A Portuguese Retreat in Castro Marim

Be prepared, I get a bit corny.

 

 

 

I have been spending the last few months looking for the perfect quick getaway in the Algarve and I believe I have stumbled upon it. Not that other parts of the Algarve aren’t beautiful mind you. Castro Marim is different; it’s old world, it’s unspoiled, it’s an hour door-to-door.

I discovered Castro Marim while surfing Airbnb. I must have rented six or seven apartments or rooms this summer and I wanted to make sure there was nothing out there that I was missing. I’ve spend more time west of Faro, so I decided I should explore the towns closer to Spain. While looking at Monte Gordo (resort-like) and Vila Real Santo Antonio (at the Portuguese border), I found an Airbnb that was very reasonable on a beekeeper’s farm. I have always had a fascination with bees and I’m a big fan of honey. It is almost like wine or olive oil in that it has a very distinct taste depending on where it is harvested. Apparently, there is a good deal of substituting other sugar substances with the real thing, so I’m always searching for local honey I know will be pure.

The train station is a few minutes walk from my apartment in Faro and the train ride was a little less than an hour. I usually have to take an Uber or taxi to my destination, but in this case the directions to the Airbnb looked fairly straight forward from the train station; about a ten minute walk. I opened my phone to look at the directions and I heard my name. It was Jennifer, one of the owners of the Airbnb. I was pleasantly surprised. Jennifer told me that when she saw when I was arriving, she thought it would be easier just to meet me at the station — gotta love that. We walked and talked and I knew I had happened on something special in Castro Marim.

The farm is owned by four friends who have pretty much built it from the ground up over the past five years. I had booked “Ameratasu” The White Room at Phaedra. It was one of the four rooms in a very cool sort of adobe type building with a beautiful courtyard in the center. Honestly, I hate spending all my time taking photos, if you go to the Airbnb site (click), you will see more photos.

 

Ameratasu with Private Deck
This was my room. The front leading to the terrace is open to the elements and I loved the fresh air (and ignored the bugs). Ameratasu  private deck

 

Jennifer graciously showed me the property; swimming pool, vegetable garden, chicken coop, outdoor lounge space, outdoor community kitchen, communal bathroom complete with compost commode (a little sawdust over your poop that’s all). It’s not for everyone, but it’s a step above camping and the price is right.

I asked about dining options and Jennifer told me about my many choices:

  • Taberna Remexida — only about 100 yards from the property and where I had dinner my first night
  • São Bartolomeu — the town very close to the Castro Marim train station. It’s a tiny town with a couple of traditional Portuguese restaurants — always good and always inexpensive
  • Praia Verde — nearby beach (see later on in this piece)
  • Castro Marim centre — I would say it’s about seven miles from the property. I had lunch there my second day (more later).

If you have a vehicle, you are also fairly close to Tavira, Monte Gordo, Vila S. Antonio and only about 15 minutes from Spain. Many, many options.

I needed an ATM machine so I biked (bicycle provided by the Airbnb) to Praia Verde to see the beach and the properties near the ocean. It was a hilly 20 minute bike ride. What I found was a pristine beach and lots of amenities. There were shops, a supermarket, a pastry shop, a place to sign-up for water sports, a spa and a very fancy restaurant. Infante Panoramico was right on the ocean and offered a very extensive menu (not cheap by Portuguese standards) of beautiful seafood. I will definitely return to this restaurant for a special occasion. I also want to get a condo by the beach; perhaps next June.

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Praia Verde from a window at Infante

 

Cash in pocket, I bought some fresh bread for breakfast (Jennifer invited me to get my own fresh eggs from the coop, which I did both mornings), pastel de nata — I like to compare these famous Portuguese pastries, some groceries for the communal kitchen; and cold beer most importantly. My favorite thing about an Airbnb is the ability to make some of your own meals and snacks which can obviously both save you lots of money and keep you away from giant rich meals. I have to show some constraint.

I biked back to the property and took a big dip in a very refreshing pool. There were only two other couples staying at the property and they must have been out touring. I happily had the place to myself.

Staying close to the farm was essential for dinner, so I made a reservation at Taberna Remexida down the road. When you’re on foot, on very narrow country roads, it’s actually quite dangerous to be out in the dark for obvious reasons. This restaurant was close enough that I could almost see it from the farm. And what a treat it turned out to be. Gigi my Italian waiter made it even more savory.

 

 

 

I finally got to try Sharish Gin as an appetite stimulator. It was wonderfully herbaceous and fresh. I picked some up at the market in Faro yesterday.

