold that surprised us, we expected it. A new contract offer was unsigned, it was fairly clear he would be happy to go and clubs like Newcastle and Everton had been tracking him. By all accounts according to the text, most folks back home were OK with the sale for a reported £18million, it was good business; most folks were resigned to it. Many fans were of the opinion that he was now caught up in the celebrity world of show biz and Little Mix. The jury was out on his skill levels, some saying that he couldn’t trap a bag of cement and that his first touch was usually a three yard pass. But no-one could doubt the value of his goals in the second Dyche promotion season and the contribution he had made to the club. In that season he had provided pace and that rare quality of surprise so that most sides never really knew what he would do next. Now the problem was; how to replace him?

     But: the shock of the news was in the destination.  It wasn’t Newcastle; it wasn’t Everton, not any top side, but Watford. Our thoughts were the same, you’re joking, Watford, bloody Watford. How on earth could a side like this be spending all this money and paying these big wages to players they were signing under new manager Silva? We tut-tutted, humphed and shook our heads…bloody Watford, meh. douromrst_250817_a

     It was the prospect of the Almond Pie that cheered us up. Outside the café it was in the high 30s so the café interior was an oasis of cool and comfort. In the display cabinet a few feet away there was no sign of anything resembling the Almond Pie; maybe there wasn’t any and we were about to be disappointed. But no, when we asked, the proprietor disappeared into a second room and brought two plates with large slices of what we expected to be a pie. But it wasn’t and the let-down we felt was as big as the let-down that Gray was going to piddling Watford of all places. Almond Pie in Castelo is actually more like peanut brittle except they ain’t peanuts, they are almonds. It was hard as nails, tough on the teeth, took a lot of chewing and clogged up the gums; and we left half of it. 

     Back on the boat in Barca d’Alva we headed straight for the toothbrushes and toothpicks and then took in our surroundings. This is a gem of a little riverside village in a sort of upside down T shape with the short main street of houses forming the up of the T and a line of tavernas and bars forming the crosspiece by the river. The tavernas were old, rustic, simple, basic, cheap, very much resembling the dusty old places we used to visit in Greece where the whole family was involved in the running of the place; so cheap that dozens of Spanish folks drive over to eat there.  Smells of the kitchens drift into the dusty street and across to the ship. Sleepy dogs lie in the dust occasionally stretching or having a scratch. The road crosses the river here by way of a suspension bridge. And on the ship it was Spanish night.

     Of course there was Paella filled with shell fish, rice, calamari, shrimp, mussels and muchos other wriggly stuff. But for me there was only one choice Cerdo Iberico. This was a dish of pork medallions with mascarpone polenta and roasted piquillo peppers. ‘Medallions’ of course is the culinary way of saying ‘bits of’. But this was no ordinary pork; this is meat that comes from specially bred, very small pigs that are fed on nothing but chestnuts. It then produces a very rich, black pork meat. I ate these while the next text came to Pete that announced that Gray had indeed passed his medical and was now a Watford player. All of us who had been to Watford could only hope that he would learn how to navigate the one way system otherwise he was unlikely to see his Little Mix girlfriend ever again. Getting into Watford we had learned is fine; it is getting out that is the problem.  Claret airwaves and websites (we managed to log in) were surprisingly not in a state of suicidal meltdown but were calm and objective.dourogroupeating_250817_a

     Time was running out, every moment precious, Friday and the Chelsea game just a day away. Another huge breakfast of Eggs Benedict as the ship pulled away from Barca d’Alva to get us nearer to the village of Favios where we could do two things, sample Muscatel, a rich, sweet dessert wine made from the Muscat grape, in one of the warehouses; and then sample handmade bread prepared the traditional way in old ovens heated with wood and old grapevines in a nearby local bakery. We ate the bread, huge hunks of it that was fresh from the ovens, lathering it with butter and home-made jam. Flour billowed up from the large table where the baker was slapping the dough around on the flour-covered surface. Most of us left the room covered in it with jam and butter all over our faces.

     The culinary tour was not yet over. Still filled on bread and jam we stopped at the Quinta Avessada wine estate for lunch, three courses yet again. The owner and host and chief entertainer between each course was an absolute replica of Mr Bean in both looks and mannerisms. It was uncanny. We left wondering if Rowan Atkinson had once seen this guy and based Mr Bean on him. But at last this was a meal that did not get a 5-star rating from me.

    ‘What do you think,’ said Mrs T. She knew what I would say about the chewy meat, allegedly a local dish.

     ‘It reminds me of the awful braised steak my mother used to do when I was a kid,’ I said.

     Cooking was never her strong point though it must be said she was a reluctant cook, standing over whatever she was making with a cigarette in her mouth so that the ash plopped into whatever delight she was concocting. Sometimes we had no idea what was on the plate.

     For dinner in the evening for me it was Arroz de Pato, pulled duck meat in port wine with onions and steamed rice.  By now we knew that the draw for the League Cup had been made and had laughed at the idea of being drawn against Blackburn Rovers, little thinking that this was exactly what would happen. How things had changed from just a few years ago with struggling penniless Burnley in the doldrums and Blackburn in the Premier League looking down their noses. Now it was Blackburn humiliated and relegated right down to Division One and financially struggling. Burnley meanwhile were in their third season in the Premier League with more cash than they could ever have imagined. The wheel had turned full circle and now it was our turn to enjoy Blackburn’s downwards journey. This would be Blackburn’s Cup Final no doubt; for Burnley just another game. But then we remembered last year’s results against small fry – Accrington and Lincoln.dourochef_250817_a

     The penultimate day, Saturday, the last lazy day of cruising back down the Douro, but there was more to it than just that. This was the first day of the new season and the opening game and when we’d seen the fixtures for the first time, we’d gasped. The first game was at Chelsea, the Champions, and a more daunting game you could not wish for. Chelsea at Turf Moor and anything was possible. But this was a nightmare of a start.

