“Want to join me?”
What lovely words for the solo traveler’s ears to hear. I try to say “yes” whenever I can (and feel it is safe). In Portugal, one “yes” led to three others and some of my favorite experiences.
After two months in Nepal and Bhutan, I was ready for Portugal. Well, truth be told, I was ready for anywhere I could get fresh seafood and a good bottle of wine. I’d had enough of rice, lentils and beer. Lisbon fitted the bill perfectly for my first few days back in Europe. By Friday night though, I was sated and ready for something different. The front desk staff at my chic boutique splurge hotel recommended a bar on the rooftop of a parking garage. “It’s a new place the local people go to, not foreigners yet,” they said. “Great views of the city, especially at sunset.”
I took my tourist map—useless unless used with a magnifying glass under a bright light—and set off on foot for a part of the city I hadn’t yet explored. If you’ve been reading my stories, you know what’s coming next: I got lost. I trudged up and down the cobbled streets of Lisbon (who knew it was so hilly?), eschewing the funiculars that served the steepest parts, until I finally found the parking garage. But no sign for a bar, no side door, no indication whatsoever that something other than cars might be on top. Inside the vacuous building, after much hesitation and many second thoughts, I opened a scary, graffiti covered, heavy metal door. Behind it was a creaky elevator, which I took to the top floor. There I found a small ramp leading to an outdoor terrace bar.
And a fairly upscale bar at that. Servers hurried by with trays of colorful cocktails and pitchers of Sangria. The place was packed with couples, groups of TGIF office workers, and a passel of tattooed young men with motorbike helmets drinking beer. The view over the city was pink as the sun made its way toward the Atlantic Ocean. Portuguese conversations flowed around me without a single word of English. There were no empty tables and several groups were ready to pounce at the slightest hint that one might be vacated. Even though I had finally found the place, with nowhere to sit, I was ready to leave when I spied a middle-aged woman sitting alone at a table for two. I made eye contact and motioned to the empty chair.
“Would you like to join me?” she said. At least I think that’s what she said, since she spoke in Portuguese. But when she realized I spoke English, she switched and clearly said, “Would you like to join me?”
“Yes,” I said, pulling up the chair and ordering a Mojito from the passing waiter. We chatted until her husband arrived and, upon hearing I planned to go to northern Portugal, she said firmly, “Go to the Douro wine region, the birthplace of Port, and stay in Peso de Regua. It’s in the middle of the valley and is big enough to have everything you need, but small enough to be friendly and manageable.”
With a little research, I decided she was right. An Internet posting for a beautifully renovated apartment high in the hills above the town lured me in and I booked it for five days. I agreed to meet the owners, Antonio and Marinete, at the train station so I could follow them in my car to their house (the apartment was on the ground floor; they lived above).
We met as planned on a Sunday afternoon at 1:00 pm. Neither spoke English very well. “We can go directly to the apartment,” Antonio said in a combination of English and Portuguese, “but we are on our way to lunch in town. Would you like to join us?” I had eaten a large, late breakfast barely two hours earlier, expecting to skip lunch entirely. I’d planned to spend the afternoon buying groceries and settling in to my new place. The last thing I wanted was lunch. But I smiled and said “yes.”
Marinete drove through the narrow streets of the town (and in Portugal, when I say narrow, I mean barely one-car-wide narrow). At the tiny local restaurant, five of the six tables were already occupied and we took the last one. Over a selection of tapas and a bottle of crisp white wine, I learned that Antonio works for the local wine institute, with a degree and a side business in vineyard management. Marinete is a lawyer. I forgot how full I was as I ate an outrageously delicious lunch of octopus, pork sausage, cheese, bread, croquettes, eggs, and olives while marveling at how Google Translate could make a conversation so easy.
We became fast friends and I eventually extended my stay to ten days, sharing more meals and conversation, and taking advantage of their local knowledge to really see and understand the Douro Valley. This unique wine region has been designated as a UNESCO World Heritage site for its incredibly steep terraced hillsides planted with grapes, all kept from sliding slowly downslope into the Douro River by old stone retaining walls built between every row. It is gorgeous country, and was especially spectacular as the grape leaves turned golden and red.
