I find there is no better way to experience a new culture, place and even food than through the lens and guidance of a local.
I receive a message from my fado friend in the early morning-“I’m heading to the beach do you want come?”- “yes”-I am ready in minutes-no time left to waste. He picks me up in the square near my flat. “We will go out of lisbon-to a beach that is much better than you were before”. “ok”
And with that I pulled the seat belt around me and for once on this adventure let someone else take the drivers seat.
We first stopped at the Praia do Meco- the beach is expansive and set below impressive dunes.
We quickly lay out our towels then run to the water-he sees the swell and I faintly hear him from behind …”wait”..but I approach any body of water without inhibition or much thought – I’m a magnet to its force. I resurface and turn to see him ..nearer to the shore.. between my strands of hair that wrapped my face with salty conviction. I give him a big wave and a broad smile.
After some time he asks..”Are you hungry?” “I am always hungry”. He smiles. “ok. you want real portuguese?” “umm ya yes uh huh of course!” And so he takes me to a small village near the beach-there happens to be a community fair.
Women stand under the tents behind enamel pots filled with traditional soups, rice and stews. “The best, most authentic Portugese food is what we call the poor mans food. Dishes that are not just tasty but also substantial. Meant to fill the belly’s of those who work hard throughout the day”. A taste of home and a feeling of abundance. We start with sopa de feijao com ortaliça-beans, noodles and vegetables create a thickness similar to a minestrone.
A small local choir sing to the backdrop of accordions. Next we have lulas com arroz de feijao-squid with beans and rice.
The taste is simple and naturally flavourful. “Ready for the next?” he asks. “yes!!” My enthusiasm seems to feed and activate his desire to show me more. “Show me everything I should see and everything I should taste”. “ok”.
We go to another beach in the small fishing village of Sesimbra-famed for it’s seafood. There are few tourists. “This is where the locals come”, he explains. The water is calmer than the previous beach-seemingly undisturbed by the people that occupy it.
Again we plunge within seconds of situating ourselves. I wade on my back looking to the bright sky above.”This is paradise”, I say. “ I know” he says genuinely. His love for his country is evident in his eyes when he speaks and sings about it..it’s magnetic and it heightens my curiosity to learn more.
“I’d like to take you to Azeteo-it has incredible wine and cheese. Do you have to get back soon?” “oh no no please ..take me!” This is how the day unfolded from town to town, beach to beach..meal to meal. An amusement park with unlimited passes.
We arrive to Azeteo.
We take a seat at a cafe. I order a glass of white and my friend orders some local cheese served with fresh bread and preserves.
The creamy centre of the cheese contrasts beautifully with this pungent flavour. “The stinkier the better” he says. I know this. “Is there a point where one must stop eating it..before it becomes rude?” A good natural question, I think. “Well I don’t eat the casing” he says. I needed to be told this, you see. My appetite is boundless.
“There are other towns I think you should see.. You are ok?..We keep going?”
“You have no idea just how ok I am..this is why I travel..this is what I search for.”
And on we drove creating a playlist of the music of our day. Somewhere between Pearl Jam and The Cure, we stop
for dinner at Setubal.
“You must try açorda-my mother served this my entire childhood but I wouldn’t eat it-it looked terrible-then finally at 18 I gave in and tried it and my thought was ahh all that time wasted”. It is essentially day old bread soaked in seafood broth and then strained and added to a pan of oil with sliced garlic and shrimp. It isn’t much to look at but,oh my, the taste..the garlic!!- this meal sticks to your bones-just as it was intended to do.
We finish and make our way to the car. “Now what?” he asks. ”Just keep
driving”, I say.
And on we drive by the light of the full moon-passing the country side, charming villages and random castles. “Le’s go to Sintra!”, he says..”ok”, I say. It didn’t matter really..I needn’t anything but whatever the moment offered. I travel for moments like these ..unknown treasures in spontaneous, unimaginable experiences-these are the true stamps of my passport.
‘She drives me crazy’ blares through the car stereo..I warned him days prior of my ghastly capacity to sing. I also remind him that in my head I still sound like a rock star.
“I’m going to sing now” I exclaim proudly. He laughs. “Ok sing!!” and so I roll down the window and sing in tribute for the marvellous day I just experienced-my enthusiasm compensates for the lack of tone. He laughs. I laugh. “I’m happy”, I say. “Good”, he says, “keep singing..and I keep driving”.
I stop for a picture-I am a silhouette for the castle that frames me. A perfect ending to this experience. One can’t help but fall for Portugal… for all its layers and, as my friend notes, its color.
“thank-you for taking the wheel tonight”
”It was my pleasure”, he says.