Years ago I used to teach two Tennessee Williams’ plays to my senior English classes: The Glass Menagerie and A Streetcar Named Desire. As sad as it was, I loved A Streetcar Named Desire. And the character Blanche Dubois in particular, she who “always depended on the kindness of strangers.”
I can hear Blanche’s line in my head, sometimes, spoken in the voice of Vivien Leigh. Especially when we travel. When we meet people who are kind and friendly and helpful. We met a lot of those people in Portugal this fall. Smiling, friendly, helpful, hospitable strangers.
That’s what this post is about. The kindness of strangers. And our experiences with Portuguese hospitality, the kindly, friendly people we met, and the places where we stayed and felt at home.
As you may know, Hubby and I always plan our own trips. We decide on a basic route, places we want to visit, how long we might stay in each place, and then set about finding and booking accommodation that suits us. The places where we stay are at least as important to us as the sights we see. And we had very good luck in the accommodations we chose in Portugal. Mostly they were small, quirky, self-catered places. Mostly privately owned. And run by kind and friendly people.
Perhaps our greatest “find” was Casinhas da Levada in the tiny village of Sobredo on the edge of Peneda-Gerês National Park. I say “find” because we almost didn’t stay here. We’d looked at accommodation in nearby Ponte da Barca, but nothing struck our fancy. Then I changed to a “map view” of available places, and saw the tiny, red “map pin” of Casinhas da Levavda, sitting by itself and surrounded by green. I explored further and was enchanted. The reviewer who said that travellers should stay “just for the experience of being there” clinched the deal for me.
The experience of being at Casinhas da Levada was well worth the slight detour off the beaten track, up a winding narrow road, and down a few lanes that we might not have chanced if not for our confident GPS lady and the owner’s directions. Casinhas da Levada consists of two stone cottages, fully renovated, pristine inside, with a pool, and surrounded by an ancient village, narrow cobbled lanes, gardens, trees, and quiet. Owner Sérgio and his wife Catarina bought these cottages when they were derelict and renovated them. We stayed in the two bedroom cottage.
We squeezed a lot of enjoyment into our three nights there. We had a full modern kitchen so we cooked for ourselves two nights, enjoying our wine by the pool first. On one day we packed a picnic lunch and drove a route, suggested by the owner Sérgio, that took us up into the hills and through small villages in Peneda-Gerês National Park. On the second day, we strolled our own village, followed the road up the hill past small farms, waved at a couple of friendly ladies toiling in their gardens, and returned to jump into the pool. On our last night we picked up takeout pizza in Ponte da Barca, and enjoyed it with a bottle of red wine in the little outdoor kitchen… accompanied by two friendly neighbourhood kittens who had adopted us.
As I reread what I’ve written I am sad that it does not begin to describe how much we loved it at Casinhas da Levada. The location which was so special, the quiet, the church bells, the feeling of being out of time, Sérgio’s kindly advice, the small cakes Catarina baked for us, the fresh eggs, the neighbourhood kittens who visited each morning, and just everything, I guess. If you want to explore a bit of Portugal that is off the beaten track (ever so slightly) we can highly, highly recommend that you stay with Sérgio and Catarina. You can find their AirB&B listing here.
After we’d picked up our rental car and headed north out of Lisbon, we stayed for two nights at Oryza Guesthouse in Coimbra. What an amazing place this is. The 150 year old farmhouse is surrounded by a lovely courtyard where we ate breakfast, beautiful gardens, fruit trees, a small pool, and numerous outdoor seating areas, in one of which I whiled away an entire morning with my book. At the back of the property is an allotment area that they share with the local community, and even some chickens.
Breakfast at Oryza Guesthouse was the best we had our entire trip. Homemade jams, warm croissants, fresh eggs (from their own chickens), fresh juice from their own oranges, great coffee, and as much of everything as we could eat. We chuckled one morning when we saw the owner Luis hustle by from the garden to the house with his arms full of fresh oranges. Everything, everything was top notch here.
I loved the decor of Oryza Guesthouse. They have renovated everything but kept the traditional feel, furnishing the main floor with gorgeous mid-century antiques. I loved the library in an outside room off the courtyard. I think that Lidia said this room was originally the laundry. Even the outdoor furniture is a collection of antique odds and ends that warmed my little quirky-loving heart.