Knowing my interest in wine, Antonio set up a private tasting with Domingo, the patriarch at one of the leading wineries of the area, Alves de Sousa. Domingo was a fit man with gray hair, twinkling eyes and casual work clothes that belied his position in the wine world. I knew he was traveling the next day and suspected that having a last-minute American visitor was the last thing he needed. “We can start the tasting,” he said, looking at his watch, “or, I need to check on one of the vineyards, would you like to join me?”
“This vineyard was planted eighty years ago,” Domingo said, pointing to the right as we drove along a thirty foot wide ridge that dropped off steeply on both sides. “It’s called Abandonment Vineyard because it truly was abandoned for a long time before we bought it and tried to bring it back. But it doesn’t produce much and we only make the Abandonado wine in special years.” I didn’t get to taste it, but the other wines I did were fabulous.
It turns out that most of the Quintas (wineries) in the area require reservations for tastings, so I couldn’t just wander off aimlessly. However, one place with great wines is open every day without appointments: Quinta do Tedo. Barely twenty minutes upriver from Peso de Regua, the eighteenth century estate has a beautiful new tasting room and operates as a small B&B.
It was mid-afternoon by the time I finished tasting and was paying for the bottle of twenty-year old Tawny Port I couldn’t resist, when Kay Bouchard, the owner, walked by. It turns out she is a Californian who is an Italian wine expert. Twenty-five years ago, on her way to the International Pinot Noir festival in Oregon, she met the Frenchman, Vincent, who was to become her husband. If you drink French wine, you’ll recognize his family name. They bought the winery in Portugal in 1992, own a house in Napa Valley, and lived in Italy for many years while raising their three children. Maybe because we are both Americans, or maybe because of fate, Kay and I started chatting.
“I wish we could talk for a longer time,” Kay said, “but I was just on my way to Armamar.” (It’s a nearby town.) “I’ve heard there’s a bakery there that makes wonderful apple fritters and I want to get some to serve my guests tomorrow morning.”
Almost as an afterthought, she added, “I’m not exactly sure where the bakery is, and I suspect it will take at least an hour, but do you want to join me?”
Well, of course I did. We drove up away from the river through heavy rain and then saw an auspicious double rainbow, talking as if we were long-time friends. Armamar sits on a high plateau above the river in the middle of apple orchard country. We eventually found the bakery called—in English–Apple, and bought the famed fritters (which are delicious).
“There’s also an apple cider producer up here somewhere that I’ve been trying to find,” Kay said. “I know it’s getting late, but…”
I didn’t wait for her to finish. “I have nowhere I have to be—let’s go.”
We drove the twisting country roads, Kay stopping the car and flagging down the few passing drivers and even fewer pedestrians to ask if we were going in the right direction. After half an hour, we found a small sign and a locked gate at the cider farm. The driveway curved down the hill and around a rock wall; we couldn’t see any buildings.
“There might be somebody there. What do you think?” Kay said. I shrugged. Why not?
We hopped the wall beside the gate and followed the driveway for a few hundred meters until we found several farm buildings and a small house. The barn was filled with crates of freshly picked apples, but we didn’t take any. After all, we might have been trespassers, but we certainly weren’t thieves. Alas, we never found any people and left empty-handed, without any cider. But I was rich with the experience and had cemented yet another travel friendship.
If you think you need to be a traveler to have this type of experience, remember that it works both ways. Next time you see someone in your hometown who is alone—in a restaurant, at a wine tasting, standing on the corner with a map—why not try for an adventure of your own? Approach them and say, “Would you like to join me?” Trust me. They’ll know how to say no if they really want to be alone. But chances are they will welcome the overture and meeting them might be your next great story. If you’ve had some interesting experiences like this, please share them by commenting.
Extra details worth noting:
- Kay has a wine club for Port that Americans can join. Contact her at kay@quintadotedo. You won’t be disappointed.
- You can book Antonio and Marinete’s apartments by contacting Antonio at firstname.lastname@example.org.
- Outside of Lisbon, ten minutes from the tourist town of Sintra (well worth visiting even though I didn’t write about it), is another wonderful hotel I found: Bons Cheiros, a country retreat from tourist overload that can serve as a base to visit both Sintra and Lisbon without the stress of either. From there, you can also visit the west coast beaches and view the dramatic coastline. Tell Elisabeth I sent you.