Sunday, September 30, 2012

Bem vindo a Portugal!


There are worse ways, I guess, to spend a sunny Sunday than sprawled in Emirates’ business class watching movies – but I’m glad the journey’s over at last and we’re finally here in Portugal. We swooped in low over Lisbon’s cathedrals and its hills clad with tiled roofs and headed straight out of town to the north-east, into the region of Alentejo, which we’re already learning is Portugal’s forgotten land: less well-known, less glamorous than the Algarve where most tourists (especially the English) go. So it’s quiet and rural, unspoiled and very pretty: connoisseur country.

We drove through rolling countryside where huge boulders lay like sleeping elephants amongst the olive and cork trees, through small villages where mostly old people lived, sitting on benches in the sun or standing at doorways keeping an eye on things. Up on the hills there are forts, built for repelling all the invaders who have swept through here during the last couple of thousand years or so: stone-walled with watch-towers and battlements, above a sprawl of white houses. We visited one, Marvao, driving through the narrow and carefully-designed offset gateways (the stone full of scrape-marks, ouch) into the tangle of little cobbled lanes. In a hurry, as ever, I leaped up flights of steps to the top where there was a long view over the countryside from a lovely parterre garden with a fountain just below the castle – beautiful in the evening sunshine.

And then we went (eventually) to dinner, to eat generous proportions of peasant food: chorizo, venison, pork and hare, all tender and tasty and some of it boiling hot, literally, served with heaps of carbs: clearly we won’t be wasting away here. Nearly every dish, including puddings, includes bread, so this is no place for the gluten-free fusspots. We even got the recipe for our dessert, a sweet and delicious almond-based dish called Golden Soup. Yum. And then our driver, Antonio, who’s solicitous and keen to please (and who enjoyed the dinner even more than we did, scoring several souvenir “medals" of drips on his red tie) whisked us back along the dark winding road to bed, finally.

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