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  • Writer's picture Kester Eddy

Summer Evening, Last Train, Walk Home

Updated: May 19, 2021

Every Picture Tells a Story (Don't It?) 24 - UPDATED

This photo epitomises my experiences in this country in the first half of the 1970s. It was poor then, bled through wars, and, I suppose, bad management (though it once led the world in some respects). Here, in this little visited area, it felt like the Wild West minus the guns, with local stores stocking everything from fried river fish to plastic buckets to paraffin. I ate my first fig - I mean fresh, picked from a tree, by the railway - in this country, possibly even on the very day I took this pic.

Though poor, the people were warm, honest and friendly, at least that's how I found them. I'll relate a story about that tomorrow, in an update. Meanwhile - although most steam locomotive buffs would not have any trouble identifying the country where this photo was taken, and perhaps could name the railway line, or even the exact station itself - I'll let readers offer their guesses for the next 24 hours where this might be.

Here's a snippet of a clue: if I remember correctly, this train would have left its city of origin - the country's second largest conurbation - in the early afternoon, I'd guess about 3.5 hours earlier, but chances are not many of those walking home would have travelled all the way.

Update: ​First to have a go at where this might be was Alex, who was the only non-train buff to make the effort. (Well, Alex likes trains, but only counts trains as such if they have a restaurant car in the middle with proper crockery and silver cutlery.) He thought it might be Greece, arguing that “the country certainly 'once led the world in some respects’ albeit 2000 years ago.” He knew, too, that “it was really backward in the 70s and had suffered a terrible 20th century history of conflict. It has many such valleys (like the one pictured), boasting white-walled buildings with red tiled roofs.” Not a bad effort, and certainly on the right latitude, I think, but a bit out on the verticals, Alex. Bart then took a swipe: “Portugal, presume up the end of the Douro line maybe between Pochinho and [the Spanish border station of] Barca da Alva,” he reckoned.

He was swiftly followed by Hubert: “Portuguese Henschel [built locomotive], Linha do Douro, Pocinho station?” Well, that's got a darn sight closer. It is indeed the Douro Valley line in northern Portugal, but my memory of the far eastern section, especially east of Pocinho, is of acres of sunbaked rocks rather than the relatively lush tree-lined area pictured here. Then Owen had a bash – as he should, because he lives in Portugal, albeit further south, in Lisbon. “I've never been along there, but presumably on the Douro line. Eastbound, late afternoon, summer if you had just eaten a fig off the tree,” he writes, pouncing on my generous clue like a leopard on a wounded ourebi. He then looked up the service in his 1971 timetable – the mark of a hard-core buff - and focused on Régua, which was the main town, roughly half way along the route, a bit less than 70 km – 43 miles – from (O)Porto. “It gives Régua at about 3 hours from Porto, but I don't think it is there. In 1971, train 6013 left São Bento at 14h25, Régua 17h15 to 17h35, Barca d'Alva 20h55. Think I'll have to traverse the line with Google tomorrow to look for a likely station. How did you get the height to take the pic?” he wrote. This timetable is surely still valid for 1973, when I think I took the photo in July, in the month or so we had off after finals. As you can see, CP (Portuguese Railways) trains rather took their time back then – that's an average speed of 15 mph (!) for Porto to Régua (Actually, it's not that much better today. Ok, the fastest trains now knock about an hour off those timings, but that still only 25 mph – not exactly the heights of high-speed travel.) Anyway, Owen, true to his word, googled away and came up with: “Covelinhas? Second station after Régua: the table puts 6013 there at 17h50. What length lens were you using? There is some higher ground on the N side of the road a bit E of the station and the line is pointing more or less NE there, explaining the lighting on the loco.”

Hmmm. Now what about the driver's name, and how much did he earn per week back then, without overtime, Owen? :)

<Warning, tech-talk paragraph> I think the lens was my old 135mm Soligor f2.8, bought new for about £18 in Derby, early 1972. Cheap, you might say, but it was a nice piece of glass – only problem was it was so-called 'pre-set', ie not an automatic aperture, which meant you had to focus with the lens fully open, then manually close it down, so it was a bit slow to operate. I tossed out that bit about my first ever fresh fig off a tree without thinking too much about it, but today felt more and more convinced it was indeed the same day of the photo. I'd been up the line about another half mile behind my back in this picture, waiting for trains - there were only about 5 each way per day, including goods traffc back then - and a 'permanent way' gang was working on the track. One of the men, seeing me, went up to a tree and presented what I presumed was a green fruit.

"Figuss"* he said, which I took to mean 'fig' (you can tell I'm a genius at languages, right? :) ) - but I didn't know how to eat it. Realising my state of ignorance, he picked another and cut or bit the top off to reveal a soft, sweet, blood red inner core. It was very tasty.

(* I believe the spelling in Portuguese is figos - but it sounded more like figuss.)

Portugal was very laid back at the time, and there were few foreign tourists in the north, and none whatsoever in the Douro Valley. This - I gather - is a far cry from modern times, at least pre-Covid. There are certainly plenty of tours advertised nowadays to see the vine-covered hills.

The country was, in general, also very honest. A year later, I went into a cafe just outside the main stationin Porto for a snack. After leaving, I thought I'd lost a 20 escudo note (Then about £0.30, I'd guess about the equivalent of two euros today) - and went back in to search the floor under my chair. The cafe owner asked what I'd lost, and I explained, whereupon he simply opened the till and handed me a 20 escudo note, which I tried to refuse, but he insisted I take it.

After leaving a second time, I realised I'd made a mistake, and had spent the money earlier, so had to go back once again to return the note. It wasn't a huge sum of course, but that wasn't the point - the man had just handed over a replacement note because he thought I'd lost mine in his cafe. Incidentally, Hubert correctly said the locomotive in the phot was built by Henschel, of Kassel. These engines were very handsome, built pre WW1, and I somehow had this image in my mind that Kassel would be a very romantic, German city with an imposing, turreted Schloss, full of houses dating back to 1600 or even earlier.

In 1982, I was travelling near the place, so I turned off the Autobahn to check out my image. A romantic, turreted old city mit Schloss it was certainly not. It was 1950s concrete. What I hadn't considered was that this same Henchel company that had built such nice locomotives had turned to making un-nice Tiger tanks in the 1930s, and as a result, was bombed to bits in the later years of World War 2. I'm sure Kassel has some nice parts, but I did not stop to find them.

The myth was truly banished.

Congrats to Owen and all who had a shot at the location!

Here's a link to how to travel into the Douro today. I have no idea if this is an 'official' govt site or just a regular commercial venture, and can't guarantee the information on it.

This is a link to the official CP railway timetable today. Note that the last, eastern section of the line has closed east of Pocinho, and there is today no rail route across the wild, sun-baked, mountain desert into Spain.

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