Portugal – My Shy Friend
There’s a lot to love about a country that has a punk-rocker chicken as its National symbol. A land which rewards your Supermarket food shopping with the perfect 30cl cool beer just beyond the checkout. A nation whose Festa’s don’t begin till 11pm, and the local fire stations are run by volunteers, who do it purely for the honour.
Cabbage soup reigns supreme in every restaurant and gets the Menu Del Día off to a perfect start. The potatoes are so sweet they walk off your plate into your heart. And, the Delta coffee so bitter you taste the resentment of Salazar in every sip. It takes one of their custard tarts (which incidentally taste like custard, not egg – are you listening Britain!?) to return the sweetness, but, that’s where the confectionary compliments end because despite the fact their bakeries and cafes are brimming with delicacies worthy of a French Patisserie photograph they taste like something from a Polish soup-kitchen! Portugal went and mislaid its sugar.
These are the kind of things I want all my pals to know about Portugal, like when you’re introducing your shy friend to everyone and want them to give her a chance, see all the good bits you see after years of acquaintance. My parents bought an old farm-house in Portugal 8 years ago and ever since I have been falling in love. It’s a slow burner because my mate Portugal is a bit reserved, she sits in the corner of Europe not really saying much. Like a voluptuous Dickensian barmaid she is well-known for her rear end (The Algarve) but not many of today’s pirates and vagabonds have gotten to know her for her heart and virtues aplenty. So, let me introduce you.
An Assault On The Senses
When you open the morning shutters at my parents Central Portugal abode, you are hit with the scent of Eucalyptus and Pine, so strong you’ll find yourself searching for your white terry robe and spa slippers. By 9am most Portuguese locals have been in the field 3 hours already, tilling by hand and feeding their livestock which will see them through the Winter. They’re hard workers and sometimes their inner-contentment is hard to decipher between their frown and worry lines. It’s even harder to make-out from the traditional Fado music you hear in the evening Squares, songs which make your ears bleed and your heart crack a hairline fracture from all the pain that surely must’ve inspired such haunting music – not too dissimilar to my daughters recorder skills.
But their pride can be seen in their pretty town Praça’s (squares), which are spaces so neat and groomed I half expect to be asked to remove my shoes. Colourful tiled facades on just your every day house which have you snapping at the details with your camera – shots that will always remain in your cache but never see the light of day again! But at least you can capture this minutia on film, unlike the sound of the forests at the 4 pm breeze, a gentle alarm bell that it’s Gin o’clock. Or the melt in the mouth texture of Le Tao – suckling pig at its finest. Or the eerie silence in a lot of places – you would be forgiven for thinking you came to Portugal and it was closed. Apart from the usual August rush when the youngsters return from their jobs in Luxembourg and other richer neighbouring countries to become citizens for a month and catch up with their elderly relatives.
5 Things I Want You To Experience
This year we had the opportunity to show off our corner of Portugal to good friends who’d never visited before and there are a few things which we didn’t want them to miss in this new introduction:
1. Chicken And Chips – Any foreign market is a cultural looking-glass into the soul of a nation, like an abandoned shopping list in your trolley, but Portuguese markets have an extra highlight which would have Colleen and Wayne salivating at the lips: Original Nando’s. Haven’t you read the famous cockerel story written on a wall in every Nando’s in the world? Portugal is where it began, but no need to don your Juicy Couture track suit for this event – it’s a shoulder to shoulder sweaty affair under tarpaulin at formica tables, complete with wine in plastic cups and claggy table cloths. Am I selling it to you? Or should I say it’s an opportunity to sit back to back with hearty locals, soak in the lively environment and taste the best chicken and chips of your life! There’s no menu, you just hold up your fingers for how many portions and they bring it to you – salad, chips, rice, peri-peri chicken, bread and wine : what more does one need for a slap up lunch. Usually around €6 a person and worth every cent.
2. Kayaking on the Mondego – you may have already read my other post about our trip down the river: a day of exhilaration as you manoeuvre the current and an opportunity to take in the scenery of this beautiful corner of the world. Portugal is so lush and green and this particular landscape really shows that off, plus its great fun for all ages.
3. Bussaco Palace, Luso – As was the fashion of the day, Kings and Princes with healthy bank accounts (and even some without) commissioned ornate Castles and Palaces for themselves, romantisising a dream of an enchanting life with his many princesses and other less blue-blooded damsels. Too much time spent watching Disney Princess films if you ask me, they should have been out shooting grouse with arrows and learning how to oil a draw bridge, not being tailored to the hilt with frilly trousers and floppy hats. However, the well-tuned creative sides of past Princes and Monarchs mean that today we have some beautifully ornate Royal abodes to visit. And I’m not talking that many moons ago – only built at the turn of the twentieth century this is a palace which has taken all the elaborate details of bygone architecture and merged them into the discombobulated style of the Bussaco Palace. She’s a beaut!
Today it’s a hotel, 5 star no less, but the gardens are free to be roamed and there are acres of forest which were planted in the 1600’s for a group of hermit monks who felt the area resembled Mount Carmel in the Holy Land. The monastery still remains, adjacent to the palace, and this is only some of the History attached to Bussaco – there are also tales about The Duke of Wellington in the Battle of Bussaco, where the French were defeated by the British and Portuguese. Fascinating stuff!
It’s a great place to explore, especially with the kids, and the woodland tracks have you walking through trees of world-wide varieties, to peaks with views that will take your breath away (if there’s any left to take after the vertical assent!)
4. Aveiro and Praia da Costa Nova – No two places represent the colourful architecture of this part of Portugal better than Aveiro and it’s sea-side counterpart. Like a bowl of Skittles you can taste the rainbow in these old towns. Costa Nova with its striped facades and Aveiro with its tiled exteriors, it’s impossible to not absorb the chirpy attitude, like a hug off a bunch of hippies in tie-dye.
A bit further down the coast you’ll find Figueira da Foz, another homage to Rod, Jane and Freddy. I wrote about it a while back if you’d like to see more pictures of this psychedelic coastline.
5. No list would be complete without a head tilt to the wonderful Portuguese fascination which goes by the description of The Chinez Shop. When they heard we were bringing friends with us to Portugal this year, our kids asked straight off:
are we taking them to the Chinez Shop?
Chinez is Portuguese for, you guessed it, Chinese. And, most towns in the area where my parents live have these Alladins Caves of retail, designed to sell everything from a cheese-grater to a blow up Donkey, from tooth-pick dispensers to camping stoves, from hair glitter to knock-off Nikes – all sold by a Chinese fellow who serves you whilst talking on the phone the whole time. The kids are allowed to spend their €5 here and the suspense is great, waiting to find out what marvellous piece of merchandise they can produce for their fiver. The place is a wonderland, a mecca to plastic tat but also occasionally the patron of some great gems. Anyway, we take folk to Wan Kings (I know – it’s enough to go, if only for a photograph of the sign) then we absorb our bemusement over an ice-cream in the square. It’s a past-time that will never get old.
So there you have it, the ways in which we entertain our guest in Central Portugal but also a glimpse into the personality of our wonderful shy friend. Why don’t you get to know her a little better…
I’m so pleased with my little video, please watch it and see what you think!…(turn up the sound):
Check out some of my other posts about Portugal, I hope it can inspire you to meet her one day. And, if you like what you read then sign up below and you’ll receive an email each time a new post comes out. Thanks for dropping by!
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