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Aldeias of Portugal Part 1: Staying with Friends

Aldeia in Portuguese means village, but many of these places are smaller than how a “village” is traditionally defined, with only a handful of houses and a café. However, it is as a result of these little settlements that Portugal’s history, traditional lifestyle, culture and festivals have been preserved and maintained. Most of these aldeias are nestled in the central and northern part of the country, where the buildings and houses are predominately constructed out of “xisto” or schist stone and granite. The people who live in an aldeia tend to be a combination of retirees, shopkeepers and either part-time to full-time farmers, who both work and consume almost entirely from their local community’s economy.

Back in May, an English student of mine, Rita, invited me to stay a weekend at her family’s home, located in an aldeia called Avecasta, outside of Ferreira do Zezere in the central region of Ribatejo. The family’s house was large and beautiful, and though not in the tradional schist style, the surrounding houses were. It had a spacious vegetable garden in the back dotted with fruit trees and lovely outdoor patio with a traditional churrasqueira (grill) and dome stone oven. Inside, there was both a “winter” and “summer” kitchen, with the latter built in their old barn, complete with an old-fashioned open chimney and stove area for rustic, large pot cooking. Next to the kitchen was the family’s mini-winery, complete with crusher, stainless-steel fermenting tank and several large and small oak barrels for storage which one could convienently draw wine from when desired. And a couple of miles down the road, they had a large piece of land for both their grape vines and olive trees. With so many commodities, one might assume the family had considerable wealth, but this was not the case. From my understanding, most everyone who lives in the aldeia have houses equipped with similar commodities; tend to make wine, olive oil (there was a small building in the center of the aldeia with an olive press for the community to use), vinegar; and raise at least some type of farm animal on their land. This was confirmed when we took a walk around the area and I saw houses with pig pens, goats, ducks and sheep. I was even greeted by the amusing site of an elderly woman walking down the street with her goat on a leash, which is apparently the norm! And just like any small community, everyone knows everyone here and they all gather at the sole café of the village to catch up on gossip and local news.

When we returned to the house after the tour of the aldeia, Rita’s parents instantaneously provided me with food, much to my delight, which was a hearty lanche (snack) of scrambled eggs from their hen house with presunto accompanied by slices of local cured cheese and fresh bread. This generous treatment continued over the course of our visit, as we were given several homecooked, traditional Portuguese meals, including a lunch of stone oven-roasted bacalhau com batatas á muro -a roasted salt-cod torn into small pieces with roasted potatoes, onions, smashed garlic and mixed with olive oil and cider vinegar. We also savored a dinner of churrasqueira grilled chicken with grelos- delicious “cabbage greens” native to Portugal and a simple salad of lettuce and onion. And of course, every meal was accompanied with wine, a homemade red and white. This was my first experience tasting homemade wine of this style, quite pleasant for everyday drinking, though the high alcohol content could knock your socks off! However, what was the most impressionable aspect of our visit was that apart from the bacalhau, absolutely every ingredient in our meals came straight from the family’s garden, cellar or henhouse, which lacked even a smidgen of chemical or fertilizers; and lord, my stomach has never felt so good!

When traveling around Avecasta, there were several equally picturesque aldeias, one of the prettiest being Dornes, a 12th century aldeia covering a hilltop peninsula in the beautiful Rio Zezére and surrounded by luscious evergreen mountains. Walking down to the boat dock, we put our feet into the cool crystal-clear river water, a gorgeous site, which also happens to be where Lisbon’s drinking water is sourced from! Rita and her sister also took me to see some hidden sites around the countryside. We hiked up one of the many hilltops where the foundations of some of the country’s old-fashioned windmills used to stand, though recently, the locals had one rebuilt that mills grain from time to time. We also walked down an ancient Roman stone path where an arched Roman stone bridge still stood, fully-functional and explored part of an intriguing cave, whose tunnels went right under Rita’s aldeia and was once used as a fortification for Roman troops!

After experiencing the Portuguese countryside, I have never felt so spoiled by the incredibly fresh food, the kindness of the locals and the natural beauty of the environment around me. Leaving Rita’s family with my arms filled with two liters of homemade wine, a basket of freshly picked nesperas (Japanese plums, a popular late-spring fruit grown in Portugal) and my lungs full of clean, crisp country air, it was the first time I felt reluctant to return to the busy city. But could such a wonderful experience be repeated at another aldeia? What if I was staying in a local hotel as a tourist instead of being an invited guest to a local family? Well, you’ll have to wait and read Part 2 of Aldeias of Portugal to find out what happens!

To Rita & her family for introducing me to Portuguese country hospitality,

Andrea Smith