The rock formations just outside Fafe are quite extraordinary. Fascinating as the geology and provenance is, it’s the biggest of the big rocks that catches the eye. The one with the enormous saltire painted on it. The one with two words: ‘McRae’s Land’.
That sort of says it all about Portugal. Continue along that road and it’ll pop you out onto the N311. Slot left towards Bemposta and there’s more art and more adoration for Scotland’s 1995 world champion – this time painted right across the road. Both lanes.
Colin McRae ‘only’ won this rally twice, but his swashbuckling, cavalier approach to these very roads elevated him to God-like status. In Portugal, certainly in this part of Portugal, rallying is everything to these people.
Video: Vodafone Rally de Portugal
And that’s what makes it so hard to miss this week’s planned Vodafone Rally de Portugal due to Covid-19.
We should have been there, right in the very heart of this beautiful country, telling tales, sharing stories over a Pastéis de Nata over a cup of coffee.
The WRC’s love affair with Portugal began from the outset of the series in 1973. Back then the crews came from starting points around Europe, but they all had their sights set on the Atlantic coast capital of Lisbon and the Estoril race circuit.
Apart from a brief spell down south on the Algarve, Rally de Portugal has always remained in the north of the country. It’s where it belongs. And it’s where it’s heroes like McRae and Markku Alén would feel so at home.
Talk to five-time winner Alén about the TAP or Port Wine Rally as it was known and his eyes shine. He took his first ever WRC win here in 1975. It was where he came of age.
“I remember I beat Hannu Mikkola,” he said. “This year was nice. Showed me I have the speed. But it wasn’t the very big fight. Big fight with Hannu, hey this was coming in years after. Big fight…”
The Seventies and Eighties came close, but they never touched the Exponor service park in Matosinhos – but you’d never know that. As you walk through an exhibition centre decorated in all the event’s finery from down the years, the walls talk of greatness, of the legends that brought this rally to life.
And will do again next year.