It’s Not You, Portugal…

In Practice, Presentation on September 26, 2012 at 9:58 am

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.

“Do it.”

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.


  1. First rate read as always….tourism has its fantastic up but it has some amazing downs as well.The crappy deceit at restaurants is so common. We had the same in Rome.They nearly charged us for using the napkin…sad buggers.

    • Thanks Paddy. A really good restaurant – the kind I like anyway – goes for repeat business. It’s only the tourist hotspot wham bam thankyou man’s that do this kind og thing. A great reason, amongst others, for avoiding them!

  2. Remember that ruse when I was in Porto. Although don’t recall the unemployed people lurking in the shadows. Must have been a brighter economic climate at the time. Love your use of schlepp. It’s a great word. Thanks for bringing it back to my attention.

  3. As always, a superb read. A little disappointed that (again) you have sped through Extremadura without popping in for a coffee!

  4. haha…oh poor Portugal! I don’t remember the roads like that at all! I remember them free, and full of potholes -terrible really. Maybe something has changed.

    Robin, you’re too used to the South. In Catalonia, well, Barcelona, we’re charged for olives, bread, and the like all the time. No one mentions it. And then the bill comes. I once paid 5 euros for a roll of bread. I will never go back to that place.

    Good story.

    • Yes, I think we’re spoiled for good cheap food down here. I know that Catalonia and, even more so I believe, the Basque country, have great food but not so much on the cheap as I understand it.

  5. Oh yes, we’ve been there and are getting there. We prefer to slap the label ‘slow travel’ onto our ‘looking-for-the-home-comforts-laziness’ we feel these days. It’s age. I’m sure of it. 🙂

    • Good to hear from you, Julia. I’m still as up for adventurous and far flung travel as I ever was (I think!) but have become increasingly impatient and cranky with the tourist b.s that trucks people around like cattle so they can be charged through the nose for what is, at the end of the day, an unpleasant experience.

  6. So glad I’m not the only one who wasn’t a fan of Sintra! Waste of a day in my opinion. I too couldn’t believe the balls on the restaurants charging so much for cubierto (especially butter!) that had been on everyone else’s table first. Ick!

  7. It’s so true that Sintra can feel like a total tourist trap, but… if you just stick around for 24 hours or less, chances are you won’t get to see its charm. I spent almost 2 months there this summer and I would go back anytime. I understand that most people that visit don’t get a chance to stay in the same conditions I did, but that doesn’t mean the place sucks. Granted, I did avoid going into the town’s center on weekends because it was such a zoo; but I explored the place and found plenty of places to avoid the crowds. For example, I would get lost in the forest on my own and I wouldn’t see another human being in awhile, I’d get a bike and go to the furthest beaches, I’d met some locals and go rock climbing. If you go where most tourists go, no matter the destination; disappointment is the norm, sadly. Lastly, taking the overpriced tourist bus instead of hiking, or even driving your own car if you didn’t feel like it, was a big mistake on your part. PS. I’m so not a megalomaniacilly rich narcissist, I think…

    • It’s good that Sintra should get a defence here – everywhere has its charms and it’s nice to hear the other side. I write about my own experience’s and the above is just that. While I take nothing back I fully accept that mine was a flying visit and I would have missed much, most, of what Sintra can offer in its quieter times and corners. Unfortunately, the vast majority of people who do visit will be doing so for a day trip, and with that in mind I’m afraid my experience may well be representative of a lot of people’s. I’m glad you had the chance (and the time!) to enjoy yourself there 🙂

  8. Kent and I were just having a similar conversation. We, too, are having that feeling about being full up on attractions. We are far more interested in finding ways to create more space instead of cramming in one more piece of propaganda architecture (forbidden city, I am talking about you).

    I would say it is age related, but we are so damn young (and wise beyond our years). 🙂

  9. Yes, it does somewhat undermine the age theory…

  10. It’s a shame you didn’t like Portugal. As a Portuguese person, I hear you about the charges for bread, butter, olives, etc.. We know these things are not for free but I despite the fact that they do not inform foreigners. Just one thing about the roads though: everywhere you have the “estrada nacional” which is for free and the “auto-estrada” which is the paid one. So there are alternatives. I find it surprising that you found Portugal expensive, even compared to Spain… I guess you must have gone mainly to touristic areas, because in general, Portugal is still cheaper than most of Spain. C’mon on and give it a 2nd chance one of these days! 🙂

    • I will do Zara! The story is a humorous one and not an attempt to write off a whole country – just an account of a few comical and frustrating experiences on our very short time there – there are a number of places in Portugal I am still determined to see and I very much look forward to it. The roads thing was expensive – as you’ll know, instead of paying a fixed toll on a particular stretch of the road, you pick up a ticket at the beginning of your journey and pay at the end for every kilometre driven. It adds up! Since our plan was to drive the length of the country in just a couple of days, maybe three, the minor roads didn’t look viable for us. And yes, our’s was not an off-the-beaten-path experience. Porto + Sintra + August = tourist mayhem!!
      Thanks for taking the time to comment here – I look forward to writing a different kind of Portugal story!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: