Sunday, March 24, 2013
When I was whining about having to write this day Janel told me I could simply write:
We drove a bit.
We ate a pig.
We drove a bit more.
We ate another pig.
That gives a pretty good overview of the activities of the day.
We woke at Zuzabed after a fairly quiet night. The revelery of the night before (just outside our terrace) seemed to be calmer. Perhaps it was due to Janet’s threat to dump a bucket of water on their heads from her balcony.
Once again, breakfast at Zuza is a thing of beauty. We meet our comrades from the US (a French teacher and a journalist) and enjoy eating and chatting with them. Three perfectly poached eggs are ordered and devoured. However, we must show some restraint this morning due to our lunch plans (eat now so you will be hungry later).
The overall plan for the day is to check out of Zuzabed, rent a car, drive a couple hours north to Mealhada for lunch and then drive another couple of hours to Valenca do Douro up north. Sounds like a plan.
As we pack our things we are already dreading the steep, steep steps from our room down to the main living area of Zuza. For some reason, I have ditched my usual “pack light” theory and am lugging a 23kg beast. Janet is doing the same. Janel is the only sane one with a super light duffel bag carryon. However, after breakfast, the host woman (we had only met her once) offers to help and she lugs one of the bags down the stairs. Janet bravely carries the other. (Janel feigns back pain to get out of the work…)
We are not yet out of the woods. This is Lisbon. There are steps EVERYWHERE. No matter where you want to go it is uphill. Both ways.
Directly outside our door we are faced with another 50 or so steps straight up. With our hosts help, we manage. She has called us a taxi to take us to Hertz. Since the streets are sometimes too narrow for a car, we have to walk to where the taxi can get to us.
A stop is made in front of Zuza Guest House – another property run by our host – Luis. We have stopped to say “goodbye.” Luis has been so kind and welcoming to us. He is the perfect person to run a guesthouse and genuinely wants you to love his city. We thank him for his hospitality as our taxi arrives.
It is a short trip to the Hertz shop where we are to pick up our car. There is a German woman renting in front of us and she is having an extremely difficult time understanding the agent’s English. She gets particularly perplexed when he tries to explain about the automatic toll device. I had previously read online about tolls in Portugal and come fully armed with knowledge of how to pay the tolls.
As I understand the process, there are lanes on most roads where you can pass through without stopping if you have an electronic device on your vehicle. The tolls are then “collected” from your credit card. If you do not have a device you can pay the toll at many of the booths. Sounds good. However there are some areas in which there are no booths to collect tolls. If you don’t have a “device” you have to wait 2 days and then go pay your toll at the Post Office! Leaving the country before 2 days? Too bad – your rental car company will charge you enormous amounts for not paying your tolls.
We wait and wait while the German woman contemplates whether to rent the device at 1.85euro/day. The patient agent explains the entire process again and again. I am ready to shake her by the shoulders and say “Just get the *&$%@ device!” Needless to say, we get the device.
Once our car has been inspected and loaded up, we start our journey. I will drive, Janel will navigate and Janet will nap. We have a bit of a snafu getting out of Lisbon, but nothing that we can’t handle. Janel is an expert navigator and now that we have our trusty iphone with gps we are in great shape.
The highway is great and the driving is easy for this portion. Janel connects her iPod with bluetooth and puts on her “road trip” music. After a couple of hours we see our exit to Mealhada.
Mealhada was a kind of “last minute” decision for a lunch stop. Somehow I got wind of a tradition of Sunday roast pig lunch in Mealhada. Seems folks come from miles around just to feat on a piggy lunch in this town. Since it is Sunday, we need to go with the flow.
As soon as we enter town we see notices that we have arrived in the right place.
Every restaurant we pass has signs for Leitoes (roast suckling pig) and we wonder how people choose. I scoured the internet and settled on Pedro Dos Leitoes.
This place is awesome. It is huge and packed.When I saw it online and there was a place to make reservations, I thought there would be absolutely no need. What? In Mealhada? Now we are very glad that we have reservations. We are shown to our table past tables of Portuguese families enjoying their Sunday lunch tradition.
We really don’t know how to order, but somehow we manage to make our server understand that we want the “usual,” which consists of a platter of roast pig, a salad and home made potato chips. All of this is to be washed down with a bottle of the special sparkling wine. Done.
As we watch other tables get their pig we are bursting with anticipation of our own feast. Finally it arrives.
The pork is amazing. The skin. OMG, the skin. The pig has been simply seasoned perfectly with salt and lots of black pepper – it is wonderful. Even the lowly salad is delicious. We also can’t stop munching on the chips. We pick the bones and enjoy every morsel.
Time to hit the road again. Since I am the DD, I had to limit myself to one glass of the sparkling wine. Poor Janel and Janet had to split the rest. I have already informed Janel that she cannot snooze – I need her to navigate this trickier portion of our trip. We have decided to get off the main highway and take some backroads to our destination in the Douro Region of Portugal. No problem for Janel and my iPhone.
