John Shearer: An Adventurous Drive Through Portugal

Tuesday, July 8, 2014 - by John Shearer

As I mentioned in my first story on my trip to Spain and Portugal in late June, going through Spain in a rental car proved to be quite an unexpected adventure for my wife, Laura, and me.

Not only did we get lost several times with our limited knowledge of the Spanish language, but we also even saw some apparent gypsies gathered at one roadside gas station, causing obvious uneasiness for the store operator and us.

Although we enjoyed Spain overall, we were hoping for less stress in Portugal, primarily because Laura’s son, Chris Whitelaw, and his wife, Sofia, and their children are now living in Vilamoura, Portugal, along the coast. We figured they could at least keep us from getting lost.

As we neared the Portugal line after leaving Seville, Spain, on the afternoon of June 20, we saw a sign for non-Portuguese visitors to veer to the right. I thought we might have to show our passports, but soon realized they were simply going to collect some money from us in the form of a toll.

I inserted my credit card into the machine, received a receipt and we went on our way. What we did not realize was that we had given the Portuguese a gift that keeps on giving.

About every few miles is an automated tolling station, and it would simply charge again to my card the toll of around a dollar by reading our license plates with its cameras as we drove past at regular speed.

The speed limit on the freeways in Spain and Portugal, by the way, is 120 kilometers, which translates into roughly 74 miles an hour. I went that speed for the most part to stay out of trouble, but 90 percent of the automobiles were zooming past me. And in contrast to the United States, I rarely saw police cars.

As we exited the freeway that day after a few miles and went through a seemingly endless number of roundabouts, guess what happened? That is right, we became lost.

We went back and forth and could not find where Chris lives. Finally, after we stopped at a gas station, Laura learned where the road to his house was. It was the same road where we had stopped and tried to figure out where we were earlier. We were literally so close and yet so far.

We still did not find his condominium, but luckily saw Chris getting out of his car with his son, Francisco. We breathed a sigh of relief, knowing we had made it through yet another adventure.

That night, after unpacking and moving into our condominium that sat next to Chris’ and was near the beach, we went out to a restaurant. Chris had told me he was wanting to try a certain hamburger restaurant, so I was expecting some American food.

I knew something was literally fishy when we pulled up next to a shack-like building by the beach that could focus on only one type of food – fish. The only kind of fish I like is the deeply breaded, deep-fried variety with some equally deep-fried Southern hushpuppies. So I knew I was in for a new experience when we stood in front of a glass counter and I saw a bunch of fish – eyeballs and all – sitting there as if they were waiting for someone to throw them back in the water.

I was at ground zero for fresh fish, and realized escaping fish meals was going to be hard. I actually had familiar fried flounder, and it was surprisingly gently breaded and was delicious. An equally yummy rice mixed with tomato sauce and a fresh vegetable salad accompanied it.

As Laura – who is much more the fish lover -- and I continued to munch on our food and visit with Chris and his family, I decided to try a chocolate cake for dessert. It ended up being a disappointment. For the most part, Spain and Portugal do not put enough chocolate in their desserts, and they don’t give you as large a helping of ice cream/gelato as they do in the United States.

The next day, Sofia said that her father wanted to have us all up to their old farmhouse about a 20-minute drive away for lunch. And guess what was on the menu? That is right, fish.

After I followed Sofia in her car by myself – and feared getting left behind and lost for weeks without being found – we pulled into the acreage on a pretty hillside. It had numerous other pretty hillsides and ridges all around it.

The area around Vilamoura – which is a popular British and European destination – looks like it could be the area around a Florida beach. But once you go a few miles, beautiful and traditional Portugal comes into view.

After greeting Sofia’s parents and seeing the neat old farmhouse with a neat musty smell not that much different from an old farmhouse in East Tennessee, we sat down for our feast of grilled fish in all shapes and sizes. I tried a couple but declined the smaller sardines.

After lunch, we looked around at their land and enjoyed all the sites, from a deep well to a baby goat.

That night, while staying in that area, we went up to one of their family friend’s house for a birthday party. The family lived in a seemingly nice home on a pretty ridgetop, with some stunning views around of the other ridges with drier climate vegetation and olive trees covering them. Yes, I realized, East Tennessee is not the only pretty place in the world with hills and ridges.

