We planned the trip as we were handing in our notices. Both leaving jobs and both looking to put some kind of mark in our memory of years behind desks, Charlotte invited me to stay with her sister, Madeleine (my writing mentor), on her farm in Portugal.
We flew in to Lisbon first, before a four hour coach ride to Madeleine's home the next day, where she lives with her husband Nick and their friends on the edge of the Serra da Estrela, the highest mountain range in the country.
Eating vegan in Lisbon was tricky last time. I didn't research enough or tell my Airbnb host about being vegan (something I'd recommend you do, if you think it's appropriate, because even if your host isn't vegan, you never know who they may be good friends with that's vegan, or have been to one secretly great vegan restaurant once etc etc). So I used some recommendations from Instagram- just search the #veganLisbon hashtag and lots of businesses come up. Guidebooks date quickly when food's concerned but using something like Instagram makes it much easier and reliable to find a street cart or the best thing on the menu without having to struggle through dietry requirements with your waiter.
Thankfully doing just an hour of research was worth it, because veganism is really taking off now in Lisbon and there were plenty of options when we tried the more contemporary-looking restaurants. Our first stop after landing was to go straight to Terra (the first food photo above), a mostly-vegan buffet near Rato station. It's not that cheap- about €15 for the buffet and the daily juice is about €3 euros too, but if you go with the plan to totally fill up on lunch or dinner, it's worth it. We stumbled across a few other places where the vegetarian option was easily veganised. I munched on pickled vegetable tacos in the Praça do Comércio square while Charlotte had octopus salad- and if we'd had longer I would have also tried Hot Dog Lovers (order the vegetarian option 'simples' and it becomes vegan).
We later tracked down Madeleine, and stopped by our local shop where we staying in Belém. We picked up a huge wedge of seitan, a block of tofu and soy milk in cartons. The vegan options aren't cheap in these stores compared to the other food available, but if it means you can eat in and cook for yourself then I think it's worth it. That night Madeleine made a delicious chilli, Charlotte added red wine and I chopped the block of seitan in to cubes in. We drank impossibly cheap wine and decided to stay in on the Saturday night, the rain insisting on pulling an all-nighter instead.
On Sunday we caught our coach into the mountains. The driver confiscated our half-finished bottle of red wine, but we managed to sneak crisps, olive oil, balsamic vinegar and the leftover chilli on board, which proved to be even more delicious the second night.
We drove past orange and lemon trees already dripping with fruit, that soon turned in to outer city tower blocks, then hours of motorways, and finally to stonewall villages. We arrived at the quinta by 8pm. The sun still somehow up, Madeleine managing to reverse down tracks built into the edge of the hillside, made almost impossible in the rain. A dinner we didn't have to make from scratch was never more welcome.
I woke up beneath olive branches in the canvas guest room. Mist filled the valley we slept in the middle of, the tops of the trees just now visible. We eventually meandered back through the vegetable patch to Madeleine's house by 10am. Her keyboard keys clicking away as she worked from home, us silently pouring out the black coffee Madeleine had brewed, tracking down the deliciously sweet almond milk she had found in the nearest village the week before. It was my first cup of coffee in months. We sat on the stone tiles of her porch and looked out across the quinta, decompressing.
If switching into a lower gear takes a few days, you know it's doing you some good. In the mornings Madeleine had work to do, so Charlotte and I sat and read or ventured down to the river. By lunch time we'd try to finish the leftovers from the night before. Without running water and only solar electricity, cooking becomes something everyone can sit around and help with- you wash potatoes without leaving the tap running. The hummus is blended with a potato masher, your knives are re-used and the vegetable peelings are put straight in the compost box. Next to nothing is wasted.
Madeleine made a delicious caponata one night with olives from the local village shop (with the lights of the shop turned off, because it was mid-afternoon, and no-one else needs to get groceries so late in the day). Charlotte made panzanella with stale bread we carried back from Lisbon. One night we walked down through the vineyard to Madeleine's friend's yurt for dinner. We each made a dish, and Charlotte and Chris sliced pears for a cobbler for pudding. Bron had picked green beans earlier that day. We bought a few supplies from the local village- bread and wine and such, but what I really loved about staying with Madeleine is what we didn't buy. We changed our meals from what was left instead of using leftovers as an after-thought. When you've grown your own food from scratch you care about it more- you eek out the lettuce and savour the beans. You make it last. One day I was talking to Madeleine about how water must become very precious when you're collecting it yourself, schlepping it up hills in huge water containers. But she as she pointed out, it's all the same water we're saving or wasting. It made me reconsider in no small way how I treat my own food- what I'm ready to give up on with leftovers and what I should try harder to salvage and plan better around. It's all the same, after all. It was all pulled from the ground somewhere.
On our final night I picked some wild fennel leaves, lettuce from Madeleine and her husband Nick's vegetable patch and lemon balm. We ate with patatas bravas, the leftover caponata, beans and Portuguese bread.
Being away felt good. Folded into that hillside, hours of the morning spent watching the damp mist rise through the trees, clinging on to the top of the hills and finally out into the sky. Eating food we had just picked, washed, cut whilst sat down at a table, nothing else to focus on but helping to make dinner. I know there's a lot of people that might think living without running water, endless electricity or appliances sounds extreme, but from what I can see, the sterilised life the city lends it to is a stranger place. Leaving things until daylight, spending time away from screens, taking in the seasons, watching the sky change. Maybe those things shouldn't feel like such a novelty.
Back along the track we drove, our city clothes back on, our tent now vacant. Madeleine stopped at a view point so we could take photos. You can't quite tell how grand or massive the Serra is until you get to see it from above, at eye height, face on. Down in the valley it's hard to work out precisely how the land lies. From up at the top, at a distance, it gets easier. There aren't as many details, nothing's as defined, and something about the sum total makes it less disarming and easier to handle.
I am so grateful Madeleine could show us her and Nick's beautiful home and for getting to travel for just a few days with Charlotte, before she leaves for other continents and adventures. Back in London, our flat remains ever so quiet without Aubrey around. I wish I could have another day with her, wish her time hadn't come to an end quite as soon as it did. But I know it was time for her. Getting some distance- getting up on the hillside, it's sometimes the only thing you can do.