A writers moment in Sintra

I am thrilled to have my post shared on Allyson Latta’s site! Have a look and explore her site – she’s a writer, editor, instructor, and coach. Allyson is also the one who organized and led our fabulous writer’s retreat to Portugal.


Portugal pops up in the most unexpected places…

I stand in the aisle looking around, uninspired.  How can everything change so much in 24 hours? Where are the friendly Portuguese? The accommodating wait staff? And I couldn’t help but notice that when I got up this morning no one rushed in to make my bed.

I step aside as an impatient shopper rushes past with a shopping cart full of cans and plastic packages. The sight makes me marginally more depressed. If I were shopping in Portugal right now, I wonder, what would I be looking for?

I turn around and head for the produce section. I walk slowly, thinking of all the wonderful meals we had when our group was in Sintra. I spy some cherry tomatoes. I hold them close to my nose and I can smell the sunshine they ripened in. A fragrant bunch of Basil follows them into my cart as the image of the caprese salad we had on our last night in Sintra forms in my mind.

I need to pick out some cheese – no meal in Portugal is complete without cheese. There are all kinds but I’m looking for the softest Bocconcini for my salad. I find a container of the small balls of cheese and put it almost reverently into my cart. I think of the ripe sheep’s milk cheese we had in Estoril while we sat on the patio overlooking the ocean drinking Sangria and laughing like the happy tourists we were. I look, but no luck. There is no sheep’s cheese of any sort that I can find.  I sigh and grab a chunk of smoked gouda. It isn’t what I was looking for but sometimes you have to go with what you can find.

There is an array of different types of olives beside the cheese, and I look them over carefully:  Dark kalamata olives, green olives with pimento, spicy olives, garlic olives, all looking very enticing. The small garlic olives are very similar to those that started so many of our meals in Portugal. I pop a container into my cart and then turn towards the bakery section. I will not find the flakey Portuguese pastries I have fallen in love with I am sure, but I could find a crusty roll, and maybe a fine-grained bread to dip in olive oil and salt, and savour with tiny bites. The rolls are warm when I get to the bakery and they smell divine. I select three and take a small dense loaf of rye bread for good measure.  It would not compare to the Paõ de milho, a dense cornbread, that soaks up the olive oil and becomes a poem in your mouth but I’m sure it will be ok. That reminds me:  I need a good olive oil.

I search thoughtfully through the selection of oils (how could there be so many different types of Olive oil I wonder?) and eventually find a small dark green bottle of oil that might not really be that different from the others? But it looks exotic enough for my meal. And is there any gray sea salt? Allyson had recounted her fruitless search for gray sea salt in Toronto – the story prompted by her excitement when she saw the cute little salt cellars on our table at INcomum where we ate on our last night in Sintra. But after an extensive search involving a clerk who clearly thought I was making things up, we could not find any either.  Ok, pink sea salt would have to do. Into the cart it went.

The fish counter was my next stop. It lacked the excitement we had at Azenhas Do Mar when the waiter brought the freshly caught fish to us on a platter so we could pick the exact one we wanted to eat. They didn’t have sea bream, or ocean bass or octopus, so I settled for a nice chunk of Halibut.

 I zoomed back to the produce section, realizing that I needed a couple of zucchinis and an onion to make the vegetable accompaniment that would be required to round out my meal.        

I also picked out a handful of tiny potatoes and a red pepper to roast with the pork I know I have in my freezer. I’m sure I can find a recipe to help me roast it like we had at supper on… which night was that? I think on Wednesday? When we walked to the restaurant past the square. I can’t remember the name, but it was just past the Café Paris where I had my Shirley Valentine moment.  Christina and I had meandered back to the hotel after our meal. We window shopped in the now closed stores, and she shared her travel stories. She has been everywhere and my god she is brave! I smile at the memory.

           I look into my basket and see that the memories of my trip have brought Portugal home with me.  And that’s when I realize that this is why I travel. This is what makes these adventures worth having – not just the moment that I visit the amazing places around the globe, but that I bring it back home with me.


I realize there’s one thing missing. I turn my cart around one more time, pick up a carton of full fat milk, a little whipping cream for good measure, then head down the baking aisle.  I slow and carefully read the ingredients on each container until I find the absolutely correct one. With 65% cocoa, Frys is the best cocoa powder I can find in this store.  I slip the container into my cart and let it snuggle against the milk and cream. My meal will only taste of Portugal when I can finish it with a cup of the darkest and sweetest hot chocolate I’ve ever tasted.

Tchau Sobeys! Today you aren’t just a grocery store: today you’re a grocery story.

My Favourite morning in Sintra

I watch as people wander to and fro, through the square in oldtown Sintra. Everyone’s looking around, but not always looking in front of them.  I step aside quickly as a German couple in heated debate, barrel towards me. Spying the Café Paris I make a beeline over the cobbles towards it. The hostess greets me, and I tell her that I’m looking for brunch. She motions me over to the pastry counter.  

‘We have pies with chicken, shrimp or cuttlefish, and several delicious sweet pastry.’ I think about having sweets for breakfast but decide that maybe I’ll have the shrimp pie and a hot chocolate instead.  Ok, it’s an odd combination, but I’m on vacation. 

‘So, if you were to have a sweet pastry, which one would you choose?’ We both gaze at the myriad confections in front of me.  The pastel de nata, the éclair, the tarte de amêdoa. But my eyes light on the Travesseiro de Sintra – a Portuguese pastry that resembles a pillow and is filled with almond paste and cream.  

‘I think that one’ I grin, ‘but we’ll wait till another time’. 

She winks at me and shows me to a table in the sun.  