Despite the calendar saying it was June, I about froze on the hilltop, even with a sweater. Everyone seemed really nice at the party, even though all I could do was smile. I did eat plenty of the food, some of which was like American food and some was not. I think they had about everything but – ironically – fish.

I was definitely excited when they later in the evening broke out the numerous desserts, including chocolate mousse and tiramisu. “Happy birthday” was sung to the host, and part of it sounded like the American version.

The whole gathering made me realize how similar the human experience can be everywhere, despite the different cultures and visual surroundings.

The next day, Chris took Laura and me and his children to the remains of an old Roman road and a nearby Roman estate. The Roman road – which was now just open to foot traffic -- was particularly neat to see, with its complex pattern of paving squares of rocks. But I would certainly have hated to take my car on it and be needing some new shock absorbers afterward. And thankfully we did not get on a Roman road during one of our driving experiences while lost.

The old estate was nice to experience, except for a seemingly grumpy attendant at the office, who was different from the mostly kind and polite people we found throughout Portugal and Spain.

After touring the ruins, we headed to lunch in a nearby town called Estoi. Unfortunately, the time was mid-afternoon and many restaurants by then had closed for a couple of hours or were just serving a snack menu. We found one place down from the town cathedral and ordered some grilled ham and cheese sandwiches, which were delicious.

The only aspect that ruined the setting of sitting outside and eating on the nice day was a stray dog that wandered by the tables with obvious gastro-intestinal problems. Maybe the animal needed to eat more fish.

That night – after playing a round of miniature golf -- we went to a marina near the ocean, and I was surprised how large and full of restaurants it was. We had pizza, which to me tasted a little different from an American pizza, but it was good. Thankfully, no dogs joined us.

The next day, a Monday, Chris took us with daughter Julia to a nearby Southern Portugal town called Silves. Sitting along a small river, it is quite pretty. The small boat I saw moored in the middle of the water definitely gave it a Portuguese atmosphere.

The town reminded me a little of the Spanish town of Segovia we had visited because some of the city sits on an elevated hill. And, like many Spanish towns, it also comes with a castle/fortress and a cathedral.

We toured them both as well as a small museum, but we took a lunch break before climbing the entire hill. Laura and Chris ordered a seafood dish cooked in a metal bowl, while I went for the safe route and had a turkey dish. Theirs was no doubt the more interesting, and maybe I should have been more adventurous. Even my Coca-Cola was flat.

One aspect about Portuguese and Spanish restaurants that needs mentioning is that the workers will usually bring bread and olives to your table when you arrive, but you have to pay extra for it. So you have to kind of brusquely tell the waiter you do not want it if you don’t want to be charged.

The whole dining experience is somewhat different as far as payment. You also don’t have to leave much of a tip, as that is figured into the price of the food and the workers’ paychecks. Also, as we found out at an ice cream shop, they sometimes charge you more to bring it to your table than if you buy it at the counter.

After lunch, we climbed farther up the hill and went first in the cathedral and then the castle, which had neat castle walls. And, for good measure, it had a nice snack stand within it, a luxury the settlers of old did not get to enjoy.

It also had some fruit trees planted within it, which I also did not expect to see on the other side of the walls. What else would I see here, I thought, an Olympic-size swimming pool?

The next day, Laura wanted to see some of the locally made pottery, so we went with Sofia to a quaint shop in an old house not far from their home. Laura and Sofia had fun picking out items for Laura to bring back home, but I fell asleep briefly after sitting down.

We then headed to meet up with Chris in Faro, a good-sized coastal town. When we arrived there, we pulled into a surface parking area. Some gentleman was kind to help us get into our spot, and I figured he was like a parking lot attendant in Tennessee, who helps you get into limited space.

The only problem was that he was not working for the parking lot firm, which had self-service and automated meters a few feet away. He was simply a beggar trying to pretend to be working for some money. A hint of this came when he asked us for a coin for his service.

