Friday, January 07, 2011

from Cascais, Portugal: clockwork and cantaloupe

I had emailed Margarida, the landlady of the Dolce Cascais Guest House that we would probably arrive Thursday, around 6 in the evening. It’s a tiny place, sometimes calling itself a hostel (it offers no daily clean up service), but it is lovely and fresh and unbeatable at 40 Euros (about $50) per night for the two of us. With private bathroom, breakfast, WiFi, all taxes and service included.

The arrival prediction was a bit of a wild guess – the best I could do, given that we had two Madison buses, three separate flights, one Lisbon bus, and finally one Portuguese train to factor in.

We were at her doorstep at 5:30 p.m.

What’s most impressive about the whole bundle of travel connections is that the weather in western Europe is quite unstable this week. There is a storm front that’s bringing with it quite a bit of rain and gusts of furious wind.

If you ever fly Air France, you’ll probably recall that the pilots have this habit of telling it like it is. If anything, they tend to exaggerate the negatives. A typical announcement before landing would be: “the weather in Chicago is terrible right now: cold, poor visibility. We do hope you have had a pleasant flight.”

On our flight from Paris to Lisbon, the pilot tells us to prepare for “turbulance dynamique!!” on our landing. “The meteorological conditions are not good: heavy winds, cloudy skies.

Turbulance dynamique. I’ll have to save that in my cache of terms to use for the rocky times that we face now and then.

landing in the clouds over Lisbon

Just hours before leaving Madison, I had an appointment with my sports doctor (makes me feel athletic just to type it) to take stock of where my fussy shoulder is at the moment. She wanted to do some manipulations, but I asked her to hold off as I was leaving the next day and didn’t want to travel with an achy body. You’re going to Portugal? What’s in Portugal? – she asks.

If you’re destined to be in Europe in the middle of January, is there a better place to catch your breath? It’s relatively warm (I’d say it’s like northern Florida, climate wise), relatively inexpensive, it’s uncrowded, naturally and architecturally pretty, with a zesty Mediterranean kitchen, and delicately drinkable wines (and of course, there’s the Port).

All that, but, too, there’s a feeling of remoteness that would appeal to both Ed and myself: Portugal is geographically closer to Africa than to any country in Europe (except for Spain). And Portugal has a long and rugged coastline. Superb hiking opportunities. Unless you’re traveling with someone who has an ankle that has morphed into looking like a cantaloupe, having only a few days ago looked remarkably like a watermelon.

We aren’t stopping in Lisbon. We haven’t much time and Ed is happier when I avoid putting him through a tour of the great capitals of Europe. But since we’re both traveling with almost no luggage, when the airport bus drops us by the coastal train station, we take a minute to walk around the water’s edge. Where the old warehouses face the choppy inlet.


And an occasional old fashioned tram will pull up and take in a wet and shivering people. (Ed, on the other hand, is down to his tshirt.)


Public transportation is so cheap here that we choose to stay with trains and buses rather than renting a car. A half hour train ride brings us to the coastal town (once fishing village, and even though it still has a fleet of fishing boats, you could hardly call it a village these days) of Cascais.


There is a threat of rain in the air and we still have our bags and we’re tired, and yet, we can’t resist a walk to the sea. Ed buys a bag of hot, roasted chestnuts (it seems to be a common street food here) and we munch these as take a quick look around.




Our guest house is a little removed from the harbor area and the threat of rain has now finally become rain itself. Ed is relieved to put up his cantaloupe and indeed he tries to talk me out of going out again, but that’s just a futile thing. I’m good and hungry and I am especially hungry for something authentically Portuguese. Margarida suggests a place in the neighborhood and within a couple of hours, my umbrella is up and Ed’s hood is on and we set off in search of food.


It’s a warm rain and I’m not minding it at all, and that’s a good thing because we’re having a hard time finding the suggested restaurant. And when we do find it, it appears closed.

Still, there is a small place that has an open door and a name we cannot understand nor even pronounce -- Bandeireites -- and we walk in, shake off the rain and sit down. We’re given menus, but they’re in Portuguese. The waiter has a handful of English words and as best as we can understand him, most of the items on the menu are not available. This is a good thing, since in the off season overstocking a full menu means you prefer variety to something fresh and honest. What do you have then? -- we ask. Fish. Especially the freshest local sea bass.

We wait for our food and we watch the one solitary diner. He was on our train – Ed tells me.

two men in black, with curly hair

The waiter is setting wine and olives on a long table. A party? I ask. No, workers. He tells me.

But we don’t wait to watch their meal. Our fish comes – a delicious, delicate, roasted fish, with boiled vegetables on the side and a wonderful bottle of table wine. And pineapple something or other for dessert.



And now our internal clocks reach that confusing state when first you’re sleepy then not so much and it is a joyous ritual of travel and perhaps this is the true marker of time off – when it doesn’t matter if you sleep, when you sleep, none of it really matters because you have no agenda, no list of things to accomplish. You have the most wonderful thing of all – you have time.

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the cook at Bandeireites