We had been holed up in our Costa da Caparica beach house in Portugal for two weeks when our chief tour director Tim declared it was time to see more of the gorgeous country. I had been working hard on Home Free, the book about our adventures on the road, so it was a treat to be whisked away to a Portuguese Palace in Coimbra. We drove over the fabulous 25 April Bridge and headed north in high spirits despite the stormy weather.
The rain abated and as we drove through the gates of the Palace Bussaco Hotel and started up the cobblestone parkway leading up through the forest, we followed a tumbling stream, the rocks and banks around it covered in moss and vines, and beside it exotic, tropical palms and fern trees that looked other-worldly in this setting. The 250 acres of the palace had been tended since the seventh century by Discalced monks, and the grounds are filled with plants collected from all over the world. The Palace Bussaco Hotel was built in 1888 in the romantic Neo-Manueline style we were seeing everywhere in Portugal. It’s the over-the-top, wedding-cake decor that is wildly romantic: curlicues and vines, chubby cherubs, plasterwork, huge tile romantic frescoes depicting love tales and battles, stained glass, tapestries, carved wood, stone, concrete, gargoyle rain spouts, a grand staircase carpeted in red, at least twelve feet wide, anything you could possibly dream up to decorate a building had been lavished on the Palace.
We were greeted by a chubby man wearing a uniform with epaulets (I’m a FOOL for a man with epaulets), and were taken in the caged elevator to our enormous corner suite on the second floor. It was MUCH bigger than the entire apartment that had been our base in Paso Robles. The ceilings were fifteen feet tall with French windows and a little balcony (its railing featuring carved ribbons and regal animals, of course) with a view of the gardens and the forest beyond. There was enough closet space to serve five people with built-in velvet-lined drawers and mahogany shoe racks.
The spotless bathroom was at least 200 square feet, with the tall ceilings and pale green fixtures, a tub long enough for Kobe Bryant to lie down, and of course, big fluffy towels and robes. This was my kind of getaway.
Tim had plopped himself in one of the super-comfy velvet chairs while I did my customary fluttery, excessive “oohing and aahing.” Even though he pretended to be blasé, I know that he was pleased with himself. The room could have used a little face-lift, but I have a fondness for slightly threadbare aristocratic lodgings, and the bed was good. It’s much more interesting than state-of-the-art number beds and too-hip decor!
My spouse was smiling for another reason: the Palace Hotel Bussaco is a seriously great bargain, particularly in March!
Of course we were starving and when we entered the drop-dead baroque dining room, the center of the elegant room was dominated by a wine-tasting group. We were seated by another epaulet-encrusted fellow at a romantic bay window table where we could observe the swishing and spitting wine crowd and also view the vast gardens as we perused a menu that would make Julia and Paul Child come to attention. We were absorbed for quite a while because the choices were dazzling.
Everything was delicious, but the highlights were Tim’s wild boar ravioli appetizer and my duck breast with the best potatoes dauphinoise that have ever passed my lips. His steak over sautéed foie gras (if you recall, Tim discovered his duck fetish in France) was remarkable.
As we devoured our choices, we had time to observe the goings-on at the big table. These were not folks who had come off a tour bus expecting some crackers and free wine. These people were serious and we could tell there was business going on. At least three languages were being used and we even detected an occasional American twang. People were up and about, discussing, pouring, tasting and, from what we could tell, there was some large-scale dealing going on.
I had drained my very nice large glass of syrah, and as I put the glass down I glanced up to see several of the wine guys standing near a gorgeous antique server, where an array of bottles were commanding their attention. My eyes met those of a big man with curly hair whose personality and enthusiasm I’d noticed during lunch. He smiled, I smiled. I raised my empty glass and my eyebrows. He grabbed a bottle and in seconds was standing over our table.
“I couldn’t stand it. You were all having too much fun and I know what you’re tasting is probably delicious,” I apologized.
“Of course you should have some! We are having a two-day conference introducing wine buyers from all over the world to our regional wines,” he said, pouring a taste.
Next came Filipa Pato, a dark-haired, vibrant young woman I’d noticed as she went around the room pouring wine sips and talking with visitors. She brought another glass and poured a taste, elbowing her competition out of the way. “Now, here’s something REALLY worth tasting,” she joked. And it WAS. Her wine was full bodied and delicious. Her label logo said Authentic Wines, without Make-up! Within five minutes we were surrounded by winemakers vying for my attention, having fun showing their wares to an innocent bystander. I was a willing accomplice and enjoyed seven varieties of delicious reds and even a nice port. The man whose eye I had caught first was Dirk Niepoort, who is a key player in recent developments in the region. As well as producing some brilliantly expressive Douro wines himself, he’s been acting as a catalyst by encouraging the leading wine producers to get together and spur each other on to greater things. We had luckily stumbled into one of his gatherings. From that day forward I noticed his label in the window of every wine shop I passed in Portugal!
We spent the rest of the afternoon wandering the gardens, waterfalls, paths and woods on the estate. The sun cooperated at exactly the right moment, so we were able to enjoy the excesses of Portuguese architecture and horticulture with the perfect light.
The next day, after a sumptuous breakfast we drove up further to Aviero, a beautiful beach town that has big ideas like Trieste and created a series of canals, dominated by the Central Canal, which runs through the middle of it. Tourists were lined up, in spite of the chilly wind, to be paddled around in motor-boat driven gondolas,ungainly compared with the Venetian ones they sought to imitate. But the visitors were having fun, which is what counts. We passed on the boat ride, but found a nice lunch, which is our big priority. Portuguese food tends to be heavy on the fish and a little light on the flavor, but I’m happy to report that I my new best friend Dirk’s wine was on the restaurant’s list. After a couple of glasses of his lovely Redoma, the bland flavor of my lunch didn’t bother me at all.
When we retuned to our palace digs, we stopped in the grand hotel bar, with its heroic-sized paintings, overstuffed, comfortable furniture and high ceilings trimmed lavishly with layers of gilded crown molding. Tim said, “I have something to confess,”
Oh Lordy, no wife wants to hear anything like that, not ever. Thoughts like another woman, he wants to buy a Porsche, he really DOES think I’m fat, or we’ve gone broke, tend to wander through a person’s brain at a time like that. “Yeeesssss..” I answered, trying to be casual.
“I’m looking forward to going ‘home,’ as in our ‘home’ in Caparica,” he said.
I laughed inappropriately and he said, “What’s so funny,”
“Nothing,” I recovered myself.
“What I’m saying is that I’ve begun to think of the places where we are staying as if they are really home. I mean I’ll be happy to get back to our bed, our kitchen, our life in Caparica…like going home after a weekend away. I think that’s interesting, don’t you?”
I agreed. It does seem as if we have become so adept at adapting that we embrace whatever lifestyle we are living at the time and feel so comfortable that it actually feels like home to us. I made a mental note to share that with our friends who followed our adventures.
The next day when we arrived in Caparica, unlocked our gate, pulled in our luggage, and began to check emails, see what was in the refrigerator for dinner, and go about our lives, it truly did feel strangely like our own place in the world.
Any place seems like home as long as we are together.