Travel Rule #1: Never turn down an invite from a local unless you are sure bodily harm will come of it.
After traveling with my brother for ten days in Spain and Portugal, it was time for him to get to Lisbon to catch his plane home. We loved Barcelona, Seville, and Granada. They were all incredible in their own way. Lagos, Portugal? Well, Lagos was pretty, but not our cup of tea, though there was a lot of that to be had. We struggled with the British accents and our most memorable meal was fish and chips with mushy peas and a pint of ale.
The Dartboard Approach to Travel Planning
Anyway, we weren’t ready for the big city of Lisbon yet since our flight wasn’t for another five days and we didn’t feel that we had seen the ‘real’ Portugal. I picked a train stop somewhere between Lagos and Lisbon pretty much at random, then found a room on Booking.com with good reviews at Retiro Dos Batudes. There weren’t many choices in Palmela, Portugal. Never heard of it? Neither had we. The Portugal Lonely Planet guide didn’t even mention it.
While waiting for the skyline of Palmela appear, we spent most of the early morning train ride in the dining car administering caffeine to ourselves and saying goodbye to my brother. I started getting nervous about the randomness of my selection for our overnight pitstop when station after station appeared abandoned with no signs of life. I sure hope Pat isn’t noticing this. I wanted to check our progress on Google Maps, but to make matters more agitating, I had cleared the cache on the phone the night before. Google Maps was rendered useless without a Wi-Fi connection. Now I couldn’t even tell at which weather-worn, dusty, boarded-up station to get off the train.
Eventually, the conductor came by and told us our station was next. The station we had just passed didn’t look very promising and was possibly abandoned. “Are you sure you know where we’re going?” asked Pat. Uh-oh, he noticed. What have I gotten us into this time?
Is It Wise to Trust the Darts?
A few minutes later, our station came up and a wave of relief swept over me. It was relatively large and there were a few people on the platform. Thank goodness it isn’t a ghost town! We grabbed the lone taxi and gave the driver the guesthouse address. He only spoke Portuguese but smiled and nodded and seemed to know the place. That was a good sign.
He drove out of the station toward Palmela which sat perched upon the hill in front of us but then he abruptly turned off the main road — quite short of town — into what was basically farmland. Pat shot me a quizzical glance. I shrugged. He shrugged back. The taxi driver shrugged in a show of solidarity. We’d probably be okay, but I wondered if we shouldn’t have just gone on to Lisbon instead.
Upon arrival at the guesthouse, we checked in and asked the host about a grocery store and a restaurant. She offered to drive us since the town was about 4km away. We thanked her and gladly accepted. What started as a grocery-run turned into a full day adventure.
Aldina, our host, Carlos, the guesthouse owner, Pat and I went off toward town. “Would you like to see the fort? It has a great view. Then we can show you where to catch the bus to Setúbal where you might like to spend the day.” We thought that sounded like a nice plan and said as much, besides, Rule #1 compelled it. We chatted along the way, asked each other about ourselves and what was special to eat, drink and see.
The view from the fort was expansive. Below we could see the river emptying into the ocean, the town of Setúbal on the coast and green hills embracing cool valleys. Very pretty. Aldina pointed out a small shop at the fort that sold hand-painted tiles. The artist wasn’t there, but her English husband was. He showed us her portfolio of custom tile murals and individual pieces. She is a very gifted artist and he is quite the traveler, so we swapped stories for a bit.
“Do you want to stop to try Muscatello, the local wine before we drop you at the bus stop?” asked Aldina. We said yes. Shocking — I know — but who are we to not heed Rule #1?
Aldina selected a very nice Muscatello on the drier end of the spectrum. We found a quiet corner of the bar with comfy seats and sipped the wine. We conversed about travel, backgrounds, politics, etc. Aldina spoke to us in English and to Carlos in Portuguese. Pat and Carlos got on in French well and I could clumsily get a point across in Spanish.
We finished our aperitifs, but it was obvious we could spend many more hours sharing views and stories with each other. Pat and I were starved so we asked where to eat and asked if they’d join us. Aldina made a quick phone call to the guesthouse to make sure all was well then off to lunch we went.
Packed in Like Sardines
It was Sunday and families and friends were out in full force for a big meal. When in Portugal, you eat fish! Aldina and Carlos took us to “the spot.” I’m not so sure we would have found it on our own nor ventured in if we had. The exterior was less than extraordinary. There were a few empty tables on the sidewalk, but it was a little too chilly and windy to eat outside. We stepped inside into the antechamber. I guess the display of fish on ice served as the menu. We didn’t recognize any of them.
Aldina and Carlos went through the doors into the main room and we followed. A wave of heat and noise came over us. The large, square room was jam-packed with tables and people and waiters with platters of fish navigating the dining room maze with practiced skill. We had to wait for a table and when one came open, we were given instructions on how to best get to it. After navigating the maze as instructed, we squeezed ourselves into our seats.
Sated and Sotted
The waiter passed out menus in Portuguese of fish we didn’t know. Aldina and Carlos thankfully took it upon themselves to do the ordering. While waiting for our fish, a waiter passed by with a tray of something fried for the all-you-can-eaters. Aldina flagged him down, explained we were visiting from the USA and asked to give us a taste. It was our first taste of choco frito, fried cuttlefish. I’m not sure if it was how the cuttlefish was tenderized or marinated or the seasonings in the batter, but it was absolutely mouthwatering. We tracked that dish down a couple more times while we were in Portugal.
Our order started arriving; potatoes, salad, red stuff, green stuff, yellow stuff, and then three platters with a different type of fish on each. Carlos took control and scooped a sardine onto each of our plates. I know what you are thinking, but it was nothing like the tin can imprisoned poor little excuses for sardines we see in the States. These were beautiful plump fish, 6″ long, salted and grilled whole. We watched Aldina fillet hers perfectly then proceeded to mutilate ours in an effort to copy her. Who knew sardines could be so tasty? We got better at filleting as we gobbled up a second and third sardine. Our favorite that day was a red-skinned fish called salmonete and the third fish was great too, very juicy and mild. I’ve never eaten so much fish in one sitting. We sat there for about two hours talking, eating fish, and drinking wine. The crowd thinned without our notice and as the last fish skeleton hit the discard pile, the place was empty.
This Is Why We Have Travel Rule #1 … and a Dartboard
It was an excellent day with wonderfully genuine people. We were full of fish, full of wine, and a bit drowsy. The early morning start caught up to us and we opted to go back to the guesthouse to relax, check emails, and shower rather than take the bus to Setúbal.
Later that evening, after we’d rested and gotten clean, Aldina knocked on our door and asked if we wanted to go into Setúbal to watch futbol, drink wine, and eat choco frito. Being the devout followers of Rule #1 that we are, could we do anything other than say yes?
Hike Drink Live Laugh
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Two futbol fans who were well lubricated. Notice their jackets? The purple guy insisted that I ride his bike, so I did!