 

Sharish Original Gin

Sharish Original Gin Bottling Note

Sharish Gin comes to us all the way from Portugal, and it made with a selection of botanicals grown by the distillers themselves, including oranges, lemons and apples. Other botanicals in the mix include juniper, vanilla, cinnamon, clove, coriander and lemon verbena. Interestingly, the base spirit for Sharish gin is made with a mixture of molasses, rice and wheat!

 

I moved on to simply prepared local clams and shrimp. So fresh and perfect for a warm evening near the sea. I ended with chorizo which was sauteed in honey; a nice combination of sweet and savory. All accompanied by a perfect white from Alentejo. During my last course, the dining room suddenly erupted in screams and laughter. Three playful puppies charged the dining room and all three came to visit me at my table. They were the last of a recent litter; cute and adoptable. It took everything I had not to snatch one up. I strolled back to camp very satisfied.

A couple of rather large mosquitos accompanied me to bed; admittedly not very desirable, but when you’re sleeping half indoors and half outdoors, it’s to be expected. I did bring insect repellent, however, I ended up being a day late and a dollar short rubbing it on. No worries, a bit of cortisone topical cream and I was good as new.

Turned out that a 90 degree day turned into a 60 degree night and I had to wrap myself up in a big comforter; provided of course. Eight delicious hours later, I was ready to tackle the day. Two fresh farm eggs, some Spanish ham and toast prepared (by me) in the outdoor kitchen, made for a beautiful start of the day. I watched the sun rise and the cows graze and honestly, I felt more alive than I have in a long time. A very verbal kitty came by to have breakfast with me and she was pleasant company indeed. Now for activities:

Spa Salino, a place where I could enjoy a natural salt bath and a mud application was in Castro Marim about a 35 minute bike ride north. I had never seen salt harvesting and I was certain I would enjoy floating in rich mineral sea water.

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After the bath you cover yourself with mud rich in minerals and you can feel it draw all that toxic garbage from your skin.

The entire time I’m soaking in the salt, I’m thinking about two very important things:  First, where am I having lunch? And secondly, how am I going to make that brutal trip back in this 95 degree heat. Since food always reins supreme, I focused on lunch. The owners of the baths told me about a place in Castro Marim that they thought I’d like. I showered off, convinced myself that I was fully rejuvenated and ready to get back on the bicycle, and headed to town. I went straight to what I thought was the restaurant and alas it was closed — it’s early September, is tourist season over already?

My second stop was to be the market to purchase provisions for the evening meal. I had decided that if I had a big lunch, it would be nice to eat a light meal that evening in the great outdoors. I found the mercado and bought fresh bread, olives, jamon, and a nice bottle of Portuguese red. At the check out, I asked the cashier if she could recommend a place for lunch. She and the customer behind me, named the same restaurant the guys at the baths had mentioned. I said that it was closed and both ladies gave me a funny look. I got back on the bicycle and thought I’d eat at the first Portuguese restaurant I came across; after all, they’re always excellent. Sure enough I found A Tasca Medieval (click for more) and got a nice outdoor table in the shade. I mistakenly had gone to the Taberna Medieval, an easy mistake to make. I had a delightful black pork dish and the best lemon meringue tart I have ever eaten.

I was dreading the bike ride back to the farm; my belly was way too full, it was scorching hot and I was way too relaxed — oh, and my backpack was heavy. Faced with a daunting task, I usually tell myself that it will be good for me:  lies, lies, lies. I got on the bicycle and started pedaling. At some point about 45 minutes in, I realized I’d made a wrong turn. I was wet from sweat, tired and the roads were eerily free of vehicles. I thought that if I’d passed out I would not be found until 2020. Okay, I exaggerate a bit, but truthfully, it was a bit scary. I had been conservative with my phone battery and I willed Google Maps to open. Alas, it all worked out — there was a cut through and I was back on the farm in 15 minutes. I didn’t stop to put the food away, I headed straight for the pool, undressed and jumped in. The whole day was extremely surreal because of the absolute quiet everywhere. Minutes later, I met Tom, another one of the property owners, and was thrown back to reality. He was careful not to invade my solitude.

A gin & tonic and a good book, made the afternoon in paradise heavenly.

Tom was cooking his meals for the week when I went to prepare my own snack in the community kitchen Wednesday evening. It was nice to hear his story; a young man in his early thirties, living his dream . . . sort of. The combination of Portuguese cheeses, jamon, olives, and that delicious red, were the perfect way to end a very adventurous day — I was sated and proud of myself for making it happen. I spied what Tom was cooking and I was grateful for my meal.

