Looking for a fun way to travel? Try R.Ving Europe. We signed on to a four week tour. There were twenty couples; each assigned their own rented German motorhome. We flew into Madrid, picked up our campers and spent a few delightful weeks in Spain, but what we discovered next was a big surprise: Portugal, one of Europe’s best kept secrets.
Expertly, the crews of two tiny Portuguese ferries crammed our R.Vs. on board. In fifteen minutes, we traveled from Ayamonte Spain, through the fresh waters of the Rio Chanco mingled with the salty waters of the Gulf of Cadiz, to Villa Real De Santo Antonio Portugal. Though an enterprising money changer on the boat cheated us a little on the exchange of Spanish for Portuguese money, we at least arrived jingling escudos in our pockets.
The crew guided our campers ashore and we caravaned down a winding country lane bordering the ocean. A gentle breeze cooled us as we drove through the pink and white town of Tivira. Since our motorhomes were small, we had little trouble negotiating the narrow streets where the houses are built close together shading one another from the hot southern sun.
We spent our first night in Olhão at a resort campground that overlooks the ocean. Between the water and our campsite sat a large strawberry field bursting with ripe, red fruit. Unfortunately, the privately owned fields and the sewage-contaminated beaches were off limits. However, we found hot water, great restrooms, plenty of electricity, and a grocery store. We dined on grilled sardines and pork chops steamed in kale, fresh steamed corn, sweet onion and orange slices all washed down with vino tinto.
After several days of leisure including a train ride to surrounding towns, we headed for Lisbon. We passed buildings covered with beautiful tiles and country estates with terraced gardens. We drove through mountains dotted with herds of sheep and goats tended by children and ageless shepherds. Dainty flowers danced across the slopes. It was May and Portugal was in bloom.
As we continued north, we passed olive and orange groves. Pueblos glistened with white walls, red tile roofs and blue shutters. The pungent odor of eucalyptus trees permeated the air and then we found ourselves in the famous cork oak tree forests. Sadly, cork to plug wine bottles is a dying business, replaced by the ubiquitous plastic. It takes fifteen years before the first stripping of the cork tree can occur and thereafter, it can be done only every ninth year. It used to be that 80% of the world’s cork came from Portugal. Now, the tree growers shrug and murmur ‘quem sabe?’
We saw pine trees bled for sap that would be turned into turpentine and women balancing laden baskets upon their heads.
I sat staring out the window of our little RV as we approached Lisbon on a four-lane highway. Suddenly, we lurched forward and whizzed past the motorhome in front of us. Heart pounding, I cried, “What’s happening?”
“Hand throttle’s jammed,” Glen yelled, struggling to get it unstuck. After a few moments of sheer terror, he was able to get to the shoulder and brake to a stop. One of the tour leaders stopped with us and, thankfully, guided us to the nearest auto mechanic. Portuguese is very different from Spanish which we spoke minimally but after much pointing and gesturing, he figured out our problem, frowned knowingly, grabbed a couple of tools and fixed it.
We found our crowded campground near the middle of the city. Portugal was celebrating ‘The Liberty Weekend’ so we were lucky to have reserved campsites. In addition, big vinyl and plastic covered makeshift ‘houses’ had become the permanent residence of job seekers from Mozambique and Angola, The only electric ‘hook up’ pole stood in the middle of the campground so long, electric cords from every campsite were plugged in there.
That night, everyone in camp gathered around a huge bonfire to sing songs and share wine and beer. We mingled with travelers from Germany, Spain, Italy, Norway, Denmark, England and Russia. We sang, drank, talked, drank, ate and drank. By the end of the evening, language didn’t matter. We were all best friends.
My favorite stop was the university town of Coimbra, The hundred thousand residents cater to the fifteen thousand college students who walk to class dress in crisp white shirts and black mantillas with colorful sashes denoting what they study. We smiled at the nursery school children at the “Portuguese for Children” exhibit. Dressed in their pink, blue or yellow smocks, they stole our hearts. The Exhibit, a charming town of miniature buildings only big enough for the little ones to enter, tells the history of their country.
On the way back to Madrid, we passed the Monastery of St. Teresa and stopped to feast one last time on chocolate and Churros, a yummy doughnut like pastry.
By the time we reached our hotel, off loaded our stuff and handed over the keys of the RV, we were starving. We found a small Tapas bar around the corner where several local families crowded together, creating an atmosphere of warmth and friendship. With no place else to sit, I sank to the steps leading to an attached restaurant. Much to my surprise and delight, a sobbing toddler crawled into my arms and nestled his head on my shoulder. Nearby, his grandparents smiled appreciatively before coming to retrieve him. They joined us for dinner of pepper steak topped with anchovies. We conversed in a mix of Spanish and English and watched our new friends dance the flamenco. Overall, a lovely ending to a great trip.
Here is a simple but delicious old secret strawberry Portuguese recipe
Combine 3 pints of hulled, sliced strawberries with 3 tablespoons of sugar and 1/4 cup of ruby port wine. Refrigerate for 2 or 3 hours, tossing occasionally and then enjoy.