We went to the south of Portugal, as for the last two years, to stay with our friends Rob and Ines. As last time we drove down so that Bella the dog could accompany us. She won’t fly. We decided to do it properly this time and take four weeks.
We took the Tunnel and stopped the first night out at a chateau in the Loire valley. It looked like a birthday cake and the grounds around it were covered with improbable technicolour flowers so that one expected to see Bambi lurking shyly at the end of a path through the forest. We were so taken up with the general splendour that we booked dinner in the main restaurant. We thought that we might try the degustation menu.
“We will attend with the dog,” we said.
“Mais, non. The dog is excluded. Desolé.”
“But you are French. The French like very much les chiens, and particularly les chiennes.”
“We love, assuredly. But it is the Americans. Desolé.”
We negotiated a compromise. We sat degusting at a French window giving onto the balcony. Bella sat companionably just outside, soaking up the evening sunlight. The waiter brought her water and delicious titbits. The Americans sat at the other tables in their crisp cotton trousers and their hair pieces. They still snarled.
The less said about Valladolid, the second stop, the better.
When we got to Portugal and to Rob and Ines’ quinta, the sun shone down mercilessly. Why anyone would expect mercy from a celestial body billions of miles away is a mystery, but even so it was notable by its absence. The better half took Bella surfing in the sea. There are massive and relentless Atlantic breakers there. Bella had worked out a few tricks in her mind in the twelve months since last year. People stopped to watch. ‘It is Swims Like Seals,’ they would say. ‘Her reputation precedes her.’ Ines filmed her. I stayed out of the sun writing the great Alablague novel. Rob attended to war games involving General David Lunch and his army of thrice-dried figs; he has abandoned for the time being his ambition of covering the outside of his quinta with Native American art. In the evenings we would eat delicious food, often involving just-caught fish from the market at Olhão, and drink immoderately. We had a splendid time. Much of it you can see on Facebook, if you know how.
It was time to go. By way of a change we had decided to drive to Bilbao and get a boat to Portsmouth. We broke the journey at Porto, and stayed there for a couple of days in a rented apartment in the Old Town, much of which is medieval. Porto is a magic city, ramshackle, romantic and dangerous. The sides of the Douro, the river that runs through it, are improbably high, so that as you sit at some café trams rumble past high above you. They eat delicious cod – bacalhau – there, and of course there is the port.
After dinner we set out to explore the Old Town. We took a path that involved climbing a thousand steps. At the end I fancied a rest, but we were faced by a youth with a cosh: no one else was in sight.
“Nice dog,” he said meaningfully.
“She bites,” the better half said – in demotic Portuguese.
He let us through. Again, Bella’s reputation had preceded her.
In Bilbao we stayed at a businessmen’s hotel. They scurried about with their Alexei Sayle suits and their wheely suitcases, talking into their mobile phones, saying things like, ‘It’s a very tight time-frame for delivery.’ Goodness, I thought, I remember all that nonsense.
Because it was Bilbao we went to see the Guggenheim Museum, the metal-encased construction by Frank Geary with art inside, which has apparently inspired the regeneration of that part of the city: Bilbao by and large is faceless and industrial.
The building is flashy and nice in a look-at-me-Mummy way. Inside it is very impressive, with curvy walls and walkways high above you. I think that they have decided that painting is dead, because there are not a lot of straight walls that one might hang anything traditional on. They had some ten enormous Serra constructions, which were marvellous but perhaps seven too many. There was a large show of the usual stuff from Basquiat, and Jeff Koons had just closed and was being removed in large vans. So much for Basque culture.
There are two boats from Bilbao. One is small and you can take your dog in your cabin and the other is big, has stabilisers, and the dog goes in a kennel. Of course we chose the small one, which bobbed around like a cork. A man said to me, ‘I’m a truck driver, and I do this run all the time, but you can certainly feel the swell tonight.’
(The ship is so small that one is forced to hob-nob with passengers who are in trade.)
Anyway the wind dropped and the next morning it was like a millpond – whatever that is. However, just as we were passing the extremities of the Breton peninsula there was an incident. We were required to attend at the lifeboats. Unfortunately there was not enough room for us all, so pets, Italians (something to do with an EU opt-out) and staff below the grade of Assistant Purser had to swim. It was heart-breaking to see them bobbing around in the water, giving, in the case of the pets and Italians, little cries; the staff, to whom it had been explained that being required to swim was part of their terms of employment, behaved with admirable dignity. We were all right. I placed Bella beneath my t-shirt; ‘Make way for the fat man,’ they said. Moreover, the better half placed our three passports under her t-shirt, so when we were rescued we were able to proceed on our way home without let or hindrance.