I always thought that the perfect weather for a trip was sunny, cobalt blue days merging into star-studded, crystal evenings. Until that one night in Portugal – that black, foggy, moonless night when the rain rained sideways and the gusts of wind pushed you around like a gang of bullying ghosts. That night we time-traveled to a medieval stone village. As it turned out, the weather was absolutely perfect…
We were driving along the eastern part of Portugal near the Spanish border in late spring, my husband and I, after a day of exploring the countryside south of the Douro Valley. Eric was tired, I was hungry and we had no reservation for the night. The weather was just fine.
Suddenly, the scenery began turning flat and rocky. Giant boulders appeared here and there as if some great hand had randomly tossed them from the sky. The weak afternoon sun sunk early behind a smearing of gray clouds and a fog began creeping along the plains like dry ice. To top it off, a light mist began falling from the clouds, turning our view into a black and white photograph. I couldn’t help but shiver and think of Edgar Allen Poe. Eric and I looked at each other with large eyes, and without words, felt as though we were driving into the past, right onto an ancient stage to become part of some bizarre play. And someone, something, out there, had been arranging the scenery for us.
ACT 1. THE WIND.
…Perched up on a rocky hill, framed by a ring of walls, a small stone village came into view - nestled in a field of boulders, illuminated by just a handful of lights. The entire hamlet was stone, browns of every shade, smoothed by ancient hands and feet. Crooked stone lanes – tiny stone houses huddled together against the rain - and the bold stone of the castle ruins, cupping the town in its crumbling hands. It appeared nearly deserted. But maybe we could find a bed for the night…
We drove through the fog and entered the village through a narrow Gothic archway. Down a cobbled lane stood a forgettable-looking man by the side of the road. I rolled down my window and shouted through the grayness, ‘Quarto?’. He disappeared into a house, and a few minutes later, an old woman in a long, black dress emerged, her faceless head covered in a large black shawl. She scurried through the growing mist, opened our car door and slid in the back seat, as if she were expecting us. Then, she motioned for us to drive on and pointed out a large black dog in front of our car. As soon as our car moved, the dog ran off, leading us through the tiny village and looking over his shoulder to make sure we were following. Was this Cujo? Was the faceless woman going to hit us over the head with a club and steal our money? Where was she taking us?
Cujo the dog then stopped in front of a modest, ancient house next to the castle ruins and we followed the woman inside. Without a word, she deftly started a blazing fire in the huge fireplace, handed us a heavy old key and left. Eric followed her out the door, insisting on giving her a ride home, but she waved him off and vanished into the night like a magician. We were left standing in a 900-year old granite cottage with uneven cobbled floors, rough-cut doorways no higher than a 9-year old, and a smattering of rustic furniture. The fire roared. The wind howled. Time for a bottle of red wine.
If ever I enjoyed a glass of wine more, I don’t recall it - for with each sip, the sky grew blacker, the rain grew louder, the wind more fierce - and our imaginations more vivid. We huddled by the crackling fire and thought of who, nearly a thousand years ago, had stood before this very hearth. Who had roasted wild boar in these very flames. Who, in their ancient shoes, had walked these very floors. It was a knight, we decided, weary after a day of defending the castle and pouring boiling oil on his ascending enemies.
Immersed in wine and medieval thoughts, we were startled when a sudden gust of wind blew open the heavy wooden door with a thud, sending the limp lace curtains flailing about like haunted arms. I don’t believe in ghosts. But the wind that crossed the room and stopped in front of the flickering flames was our knight, I was sure of it.
Then, Cujo, his black coat shiny with rain, padded quietly through the door, walking past us as if we weren’t there and lay down next to his invisible master.
ACT 2. THE RAIN.
All these dramatized emotions can leave one ravenous, so we decided to head out into the village in search of a warm meal. We grabbed the umbrella, threw open the door and were immediately bombarded with the elements. Instantly, my umbrella blew inside out and curtains of rain blocked our view. Sloshing through rivulets of water, we ran through the darkened lanes turning corners randomly, until a beacon of light appeared. Our savior for the night. The best universal word in the world: BAR.
The Bar was no more than a small room made of rocks with a fireplace, 4 old wooden tables and a 4-person bar. A bartender and his wife were there, watching us drip. In minimal Portuguese, we asked for the local red wine and the possibility of a sandwich. No food, he shook his head. Just Kit-Kats. So we ate Kit-Kats and drank wine while the rain pelted the ceiling like a drumroll.
ACT 3. THE RABBIT STEW.
As we sat there, invisible in the corner, a handful of Portuguese men wandered in - tall and short, young and old, simply dressed except for that one guy in the medal-festooned cape and beret. We named him Capeman. Corks popped and they drank heartily, quietly talking among themselves.
One of the guys, (Shorty), left and returned in short time with a black-covered witches’ kettle, which he placed in the fireplace on top of the hot embers. (Tall-y) left and came back with a tall stack of bowls. The smell of meat and sage perfumed the room. We looked down at our Kit-Kat wrappers and our stomachs growled.
(Plaid-y) took pity on our hungry eyes and offered us a bowl of the steaming rabbit stew. Not speaking a lick of Portuguese, Eric started thumbing through the phrase book as the men waited in silence for his response.
He finally settled on a page, looked up, and said in Portuguese, ‘I’m pregnant.’
Well, that’s all it took to break the ice with Capeman. He laughed hard, shook Eric’s hand and poured wine from his bottle into our glasses. We bought wine and filled everyone’s glasses. They bought more wine. We bought more wine. They bought more. We bought more. It’s amazing how wine helps you understand languages you don’t speak.
Deep into the stormy night, we talked. Through pantomime and sketches on paper placemats, we covered politics (politicians everywhere don’t seem to know what they’re doing); hunting (Capeman shot that evening’s rabbit); music (Elton John, yes – Whitney Houston, no); families (only the men should go to bars, the women should stay home…no way, pal, not if you’re an American woman like me). We danced, we high-fived, we made funny faces just for laughs, we smoked harsh cigarettes. That night, it was much more than people bonding in a tiny bar. It was two countries bonding.
We left, drunk, and I remember turning around and seeing the hunters gathered in the doorway proudly saying goodbye in English, knowing we’d never see each other again. Capeman stepped forward, raised his fist in the rain and yelled, ‘Good! America!’. My wine-stained eyes welled up with tears and we stumbled home to our waiting knight.
…The next morning, we awoke to a deafening stillness. The ghosts were gone, the knight was gone, the fire was cold and Cujo was nowhere around. I opened the door. It was a sunny, cobalt blue day. The weather was terrible.
THE VILLAGE – This wonderfully preserved 12th century fortified hamlet is called Sortelha (pronounced ‘Sor-TELL-yuh’). It’s one of those teeny, tiny dots on a very good map – about 12 miles West of the town of Sabugal in an area known as the Beiras, and not far from the Spanish border. The population of the old town is 37. The best time to visit is late winter - early spring, before the tourist season starts. (Your chances of getting a good rainstorm are best then, too). Remember that this is my village, emotionally speaking, so try not to spread the word.
THE STONE HOUSE – I’ve decided not to tell you how to rent the house we stayed in. You’re just going to have to find your own Portuguese woman dressed in black. Or, look for a large, black dog. He’ll show you where it is.
THE FOOD – Great Kit-Kats at the local bar. There are also a couple of tiny taverns in the village that serve interesting things like wild boar and roast kid.
THE WINE – Here is my wine review from The Bar: There were no labels on the bottles. The wine was young and tart and not that great. The first few sips made you purse your lips a little, but you got used to it after a while. By the end of the evening, it seemed nearly delicious.