Friday, January 06, 2006

Food Flashback: Nazare, Portugal

salt cod
Originally uploaded by Kit Pollard.

(Warning: this is a super long post. It's also first in what I think will be a series of posts about great meals I've had.)

We had a hard time deciding where to go on our honeymoon. The night Cooper put the ring on my finger, we started planning, trying to narrow down our choices. The world is a big place and we both love to travel, though our travel styles are vastly different. Cooper would be happy with a backpack and hostels. I hate to think of myself as high maintenance, but I appreciate the benefits of a private room and bathroom.

We could agree, though, that we should try to go somewhere neither of us had ever been – that eliminated tons of cool places like Spain, Costa Rica and Australia and New Zealand. A friend’s wedding – this one in Wisconsin – two weeks after ours gave us a time limit. We didn’t want to spend too much of that time on a plane – that eliminated Thailand and anyplace in its immediate vicinity. And we didn’t want to go to an island. Most of our friends spent their honeymoons in the Caribbean. Every one of them had a great time. But it just wasn’t right for us.

About six months before the wedding, we were down to the wire. We needed to settle on a place so we could start making our “real” plans. Plane tickets and hotel rooms. Our indecision was starting to leave us frantic – neither one of us wanted to end up celebrating our marriage with nothing more than a long weekend somewhere close. Just as we were heading to a sad honeymoon by default, I happened to read an article in Food & Wine about African restaurants in Lisbon.

Thumbing through the magazine one night, with one eye on the TV and without really reading, photos of Lisbon and the Portuguese beach caught my eye. “What about Portugal?” I asked Cooper, sort of nonchalantly (at this point, every potential spot was considered nonchalantly – after deciding against ¾ of the world, neither one of us wanted to get too attached to any particular place, in case the other vetoed it.)

Just as laid back, Cooper considered the idea for all of three seconds then nodded his head. “Portugal sounds good.” So Portugal it was. We kicked into high planning gear.

We’d fly in and out of Lisbon, but travel during our time in the country. We thought we’d find a hotel in Porto for the first few days of our trip and a place in Lisbon for the last few days, but leave the days in between open, booking a rental car for the three days in between cities. This was a great compromise. I’m all about the itinerary – the more lists, the happier I am. And Cooper is exactly the opposite. He’d be happy sleeping on park benches if we needed to.


That’s how we found ourselves, four days into our honeymoon, driving tiny, windy roads around a mountain, into the beach and fishing village of Nazare. Right on the Atlantic, Nazare is a tiny town full of black-clad widows, boards of salting cod and, at times, pilgrims walking on their knees to the shrine to the Virgin Mary housed on the jagged cliff that looms over the town. When we arrived, at the end of June, the weather was sunny and perfect, but tourist season hadn’t yet blasted into high gear. The town was nearly empty, and absolutely perfect.

As it happened, our honeymoon coincided with the Euro 2004, a Europe-wide soccer (sorry, football) tournament taking place in Porto and Lisbon. The big cities were packed with uber-nationalistic soccer hooligans, all of whom we found very friendly and as highly, um, spirited as advertised.

swedes and danes in porto
Originally uploaded by Kit Pollard.

Nazare boasted its faire share of soccer tourists, too, all dressed in their team colors, but without the face paint and crazy headwear that was de rigeur in Porto. The town was full of Danes and Dutch, but all were relatively calm, as their teams weren’t playing the night we arrived. No, the night we arrived, the big game was between Portugal and England.

I don’t think there’s any American equivalent to the brand of pure, almost sweet nationalistic passion the Euro 2004 inspires. As soon as we set foot in this tiny town, normally a laid-back beach resort, we could feel the energy bubbling. Upon arrival, we checked into the Hotel Mare, a nice, but inexpensive, hotel on the main square. From our balcony, we could see both the beach and the big screen on which the entire town and its tourists would watch that evening’s game.

view from hotel mare
Originally uploaded by Kit Pollard.

We made quick work of exploring Nazare, napping on the beach (with my orange bathing suit, I’m sure everyone thought I was Dutch), then walking around the little square and up and down the main strip, which ran from cliff to cliff along the beach.

cliff in nazare
Originally uploaded by Kit Pollard.

