Among Portugal’s extraordinary pleasures are its amazing panoramas, extraordinary places, and breathtaking vistas that can be enjoyed in a day trip.
From Algarve to Nazaré, people along the coast head to the Atlantic for a change of pace and a respite on the beach.
On the other side of the country, closer to its Iberian border, others cross into Spain along spiraling roads, with little villages dotting the way. Suddenly, we’re in another country … with different foods, related culture, and a somewhat “sister” language.
We frequently travel into Spain on Sundays through Idanha a Nova and Segura, crossing a Roman bridge and aqueduct to enter Spain several kilometers before Alcántara. Apart from a few restaurants, a tourist trap or two, mini-mercado, and pharmacy, there’s not much else at this border town. For that, you’ll need to drive another 40 kms or so.
The food, however, is quite good at the area’s three restaurants: Kantara (the most expensive), Kantara Al Saif, and Gundin (our favorite). Gundin’s €11.00 Menu del Día provides the best gazpacho I’ve enjoyed. Except for the bread (Spain doesn’t come close to Portugal’s bread), the other two dishes are also quite tasty.
This time, though, we headed farther north – through Penamacor – to visit Valverde del Fresno for its Thursday market. The town is 16 kms from the Portugal border which, in turn, is 16 kms from Penamacor.
While we looked forward to a Spanish meal, we were on a special mission this trip: shopping for stuff at prices cheaper than in Portugal.
The irony is that thick, plush, absorbent, 100% cotton towels tagged with “Made in Portugal” labels cost half the price in Spain. Same for linens—from sheet sets to table cloths and coverlets.
That’s the good news. The bad?
Regardless of mattress size – including “king” and “queen” – Spanish sheet sets contain only three pieces: a top sheet, bottom sheet, and pillow case—each almost the same size. For some reason unbeknown to us (or any salespeople), the Spaniards have humongous pillows—measuring almost 200 cms across! We, however, have two pillows … each about 75 cms wide.
So, despite the higher cost, we buy our sheets and pillow cases in Portugal, where the larger size sets come standard with two matching pillow cases. (And, no, the label doesn’t say “Made in Spain.”)
Our favorite place to shop for such textile goods is the Monday market in Fundão. It’s massive! In fact, our next expat get-together will be a trip to Fundão’s Monday market, followed by a fixed-price (€9.95) buffet lunch at the city’s Principe da Beira hotel.
Anyway, I’ve digressed …
Fait accompli: We purchased our towels and took time to poke about the town, which is bigger and much more typically Spanish than Alcántara. We’d forgotten that it’s an hour later in Spain than Portugal, so most of the shops were closing … and restaurants were filling.
Tapas. We wanted tapas!
In Olvera, our Spanish hometown, as in most of Andalucía – southern Spain – menus offer meals in three sizes: tapas, media (half) ración, and a full dish (ración). Not here in Extremadura. Patrons and wait staff at restaurant after restaurant explained to us that tapas weren’t available … but complimentary “pinchos” were served with the drinks.
In southern Spain, pinchos are a type of tapa—they’re anything served on a skewer. Here to the north, in Extremadura, pinchos refer to a small, tasty dish provided gratis that accompanies your beverage.
We ate at Restaurante Casa Laura. With 120 “excellent” TripAdvisor reviews – four times more than the closest competition – we soon understood why: the food is to die for there. We began with some beer accompanied by a small dish of pinchos, potatoes mixed with egg and pieces of chorizo in a carmel sauce. Yum-mo! The cool gazpacho soup was good (enough), followed by meatballs in a thick and rich tomato sauce for me and cod (bacalao) with nary a single bone for Russ. The pièce de résistance, however, was dessert: dreamy-creamy cheesecake.
Total tab for our lunch, including tip, was twenty-seven euros (€27), somewhat pricier than what we’ve paid in Alcántara. But well worth it! Everyone working at the restaurant was super friendly and all made a point of stopping by our table to be sure we were satisfied.
Heading back across the windy roads surrounded by a lush, distinctly parceled landscape, it occurred to us how different the topography of Spain is in some ways from Portugal’s.
The two countries are close enough to be kissing cousins, but remnants of historical bitterness and jealousies remain between them. That’s truly a shame, since they’re so convenient and complementary.
It’s good to see Portuguese people visiting Spain … and vice-versa.
Throughout the Castelo Branco district’s tantalizing come-hithers, we’ve come across many Spanish tourists taking day trips into Portugal.
Turnabout is surely fair play for us to sightsee and go shopping in Spain!
Shared here are personal observations, experiences, and happenstance that actually occurred to us as we moved from the USA to begin a new life in Portugal and Spain. Collected and compiled in EXPAT: Leaving the USA for Good, the book is available in hardcover, paperback, and eBook editions from Amazon and most online booksellers.