Since the rain has kept us indoors and in town for most of the past six weeks, we decided to brave the dubious skies yesterday and get the heck out of town. Instead of doing one of our usual epic excursions on foot though, we rented a car for the day, which seemed like a better idea given the state of my health and the weather. It was a good thing we did, too, as by the time we got ready and reached the car rental place, I was already exhausted. No hiking around for me!

We set a general goal for the day, this time being the walled town of Obidos, which is about 120 km to the north of Lisbon. And as usual, we took our time getting there, following a circuitous route half set by the GPS and half by Gabe turning down random streets and making the GPS scurry to recalculate. And oh, what adventures we had.

Our drive started on the new, fast toll highway out of Lisbon. As we zoomed across the countryside, music turned up, I was struck once again by the giant contrasts embodied in this very small country. Hills are prime real estate here, and have always been in constant use and reuse, so you see modern windmills sitting next to ancient tumbledown ones, and Christian churches perched outside of Moorish castle walls, which in turn replaced Roman forts.

Even the sky was full of contrasting colors and textures: black storm clouds stacked high on the horizon, forming a dramatic backdrop to the frosting of white clouds on top of them, topped by a blinding blue sky right above us. It made for some great photos — see below!

After a while, we turned away from the highway and struck out through the countryside towards the coast, which always provides for more interesting, if slower, driving. We ended up at a small fishing port on the coast named Peniche, which despite its size and the earliness of the season, was still swamped by tourists and tour buses. The car had by then lulled me into a sleepy haze, so we chose the first restaurant we found, which afforded us great views of the harbor and the castle keep nearby.

After our meal of fresh grilled fish, I felt energetic enough to walk out to the end of the harbor wall, risking the occasional sprays of water as the waves crashed against it. We passed a huge herd of feral cats along the way, who lived in the walls of the keep, blending in perfectly with the gray and orange stone. A lady was feeding them kitchen scraps when we came back, and making a futile effort to shoo away the seagulls that were inevitably drawn to the feast. No wonder those cats looked so fat.

Back in the car, we continued on our way to Obidos, but were brought to a sudden halt by a long line of traffic on the highway — all of it waiting to get off at our exit. Hmm. The only thing I could think of that would create such traffic in Obidos was the International Chocolate Festival, which is held there every year, but my guidebook (which I’d consulted that morning) said it happened in February.

We looked it up when we got home, and it turned out that it was the Chocolate Festival, which is in March this year. Too bad, because I’d kind of wanted to see what the fuss was about. Even had we known though, it still wouldn’t have made the wait worth it, as the line of traffic extended from the highway all the way up and around the offramp and onto the main road leading to the city. No thank you!

So in the end we bypassed Obidos and turned around, deciding instead to take the coastal route back to Lisbon. We drove through deserted towns with crumbling buildings and past fields of grape vines made thick and gnarled by age. Many of the fields were swamped with water from the recent storms, which I think will not do their crops much good.

In one town, we passed another wonderful juxtaposition of old and new: a jolly old man in a cap struggled to keep his ancient bike upright and moving, while coming up behind him at a massive speed was a Spandex-clad, fancy-helmeted younger man on a very expensive racing bike. It was a beautiful — and very Portuguese — moment of contradiction.

That road eventually took us to Ericeira, another small town on the sea, this time a resort town rather than a port. We parked and got out for a late afternoon coffee and a wander around the small cobblestone streets of what turned out to be a really lovely little town. It’s almost daunting to think of the number of picturesque streets in tiny towns that are possible to explore here, and to know that one could never hope to see even a small percentage of them. That doesn’t stop us from trying though…

… except when I’ve spent the previous two days in bed. I was definitely flagging by this point, so we cut our meandering short and turned our heads for home. Even though the chocolate celebration prevented us from reaching our goal for the day, it was a great excursion nonetheless, if only because we got out of town while still allowing for my low energy levels and the weather.

Now it’s time to catch up on the work I didn’t do during my sick days last week. We’re promised yet another day of rain today — although theoretically, the next two days will be clear. Since we haven’t had two clear days in a row since January, almost six weeks ago, I won’t hold my breath (primarily because right now doing so would give me a coughing fit.)

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