Mau, Toots and Kitty were my reason for visiting Portugal. Before I left for Cannes I signed up for Trusted Housesitters, hoping to house sit for as much of my remaining two months in Europe as possible. House sitting is a fantastic service—in exchange for taking care of someone’s home, plants and animals, you get a free place to stay. Lengths and locations vary, but I didn’t have much of an agenda so I was pretty open. I was pleased to receive a response to my inquiry from Annette, a British woman living in Palmela, Portugal, which is a small town about 45 minutes outside of Lisbon. I would be there for a week. As an unexpected bonus, my friend Lissette flew out to meet me. What I initially thought would be a low-key week turned into a side-splitting, sangria-flowing fiesta.
I was sitting at the Starbucks of Lisbon airport when I looked up from my latte to see a woman with a silver bobbed haircut plop a sign in front of my face that read, “SHELLEY”. I laughed and said, “You must be Annette!” She then flipped the sign over to reveal a bunch of cats, smiled and welcomed me in her British accent. Lissette’s flight was on time and expected in the next 30 minutes—the timing was perfect.
After Lissette arrived, we walked to the car and placed our suitcases in the backseat because the “boot” of the car wouldn’t open. Annette had been vacationing in Portugal for many years but recently settled full-time to avoid killing her ex-husband. It was delivered as a joke, but I sensed at least 10% truth behind it. She was a chatty, colorful character who was very excited to show Lissette and me around the area. Instead of driving straight to her house, we went to the nearby coastal town of Setúbal where Annette pointed out a must-visit seafood restaurant with a prix fixe 10€ menu before parking and walking us through the local market. The first order of business at 10am: a shot of cherry liqueur from one of the market vendors. Not a first for Annette, I sensed.
We then walked the market and I discovered the magnificence of Portuguese peaches which are flatter, squatter and sweeter than the white peaches I’m accustomed to (I’ve seen similar-looking ones at home dubbed “donut peaches”). Annette also picked up some goat and sheep cheese, locally-cured olives, cherries, tomatoes and bread baked that morning. When we got to her house she pulled green onions out of her garden and put me to work in the kitchen assembling lunch while she packed for her trip back to the UK. This was the moment Lissette and I were introduced to vinho verde (pronounced “veeno vehrzh” and translated as green wine). It’s a young white wine with low alcohol and a slight fizz. More Pellegrino than Perrier for those who know the difference. Lissette and I were converted and would spend the next week going through far too many bottles of vinho verde as we perfected our own version of Portuguese sangria.
Annette’s random cat feeding routine matched her spirited personality. There was dry food, canned food, pouch food and “fresh meat” in the form of raw fish and ground beef. Annette suggested I use the latter in the evening to discourage the cats from hunting. Hmmm, ok. There was a stray cat, Frank (a Siamese with fiercely blue eyes), who would come up to the kitchen window and eat scraps off the sill. The food remnants in the fridge were for him. Raw, beaten eggs were fair game as well. In addition to Frank, there was Mau (pronounced like the dictator Mao), Kitty and Kitty’s daughter Toots (rhymes with boots). Toots had recently cost Annette a fortune at the vet and was the most vulnerable, so I was to make sure she ate and drank enough water. Yep, no problem, I think I’ve got it all straight… maybe.
For the next week Lissette and I explored the area during the day and returned in the evening to water the garden, make dinner, drink sangria and feed the cats. We visited Palmela Castle and made our way back to Setúbal twice in search of the 10€ restaurant. Our first attempt was unsuccessful, but resulted in the best grilled fish I’d ever had. While walking around, I spotted a restaurant with a group of older men sitting outside. I asked if any of them knew where O Alface restaurant was. One man said yes, pointed us in the right direction, and then paused and asked, “Why are you going there when this is the best restaurant in Setúbal?” They didn’t own the place, but were very friendly with the owner. Lissette and I were starving, so we decided to plop ourselves down at Espaco Setúbal and look at a menu after some more cajoling. The owner recommended a local fish, which we both ordered. I’m not a big fan of whole, grilled fish, but when in coastal Portugal…
When the fish arrived, the chatty patron who sold us on the place came over to show us how to eat it, using mine as the sample. He reached over and proceeded to cut the flesh from the skeleton, removing it in one chunk, then flipped it over and did the same thing on the other side. It had been quite a while since someone cut my food for me… and a first by a total stranger. It was 80% sweet and only about 20% creepy. The sauce that I drizzled over the top was to die for, made from rich and unctuous fish liver and loads of garlic. Surprisingly amazing. Lissette and I looked at each other with wide, happy eyes after our first bite. On the side was a traditional bread salad which reminded me of cold, mushy Thanksgiving stuffing. It wasn’t horrible, but it wasn’t my favorite. Post-lunch we were treated to a glass of Moscatel de Setúbal, the local dessert wine of the region (port is found farther north). In a country as small as Portugal, I was surprised to learn wine is so regionally specific.