Lidia, the manager, Luis, one of the owners whose family originally farmed here, and the young girls who served us breakfast, were all so attentive. Not a fawning, faux, “have a nice day” attentiveness, but a smiling, kindly, genuine desire to make our stay as enjoyable as possible. Our first night we took Lydia’s advice and dined at a nearby restaurant called O Açude. Gad, the food here was delicious.
And to make the evening even more enjoyable we fell into conversation with the young couple at the next table. Katherine and Marc are from South Africa, but they live in Dubai. She works advising companies about sustainability and he is a wine buyer. How cool are those jobs, eh? And what a lovely, interesting couple they are. We yakked about sustainability, and slow fashion (d’uh), about wine, about travel, and whatever. I laughed to Hubby when we parted with hugs all round… “how is it we keep meeting such interesting, friendly people?”
The next day, we had a slow start. Coimbra old-town is beautiful, and interesting, and old, but we knew we’d only have two or three hours in us on those steep hills in the heat before we’d be ready for our dinner. So we lingered at Oryza Guesthouse after breakfast, reading, relaxing, and eating a picnic lunch in the courtyard before decamping for Coimbra. I do want to say that Coimbra is well worth a visit and, if you venture there, we recommend Oryza Guesthouse. Highly, highly recommend. Everything in this post will be highly, highly. Ha. You can find more information at their website here.
Later in our trip, after Lisbon and Coimbra, after Porto, after Sobredo and the Douro Valley, we fetched up at Villa de Regadio outside of Covilhã. Our intention had been to explore Covilhã, maybe Belmonte, and perhaps drive through some of Parque Natural da Serra da Estrela while we were there. But our drive from Pinhão, along the Douro Valley, to Covilhã actually took us through much of the park. Or as much of it as we wanted. And after a long day of twisty, albeit scenic, roads we were ready for a rest.
So we did nothing for two nights and one whole day except eat, relax, read, and chat to Sandra our host at Villa de Regadio. This was just what we needed. A comfortable room, pristine, in fact, a lovely generous breakfast, calm, quiet surroundings, and the ability to sip wine on the courtyard, cook our own dinner in the modern breakfast room which Sandra told us we should treat as our home as long we we were there, and just chill. If you intend to visit the Covilhã area we (highly, highly) recommend Villa de Regadio. You can find their website here.
We loved our chats with Sandra while we stayed with her, and we were sad to leave. We learned much about Portugal, about her life, and her family, as she did about us. There’s just something so very heartwarming about finding common ground with strangers you meet when you travel. Sandra and her husband are both nurses, and Villa de Regadio is their retirement plan. Like Sérgio, in Sobredo, who is a teacher and supplements his teaching salary with a second job as well as looking after Casinhas da Levada, Sandra and her husband although highly educated professionals do not have the advantages that we as professionals in Canada enjoy. We were much impressed with both Sandra’s and Sérgio’s work ethic, their cheerful outlook on life despite the challenges they face in their country, and the kindness they showed to us. No whining here, my friends. Although we did have some frank discussions about the state of healthcare and education in our relative homelands.
In Lisbon, our first stop on our trip, our one-bedroom apartment at Lisbon Colours Bairro Alto with a balcony, living-dining room, and fully equipped kitchen was gorgeous. Breakfast was delivered to our door each morning, so much breakfast that we ate half of it for lunch, in fact. The terrace on the roof was the pièce de résistance for us. We took our wine (or beer) up there each night to sip and watch the sunset, and then returned to our apartment to prepare our own supper or change to go out for dinner.
How we lucked into choosing an apartment in Bairro Alto, I’ll never know. But it was the perfect place from which to explore Lisbon. The fact that the Lisbon Colours reception desk was open 24 hours was also very helpful. We loved chatting with the young attendants who worked there, and they were very patient about helping us to figure out how to operate the coffee-maker, the stovetop, and even a pesky corkscrew. Without this help we would have been out of luck in later accommodations which had the same types of appliances, but no one on site to ask for assistance.