In Faro, we ate at a nice restaurant for lunch, with me trying pork this time, and then wandered a few blocks to a cathedral. After reading that Western Europe is now mostly in a “post-Christian” era, I had been curious how many people in Spain and Portugal attend church regularly. It was interesting to see about 15 women gathered for a prayer service of some sort at the Catholic church.

Although the church had a sign saying it was closed for walk-through sightseers because of the service, we still walked in and sat down briefly behind the worshipers. We saw a priest preparing for the service and not looking much different from the way an American clergyman would prepare for a high-church style of service.

Then, after briefly watching one of the World Cup soccer games broadcast from an outdoor park, and getting a little cold from the cool breezes, we headed over to a quaint and neat country style restaurant several miles from Faro. It had such a small-town atmosphere that no one was there when we arrived at 7 p.m., even though the doors were open.

While some of the fellow diners had rabbit, I had the safer red bean stew, which was delicious. It was good that the Beverly Hillbillies were not traveling with us, as we might have ended up with ‘possum, too, before the trip was over.

As a dessert alternative, the operator brought out plates of freshly picked figs and plums. They were delicious, but I could not resist trying the coffee mousse cup, which was not quite as good as a typical chocolate mousse. Nor could it beat the freshly picked fruit.

But perhaps the best dessert at this semi-rural restaurant was the nice view from the parking lot of a nearby ridge as darkness was arriving.

The next day, which was our last day for leisure, Laura and I briefly walked along the beach about a half-mile from our guest apartment. I had jogged down in that area during some previous mornings – and had even seen a snake crossing another trail closer to the apartment – but this was our first time on the beach.

Although the slightly colder-than-Florida water prevented us from jumping in the ocean, it was certainly nice to visit. It had sand and seashells like in Florida, but the large dirt cliff just a few feet from shore was a feature you would not find in the Sunshine State. I ended the morning with a jump in the swimming pool by our apartment, my first time swimming in 5 or 10 years.

We then ate lunch on another beachfront restaurant – and I enjoyed the fact that this pepperoni pizza tasted just like the ones in America. I drank two Coca-Colas, and even bought a third specially decorated Portuguese Coke can to bring home for my Coke memorabilia collection.

That afternoon, we went and met Sofia’s grandmother. She also lives in an interesting ridgetop home with a beautiful setting across the street from a grove of trees. She also seemed just as interesting as the countryside after living in Portugal for 80-something years, so I took her picture after she obliged through Chris, our interpreter.

Guess what we had that night for our last meal of leisure? That is right, fish. We drove over to Portimao, another oceanfront city that looked a little prettier and cleaner than Faro did the day before.

We walked to an outdoor restaurant that sat uniquely under a bridge. When we arrived, a man was standing there with a big glass container of fish of all sizes on ice. Where were the fried frozen fillets without eyes looking at me, I asked myself in my unsophisticated manner!

I withstood eating the fish while looking forward to being back in the United States and getting to go to my favorite places like Panera, Chick-fil-A and, yes, maybe even Captain D’s.

Actually, I developed on the trip a whole different perspective and appreciation regarding eating fresh fish. And the ones I sampled at this restaurant were good.

The next day, a Thursday, we began the long drive back to Madrid to get ready to fly out the next day. We took a different route than when we came into Portugal, heading up toward Lisbon and then east.

Along the way, we saw plenty of signs of old, including towns, groves and farms, as well as some signs of newness, including some giant windmill power turbines near the Spanish border.

We made it back to the airport without any trouble and were relieved not to have to navigate the streets of two foreign countries anymore. I took one last look at our black Seat Leon car and thanked it for getting us everywhere safely.

We made it through all the security zones in both the Madrid and Charlotte airports OK, and were thankful and relieved when we arrived back home safely late that Friday afternoon.

Even though I at times was anxious to get back home to Tennessee during our trip, it was definitely a memorable one, and I am now starting to look back at it as almost a dream time.

And, believe it or not, I now wish I had tried even more of the local foods. Yes, as I have realized, Captain D’s could have waited.

But I am certainly glad Laura and I tried to sample the culture of Spain and Portugal a little more deeply via a rented automobile.

(To see the story on John Shearer’s visit to Spain during the earlier part of his trip, read here:

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