One day Lissette and I took the bus into Lisbon. It took a bit of time since it required two buses, but we had a fun few hours roaming the capital. Since our time was limited, we hopped on the subway and headed to the central neighborhoods of Chiado and Baixa on the water. We walked its old, hilly streets, had lunch and hopped on Tram 28, the city’s old tram that was commissioned in the 1930s. While touristy, it was a great way to see the downtown area and save our legs from its steep hills. It’s the longest route in Lisbon, running in a loop, although we found out they DO kick you off at the “end” of the line. Unfortunately the queue to get back on was too long so we only got a partial tour. We didn’t spend enough time in Lisbon to truly get a taste of the city, but I’m glad we at least sampled it.
Since Annette’s house was about a mile from the bus stop and we wanted to explore a bit more, Lissette and I rented a car for the second half of the week. On one outing we drove south along the coast to Sesimbra, stopping at Praia de Figueirinha on the way–a beach snuggled at the bottom of Parque Natural Arrábida. There was nothing but a strip of sand with palm frond umbrellas, a parking lot, one restaurant and a few vendors renting beach chairs. Lissette and I grabbed a few loungers, tested out the cool water and read. It felt remarkably remote for only a 30-minute drive. Glorious.
On our continued journey to Sesimbra, we drove inland through the national park where we suddenly found ourselves on a small, dirt road. Feeling a little like Lewis and Clark, we decided to push on and make random turns, confident we would eventually find the main road again. But the dirt paths got narrower and sometimes greeted us with giant holes and blind turns. Houses were separated by large plots of land at times, otherwise we were driving through trees and wondering how much longer we’d be driving 10 MPH. Aside from a tractor, we were the only moving vehicle to be seen. It was nearly 30 minutes before we found the highway again.
On a much more direct excursion, we visited the nearby town of Azeitão, known for their wineries. Our day started with an early lunch at a café that was once a laundry; large washing basins now water features on the patio. On order was cheese, meat, bread and… yes… wine. We were eating and laughing to the soundtrack of lovely Portuguese music until all of a sudden it switched—to English Christmas carols. In June. There was an English-speaking couple near us, so the owners must’ve thought we would appreciate hearing our own language. It was hilarious, and luckily the other party asked the staff to put the Portuguese music back on before we got to Jingle Bells.
Next up was a tour and tasting at Jose Maria da Fonseca, a 200-year-old family winery. As part of our tour we visited the cellar, and at the back was the family’s private collection containing a few bottles from each year in production. Boy would that be fun to break into!
Back at the house there were other adventures. I got a fire started in the outdoor barbecue where we grilled up some steak and veggies with zucchini pulled straight from Annette’s garden. We used oranges from the tree to make fresh squeezed orange juice (SO yum) and as an ingredient for our never-empty pitcher of sangria. Instead of brandy we used ginja, a sourcherry liquor, along with oranges, lemons, apples and the delicious Portuguese peaches.
We had way too much fun drinking that sangria and experimenting with what we could cook on the grill. Turns out pasta is better suited to an indoor kitchen. We also thought it a good idea to simulate wine-making by smashing grapes with our toes. Yeah right, low-alcohol wine.
In between eating, sleeping and sangria-ing, Lissette and I found ourselves in the middle of an I Love Lucy episode. One night I was awoken by a lot of commotion. Concerned a wild creature was doing laps in the bedroom, I reluctantly turned on the light to check things out. On the floor right below was one of the cats, a toy in between her paws. “Phew, it’s just the cat,” I reassured myself as I turned the light back off. A few minutes later I smelled something foul. And then, crunching. A moment later it crystallized. That’s not a toy mouse. It’s a REAL mouse! I started yelling, “Oh my god, oh my god!” It was louder than intended because I heard Lissette in the other room cry out, “What? What’s wrong?” I didn’t want to alarm her, and yet I did.
“Um, the cat has a mouse!” I responded in horror. She came over, turned on the hall light and screamed. My screams followed and the cat was scared mercilessly out of the room. Lissette left to grab a broom and dustpan while I got up and moved towards the door. I grabbed the broom and scooted the dead mouse into the dustpan, jumping and screaming while Lissette did the same behind me. She then grabbed a bag and we somehow managed to get it inside before tossing it outside the front door while hopping up and down yelling, “Oh my god, oh my god, oh my GOD!!” Yes, we fell victim to the age-old lady and the mouse scare, like we were cartoon characters. Once the critter was safely outside the house we both fell onto the guest room bed and laughed until tears streamed down. Cat: 2 points; Humans: 1 point; Mouse: nada.
Unfortunately our shenanigans were coming to an end. On Lissette’s last day I drove her to the Lisbon airport across the 10-mile Vasco da Gama Bridge—the longest in Europe.
That night Annette returned home and drove me back to the airport at 4am the next morning (bless her soul) for my flight to Jerez. My next house sitting gig would be 5 weeks in Ubrique, Spain where I would sweat through the hottest July on record in a house with no fan.