The morning I left Lisbon, I rented a car and headed south. I was on my way to a 2-week house sit in the Alentejo region known for its dramatic coastline of sheer cliffs and squares of peaceful farmland. I was looking forward to finally getting some writing done and enjoying a simple Portuguese lifestyle in the countryside.
Though it rained initially, the skies cleared the further south I went. Close to Odemira, near the home I’d be taking care of, I drove through forests of cork trees, past greenhouses of raspberries, alongside flower farms, potato fields and even bamboo parks. The landscape was a cross between arid desert and lush, wide open fields.
I heard the summer months are teeming with tourists down here, 3 hours south of Lisbon and an hour from the Algarve, which is when this 4-bedroom home I’m watching is transformed into a B&B. People come from all over the world to explore the local authentic Portuguese villages and hike the cliffs above the Atlantic coast on a route that connects fishermen trails called Rota Vicentina.
A Small World
Exploring the area along the cliffs one afternoon, I stopped a couple to ask if I was on the famous trail of Rota Vicentina or if I had missed a turn somewhere along the way. The trail seemed to drop off a cliff… or maybe it had rerouted to the paved road, I wasn’t sure. They were the only people in sight and stiff wind gusts rose from below the 300ft ledge in a rhythm that matched the crashing waves. It seemed like it was just the 3 of us standing on the edge of the world.
I picked up their American accent right away and asked where they were from. Colorado was their answer. “Wow, me too- I’m from the San Luis Valley,” I said.
“You are? We’re from Salida.” That was the closest town with a grocery store to our house.
The 3 of us were roughly 5,000 miles from home, from an area so remote, most Coloradans didn’t know of it, and yet we were the only people on this desolate stretch in Portugal. It seemed like fate.
I walked with Connie and Mike a couple miles into town, listening to their travel stories on the Annapurna Circuit in Nepal and what it was like to work for the airlines. They had retired and left Boulder for Salida, a tiny sleeper of a town until about 15 years ago when a mass of outdoor enthusiasts poured into the community. We discussed the ballooning of real estate values back home, brought on by people with their very pedigree flocking to the area.
They bought me a water (“We’ve got this one- money bags are in town,” Mike chuckled) and got themselves coffee in celebration for having walked 22km that day. We sat in the sun on the main pedestrian path of the small holiday/fishing village of Zambujeira. We promised to stay in touch and even reach out when we were all back in Colorado. It was just one of those reminders that it really can be a small world.
Monte dos Papa Figos
The house I was looking after was inland 5 or so miles, and the pets included 2 Spanish horses who hadn’t been ridden in years, 2 Dalmatians, and a cat named Henry who was fearless, but loved to cuddle.
The fields were separated by hedges and rose bushes, apple and clementine trees, and surrounded by sheep and cattle that grazed up to the fence line. At night, I’d build a fire and read a book with Henry on my lap, purring like a motor that just won’t quit, the dogs snoring loudly at my feet. Unlike Lisbon, there weren’t many tourists to complain about down here in the south.
The evening came on quickly while I was chauffeuring Darcy, the 14-year-old Dalmatian, home from the vet’s at 7pm. It was so dark, I kept checking to make sure the headlights were actually on. Darcy was drugged and dazed, slumped on the floor of the backseat, his big spotted head now encircled by a lampshade/cone resembling a halo. In the previous 2 hours, he had to endure me and 3 vets holding him down, even after being injected with anesthesia, while they performed ear surgery. When he was finally good and asleep, it was time to wake him up again and force him to stagger to the car. My heart broke for him.
But the tough part wasn’t over. Once home, I still had chores to do by flashlight. The most difficult of them was organizing the feed for the horses: their grain, hay, and supplements, and then dressing them (untethered, as instructed, but my biggest mistake) in their cold-weather coats. For 5 days I’d been coating the horses without incident, but tonight it would be in the dark.
The mare, Delhi, was acting up, clearly pissed about the late dinner. She snorted while knocking over her bucket and stomping her feet. I should have known right then to leave her alone, but went about putting her (recently delivered, brand new) coat on, even though I could barely see. Moments later, with the front of the coat tied but the middle and back open, she jumped and the whole coat slid under her belly, causing her to rear up and charge off down the pasture at full speed. The coat was in a jumble, sliding under her racing hooves as she bucked, the front still tight where I had secured it. She soon tripped, rolling on her butt and then side. “Whoa, girl…” I called as she heaved herself back up and took off again. “Please don’t break a leg…” A few more kicks and slips later and she had ripped off the remainder of the coat and was now galloping around the field’s perimeter, free at last. I retrieved the shredded coat, her canter slowing down with relief. She was okay.
Shaking, I returned home to feed the dogs and give more medicine to Darcy who was sleepwalking from the anesthesia, walking into walls with his cone head.
That night it would take hours for us all to calm down. Eventually, though, the dogs were snoring in unison on the kitchen floor and Henry was passed out next to a smoldering fire. This area of Portugal with its lush farms and severe cliffs might be sleepy, but I’d never say it was boring.