Portugal has changed from my particular idea of the place. This could be because I have an old black and white guidebook from 1957, and, let’s face it, nothing stays the same forever.
By Spanish standards, it’s still a bit gloomy, a bit quiet and the Portuguese still read the news pages rather than the sports pages, but that large piece of the country that the Spanish weather forecasters solemnly leave blank has quietly turned itself into a modern European state.
We had been in Mérida – a very hot part of Spain during the summer months. Mérida is a city where, if you kick over a rock or even a stubborn weed you’ll likely find some remains from the Roman times. The town is quite beautiful (even if it stands somewhere behind Córdoba and Granada) and it’s a fine place to visit, especially if forty degree weather doesn’t bother you unduly.
In the best tradition of Spain, you are never far from a bar in the city of Mérida – the name comes from the Latin Augusta Ēmerita – or a decent restaurant. Or, as we have seen, a Roman ruin, many of which are used today for theatre, concerts or scenic backdrops to one’s holiday snaps. The region itself is attractive and covered with storks’ nests. These comical birds like to find an interesting looking building, preferably a highly-prized monument, to build their giant nest of sticks on top of with an insouciant ‘well, what?’ attitude. It all helps keep us in our place, I think.
Mérida is, of course, at sixty kilometres, not far from Elvas, the Portuguese town leaping with castles, palaces, churches and a fine aqueduct. It took no time at all to reach since the formalities of crossing a frontier from one Schengen country to another involve nothing more than turning to your companion and saying ‘Cor, looks like we’re going to need that phrasebook soon’.
We spent our first night in Portugal in a hotel outside Elvas. We had decided the route and the various hotels with Booking.com – which apart from a very odd place near Seville had served us well. The Elvas place had a fine restaurant where we discovered that the Portuguese have a trick. They leave various plates on your table of cheese, ham, fish paste and olives before you’ve settled down and looked at the menu, and then they charge you heavily for them afterwards. Later on in a Lisbon restaurant, we said to the waiter ‘all of this stuff – fuera!’ The Portuguese couple at the next table looked vaguely impressed. ‘Yeah’, they said, ‘you can take ours away too’.
The food in Portugal is great; the wine – especially the vinho verde – is excellent. Chicken, by the way, is called frango. Easy to remember, I told my Spanish girlfriend after a glass or two, just think of Francisco Frango.
The coffee is served black in tiny cups.
Our particular trip took us from there to a coastal city called Aveiro which is notable for its canals; its handsome three and four story tiled buildings and a beautiful old palace which makes a fine cup of tea in a china pot. My partner had her first ever cup of Earl Grey.
We had brought our swimming things with us on the tour, but the weather was cool: sweaters in the evening. ‘You won’t want to swim here’, we were told, ‘the ocean is far too cold’.
After a daily return north to Oporto on the local train (150 kms total at seven euros per passenger), to meet a friend, to marvel at the dramatic beauty of the city and to buy a bottle of port (my article on Oporto here), we left Aveiro for Lisbon.
The roads are pretty good, with the motorways usually run by concessionaries who charge a toll, either with an operator, or with slightly annoying cameras. We pay the first willingly enough, but ruefully ignore the second. Perhaps the president of the company will send us a bill here in Spain for the one euro fifty we owe, but I doubt I shall pay it.
I’ll let you know if I’m wrong about this.
The normal country roads are more or less fine, although the Portuguese sometimes add large metal posts to where a simple white line of paint would serve nicely. Driving through the country, the best thing for me – we live in the desert of Almería – was the greenery. As we had had some trouble with the GPS – Movistar doesn’t make it easy when you switch to another country – we got a bit lost at one point, and found ourselves driving through the burned forest which claimed over sixty lives recently. It’s a large and most depressing stretch of country. The Portuguese have been blamed for planting eucalyptus in the countryside, and the fires are consequentially dangerous and immediate. We saw several reported on their TV news channels.
Lisbon is a tremendous place. High buildings and narrow streets cover the seven hills. Small yellow trams; tuc tuc three-wheelers with a sofa nailed to the back; tiny electric two-seater Renaults; some Segways, some motorcycles with sidecars and a few expensive looking battery-run BMWs make up most of the traffic. The city is full of tourists. Everyone speaks English, and French and anything else – except of course Spanish. Spanish? Forget it. It doesn’t exist.
We spent three contented days in the Portuguese capital – where the history of their abandoned colonies in Africa and Asia, plus their success story of Brazil – means that you see people of all colours and, unlike anywhere else I know, perfectly integrated. Portugal has a lot going for it.
We spent our last day in a small town called Castro Verde, where we felt like the first tourists ever. The place was peaceful and grimly bucolic: the food in the local restaurant was terrific.
And so back across the border to Spain, with our booty of fridge magnets, tee shirts and decorated mugs. Our first stop was in a giant motorway cafe near Antequera. The noise of a hundred and fifty gleeful diners was welcome – and ear-splitting. ‘We’re home at last’ my partner shouted happily to me as she stirred her café con leche.
Versions of this article have appeared in The Olive Press and as an opinion piece in Business over Tapas