Location: Whitby, Ontario, Canada

Born in Malta but in Canada since age 5. Has written three books and presently does several columns about wine and food for various magazines.

Sunday, July 1, 2012

Day One: Driving Through Portugal

Arrival In Lisbon
The landing in Portella International Airport, Lisbon was relatively soft and smooth. However, day that had started well began to deteriorate right at the baggage terminal where the luggage ramps were stuck----hence no luggage.
I was concerned that my friend Ana Sofia de Oliveira who was waiting in the arrivals section would think that we had not come so I left Darlene, Taryn and her friend Jessica to collect the luggage while I went to the arrivals gate.
Ana Sofia was there waiting for us and almost as soon as I came over to see her, out came Darlene and gang.
We headed out to the motor vehicle rental (Eurocar) and got in yet another line up which took us some time to get through. Ana then showed me where to pick up the vehicle which was a 2012 Peugot Wagon. Nice but complicated!
Having obtained key after signing a myriad of documents, we picked up the car.
Keep in mind that I had requested an automatic thinking it would be similar to what I was used to.
The Car  
The Peugot was a marvel of technology. My first hurdle was to start the car. I was not used to the key.  My next was to put the car in Drive. The D, D 3, D2 and D1 were replaced by A6, A3 with the Reverse and Neutral .
Then I had to try to get into the gear which was more like driving a Standard than Automatic. I was driving in Lisbon before I had a chance to really figure the vehicle out and of course it had to be on a “Roundabout” which is the European way of switching intersections in what seems to be a round driveway.
Fortunately the GPS kicked in and off we were to Alentejo and the winery we were going to visit for several days, Herdade Sao Miquel.
The First Mistake
We were happily on our way and went across the Tagus Bridge, which overlooked the wide Tagus River, when we came to a toll booth area. It seemed deserted and I was told that some men would be there-------a person there to advise. The thing was totally deserted, so I assumed it was not open for business so I went on.
Second Mistake   
 The GPS was quite accurate but I was getting tired. After all I had been up since 4:30 AM that morning. My eyes were very tired and I entered what seemed to be another compound. Looking for a gate keeper,  I did not see the pole barrier coming my way. Slamming on the brakes I managed to stop in time from doing damage to both pole and car but not enough for me to knock the pole a bit. There was no damage to either car or pole but it should me out of my sleepy state. After a brief but intese respite with the station officer, I completed an accident report and showed credentials while the others waited. When I got in the vehicle I was instantly awake. Soon we were off again in search of the elusive Herdade Sao Miguel and our destination.
Driving in Portugal
Driving is not my favourite pastime at the best of times. Portugal has been a challenge to my best calms. Driving in Portugal was comparable to an Indie 500 with speed limits. Who observed the speed limits---- probably no one. I could understand  driving fast on a highway (average speed I clocked was about 140-150 kls/hr.)  but down narrow streets adjacent to other streets-----that seemed a bit too much but it happened.
I was coming off a dirt road and stopped to see if some traffic was oncoming. None.  I made the turn and there was a driver lambasting me cutting him off. Where he came from, I do not know but all I can say he past me and left me in his dirt tracks.
Roundabouts were another thing not familiar to those from North America. I still have not figured out what their protocol was and probably will never do so.
My whole conviction was to try to survive this portion of my trip until I returned the vehicle safe and sound to the agent.
Herdade Soa Miguel Al Last 
GPS’S also could be so very annoying. First there was that voice giving you orders. Then there was the repetition of said orders. If you miss a point the famous “Recalibrating” was sounded. Basically it was the GPS calling you a “Dud”.  It took several trips around town before we could get a fix but in the end a simple question to a stranger got us there.  I asked if there was a winery using the term “Adega” for winery.
The man, one of the locals, who was sitting on the steps of one of the white buildings that decorated the town or Rondon, directed me to the side corner of the building to where the road continued on.
We followed and came to a large sprawling building that looked like a winery. Suddenly I saw the name “Logo Wine” and thus knew we were home. We drove to the ultra modern looking main building and were welcomed by Alex Relvas Jr. son of the owner of Herdade Sao Miguel and its subsidiaries.  
Alex gave us a quick tour which showed an ultra modern facility with top of the line fermentation and storage tanks as well as the finest barrels available. The facility was ultra clean and white lab jackets were worn.
Then we followed Alex to the Estate house which was in the vineyard property. It was as I remembered it some two years ago. It was a large well constructed house that was probably over a century old.
The House    
Standing proudly at the top of the vineyard hill and surrounded by vineyards and a large pond that Alex called a lake,  the house was large with multiple bedrooms ----many with their own two and there piece bathrooms.  In addition to the bedrooms was a very large kitchen complete with walk in fireplace that was
obviously used as a cooking area. It was humungous.
The kitchen also had a modern microwave, stoves and two fridges which suggested many guests sometime visit the house and probably during vintage when many of the workers would stay over to get an early start in the morning. A large kitchen dining area with a large table also suggested a large number of hungry persons.
The house also had a formal dining area and a sitting/reading room complete with fireplace.
The one thing that truly made my life a bit harder was that while the setting was unique as a farm setting with an atmosphere conducive to writing, there was no wireless service and thus no way I could click into the Internet. This made my job of transmitting very difficult.   
Alex’s Horses
Alexandre’s  “pride and joy” was his horses. He  built up his stable which was basically kept in immaculate condition. His training ring and “hotwalker” which was a machine that automatically walked horses and keeps them moving thus exercising them, were filled with a material similar to white beach sand. These training areas are kept moist to lessen wind loss and also for being “easy” on the horses hooves.
Alex’s main focus was an Irish Sport Horse that looked and acted sensational. He was/is a European Champion Jumper that competed at a height of 1.42 metres (around four to five feet). Other horses at the stable were a lovely looking 70/30 percent thoroughbred/warm blood plus some other trainees.  On the farm are also some sheep and other husbandry.
Highlight of coming back and forth to the winery/ranch/farm is being met by Alex’s roving pack of dogs. All five animals plus one pup are there to greet you with wagging tails and sad eyes when you arrive. Super friendly and lots of fun, they grow on you. The pup that I called either “Rascal or Scamp” was so cute and had a personality to match. You couldn’t help but fall in love with the rascal who endeared everyone with his antics.
The girls (Jessica/Taryn) were told by Alex that they could ride some of the horses and upon his return from a business trip he would arrange to be there so they could do so.
Dinner Time  
It being our first night at the “farm” Alex decided to treat us to dinner. We drove into Rondon which was the nearest large town and went to a restaurant called "Banno". Alex chose a magnificent “Bull’s Tail” entry which turned out so absolutely delicious and tender. It was the tail of the bull cooked slowly over eight hours. Now I know what “slow cooking’ is all about. Prior to the meal we were served a slew of hors d’oeuvres ranging from local olives to meat slices to cheese and red onion salad with garlic. MMMMMM!
With it we had one of Alex’s superb wines-----a Touriga Nacional from Herdade Sao Miguel. The wine exemplified all that is good about the great wines of Alentejo and Portugal. It also showed the remarkable of Touriga Nacional as not only a great Port grape but also a super dry table wine. With ripe forward fruit and soft tannins, this wine was a perfect match for the Bulls Tail and the main Pork Steak that the girls had. It was a great night.
We then traveled back to the house. Talked awhile and then went to bed. Alex had an early morning trip to Bruxelles and retired a bit earlier than I.
I went through the mishaps and enjoyments of the day and thought about the whole adventure. However, this was only the beginning. Tomorrow was another day.
End of Day One.