Europe 2002

It Takes a Villa

By Cindy Loose
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, March 10, 2002

I've ordered the pork and clam entree at Tasca Do Celso not because the combination appeals to me, but because I feel obligated to try the signature national dish.

Minutes after the food is served, Antonio Costa Jose, a worried look on his face, walks in and asks if everything is good. "Fabulous," I tell him honestly.

A look of relief passes his face. Smiling broadly, he leaves. Apparently, having recommended the restaurant, Antonio has felt a grave and troubling sense of responsibility.

It was just one of the many kindnesses of strangers that we encountered on a recent trip to Portugal. But then again, we were not exactly strangers to Antonio and some of the other people who took us under their wings. Having settled down in one small town along the western coast for most of a week, we became at some point in our journey familiar faces.

Even the neighborhood dogs got used to our being in Vila Nova de Milfontes and ceased barking when we walked the narrow alleyways of this seaside town of 4,500 residents. By the second day, the clerk at the store near a castle pulled out all of the English-language newspaper options as my husband approached the door. By the third day, the clerk saw him coming and had the London Times and the Daily Mail ready to hand over.

We had deliberately decided to try the immersion technique in Europe, where we generally visit large cities or multiple villages, rushing from one attraction to the next. But this seemed a time for quiet, for escape.

We found the perfect setting in the Alentejo region of Portugal, with its groves of olive and flowering almond trees, its pastures dotted with grazing sheep, its beaches shadowed by towering red and yellow cliffs.

The town we chose is lovely, with cobblestone streets lined with distinctive old houses painted in bright shades of blue, gold and pink.

Even so, the guidebook daily tempts us with promises of even better things. What about Tavira, a tuna fishing port and resort town near Spain, in the eastern section of the Algarve? The small town has a seven-arch bridge built by the Romans, tombs of crusading knights who captured the town from the Moors in 1242, a Renaissance church, a church with a baroque interior, castle ruins, a ferry that takes you out to a huge sandbar.

I'm thinking that if we drive just over two hours from Vila Nova de Milfontes and spend the night in Faro, another coastal town, we could leave the next morning for Tavira, checking all the beaches on the southern coast along the way, then the next day maybe head inland and catch the crafts market at historic Loule before heading to towns in the north.

Or should we stick to our original plan to settle in at Vila Nova, with its one main street and farms at the edge of town along the cliffs? We have planned a couple of day trips, but even so, I'm feeling as if I'm following a diet at a smorgasbord restaurant.

Even the tiniest towns beckon with promises of art and megalithic burial sites left by Stone Age people, of medieval walls, of castles and cathedrals.

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