     We opted out of the short morning excursion and lunched on the boat. This time I settled on a Francesinha. The menu said sandwich. That’s all I want, I thought after the huge breakfast of bacon and eggs, a sandwich will do me fine. I hadn’t bargained for what a Francesinha actually was. It came in a large, deep bowl, a sandwich the size of a hubcap and swimming in what appeared to be a dark tomato soup. The waiter looked at my raised eyebrows and laughed.

     ‘Portuguese special,’ he said. ‘It has taken you by surprise. It surprises most people. ‘

     It sure as hell took me aback. This wasn’t a snack; it was a two-course meal on one plate. The two huge slices of bread were packed with melted cheese, sausages, steak, ham and beef. And what appeared to be soup was in fact beer sauce. Ah well, I thought, I don’t need to eat it all, but did consuming enough calories to stoke up half a dozen heart attacks.

     Valter the barman had offered to set up the huge TV in the ship’s lounge so that we could actually watch the Chelsea game. There was no SKY, not that it was on SKY anyway, but there were various overseas channels showing it that with a gizmo he could plug in, he promised he would find the game. We dug out the old joke when we got to know him better.

    ‘Are you a Pole Valter… no I am Portuguese and did the High Jump at school.’

     He had a grand sense of humour and had told all the Americans that he was a Syrian refugee fished out of the water by a Viking cruise ship and chosen to be a barman on the Hemming, while all the others had been left in the water. Most of them fell for it. His plan to set up the TV was thwarted he told us, however. In the afternoon starting at 3 o’clock the chef was giving a demonstration of how to make the famed egg tarts in the lounge and would not take kindly to a sub group watching a football match in the corner while he cracked yolks.

     In an odd kind of way we were quite relieved. None of us wanted to actually see the walloping that we expected Chelsea to dish out even though they were without Diego Costa, texted by Manager Conte in the summer and told he was unwanted.  Diego was therefore playing hooky in Brazil refusing to return to Chelsea and the insulting manager.  dourogroupondeck_250817_a

    By now the ship was in the broader stretches of the lower Douro so that Mrs T’s IPhone was receiving loud and clear. Pete was wearing his Burnley shirt for the occasion. Suddenly Mrs T shouted, ‘We’ve scored.’ The surprise in her voice was evident. Chelsea defender Cahill had already been sent off for a wild tackle. Our reactions were no different. But old habits die hard so that it was immediately assumed that Chelsea would equalise and go on to win the game. Meanwhile, the sun was beating down as we sat around on the top deck, on either side the river banks swishing by and every now and then people swimming from sandy stretches.

     ‘We’ve scored again,’ she hollered minutes later. ‘We’ve scored again. It’s 2-0, 2-0.’ This time it was Ward adding to Vokes’s first goal and the brief details said that the Ward goal was a screamer.

     Pete was by now pacing up and down the deck. At home during an away game, unable to listen to any radio or TV commentary, his habit is to retire to the garage and potter about, busying himself with ‘things to do.’ On the boat there was no escape; pacing seemed the only alternative. It was when the third goal went in that we just burst out laughing and looked at each other incredulously. Surely they were on their way to an astonishing win, 3-0 up and not even half-time; Chelsea booed off the pitch and down to ten men. What could possibly go wrong?douroondeck_250817_a

     ‘Chelsea have scored,’ announced Mrs T in the second half. Pete groaned and paced faster. Reports and snippets suggested that Chelsea were well back in the game and the Burnley first-half super-show was burned out. But nerves were settled again when Fabregas was sent off and Chelsea were down to nine men. That plus a tray of egg tarts freshly made downstairs being brought round for us to sample restored the exhilaration. Confidence reigned supreme. But:

    ‘Oh no, Chelsea have scored again,’ announced Mrs T horrified.

    ‘How on earth can they score with just nine men?’ groaned Pete, now quite beside himself. Only a few minutes remained and Chelsea were throwing everything at Burnley. Brady then hit the Chelsea post with a free kick from 20 yards. 4-2 would have finished the game and sent us into dreamland. 

    ‘This shouldn’t be happening,’ said Pete. ‘We should be coasting.’

     Four minutes of nerve-wracking extra time; but at last the whistle went, game over, result 3-2 for Burnley, a most improbable, unexpected, astonishing, unbelievable win as we munched the last egg tart. Before the game we were all agreed; there was no chance of a Burnley win. We whooped and hollered; people looked and stared at us so we explained the significance of the score to the Americans up on deck. We were ecstatic; Pete had his picture taken in his short with Captain Tiago. ‘This must be like Braga beating Benfica at Benfica,’ said Tiago, with a big smile. ‘The little club beats the giant.’dourocheeseplate_250817_a

     It was the Captain’s Farewell Dinner in the evening. The wine flowed, and a starter of Roasted Forest Mushroom Veloute, a soup thickened with egg yolks; next a main course of Molho de Cataplana com Tamboril – Monkfish medallions with peppers, onions, broad beans, black olives and tomatoes. And all finished off with a huge cheese plate. Empty wine bottles littered the table. Just about the whole crew knew by now that Burnley had won at Chelsea.

     The splendid dinner preceded a sail round Porto harbour after dinner as dusk fell, so that the river and harbourside was lit with a thousand and more sparkling lights and the bridge nearest the sea was silhouetted against a reddening sky. We sipped Port, the great warehouses to our right as we moored.doursalami_250817_a

     There is always a reluctance to accept that a holiday has ended and this one was no different. We had fallen in love with Portugal and the Douro Valley, with Lisbon and Porto. The Burnley win at Chelsea was the icing on the cake. 

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