The journey

Toll roads are expensive in Portugal – after just 35 minutes heading north we came off the motorway and were charged €10.75. We decided then that what with the price of diesel, the upgrade to the rental car (need a big boot as I’m paranoid about leaving luggage on the back seat), and the GPS (yes, gave in – it’s a built-in one that comes with the car) we’d be better on the back roads. And we’d see more of the country.

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I like a road trip that has a final destination (we were heading for Fatima) but with any place on the way up for grabs. First up was the town of Torres Novas, for no other reason that it’s home to the ruins of a 12th century fortress. We parked and wandered around and looked with something approaching wishful thinking at the wine bars that lined the main square and the stage being set up for music later that night. It, too, has some spectacular tile work.

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It was here, eight or so centuries ago that the Moors and the Christians fought a bitter battle. It’s surprising that so much of the fortress is still intact. The walls are in great shape even if what’s inside is now a garden. This all still felt very European, but when we hit the road again, wending our way up hill and down vale, I travelled in my mind to South America or at least what I imagine South America to be like.

White gates led into the wild distant yonder with not a house to be seen. Tiny country churches and even smaller cemeteries dotted the landscape. I could imagine people coming to Sunday  mass  but couldn’t for the life of me see where they’d come from. There was nothing around. No sign of life. And yet graves were recent and the one church we stopped at, though shut, didn’t have an abandoned look about it.

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It felt as little as if we’d walked on to a movie set. Quite surreal and very, very beautiful. For miles around all we could see were olive trees and grapevines. It’s said that the green on the Portuguese flag stands for olives and the red for wine. I can’t say for certainty if that’s true but it’s a nice story. Olives have been part of the culture since the Roman times and the country offers plenty by way of olive tourism.

The Portuguese are olive snobs and are very, very picky about their olive oil. While Americans shop for “virgin” or “extra virgin”, Portuguese will inquire as to which region the olives were grown, and will look for acidity levels, colour and brand names in their olive oils. And the Portuguese use olive oils as Americans use ketchup – an omnipresent condiment. The Portuguese put it on everything from vegetables to fish to salad and no table is complete without a “galheteiro”–oil and vinegar holder.

You can visit at harvest time, take part in the picking and the pressing. You can sample the many varieties and become somewhat of an expert in choosing your oil.

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Me? I was content to sample the delights of vinho verde. I thought it translated as green wine but it can be red or white or even a brandy.

Vinho Verde is not a grape varietal, it is a CAO for the production of wine. The name literally means “green wine,” but translates as “young wine“. It may be red, white, rosé and are usually consumed soon after bottling. Although a Vinho Verde can also be a sparkling, a Late Harvest or even Brandy.

I’m enjoying the sparkling white variety, sold on tap for €1 a glass in most of the eateries we’ve found. And the best thing so far about the wine is that whatever they put in it (or don’t put in it), there’s no hangover.

Portugal is very laid back. No one seems to be in a hurry to do anything. It’s all about enjoying life. Some say the country lacks ambition – perhaps it does. But as a tourist destination, it’s a gem.



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