“You must be there before 5 o’clock,” stressed the flat’s owner. The key must be collected from a shop worker; a worker in a shop that closes at 5 o’clock. So, an hour before the appointed time, we arrived. Our destination – the parking area in the winemaking village of Provesende in the Alto Douro region of Portugal.
We found the shop and tried to make ourselves understood with our non-existent Portuguese and João’s limited English. Finally, we got the key and a conducted tour of the flat. Wanting to celebrate what had already been a memorable day, we asked if we could buy wine in the village. “Yes,” replied João, “But you must hurry as the shop shuts at 5 o’clock.”
We scrambled up the cobbled stone street, easily identifying the shop in question. Maybe the wooden wine barrels filled with bottles of wine positioned outside the entrance gave it away? Armed with our purchases we decided to explore the rest of the village’s main square.
Needing some supplies for our first night in self-catering accommodation, I realised that so far, the cupboard was bare. We saw a dingy looking bar, with several men lounging at the bar and grouped at tables in the front, smoking and drinking. They peered curiously at us, leaving us feeling a little unwelcome. Luckily, we had wine in our hands, so we decided not to join the swarthy drinkers in their gloomy bar.
The next shop perplexed me. Not sure exactly of the goods sold, I peered in consternation at the perplexing mix of agricultural supplies, tools, gumboots and ropes in the window. Then, I spotted a modern looking fridge at the back. “Let’s try in here,” I said pushing open the swinging door.
However, the shop contained not even a shopkeeper to sell us a rake or a pair of secateurs. Just as I leant forward to check some interesting looking food items under the glass topped counter, the door jangled and one of the men from the bar next door walked in and stood behind the counter, just like the he owned the place.
We nodded to each other as I moved to the fridge. “There’s beer in here,” I exclaimed reaching for a bottle also spotting some cheese. I took it too, hoping it proved as nice as the excellent local cheese we recently ate at a Porto restaurant.
Returning to the counter with our selections, I spied some eggs in a basket on a shelf just behind the shop keeper. Using my best sign language, I motioned for four eggs. The shopkeeper grabbed the basket as I wondered how to juggle the eggs, along with the beer and wine, as we made our way home along the uneven cobblestone street.
He reached under the counter and brought out some carefully torn pieces of newspaper. Then deftly wrapping my eggs in the newspaper he placed them into a plastic bag.
I felt a sense of accomplishment and euphoria as, carefully balancing our loot including the plastic bag of eggs, we returned to our accommodation. All in all, it turned out a momentous day. Not only had we managed to successfully obtain a car from a local car hire office modelled on Fawlty Towers, we also visited an amazing town with an intact medieval centre and ate one of the best Portuguese tarts I’ve ever tasted at our coffee stop along the way.
Then we drove over fabulous new roads with bridges towering hundreds of metres above chasms below. Roads so new that they evaded even the latest GPS software, which naturally threw our electronic navigator into a real spin. Finally, we found our way over increasingly narrowing mountain roads, with progressively worse hairpin turns and only a metre or so between our tyres and long drops into the valley floor below. We successfully got our key before the shop shut at five o’clock.
Now we had cheese, eggs, wine and beer. And we had a reservation, or so we thought – but that’s another story – at the sole restaurant in town.
Saúde! to the joys of travel
As the town clock, high in the church tower struck five o’clock, we agreed that the time called for us to raise a glass. Those people who think of travelling as relaxing or easy must be on a different itinerary to us.
Saúde! (that’s Portuguese for cheers). Here’s to the joys and experiences of travel. Just make sure you’re there before five o’clock!