Quinta de la Rosa, Pinhão, Portugal | June 9, 2009
The steel wool sky tore its belly on the crests of the terraced vineyards. Small rain alighted on clammy skin, grit-lined tires, fibrous grape skins: the Vale do Inferno would not burn this day. From the moment we journeyed from the northern rainforest, my memory of this time was written in the immaterial: clouds, fog, haze. Always glinting through like a beacon, even when dusk threatened to leave us lost to the onrushing night, was that dull, silver ribbon curling around the feet of towering ziggurats. The River Douro. It drew us on into a labyrinth of viticulture.
Then, as the last grains of daylight faded, the bold lettering of Quinta de la Rosa just outside Pinhão. On a shoulder of rocky soil, the quinta overlooked the Douro and vast acres like some robber baron’s castle. It was a haven to us. Inside, floorboards creaked in the small dining room with expansive views of the valley. We sighed and slouched in the paint-chipped chairs, waiting on a home-cooked supper from the only soul we’d seen since our sodden arrival. Rain danced on the roof, doves traded quiet callings, and our bodies slowly uncoiled.
A middle-aged couple ate carrot soup beside us and spoke Dutch in jovial tones. Sarah and I companionably chatted as I cast sidelong glances at our dinner mates. They were framed by a window, and an overflowing bowl of ripe cherries seemed to glide on the Douro between them. We cast off the remnants of our three courses and opened our body language to a response in kind. Smiles, introductions, and pleasantries lead to bartering morsels of our life stories. We each paid rapt attention as topics flared up like fireflies behind fog. The economics of conversation.
He was a cardiologist and she a cardiac nurse. They met at the hospital. He had a heart condition. They had to leave the altitudes of the nearby Casal de Loivos for respite. He was part of an exclusive wine club in Amsterdam for men only, though the women were allowed to cook for them. I was going to start an exclusive single malt whisky club back home. Time was measured only by the number of empty wine bottles and cherry pits. We spoke of Portugal, of Galicia, of the magic in this exact moment meeting travelers. Stars perforated the night sky while our voices blazed in the Vale do Inferno. Our laughter angled out of wine- and cherry-stained mouths like we had eaten the heart of the Douro, like our own hearts crept on our tongues.
Too soon the shroud of sleep carried us to a morning shared with other guests. Each assembled a breakfast heaping with reserved silence, perhaps hangover. My eyes darted to our friends of the night. They finished up and walked out toward the shining Douro as I popped a glistening cherry into my mouth. Then the man with the weak heart turned in the patio doorway. We are your Dutch friends now, he said and grinned.
I spit out the pit and smiled at him with cherry-stained teeth.