The Meanderthals

Happily lost in central Portugal

Our spare phone battery quit half an hour north of Lisbon, following its brother’s death spiral as the GPS sucked energy from our cell phone like Donald Trump drains reason from the presidential campaign. So there we were, driving on the A1 in search of a town no one we encountered had heard of, directionless, mapless and, importantly, clueless.

“This is what I love most of all,” I said to Gabi, a broad grin on my face. I saw my reflection in hers: “Me, too!” she responded.

And so we are off again, meanderthalling our way across central Portugal in search of the last house on the right on a dusty road in Valongo do Farrio, a village of 2,000 near Frexianda, Portugal, which is near Ourem, which is, well, considerably out of the way and apparently nowhere close to places locals ever go. We asked people we met in Lisbon about the area and got shrugs and baffled, concerned looks in return.

“Are you sure it’s in Portugal?” asked Filipe, the guy who picked us up at the airport around midnight the prior night.

We stopped at a roadside servicio, bought a map and got oriented. We slurped cappuccinos from the coffee machine, plugged in the phone to get the GPS back in working order and, returning to the highway, jumped into the fast lane to make some time. If you’re going to get lost, it’s best to just get at it.

Clear river waters dissect the gorgeous town of Tomar in northern Portugal, near where we're spending the next week.

Clear river waters dissect the gorgeous town of Tomar in northern Portugal, near where we’re spending the next week.

The homeowner for our house sit had sent specific directions from Ourem, so once we found the town (seated at the foot of a gorgeous castle we’ll be exploring) it seemed fairly easy going from there.

Until we reached the part that read, “turn left at the church.”

Portugal, a deeply Catholic country, deploys churches like Massachusetts offers Dunkin Donuts franchises. But instructions are instructions, so we banged a left at a small house of worship and soon found ourselves winding through an industrial neighborhood ribbed with factories noisily churning out wooden pallets. Hardly the rural haven we’d envisioned.

We needed help and turned to our GPS vixen, a lovely mechanical voice with a British accent who responded in kind: “GPS signal lost.”


This monotonous, foreboding warning is usually our signal that life is about to become interesting, complicated – and fun.

Time to improvise. To us, going commando means fudging directions, ignoring instructions and generally winging it – hardly the same definition of the word Paris Hilton might use to describe her outfit for Saturday night in LA, but we like our use of the word better. And it’s much more fun.

Performing a Y-turn, we made our way back to the main road and zig-zagged through the rural countryside, over rolling hills, through tiny villages and through vast olive groves and vineyards. We sped past vines heavy with ripe bunches of grapes and through wooded forests ringed with towering eucalyptus trees, all the while keeping our eyes open for signs announcing towns and villages that appeared on the homeowners’ instructions.

The Portuguese powers that be have invested heavily in road signs, so despite our navigational challenges we eventually stumbled our way into Freixianda, which we thought was our destination but turned out not to be.
Lo and behold! A church appeared before us, so we tried another left. Ahead, a sign: Valongo do Farrio, miraculously pointing the way we were headed and, even more miraculously, the village of our destination. This instantly restored our faith in a gracious deity with a penchant for protecting road warriors, and we ambled through scrub pine forests and snaked through more vineyards until we found the home at the end of a dusty road.

Ripe grapes are nearly ready for harvest everywhere along the roads to our house sit in Valongo do Farrio.

Ripe grapes are nearly ready for harvest everywhere along the roads to our house sit in Valongo do Farrio.

The vast, new retaining wall recently constructed along the front of the property told us we were home.
We were received warmly by Annie and Jean-Pierre, an English woman and her French husband, two strangers we would spend the next 36 hours with and thus quickly become friends. We cooked and ate together, drove the countryside to become oriented, and spent time with twin Labrador retrievers Nellie and Meg, Japanese Spitz Lulu (a male, poor chap) and five mostly feral cats who seem to be forever coming and going in and out of nearly every portal in the house.

Over the past day and a half we have met some of the region’s fabulously hospitable natives and began to get a first-hand inkling why Annie says “living here is like living in a hug.” The man behind the cheese counter at the market in Frexianda spoke no English – thus matching our command of Portuguese – but still managed to sell us some goat cheese and goat-sheep cheese. He pantomimed the difference, all the while with a broad smile that attracted the friendly attention of other customers and staff. It was a social highlight of the day – for all of us; free amusement for everyone!

Today we’re off to explore and encounter. To butcher the language while spreading the news of a pair of weird foreigners in search of yet another country’s cultural secrets, hidden gems and incredible vistas.

Yup. We’re back on the road again, “GPS signal lost” or not.

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