My hot chocolate appears, and I sip while I write in my journal, trying to capture the feel of this place.  A few seconds later, my shrimp pastry appears.  I break the flaky crust open and the scent of spices and shrimp waft up to me.  I eat it with gusto, savouring each bite as I watch the school children and tour groups traipse through the square.  I am content.  I feel a happiness in my core that has been missing for a while and I realise: I’m having my Shirley Valentine moment.

I reach for my phone and call a young waiter over. He sees the phone in my hand 

‘I take your picture’ he states more than asks. 

‘Please’ I smile.  He steps back and I wonder if the camera can capture how big my happiness feels.  Once he’s snapped a few photos, he steps back and pointedly stares at my journal.  

You are writing about your trip?’ he nods, clearly having seen this before.  I say yes and add, shyly,

I’m a writer. 

It’s the first time I’ve voluntarily offered this info outside of a writing group. It feels momentous.

‘Oh my god, that must be painful’ he groans, ’all that writing of all those pages’ He shakes his head, ‘This I cannot do’ 

He grins, and his charm warms my heart. He steps back one more time,  

‘One more picture,’ he says ‘the beautiful writer in beautiful Sintra’ 

My smile is even wider than before. Seconds after the picture is snapped, the hostess slides a dish with a warm Travessiero de Sintra in front of me accompanied by a scoop of mango sherbet and a flourish of whipped cream. She winks again. This morning, my last morning, has been my favourite morning in Sintra so far.


Friday in Sintra is kind of a blur. I got off the plane in Lisbon at 9:15ish, which was about an hour and a half earlier than I had expected – apparently this pilot had his foot to the floor.

I had met Nancy and Richard while waiting for the plane – Nancy was brave enough to approach me – and they were also heading to the retreat, so it was delightful to have found travelling companions. We also found Jenn – another retreat goer – after we boarded the plane so the four of us would be heading to the retreat together. It felt good and to have people I could stick with as we made our way from Lisbon to Sintra.

It was not a restful flight, the plane was freezing and while the seats were excellent for sitting in, they were less excellent for sleeping in. After 7 hours of almost falling asleep, we finally got to Portugal. We breezed through customs but were about an hour and a half earlier than we expected to be so we found a little cafe inside the airport and kept a look out for the shuttle driver. Allyson had told us he would be holding a sign that said ‘Latta Retreat’ so should be easy to spot. He wasn’t there when we arrived, and we hadn’t counted on the fact that there were about 20 drivers holding up various signs… so every once in a while Nancy would jump up and zip through the crowd to see if anyone was holding up our sign. We got a message from Allyson that Greg and Mary’s flight from Germany had been delayed and they would get there in time (we hoped) to catch the shuttle with us.

Mary and Greg got to Lisbon and met up with the shuttle driver before we found any of them, but luckily we managed to find them before they left without us. We all piled into the SUV and off we went to Sintra. The driving in Lisbon was… interesting. The drivers didn’t seem compelled to stay in their lanes or even signal a change, or really, be committed to any sort of rules of the road. At one point a motorized scooter made a right hand turn across two lanes in the round about, cutting off traffic. But other than a few honks, no one seemed alarmed. Well. Except me. Did I mention I ended up sitting in the front? Yeah.

Anyway, soon we were on the picturesque winding roads and hills on our way to Sintra. This area of Portugal is just beautiful. Combined with the old architecture, narrow winding streets, tile roof houses, cobblestone sidewalks – it is magical. Spring is here and many of the trees and bushes are blooming, everything is green and lush. And through the greenery castles peek, like the backdrop to some sort of fairy tail.

We were met in the lobby by a handsome young man who handed us each a rose as part of International Women’s day celebration. We checked in, then he took us one by one up to our rooms – showed us how to work the lights, the air conditioning, etc. And then he was gone… And here I was in Portugal.

I had been awake for 32 hours. I was tired. I was smelly. My feet hurt. I didn’t know what to do first. So on autopilot I opened my suitcase, started to unpack. I couldn’t do it. I turned, shucked off my clothes and fell onto my bed. I had the presence of mind to set an alarm for 5:00 – our arrival reception – and then that was it. I was out like a light.

At 4:30 pm I woke up, slightly disoriented – where was I again? Then showered, changed and headed to the reception on the first floor. After a brief introduction and an outline of what the next 6 days would be like, we all headed downstairs for supper.

The supper was amazing. It lasted for 2 hours. Along with some excellent wine, we had a charcuterie board of cheeses, sausages, crackers, a paté of fish, fresh crusty rolls, pan fried pork, and some large prawns. It was delicious. The main course was a seafood risotto dish with chunks of fish, smoked oysters and giant prawns in delicate creamy risotto. After supper they brought out fruit plates and glass cups filled with what seemed like a mascarpone mousse with fresh fruit on top. I’m not certain it was mascarpone, but it certainly had the taste and texture. It was so good. Tiny cups of espresso rounded out the meal. I was full, happy, and had met other writers. All my anxiety about the trip was for nothing. I knew I was going to enjoy myself.

Finally, with a full belly and a happy heart, I bid goodnight to my fellow travellers and headed back to my room. What a great first day!

Tomorrow – Saturday – is our first workshop, and the afternoon is our first reading salon. I can’t wait!

2:55 am

It’s 2:55am. Apparently the bar has let out. I can hear several happily intoxicated men singing some sort of song at the top of their lungs. 

I look out my window, and see 6 of them staggering, some with elbows linked, down the middle of the picturesque road.  They don’t seem to be aggressive, just happily drunk. Of course, I have no idea what the words to their song mean. They might be inviting the listeners to fight them. Or telling us all to piss off! No matter: it’s still pretty lovely.

Soon they’re just out of sight. I can hear them laughing and singing and my heart feels happy.

I turn and slide back into my glorious bed. More sleep is required.