Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Portuguese Restaurant Owners: The Best Housing Guides for Tourists!

Who would have guessed that local restaurant owners in Portugal are cooks by day and housing guides by night? Robert, my travel companion, and I were traveling to Sintra in the central east side of Portugal (almost directly east of Lisbon), but weren't sure whether we would stay the night there or travel south to a small fishing village for the night. We decided to play it by ear and were advised by the local workers at the hostel that we should ask one of the restaurant owners where to stay. We were skeptical and so sought out the obvious hostels and guidebook recommendations once we committed to staying in Sintra for the night (9pm the night of).

To our dismay, every place we went was either fully booked or out of our price range. One of the hotel receptionists was kind enough to let us use the hotel's computer to search for hostels and use their phone, but every affordable lodging that was listed was fully booked! We finally gave up to the grumbling of our stomachs and got a recommendation from the receptionist for a local restaurant with authentic Portuguese cooking. She noted, too, that the owner was exceptionally kind and would be willing to help us find housing.

We wandered into Ristorante Tulhas and was met by smiling faces. Despite it being quite late and the streets empty, the restaurant was half full. We were seated and while waiting to order, made note of the two individuals that seemed like the owners. One seemed more friendly with the customers than the other, so we waited for him, but he seemed to be responsible for the other half of the restaurant! Finally we asked the other gentleman who immediately referred us to his friend who turned out to be the owner. Antonio immediately became concerned that we hadn't found housing this late in the night and started thinking of places he could call to obtain housing for us. "I have a few friends," he said in very good English, "I will call around to my friends that have houses and see if they have room tonight. But it is so late... I hope they have something."

A few moments later, Antonio brought our dinner with a concerned face. "It is so late that everyone is full or sleeping. One friend has a room, but he says you need to be there in 15 minutes or the reception desk will close. But it will take you 15 minutes just to get there and you just got your dinner. It would be a shame for you to leave. I will continue calling around." We ate our dinner unconcerned, having slept in a bus station a few days before, we knew we would get through the night somehow, and after dessert we found ourselves to be alone in the restaurant with Antonio and two Australian girls that were visiting Sintra over the weekend from London where they were currently working (future post on why Australians are everywhere).  Antonio brought over a bottle of one of his favorite ports in the restaurant bar and poured himself and each of us a glass on him for being his last customers. He sat with us and we talked about the differences in cuisine and traveling experiences. He then turned to Robert and myself and said, "Unfortunately I have not been successful at finding you a place to stay. I do have a small place of my own with lots of empty rooms. I have been thinking about opening up a hostel, but have not done anything with it. It is not much, but you are most welcome."

Robert and I said yes after a quick look at each other as the gentleman seemed so kind and between the two of us, we felt safe. He invited the two Australian girls to come with us for a drink of port at his home with his wife, but they had to go home, so we headed over with him which was only a few minutes away. His Portuguese wife and 7 year old granddaughter that was visiting for the week greeted us at the door. He showed us our room in the basement which had 4 other rooms, a private bathroom, kitchen, and balcony. It was a mansion! He gave us the entire basement to ourselves and even a key to the side door. There was yogurt, fruit, meats, bottles of water, homemade rice pudding, and more in the refridgerator which he welcomed us to and then invited us upstairs to the main part of the house for port. They insisted that we try the rice pudding his wife had prepared for a dinner party the next day which they insisted we come to. Unfortuantely, we had a tight schedule to keep, but we both still regret that we weren't able to join them. Antonio then pulled out some nuts and his favorite 1989 vintage port. Way out of our budget, it was truly delicious, and he couldn't offer us enough. We talked about the difficulty of learning languages, what it was like to live in Portugal versus the United States, the troubles of being in the restaurant business and never having a day off, and his granddaughter's education (especially of English) in the Portuguese school system.

After a good night's sleep, we explored the palaces that were a 10 minute walk from Antonio's home and returned back to say goodbye. We paid 50 Euros, the same price we had been paying at hostels, and were given fruit and bottles of water for the train and warm hugs. Antonio had already left for the restaurant, so we thanked his wife and headed over to the restaurant to say goodbye. The restaurant was bustling even for lunch, but Antonio insisted on taking a picture with us by the beautiful tile painting of his restaurant on one of his walls. We gave him tips on how he could start an official lodging business in either his home or one of his other two properties in Sintra, and gathered his information so that we could distribute it to the other tourists staying at our hostel in Lisbon.

Robert and I learned towards the end of our trip how wonderful it could be to turn to locals for housing. Granted, we got very lucky and not every situation would turn out the same way. If I had been traveling alone as a single female, I probably would not have stayed in a stranger's home no matter how nice they seemed, but given the situation, we definitely wished we had thought to do that earlier. For the same price as a hostel, we made a friend, had a chance to stay in a beautiful, historical home, tried local foods, had interesting discussions, tried a vintage port, and even got snacks for the train!

If anyone visits Portugal, I highly recommend contacting Antonio about a place to stay (you can say you heard about him from my blog!) or just to visit his restaurant. Ristorante Tulhas in Rua Gil Vicente, 4-6, Sintra 2710-568, Portugal, Phone Number +351 21 923 23 78. I do have his personal email so let me know if you're interested and would prefer email and I'd be happy to introduce you!


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Qibera said...

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