Christmas in Portugal

Posted by on December 27, 2003

We are looking forward to a trip to Portugal soon. The planning has put me in mind of a wonderfully amusing Christmas trip to Portugal several years ago.

We were visiting a very good friend who was posted to Lisbon as an Ambassador. On his invitation, we immediately made flight reservations to this still somewhat undiscovered country, which hangs off the side of mighty Spain.

After several pleasant shopping days and parties in Lisbon, we started out on our motor journey, four of us, with the Paco de Calheiros in Ponte de Lima, (in the Minho region) as our destination. The pacos of this area are small, elegant country estates of the gentry. Under the auspices of the elegant young Conde de Calheiros, several had been recently organized as holiday destinations. The owners of these properties, much like owners in England and France, have had to find ways to keep their properties, by renting rooms, and offering a rather up market bed and breakfast facility. Thanks to our friend’s contacts, this was where we would spend Christmas, making stops along the way, and then taking day trips from the paco.

Our first night was spent at the Pousada da Oliveira, which is located in the old center of Guimaraes. Portugal has a marvelous scheme of government pousadas all over the country, like the Paradors of Spain. They are usually in historic old buildings, and always dependable. (They can be booked from the states.) The only complaint about this location was the fact that we were next door to the church, the bells of which started clanging at about 6 am.

We arrived the next day at the charming Paco de Calheiros, where the even more charming young count greeted us and showed us to the wing where we were staying. Our rooms were large, with antique furniture, and lovely tile work.(Portugal has masses of stunning tile work everywhere, called “azulejoes.”) There was, however, a slight chill in the air. To warm our chilly extremities, there was a fire in the fireplace in the sitting room, around which we quickly huddled, after decanting a case of champagne from the trunk of the car. Between the fire and the wine, we managed to warm up a bit.

It had not been the sort of weather that our friends had experienced the prior year, when traveling in the North. In fact we had had rain for a couple of days. The fact that any of us were still smiling was certainly a tribute to our friends’ good humor, or forbearance, or both. We had spent part of the day in Braga, where the streets were filled with umbrellas, presumably with people under them, and the bank, where we wanted to exchange some Travelers checks, was mobbed with Portuguese workmen, returned from working in other parts of Europe, to bring home money to their families. It was most interesting to meet some of them in the melee. The shops in Braga seemed to be overflowing with very attractive shoes, at very attractive prices. I hope that is still true.

Back to the Calheiros family: We were invited to partake of Christmas Eve dinner with the family. The count, Francisco, and his young wife, Rosaria, were most gracious in a kind of familial way, with three children, and one on the way. In addition were grandparents, if I recall correctly, a sister of the Count, and the parish priest. We were a festive group, (I was glad I had brought a long velvet skirt, both for warmth and fashion,) and our dinner was typical, including caldo verde, the wonderful Portuguese broth with kale and sausage, then bacalhau, a sort of preserved fish dish. Homegrown turkey, with potatoes and cauliflower, and probably some other vegetables, followed this. There was some sort of Bread, honey, wine and cinnamon concoction, extremely tasty, but has also faded in memory, followed by a traditional Christmas cake, called a Bolo o Rei, which I think means “king’s cake”.

We expected the parish priest to say Grace before we started our meal. But he seemed to be inordinately hungry, and simply attacked his food. His major concern of the evening was to watch the pope give his Christmas TV address, which we all watched, to the complete cessation of any conversation.

We thoroughly enjoyed the family, and would have enjoyed the stay much more had we had a modicum of warmer weather. As a matter of fact, while we were attempting to dress for the Christmas eve dinner, I turned on the space heater which was imbedded in the tile wall of our bedroom, but soon after had an urgent message from the far-away kitchen to turn it off, because we had blown a fuse.

Taking a bath in our otherwise sumptuous bathroom was a real heroic challenge. I had taken the precaution of bringing my trusty electric mattress pad, a small luxury, which fits neatly in my suitcase. It was my savior during the cold nights, and it made my husband cuddle very close to me. To get from the warmth of the mattress pad to the bathtub meant traveling along a very cold floor, past a drafty window. We soon learned that hot baths were our best friends, and we prayed that the hot water would not run out.

Despite the cold, the landscape was magical, and the countryside was dotted with these remarkable 18thcentury mansions, set in movie-set gardens, with statuary all around. We drove out further into the country on Christmas Day, after having a delightful Christmas lunch at Valencada Minho, a charming town on the border of Spain. We came upon an historic road sign, which said “Mosteiro de Sanfins”, and decided to try to find it. We drove for miles further and further into the mountains. Whenever we came to a crossroad where there were people, we would ask whether the ruins “vale la pena?” (“Is it worth the trouble?”) Each time we were assured it was. Eventually we came to the end of the road, where we parked the car, and walked up to the top. And there, down below us, were the ruins of a Romanesque chapel, sitting alone on the serra. As we walked down the path to get a closer look, we could hear the strains of a Christmas choir, their Christmas hymns wafting up the side of the mountain from a village church far below.

Oh, yes, the sun came out on Christmas morning.

(Betsy Shequine can’t wait to get back to Portugal and the vinho verde.)

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