We are heading deep into the wine-producing region of Portugal known as the “Douro Region.” It is so named for the beautiful river that runs through the area. The Douro Valley is also widely regarded as being one of the most beautiful regions of the country. Oh – it is also known for its narrow, winding roads… We soon find ourselves surrounded by gorgeous countryside and stunning vistas. It rains on and off, but doesn’t dampen our enthusiasm.
The road is indeed narrow and we keep searching for a spot to pull over to take a proper photo that will capture the beauty. There is a particularly stunning vista and there are no cars in front or behind us so I stop in the middle of the road. Janet hops out and begins fiddling with the camera while I keep an eye out for traffic in my rear view mirror. She messes around and messes around trying to get the perfect shot just as I notice a car coming around the curve behind us. I begin shouting to her “Get in the car, get IN the car, GETINTHECAR!” She dives headfirst into the backseat just as I step on the gas. (she claims she got the shot…)
As we get closer to the river, the scenery becomes simply unbelievable. There are terraced vineyards everywhere and quintas (farms and/wineries) dot the landscape. The views down to the river are stunning.
We find ourselves driving right alongside the Douro River until we get to the final turnoff road to our accommodations. We start going up, up, up and the road becomes narrower the higher we go. We enter the tiny village of Valença and follow the handmade signs to our home – Casa Cimeira.
We find a little parking area and walk down the cobblestone street to the entrance sign. We already have a good feeling about this place.
Before we arrived at Casa Cimeira I said that the only thing I hoped was that they would have a fireplace when we arrived. We were chilly and damp and a fire seemed like it would be the perfect ending to our travel day.
We were greeted warmly by Arture (our host Papa) and shown directly to the beautiful stone-walled living room with a roaring fire! Glasses of port were immediately offered and accepted.
We feel at home right away. Keep in mind that we have not “checked in,” we have not even given a credit card to hold our rooms and we weren’t even asked who we are! We are simply welcomed in and plied with Port wine.
Eventually we are shown our room. Our faces fall a bit when we realize that there are STEPS up to our room! Not to worry – Arture helps us with our bags. We are in the main house and is really beautiful and traditional in style. Looks like someone’s grandmother’s room. We like it.
This is a huge room with one large bed and a sofa bed. It has lots of space for sitting and relaxing. Connecting to it is another large room with a wardrobe and mirror and beyond that a great bathroom. The view out our windows is overlooking the entire valley and the river. Yes.
We have figured out that dinner is around 8:30 and that we should show up in the dining room at that time. No English is spoken. We don’t care.
After arranging our things in the room we decide to return to the living area and sit around the fire cracking walnuts and drinking Port. (When we leave our quarters there is one shred of concern that we do not have a key and cannot lock the door. That shred of doubt disappears immediately. It is obvious that this is not a Holiday Inn.) Soon we are called to dinner.
The magnificent table is set beautifully and aready seated are a French couple and two young gentlemen that we saw earlier in the living room. We are shown to our spots by Papa. Papa starts cracking open wine bottles as fast as we consume them.
Our first course is a juicy white melon wrapped in prosciutto. It is delicious and Janet remarks that she could be happy just eating this alone. We soon find out that is not going to be the case. Mama comes and goes from the kitchen bringing each party their own platter filled with pork ribs (what else?) and a rice pilaf. Crusty bread is closeby (for rooming).
I know. I know. Pork ribs twice in one day? Well, yes. And Hell, yes. These ribs are outstanding. Super crusty on the outside and super juicy on the inside. At first all the diners try to be polite and are attempting to use knife and fork. Soon utensils are seen as useless and everyone dives in with their hands. There was a moment when the French woman wanted Janel to pass her the bottle of water and they both realized at the same time that neither could actually pick it up due to their hands being so slippery. The entire table erupted into laughter! No language barrier here.
I go so far as to declare the ribs “better” than the leito…
The wine flows, the conversation flows (using lots of gestures) and the platters of food start to dwindle. All the while, the Portuguese Mama double taps and cherry winks. She makes us feel guilty for not finishing our huge platter of ribs. We have no idea of the price of dinner. We were just asked if we wanted dinner and we knew that we did. We certainly do NOT want to drive or walk anywhere (not that there is anywhere to actually go…). This has been one of the best meals of the trip.
We have already spied a HUGE chocolate cake sitting on the cupboard behind us. We think it is to celebrate Janel’s birthday (anniversario).
Mama explains that she made the chocolate cake and that it has carrots in it. Sounds great! We can hardly make a dent in the beast, but it is unbelievable light and delicious. The chocolate is super dark and wonderful.
After dinner we are ushered back into the living area with the fireplace for port and/or coffee. There is a map of the region on a coffee table and Janel tries to show us where we came from today.
It is chilly in the room and the three SHL go after the stack of blankets.
What a day. We really did not travel far in kilometers, but we feel a world away from the city of Lisbon. It is so relaxing to be up here in the countryside. We are very happy to have a couple of days to chill out and are already in love with Casa Cimeira.