Around 7, we were starting to get very hungry, having only eaten pastries (delicious though they were) and a small snack all day. Making our way down a little alley, just next to the main square, we happened upon a trio of restaurants.

The restaurateurs were obviously friendly competitors – we watched a woman run from one kitchen to the other, carrying a bag of dry ingredients. Each had a small outside eating area, as well as tables inside, surrounded by charming, old-school Portuguese decor. Lots of blue and white pottery and pretty linens. Everything was perfect, perfect, perfect. Now, all we had to do was decide where to eat.

Possibly our greatest weakness as a couple is in making decisions about where to eat. This time proved especially difficult as all three restaurants looked just about identical. None were very busy – it was early and the game would be on soon, keeping tourists in the square. All smelled great.

Finally, after a bunch of hemming and hawing that probably looked ridiculous, we chose a spot and settled in. Unfortunately, this was before I was in the habit of photographing everything and everyplace I ate, so I don’t have any pictures. But I do have great memories.

We sat outside and, on the recommendation of Paolo, our friend from the hotel, ordered the local dish arroz con maricela for two (the linked recipe might be right-ish). Fortunately, I was wearing a black shirt…though I ended up with a napkin tucked in like a bib anyway. Arroz con maricela is sort of like a paella – it appeared on the table as a huge bowl of rice with small clams, crabs and lobster in a spicy red broth – rich with flavor and exactly what we’d hoped it would be. And so fresh. We even got mallets for the crab (it was just the inside part of the crab where the backfin is – but still with the cartilage). We couldn’t help but think it was a good thing we’re from Maryland, so we knew what to do with the mallets.

We took our time with our dinner, trying to eavesdrop on the Germans at the next table (unsuccessfully, as we don’t speak German) and drinking a good bottle of white wine. We ate for an hour, but ass much as we wanted to finish our dinner, there was no way. There was just too much.

As we ate, the game started and as we watched the TV at the restaurant, we listened to the cheers from the square. As soccer-ignorant as we are, we knew this was a big one: we saw Beckham on the screen. Even I know what Becks means. Over the next hour, the sun went down and the people of Nazare got increasingly excited. Every time Portugal scored (twice total), crazed, flag-waving fans ran through the streets and through our alley. We could hear the crowd in the square roaring, especially as it got later.

When we finished our wine and gave up on our dinner, we ordered coffee and settled in for the rest of the game. A few French teenagers came in behind us and sat down to order. They didn’t seem to care about the game like we did. At this point, it was a nail biter. At the end of the second half, Portugal and England were tied 2-2. That means shootout! It couldn’t get much more exciting.

We finished our coffee and ordered a few beers. It started to rain, so we moved closer to the inside, under an awning, but we weren’t about to leave. The crowd was just as excited in the square – they weren’t upset by the rain at all.

Beckham kicked first in the shootout. This could go either way. Clearly England wants to psyche out the Portuguese players by putting their powerhouse up front. He shoots…

And he chokes – completely. His shot is totally off. Huge psychological victory for the Portuguese – we could hear the whole town shaking with cheers. After Beckham’s blunder (which I’ve since read about in international papers), the shootout ended in a tie and went to sudden death. Which the Portuguese won. To say the crowd went crazy would be an understatement. The cheers must have been audible for miles around.

As soon as the game was over, we paid our tab and hauled ourselves to the square as quickly as our overstuffed bodies would allow. We spent the next few hours drinking Super Bocks and celebrating with the people of Nazare, explaining over and over again that we were American, not English, so we were thrilled by the victory. A Portuguese singer took over the stage in front of the big screen and began to sing songs about Portugal. Somehow, we joined in, though our Portuguese leaves a lot to be desired.

We ended the night on the balcony of our hotel room, drinking a bottle of wine and, somehow, eating more pastries. And watching, just watching, the festivities below. Even the few British tourists we’d met that night couldn’t remain immune to the sheer, unadulterated joy of the people of Nazare.

That night, exhausted, stuffed and tipsy, listening to the cheers below, we talked about buying a place in Nazare. That didn’t materialize, of course, and wouldn’t really be terribly practical (who needs a transatlantic flight to go to the beach?) But if you’d asked me that night, I’d have told you that I could’ve stayed in Nazare, eating seafood and watching football, forever.

No comments:


Related Posts with Thumbnails