Early to bed, not quite as cool as the night before, but pleasant. As usual, I was up before the sun and made coffee under the stars. I sat quietly listening to the roosters and watching the sun start a new day. Many things crossed my mind on that glorious morning, but mostly I just smiled and took it all in.

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An hour later I was on the short train ride home contemplating a place close to home to escape the day-to-day and remind myself of all that I am grateful for.

 

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I sat about 30 feet away from this child at the restaurant and I couldn’t keep my eyes off of her. She was incredibly beautiful and very pensive.

Gun Shots in the Woods

 

The trigger my mother squeezed on a .45 Colt rifle in the woods of upstate New York that summer night will be an image captured and cemented in my mind for a lifetime.

 

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I’m the teenager with the shaggy brown hair unloading my stepfather’s jeep c.1973

I was an overweight, troubled, 14-year-old, with a great deal of anger. My stepfather, Frank, reluctantly accepted that I came with the package when he married my mother. I’m sure on some level he knew I was gay and that turning me into a “real man” was either hopeless or a waste of his time. But try he did, as often as he could. As far as my mother was concerned, on this particular dark night in the woods, he went too far.

As a family, we spent a lot of time camping in the summer. My mother and stepfather enjoyed being outdoors and it was an inexpensive way for a big family to travel. Frank relished seclusion in the wild, so we usually camped far away from the rest of civilization. There was a lean-to (three-sided housing structure) camp high in the New York Adirondacks called Pharaoh Lake. We would spend hours in Frank’s loaded-up jeep to get to the camp. We would have to get out of the jeep and hike the last hour because the trails were steep and rocky, it was too dangerous to ride up in the vehicle. To be fair to my mother, the safety of her children was paramount.

Our family trips would start out on a positive note. Frank and my mom were eager to get us out of the city and they looked forward to time with each other in their own private lean-to. Unfortunately, drama was a big part of my mother’s life and it almost seemed that she lived to create as much of it as possible. This trip upstate would be no exception.

 

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A Lean-to

 

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My mother the redhead at Pharaoh Lake c.1973

 

We had a pleasant enough first few days:  hiking, fishing, target practicing with Frank’s rifles; rifles he proudly displayed on the back wall of the open lean-to — I’m talking four or five rifles. We were instructed to stay away from the guns and I’m assuming he hid the bullets. Frank was stern and if you were smart, you did whatever he asked you to do; especially when he was drinking. I usually responded to instructions with a grunt or a nod.

My chores were fairly simple. I would be responsible for gathering wood for fires, sweeping up the campsite, storing the boating equipment; for the most part, doing these things without having to be told. For some reason, I never knew why, my mother was fairly agitated a few nights into our trip. She’d snap at any of us who had anything at all to say; especially laying into Frank (later in life she was diagnosed as bi-polar). She prepared the usual campfire meal of spam, potatoes and some canned vegetables. We all ate quietly so as to not upset her any further.

Dinner was over, my sisters cleaned up and darkness descended on the campsite. Frank stoked the fire with one hand and nursed a glass full of Canadian Club with the other. I crawled into my sleeping bag with a flashlight and a novel. I kept to myself growing up. My siblings liked to play cards and horse around; I wanted no part of it. I was no angel mind you. I was defiant and arrogant most of the time; feeling fairly superior and smarter than the rest of my siblings — they called me Big Cheese. My cocky attitude didn’t sit well with Frank. Whenever he had the opportunity, he’d try to set me straight. I was deep into my novel when I heard my name called several times. I walked out of the lean-to to see what was up. Frank told me to take the empty water cans to the stream to fill them. I asked him how I was going to do this with it being so dark on the lake.

With his back to me, Frank responded, “Take a flashlight and holler if you need help.”

My mom must have heard this and shouted, “Oh no Frank. He’s not going out on the lake by himself.”

We had a small boat with a trolling motor and the stream was a couple of miles from our campsite. I was fairly certain the man had lost his mind because it was pitch black on the lake and I was wasn’t very good at navigating the boat even in broad daylight. I don’t recall there was much of a moon that night. They argued back and forth for a while. My mother suggested that he send Frank’s son, my stepbrother Larry, who was a few years younger than I. Frank continued to insist that I go to the stream and I figured my mother would convince him otherwise. Voices were raised and my siblings all sat silently waiting to see how this one would play out.

Frank finally shouted, “He’s going Lou and that’s the end of it.”

