Friday, March 16, 2012

My Weekend in the Country (Day 1)

*Interested in learning more about Portuguese food and wine with me? Check out my An American In Portugal Tours, and my blog's new home!*

Back in May 2011, I got to experience what it was like to live in a small, rural Portuguese village, thanks to the kind invitation from my private English student Rita.  Every weekend, Rita goes to visit her parents at their family home, situated in the tiny aldeia of Avecasta near Ferreira de Zezere which is right smack in the middle of the country.  She had told me many stories about growing up there playing outdoors , raising animals and having meals made completely from what they grew in their garden and seeing how fascinated I was by them, she told me I had to come with her one weekend to meet the family and see the country.  I happily accepted her invite to come out with her the following weekend, as being middle of May, the weather was going to be absolutely perfect for exploring the countryside, sunny and clear but not too hot :)

You can check out my Catavino post- Aldeias of Portugal Part 1: Staying with Friends to learn more about aldeias and for my full experience there.  For this post, I wanted to share more in detail photos and video I took on my adventure that didn't make it onto my Catavino one.   And though I was only there for a day and a half, I couldn't believe how many adventures Rita and her family packed in that time for me!

We arrived in Avecasta Saturday afternoon and I was greeted by this beautiful garden scene in the back of their family home, beyond that, there was nothing as far as the eye could see!  Towards the back of the garden was a small "barn" with a hen house that they still used and an old pig pen and cow stall for when they had raised more animals.   

The house was huge, 7 bedrooms with both a "summer" and "winter" kitchen, the summer being separate
from the rest of the home and attached to their mini-winery and cellar, both made of thick cement to keep them cool year-round.  Outside the house, they had a large patio equipped with what I would call my "dream" outdoor barbecue area, complete with a stone oven and grill!

No sooner did we drop off our things did we head out on foot for our first adventure!  The road through the village was small and quiet with not a soul in sight so it was perfect for taking a walk on this beautiful afternoon :) 
Rita and her sister wanted to take me just up the hill from the village where there was a beautiful clearing that overlooked the surrounding valley.  This was the place where the village had had their windmills which had been used to grind their grain into flour for making bread.  Unfortunately the original windmills did not stand the test of time, so the village decided to build a new one on top of the original base.  They also decided to construct it in the old-fashioned style, as a means of preserving the memory.  And today they use it off and on to show visitors how the grain was originally grounded between the two stone wheels :)  

Afterwards, we walked back down and took a detour through the woods where we came to a clearing that led down to a HUGE cave!  Rita said she and her sisters used to play down in it with the other village children when they were younger, but nowadays the local government fenced it off to protect recent archaeological investigations.  From what the locals know, the cave was once used by the Romans as a holdout to defend against invaders, so the finds have been linked to the Roman era.  But luckily for us, someone had cut through the fence so we sneaked in for a tour, very cool but creepy!  There were several tiny passageways leading further into the hill, which Rita said went right under their village!
Posing in front of the tiny corridors with Rita's sister Eva and their dog Simba,  it was actually really dark here and that was a nervous smile on my face :p 
After the cave exploration, we walked back to the house for a break and got there just in time for a homemade afternoon snack courtesy of Rita's parents :)  They had scrambled some fresh eggs from their henhouse with some local chouriço (sausage) and served it with their homemade white wine and local cheese.  Might seem more like what you'd eat for breakfast but it's not common in Portugal to have eggs for breakfast, normally they come on top of a steak or other dishes for dinner.  
But anyhoo, the scramble and cheese were absolutely delicious and the homemade wine was quite powerful!   It basically had the same alcohol content as a fortified wine (which they said is normal for homemade wine :p) so they normally drink the white very chilled or with ice.   Strong but tasty, I almost had a bit of buzz on me as we headed out for our next adventure :)  

This time, we went with Eva and her boyfriend, who drove us around the countryside to an even tinier aldeia, where we parked and hiked down an overgrown stone path through a beautifully vibrant green forest dotted with olive and cork oak trees.  Rita told me this path was actually an old Roman road and we were going to see one of the many, still-used arched Roman bridges.

The olive trees thrive in this pretty overgrown meadow surrounded by ancient Roman walls
And I couldn't believe how good of a condition it was still in! Stretching over a small river that looked gorgeous in the late springtime covered in little white water flowers,  that tranquil setting out in the middle of nowhere made you feel like you went back in time :)

Until we caught the familiar sound of a herd of goats going up the hill!  You could clearly hear them from the clanging of all the little bells around their necks.  And apparently they heard us as well, since they turned back to stare :)
More beautiful ancient Roman walls and olive trees :)

My blast from the past continued as we arrived back at the house to see garden-fresh grelos (cabbage sprouts) being prepared to cook over the family's old-fashioned open stove for dinner :)
Followed by some tasty local pork ribs cooking on their outdoor grill.  All together with some more homemade potent red wine, it was a delicious dinner!
Afterwards, I walked with the whole family down the unlighted street to get some after-dinner coffee.  And when I mean unlighted, it was pitch-black!  I could barely see in front of me at some parts, but on the plus side, you could see the beautiful starry sky clearer than ever without all that city pollution!   We arrived at the only shop in the village, a small café where everyone gathered for their afternoon and/or evening coffee to catch up on news or to watch a soccer match.  My, was it so quintessential small town! Everyone really knew everyone there, and even though I was the odd one out, I still got friendly smiles and hellos :)

That night, I slept like a baby with the clean, crisp country night air flowing through the moonlit window.

In Day 2 of My Weekend in the Country: More delicious organic, home-cooked Portuguese food and a trip to the clear-water Rio Zêzere to visit one of the most picturesque aldeias in Portugal :)

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