TUESDAY, MAY 1
Living in the States sometimes I forget the simple facts of Southern Europe. Take the siesta. Or pausa. Or mid-day break. I completely forgot that some countries completely shut down. In rural Portugal, you might as well not leave the hotel. From 3-6 everything is closed. So what time did I take for the train to wine country?
The 1:35, arriving in the charming little town of Pinhao at 4.
I walked from the train station, completely covered in the blue tiled azulejos I’ve grown to love and went down the main drag. It’s just a tiny, narrow cobblestone street with rough and tumble cafes and small shops in the shadow of rolling green wine country. It was the perfect place for a country meal. I walked across a 700-year-old stone bridge to Lonely Planet’s top recommendation, Ponte Romantica which LP mistakenly listed as Ponte Romana and mistakenly left out the 3-6 closing time. Me and an old man with similar hunger pains exchanged hungry, angry glances of frustration that needed no interpreter.
Oh, oh. I was in trouble. My train left at 6:30. I backtracked to town and curled under a narrow railway bridge to a cute little spot right on the river. Veladouro was open. I saw people eating inside. But they were all at one table, all about the same age. This was the work staff. I said, in Italian, “Cuioso?” (Closed?)
A young woman said in excellent English, “Yes, sorry. Everything close until 6.”
As I was walking out after using the bathroom, looking like Oliver Twist turned away at an orphanage, the woman came to me and said, “What would you like, a regular lunch or a snack? Do you want a steak? We have grilled sardines?”
I didn’t know if I was struck more by her beauty or kindness. She was your beautiful farm girl right out of central casting. She had this olive complexion with dark brown eyes and raven hair hidden behind a scarflet. An apron hid tight-fitting jeans and the clod-hopper farm boots didn’t hide her shapely legs.
“Um, sardines would be great.”
Soon out came four sardines the size of small salmon. They were whole fish but the meat fell off the bone. They were scrumptious with just enough saltiness to make you think they just came out of the sea. That, two baked potatoes and salad plus two glasses of port were only 11 euros.
I coolly asked for an ID card because, ah-hem, I’M AN AMERICAN FOOD WRITER and will write about this place. She wrote down all her contact info and before I thought about where I’d email her from next she said, “This is my husband’s email. He owns the restaurant. You can contact us here.”
“Obrigado.” (Thank you). I think.
The trip was still worth it. Locals told me the train trip alone makes it worth your while. It gave me an excuse to see again Sao Bento, the gorgeous azujelos-covered train station. The trip was spectacular. We followed the River Douro as it snaked east into wine country. They say it’s 110-115 degrees here in the summer. The mountains near the coast keep the cool Atlantic winds from hitting wine country so the grapes grow like bamboo.
Vineyards are everywhere. The whole countryside is rolling green hills covered by undulating fields with rows of empty vines that look like dominoes, all neatly in line. Tiny villages sport stone houses with red-tiled roofs and churches with bell towers. Goat paths lead up to tiny farms. In contrast, some of the houses were built, obviously, by successful entrepreneurs who struck in rich in port. Some houses looked right out of Modern Architecture magazine and had little swimming pools right above the river.
I met a couple of college girls studying in Salamanca, Spain. One was from Colorado Springs and attended Auburn. The other was from Sonoma and went to Oregon State.
“Oregon State?” I said, rubbing my chin. “Is that a four-year school.”
She said, “Yes.” She thought I was serious. Only at Oregon Straight. I had a nice chat about wine drinking and language. Their Spanish and gotten quite good. But I mistakenly followed them into the train car and remembered why I didn’t like college girls when I was in college. They did nothing but giggle the entire trip back. About their pictures. About their clothes. About their dads. I felt remarkably uncomfortable, like a guy being mistaken for a stalker.
Yesterday was the first time I’d gotten into the true culture of Portugal. Waiting for my train in Porto, I went into one of the little cafes dotting the city. It had all kinds of cakes and pastries in the window and a lot of locals sitting around drinking coffee. I ordered a layered, flaky cake with cream filling and vanilla and chocolate icing. It was scrumptious. I sat there watching the highlights from F.C. Porto’s wild celebration of winning the Portuguese soccer league. Fans packed Avenida dos Aliados where the big plaza and city hall are. Where I was the day before, nearly alone in this giant expanse, fans stood screaming and chanting songs and drinking heavily.
The only acts of near violence were some kids pushing a car back and forth. TV interviews recorded grown men nearly crying. It was like the Broncos winning the Super Bowl. Yet Porto wins the damn thing every year. It’s like the tripeiros are only legitimized when Porto wins Portugal.
Well, it’s past noon and it’s gray outside. A perfect day to hit some museums.