I have to say that it can take the edge off one’s enjoyment of an accommodation when hosts do not seem to realize that not all stoves, coffee-makers, dishwashers, etc. etc. are alike. I’m pretty good, and patient (unlike Hubby), at figuring out how things work. I’ve had a lot of practice, over many years of travel, after all. But even so, I was defeated a couple of times by unfamiliar coffee makers and even a recalcitrant stovetop. As I mentioned to one host late in our trip, a comment which was not well received I might add, a clearly written explanation in English can save so much frustration. Luckily this instance of impatient, and slightly condescending treatment was a one-off on this trip. And despite the fact that our accommodation was lovely, I am not recommending it. Odd, isn’t it, that the thought of this lovely apartment leaves me cold? The kindness of strangers (and to strangers) makes all the difference to me.
We had good luck with our chosen accommodation almost everywhere we went in Portugal. In Lagos, “Our House” guesthouse was a two minute walk from the beach. This place was immaculate. We had access to a large common area, a good breakfast, a huge shared kitchen, a lovely big terrace, and a selection of treats set out in the kitchen throughout the day. We walked the beach, hiked a trail along the cliffs, ate in a great local restaurant a five-minute walk away, and chatted to fellow guests at breakfast. You can find their website here.
Of course not all the kind strangers we met in Portugal were our hosts. The doctor who attended to Hubby in Porto was patient, and thorough, and we felt very lucky to have access to his services. The laughing waiter at the restaurant where we ate our first night in Lisbon was lovely. I like it when waiters are patient enough to listen, answer questions, and then make recommendations. Our meal was delicious. The two strangers who stopped to help Hubby navigate onto the train platform in Lisbon when the ticket machine didn’t work for him were very kind. The German guest in Coimbra who explained how to manage the toll-roads without us having to pay any more tolls. Ha. That was helpful. The fellow customer in a grocery store who demonstrated for me how to work the produce-weighing machine with hand-gestures and much laughter from us both. The lady in a coffee shop who explained how to order a coffee when the clerk was flummoxed by my Portuguese pronunciation. That was a hoot. And the young man in a coffee shop in a town I’ve forgotten the name of, who chatted with us to, as he said, “practice his English,” and then when I blithely waved good-bye and made for the door, said diffidently, “Ah… would you like to…uh… pay?” Oh, we laughed at that. When I get talking, my brain sometimes takes a vacation. Ha.
You know, wherever we travel, in whatever country, the kindness of strangers can make a stay in a strange land so much better. When one does not know the language, although one is always willing to make an inept stab at simple phrases, and one does not know how things like coffee-makers work, or where one places one’s train ticket at the kiosk, the smile and helpfulness of a kind stranger can make one feel right at home. Or if not exactly at home, at least welcome in the stranger’s home.
Of course, Blanche Dubois’s line about the kindness of strangers in A Streetcar Named Desire is intended to be pure pathos. Blanche has not known much kindness in her life. Quite the contrary, in fact. And her determination to say that she has “always depended on the kindness of strangers” is ironic, and a sign of her inability to face the harsh reality of her life.
But it’s still a beautiful line. And a beautiful sentiment, even if a fanciful one in Blanche’s case, to think that one can depend on the kindness of strangers.
I want to end with this, slightly unrelated, story. Whenever my class read A Streetcar Named Desire, I used to show the movie with Vivien Leigh as Blanche DuBois and Marlon Brando as Stanley, and wait for the scene where a sweaty Marlon Brando stands in the courtyard, his head in his hands, yelling “Stella!” Year after year, some kid would inevitably announce, “Miss… that line… that’s from The Simpsons.” And of course it was. Kind of. In a scene with Ned Flanders as Marlon Brando as Stanley Kowalski. I still smile when I think of that. And of having to explain that Tennessee William’s line came first, then the Brando movie, then The Simpsons. But, you know, The Simpsons had depth, people; kids learned all kinds of cultural and literary references from watching that show.
And so I have finally meandered my way to the end of this long post. I apologize for repeating things I may have already said in previous posts about our trip to Portugal. About the places we saw and the kind people we met. I guess that one cannot say too much about kindness in this world. At least that’s the way I look at it.
I also apologize that this post is a day late. Covid still has its grip on Hubby and me. And yesterday I had to abandon writing in favour of tea with honey and lemon and a nap. Hope you enjoy it however long it has become. And if you don’t have time to read it in the middle of a busy week… well, save it for next Sunday.
Now it’s your turn. Any tales of the kindness of strangers you’d like to share? Travel-related or otherwise?