Get the Schist, oh Burgo, and wow Beirão!
“He was born here in 1936, and knew my father,” Filomena says, about the man leaning from the ‘Juliet balcony’ of a schist cottage, where we have begun in earnest our Central Portugal sight-seeing day trip.
This – our group will discover as the day unfolds – is just the first of many deeply authentic and endearing moments from the day, in the hands of my favourite Portuguese cultural ambassador, who is showing us two such villages, the Beirão liqueur factory, and the legendary O Burgo restaurant.
An hour or two earlier, my day began with the sun rising over the Silver Coast, as I picked up my German mate who, at short notice, decided to join us for some irresistible Coimbra district adventures, where all of the day’s delights will be found.
‘Mrs M’, my wife and Good Morning Portugal! anchorwoman, is taking care of business back in the studio as I arrive at the minibus pickup point in Caldas da Rainha, where somewhat bleary-eyed and slightly hesitant fellow day-trippers are now gathering.
It’s just before 8am and no transport is evident. So, as the tour leader’s assistant, I call the driver to make sure he’s on his way. Naturally, I get a cheery, no-need-to-worry response from Rodrigo, who will become my new Portuguese bus-driving ‘BFF’, as the day unfolds.
Eventually, and among the larger trans-continental coaches, our smaller profile minibus is politely filled in the way that strangers do, leaving just one space made vacant by a last-minute cancellation – a thoughtful pal who would rather not share what he was “coming down with” in the preceding 24 hours.
Kings of the road, as we tend to be, using Portugal’s well-appointed and lonely toll roads, we head to Miranda do Corvo where ‘Tia Filomena’ awaits us at the Intermarché car park armed with obligatory ‘pastéis de nata’ and the local ‘pastéis mirandenses’. This is a nice touch and the shape of things to come in a highly-detailed and thoughtfully-planned day out in Professora Pascoal’s hands.
‘Cafés’ consumed, we’re on the road and approaching Gondramaz, our first schist experience. Characteristically thin layers of rock form the humble homes and village vista we see before us, after a breathtaking, dramatic climb towards the peak-adorning wind turbines.
What possessed people to make their homes here we wonder, in a place where children walked to school in the valley miles below, in all weathers and surely with goat-like dexterity, as parents tended to hardy livestock. They maintained these homes mainly with incredible inventiveness, using only what was to hand, Leroy Merlin only a science fiction fantasy that we now enjoy so easily.
‘Senhor Carlos’, we are told, lived here and fashioned the charming and eccentric stone figures that entertain visitors along the narrow lanes, presumably laid out in this intimate way to provide shelter from elemental hostility. His work has survived him, even his phallic graffiti carved with hammer and chisel, that most young modern boys would rapidly execute with a sharpie pen.
Relaxing as this place is, there’s no time for dilly-dallying. Onward we must go to a date with aromatic herbs that are distilled around the clock into Portugal’s signature liqueur, Beirão. The quiet chatter of the minibus subsides as, after a prolonged mountain road descent, we turn into Quinta do Meiral – home of the Redondos, three generations of which have served the nation’s taste for the ribbon-necked nectar.
Sr Redondo, 80 or so, is the pleased but concerned owner of several wildly successful Portuguese brands and businesses, including Licor Beirão, whose production methods he is about to share with us. He’s concerned because we are a little late and he’s clearly a very busy man, presiding over the constant creation of this national treasure, Portugal’s most consumed alcoholic spirit that originated here in the 19th century.
He’s not too busy, however, to show us with great pride the process that has 13 different aromatic seeds, herbs and spices, some locally produced, alchemically transformed over 20-ish days. All this for the delectation of Portuguese palates and growing numbers worldwide, facilitated by a mixture of warm, friendly humans and some coldly efficient robots into a recently re-designed, yet still iconic bottle, then into boxes for shipping.
Portugal can be rightly proud of this drink and its steward José Redondo, who remembers being in this same place with his namesake father as a small boy. It’s clearly his life, and his love – a Willy Wonka for grown-ups who has successfully diversified his father’s pride and joy cottage industry into the realms of gin, ‘aguardente’ and cocktails.
Appetised after concluding our visit in the Beirão Bar, where I particularly liked the luscious lime-infused ‘Caipirão’, we are ready to mount the minibus and head to lunch at the most archetypal of Portuguese restaurants – O Burgo.
Reeling from the delight of our first schist village and the boozy bosom of Beirão, I am now agog at the setting of our restaurant rendez-vous, as Rodrigo figures out the parking of our not insubstantial vehicle on these tiny and winding country lanes.
A castle, of course (for we are in Portugal), towers above us, and impressively constructed boardwalks below beckon us towards what will be one of the most wonderful meals I have had the good fortune to enjoy here. Believe me when I say I have had many wonderful Portuguese meals, so the competition is stiff.
On location alone, O Burgo takes some beating. But add to its situation the well-seasoned authenticity, its engaging abundance of framed celebrity visits, and ‘what we were about to receive’, I can tell you: “Lord, I was truly grateful!”.
An incredible array of appetisers was accompanied by ice-cold iconic vinho verde, as we awaited our strategically pre-ordered mains, on this unseasonably warm day. All of the classic flavours of Portugal heralded the ultimate arrival of my delightfully stewed ‘javali’ (wild boar), including in thali-style terracotta bowls – salted cod, chicken sausage, local cheese and chouriço.
With boar, potatoes, rice, migas and cabbage devoured, for dessert it had to be a classic, when-in-Rome ‘Leite Creme’ for my culinary climax. To my left, however, some ‘nun’s breasts’ appeared, which predictably raised eyebrows though were consumed without any public disorder or offence, before hastily consumed coffees were quaffed, before yomping back to the bus.
Please, put O Burgo on your no-doubt, ever-growing Portuguese to-do list, and I say this as a matter of assumed national pride, as well as my inability to imagine a more culturally representative experience – on the tongue, on the eye and forever from that day in my swelling, foreign heart.
Full-bellied and deeply satisfied, my increasingly familiar bus buddies and me make our way, way up and above sea level to our afternoon schist village – Talasnal – where if the Flintstones had a five-star resort, this would be it.
Picture postcard at a distance as well as up close and personal, Talasnal is one of 12 schist villages in the Lousã mountain range with human occupation dating back to the 1700s. By the early 20th century, it’s thought to have had well over 100 inhabitants, two olive oil mills, and even its own school. These folk gradually left however and, by the 1980s, only two permanent residents remained.
Fast forward to the times where our feet now polish the stone alleyways, and life has clearly returned with sensitive renovations that accommodate tourists who can enjoy the natural splendour with the latest mod cons in their schist-life AirBnBs.
Weary, in a good way, savouring until the last minute the high altitude and ancient atmosphere, it’s time for this now-bonded band of Lousã-lovers to gird their loins for the trip home, sincerely thanking our tour creator, Filomena Pascoal, as we go.
We have been truly blessed by her passion for Portugal, her care of us and our curiosity, and an incredible attention to detail that has us looking forward to her next presentation – rumours of a day trip to equestrian mecca Golegã and its fabulous horse fair in November.
Bus driver Rodrigo delivers us sensitively and safely back to the Caldas car park from whence we came. Tired tripsters wander wearily back to their own cars and head for their Silver Coast homes. The sun has set on an especially superb day and our love for this land, its people and culture has reached new heights, figuratively and literally.
Contact tour organiser, Portuguese teacher and translator Filomena Pascoal at [email protected]