Saturday 21 January 2017

A Long, Slow Journey 4: Farewell to Nata

“Portugal and Spain are pretty much the same, aren’t they”?

A few friends had asked me that question, both before and after our pilgrimage. I’d answered as diplomatically as possible that, while their languages, histories and cultures may seem somewhat alike, a little digging would uncover a great many differences. Not to mention sensitivities, suspicions, even animosities. Exhibit A: Pastel de nata.

A pair of irresistible pasteis de nata 
On our journey through northern Portugal, our mid-morning ritual, wherever possible, has been to find a coffee. And where there’s coffee, there’s invariably a small, round, egg tart known to locals as pastel de nata. It’s curious that something as small, simple and sweet as a glorified custard tart can wheedle its way into your gastronomic heart. But it does. We find ourselves anticipating nata time; then walking on rejuvenated post nata.

The signpost tells us we're nearing the Spanish border 
It all stops at the Spanish border, and it’s not entirely clear why. Nata were first created in Portuguese convents and monasteries. But why, I wonder, not Spanish ones? It’s such a felicitous way to use up excess egg yolks after you’ve employed the egg whites to starch your habits. Apart from this mysterious culinary divide, it’s also a reminder of the deep influence religion has had on the Iberian peninsula.

Crosses punctuate the sky throughout Spain & Portugal 
During our slow walk through the countryside we find eternity rehearsed in the many churches, crosses, customs and devotional sites we pass. We notice too the periodic bong of church bells, tracking the passage of time so much more deeply than the tick of watches or clocks. That sound feels like a landscape-wide assertion that the here-and-now is joined to the forever.

We wonder whether we even see the moral tug of eternity in the kindness of some Portuguese. In just one instance, as we’re wearily working our way through the sweltering semi-industrial outskirts of Valenca, we inadvertently walk past a yellow arrow. As we heedlessly head off in the wrong direction, a passing driver is quick to assess our situation. He stops, turns his car around, drives back to tell us we’ve gone a few hundred metres past our “way”, and puts us back on track with a smile and a wave.

Fortaleza de Valenca, Portugal, facing Spain 
Valenca is to be our final Portuguese town. Once we walk across the Minho River, we’ll be in Spain. There we’ll encounter a new language; different customs; and a myriad subtle changes. Bom dia will become Buenos dias, and we’ll have leche in our coffee rather than leite. Sadly it’ll also be farewell to nata.

Of course it’s not just the loss of tarts that creates a sense of drama at the border. Valenca is an old fort town dating back to Roman times. Its bland modernisation can’t hide its impessive old fortification, the Forteleza de Valenca, perched high above the banks of the Minho. We spend our last Portuguese night in the old fort town. It’s a beautiful warm afternoon, and a perfect setting for our last coffee and pastel de nata.

Our final pastel de nata in Valenca 
The large fort, with its thick cannon-topped walls facing Spain, was built to impress, intimidate and keep-a-good-eye-on those on the other side of the Minho. For us it offers a grandstand view over Spain. We dine al fresco, watching a sunset seemingly turned on for our farewell.

Farewell sunset from Valenca, Portugal 
We’re back there in the morning, but this time to take our leave. Our way takes us through the old city and down to the bridge over the Minho. How many feet, in war and in peace, have marched down that steep cobbled lane, passed under that wall and gone through that city gate?

Leaving Valenca through the city gate  
We feel a strange reluctance to leave. We pause to take farewell photos, and stop at the “border”, a painted line half way over the bridge. Finally we finish crossing the Minho and climb up into the town of Tui. It’s time to say Hola Espagna!

The border crossing on the Minho bridge 

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