This next part happened so quickly I wasn’t even aware of it at first. My mom ran to their lean-to and grabbed the .45 Colt. She cocked the trigger and aimed the rifle at Frank. The kids watched in horror as my mother ran down a list of reasons why she was going to shoot him. My sister Grace’s finger nails broke through skin on my arm and my brother Leo dropped to the ground to hide behind me; he would have been eight or nine years old at the time. Frank seemed genuinely frightened, although I’m still not sure if the rifle was loaded; Frank would have known. He actually had the presence of mind to point to us standing off to the side.

“Lou you’re scaring the kids.”

My older sister Kathy actually walked toward my mom to plead with her.

“Put it down mom, he’s not worth going to prison over.”

My siblings and I were probably all thinking what my sister was able to say. My mother eventually put down the rifle. Frank left the campsite with Larry and the water cans and was gone for quite a while. My mother apologized to us for scaring us. I secretly cheered her on, hoping I’d have one tenth of her chutzpah when I got older. My mother and Frank thrived on this kind of insanity and they’d usually kiss and make-up pretty quickly. But not this time. While Frank and his son were getting water, my mother instructed us to pack. It was our usual bedtime mind you; I was hoping she wasn’t serious.

When Frank got back to the campsite, we were all standing by the trail with our packed bags.

My mother said, “We’re leaving Frank. I’m done.”

He tried to reason with her, but she was fairly resolute. She let Frank know that we were going to walk down the mountain and find our way home. At this point his anger and drunken state prevented him from putting up a fight.

“Do whatever the fuck you want; I’m done too.”

We hiked in the dark for over an hour until we got to the road leading to the highway. I’m not sure what my mother was thinking; I’m not sure she was thinking at all. The six of us were walking on the road for maybe twenty minutes when Frank drove up beside us and told us to get in. It took some time, but my mother finally caved and we all climbed into the jeep. My mother was crying hysterically and some of my brothers and sisters were weeping as well. I was numb; wondering when and if the drama would end.

They argued parked on the shoulder of the road and then finally decided to pull into a nearby motel. We were six hours drive from home and Frank had been drinking heavily; there was no other option. I don’t recall getting any sleep. I was only 14 years old, but I was certain that I could survive on my own, therefore, I plotted my escape. Just as soon as we returned to Brooklyn, I was going to talk to my father and move in with him. I dreaded the idea of living in his dark and dreary studio, but anything was better than the life I was living.

The following morning, my mother came to our motel room to wake us. She told us that she and Frank had made up and that we were going back to the campsite. I’m sure that I rolled my eyes and silently protested. To my mother’s credit, she didn’t blame me for their argument. She kissed the top of my head and assured me that things would get better. She was optimistic and convincing and because I’d heard this before, I doubted her. I changed my mind about moving in with my father; I always did. As insane and chaotic as our household was, truth be told, I couldn’t have imagined myself anywhere else. This was my life and until early adulthood, I believed it was perfectly normal.

Much of my youth is a blur; I guess your mind sorts it out for the sake of self-preservation. Today, quiet means everything to me and my primary goal in is to avoid drama. Admittedly, that’s not always the case; in truth, there is a little bit of momma in me.

 

Alternative fact:  A different version of the story . . .

This particular camping incident is fairly vivid in my mind for obvious reasons; however, there is one part of the story that I am not sure about. My mom may or may not have fired the gun. There is a tiny part of my brain that has her pointing the gun up to the sky and pulling the trigger; you know, for dramatic effect. I figure one of my brothers and sisters will read this and tell me which version is correct. It just seems like something my mom would have done. Unfortunately, I cannot ask her. I don’t think she would have minded retelling the story; she wore these memories like a badge of honor.

 

Fantastic offer for the holidays

I have written about this beautiful bed and breakfast outside of Faro a few time and just learned that they are offering a Christmas package that would be a special gift under anyone’s tree. If you’re in the Algarve or coming to the Algarve, Mercedes is not your typical vacation spot. I took these photos just a few weeks ago when I spent some time there. Paco (their pug) is a wonder.

 

 

 

Mercedes Country House – Christmas Package 2018

Check in: Dec. 23rd

Check out: Dec. 27th with late check out (subject to availability)

Breakfast included each day

Meals (wines: white, red and vintage port included with dinner Dec. 24th and lunch Dec. 25th)

Dinner:  Dec. 23rd

Lunch:  Dec. 24th

Dinner: Dec. 24th (traditional Christmas eve Portuguese dinner) 

Lunch:  Dec 25th (traditional Christmas day Portuguese lunch)

Dinner:  Dec. 25th (optional 20€ pp)

Dinner: Dec. 26th (optional 20€ pp) 

 

1 Person – 540€

2 People – 690€

3 People (extra bed in the room) – 840€

info@mercedescountryhouse.com