Vacation

Months after arriving in Portugal and finishing much of the work on our property in Lousa, Castelo Branco, we decided to take our three dogs with us on a “real” vacation and see some of the sights (and sites) we’d thus far only posted Thumbs Up! *Likes* on Facebook pictures.

Our time away would be short (just six days) and our agenda agreeable: We’d stay somewhere near the beaches north of us, close to the coast, with easy access to Portugal’s convenient train system. From there, we’d take day trips: Monday’s market at Espinho, a gondola ride in Alveiro, the extraordinarily tiled buildings (especially the church) of Ovar, and a day sampling some of Porto’s special deliciousness.

Searching the listings on AirBnB, FlipKey, and TripAdviser, we found what sounded like the perfect place: a “romantic room in a magic place near the beach,” the property touted its “artistic atmosphere.” Offering “lots of privacy,” it was in front of the train station–just ten minutes to Porto!

Amenities included bed linens and bathroom towels, WiFi Internet, a private garden, and a kitchen with fridge, stove, toaster, and kettle. Plus, among the property’s features was its waterfront location!

The sole drawback (for us) was that its one-and-a-half bathrooms would be shared.

The place had been booked continuously, from April through October, according to its hosts. But with a bit of shuffling, six consecutive available days were found. I contacted the property’s lister with a bunch of questions: Would three dogs be acceptable? Was it a non-smoking property? How would sharing the bathroom(s) actually work?

“No problem at all,” she replied. “Just enjoy.”

Before losing our chance at what appeared to be a place ideally suited for us, I confirmed the reservation and paid by credit card.

Hindsight, at best, is 20/20. But using a credit card is paying it forward!

“Don’t you think it’s a little strange that, with all those bookings, there’s not even a single review for this place?” Russ asked me. Not one guest had taken a moment to say something – good, bad, indifferent – about their experience there. Most properties had a fair share of comments. Not this one, though.

That should have been a harbinger.

We packed the car and spent about €50 in tolls and a tank full of gas before pulling up and parking in front of the property.

“Is this it?” I asked, incredulously. There’s always one derelict property surrounded by others in pristine condition.

Ours was the destitute one.

Blue boards tried valiantly to look like a cross-weave pattern through which weeds wound their way up, down, and through the broken wooden remnants. An unlatched double gate, painted the same color blue, was opening and closing on one side, blown by the breeze.

From the exterior, at best it could be thought of as a “beach house” … but the word that stuck in my mind was “ramshackle.” Nowhere to be seen was a beach, let alone the promised waterfront.

Facing the house was the train station. Every ten minutes, sometimes sooner, we’d hear the tick-tick-tick-tick signaling an approaching train, followed by a series of bells, as the guard rails came down. Local commuter trains. Freight trains. Express train service between Porto and Lisbon. All stopped or sped by, clickity-clack, clickity-clack on the tracks, as the transports tooted, honked, squealed, and blared off-key melodies announcing their every approach and departure.

While Russ – with some help from the property agent and her artist – emptied the car and carried in our bags, I walked the dogs.

Our amiable hosts apologized when the bedroom’s inside door knob kept falling off and onto the floor, explaining that the property wasn’t actually theirs—they rented it from the owner, who had been negligent in his responsibilities regarding its upkeep.

Although the description specifically stated that the property’s two-bedroom, one full and one-half bath could accommodate four people, whether that took into account the two caretakers and their bedroom is uncertain.

Especially since the listing began in the singular: “Romantic room … near the beach” and unequivocally stated, “A total of 4 people can sleep here comfortably.”

Romantic room. Not rooms. A total of four people …

Our hosts then told us we would be joined the next day by other guests and their dog. Wouldn’t that be nice?

“If you had told us that earlier, we would have reconsidered …” was all I could muster, as we continued to take stock of the accommodations.

Our bedroom was at the front of the house, directly facing the trains. Mismatched furniture – a small “matrimonial” size bed with a well-worn mattress, throw pillows that felt as though they were filled with rice, two totally incompatible nightstands (one with a tiny lamp sold at most Chinese markets for ten euros), a bookcase, a round table with two chairs in front of the window – could all trace their ancestry to rummage sales or second-hand stores. Neither of the two bath towels on the bed compared to the ones we had bought at thrift shops in the USA for use as packing materials, and later used for the dogs.

An eclectic mix done well can be artistic and even elegant: “shabby chic.” Chic? This place was plain shabby.

If you’re renting this room out to a steady stream of people, how about investing twenty euros on a clothing rack, instead of the over-the-door hanger with five hooks? Isn’t that where bathrobes and towels hang? What about a bureau or chest-of-drawers? Where do people put their other stuff—underwear, socks, bathing gear, bathroom necessities, and collaterals? For that matter, where was a garbage can?

Nowhere near the bedroom, both bathrooms were way down the hall, beyond the kitchen. Add the full one (with shower and tub) and the half bath next door with only a sink and a WC, and you’d have one full and proper working bathroom. Depending on the time of day or night. Painted, one toilet was taped shut; the plastic toilet seat cover on the other wasn’t attached; so, using it was awkward. The sink’s faucets were outdated: scalding hot water came out of one spigot, cold from the other, yielding no comfortable temperature without filling the sink.

Not that it mattered. We had no hot water (in either bathroom) that night. Nor were our hosts around to help us deal with it.

The bathroom was missing a bath mat, an anti-slid mat, and a garbage can. The tub was lined with someone else’s bottles of shampoo and conditioner–more than a dozen of them! Two glass shelves near the sink were full of creams and cosmetics, powders and perfumes. There was no space for anything of the guests, so we schlepped our toiletries back to the bedroom.

Settling down to sleep that night, we were thankful the trains, by then, had stopped. (Two did pass in the middle of the night: at 2:00 and 4:00 AM, but didn’t honor us with their horns). Sleepless noises were constant, however, courtesy of the beach and its breezes: the front gate and shutters banged open and shut … again and again and again.

Itching to bite, one or more mosquitoes whined in my ears throughout the night. I slapped my face but missed the bugger.

The next morning, I went quietly to the kitchen. Sometime during the night or early that morning, someone had left a package of cheese open on a plate with a knife, a half-empty glass and coffee cup next to it. Flies weren’t fickle as they feasted.

Russ saw the upset look on my face when I came back to our room. “Let’s pack,” he implored. “We’re going back home!”

Following a hurried and harried breakfast at a nearby café, we hustled ourselves and the dogs out of there and headed back home.

Spending lazy time in Lousa and visiting nearby points of interest, we relaxed and tinkered together.

Merriam-Webster calls that a “staycation.”

Our credit card company, through which we disputed the charge (and won!), agreed with us, calling it a “sham!” and removing the property from its listings.

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.

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