There is something about returning home from a road trip that circumvents the end-of-odyssey blues I normally feel when I complete a journey: that little sadness as I turn the key in the door, the funereal quiet as I wake up that first morning in my own bed. I often see myself as leaving behind those things that excite me – adventure, stimulation, discovery – and coming back to the mundane, the daily run of banal challenges, the schlepp. Today though, the feeling is different: one of accomplishment and gladness to be back. Indeed, after two weeks of continuous road travel a couple of personal limits have been reached, at least for us.
Firstly, we’ve been noticing for the last day or three that our capacity to get excited about yet another city/mountain/castle/cathedral/restaurant or beach is flagging. We’re full up – we need time to absorb what we’ve seen (so much!), not more stuff to see. It becomes just that after a while: stuff.
Secondly, if I have to spend one more day in a Kia Picanto I think I’m going to have an embolism. Don’t get me wrong – we love Polly. She’s ours. She’s done us proud – up mountains and down, along motorways and country lanes. But she’s small. She’s very small and I am very untidy, so over the course of the two weeks, tasks as simple as reaching for a pen or changing a cd have become perfect illustrations of the place where obsessive compulsive disorder and dementia meet. I need to get out of the car, is what I’m saying.
And, if I’m being honest, there’s a thirdly.
Look, Portugal, it wasn’t you. We were cranky. We were on the home stretch. We were impatient. It isn’t as if you don’t have your good points. Porto is unforgettable as it tumbles down from its heights to the waters of the widening Douro. Multicoloured facades covered in patterned ceramics; dusty, dark, shady sloped streets, a little menacing at times due to the clusters of idle and unemployed young men who occupy each corner. It wasn’t your fault that while there we got some bad news. We sat in one of your elevated parks and consoled ourselves with a bottle of wine, and you certainly were beautiful as your lights glimmered on the river.
We rode a cable car over the bodegas, walked across the towering iron bridge and climbed the opposite bank on a funicular railway. It was a beautiful city break. When I say it wasn’t you though, there are a couple of points we should probably go over:
- In other European countries the traveler can access two different kinds of motorway. The toll road and the non-toll road. It’s a choice. Not so here. You charged us through the nose for every kilometer. That’s why we gave up on you half way and turned left – for Spain.
- A cover charge in a restaurant is not a Portuguese phenomenon. I can’t blame you for that, but boy, do you do it in style. The unsuspecting diner takes his seat and without a word exchanged is served a platter of ham, cheeses, olives, bread and butter. All of it has a price, though the waiter says nothing. Nothing. And when I say all of it, I mean all of it. There’s a price on the olives. There’s a price on the butter, for Christ sake. If I hadn’t been skipping through some Tripadvisor reviews a half an hour beforehand I’d have been unaware. We’d have tucked in and a good 18 euros would have been added to our bill, almost doubling it. People all around us were falling for the trap. I felt like standing up and warning them. Very, very lame, and if nothing is said by the waiter, dishonest.
- I was told about wonderful, cheap fish and seafood. Where was it? Hm?
And Sintra. Jesus, don’t get me started on Sintra. For those that don’t know (I’ve started), Sintra is a popular destination just outside Lisbon. People from the city take daytrips there by the bucket load each Sunday, and during the summer foreign visitors bung the place up all week. It reminded me of Portmeirion in Wales, a bit, with its colourful unreality.
Sintra is where the megalomaniacally rich of numerous eras have indulged their ludicrous egos in the form of a large number of insanely over-the-top pleasure palaces and gardens. If you harbor any secret aspirations to be a megalomaniacilly rich narcissist then you may find it an admirable place. If not, you’re likely to experience indigestion merely by looking around.
Two of the main attractions – a Moorish fortification and some other fucking castley thing – are at the top of the hill. Although it’s walkable, most people hop on one of the regular tourist buses, and if you’ve ever wondered what it’s like to be a desperate refugee stuck inside a container with three hundred other desperate refugees, I suggest you do the same. We did.
After an interminable, winding ascent, the visitor arrives at his destination – an interminable, winding queue. I can’t remember now how much the price of admission was, but it was approximately way-too-much, per person. Having gone through all of this the default position of course is to assume a point-of-no-return stance and simply endure the whole bloody mess. That would be our usual form, but Sintra got the better of us. We just turned around and walked back down the hill (there was an interminable, winding queue for the bus).
The following morning, K pointed out that we had an option. We could forsake the delights and expenses of the Algarve coast and head for the A6, Mérida and Spain. I gave her suggestion a nanosecond’s consideration.
It occurred to us as we hurtled towards the other Iberian country that we’re becoming a little like those grumpy British, or Irish, or German tourists who complain about everything and want things to be “just like home” all the time, only we’ve substituted our native preferences for our new, Andaluz ones. That’s where the good, cheap, no fuss fish is. The tapas. That’s where we know how things work, where we don’t feel all at sea anymore.
That’s where we are now, turning the key in the door, glad to be home.