Home > Travel > Portugal


Tuesday January 26th, 1999 to Thursday February 4th, 1999

I arrived at dusk in the small town of Villa Formosa, in Portugal but right on the Spanish border; the guy who had driven me all the way from France lived nearby, and let me off at a truck stop just inside the border so that I could look for a ride to someplace a little more populous. He also pointed me towards the town in case I wanted to get some food. I hung out around the truck stop for a little while, but there didn't seem very many people coming out, so I decided to head into town, grab a bite to eat, and reevaluate my options. I set off in the direction in which I had been pointed, but soon realized that there wasn't much in the way of a town this way. Before long I was walking along a dirt road through a scrubby, desert-like landscape, in the dark, being followed by a pack of stray dogs. I decided I had better turn around.

I eventually found the town (in the exact opposite direction from that in which I had been directed); there isn't much to Villa Formosa, but I managed to find some food (including some long-expired doughnuts that would haunt me for the next few days), a train station from which the overnight train to Lisbon left around midnight, and eventually even an ATM, allowing me to purchase a ticket on the aforementioned train. I spent the night sleeping rather uncomfortably on 2 different trains, but was very happy to arrive in Lisbon around 7 the following morning. I had a quick look through the town during the walk from the train station to the hostel, and then spent the day relaxing on the grounds of the Castelo de São Jorge overlooking central Lisbon; on my way there I stopped at the city's largest market and picked up some delicious and staggeringly cheap bread, cheese, sausage, and oranges.

I spent the following 3 days exploring Lisbon, an enigmatic city that sometimes reminded me of Paris, other times was more reminiscent of pictures I'd seen of Calcutta or other third world cities. The Alfama, a hilly neighbourhood characterized by narrow streets and crumbling buildings made for particularly pleasant walking; there seemed to be soccer games underway anywhere that there was a little bit of space and not too much traffic. I found myself returning again and again to the Castelo de São Jorge, both for the view over the city, and to explore the crumbling medieval castle itself. One evening at sunset an old woman sitting on a castle wall overlooking the city and the sea beyond spontaneously started singing what I took to be fado, a sort of melodic sea chanty unique to Portugal; I had run into a lot of buskers in Europe, but this woman wasn't looking for money, she was just singing. It was a little campy, but it was hard not to be touched by her sincerity. On another day I attended mass at the Mosteiro dos Jerónimos, a 15th century structure said to be a fine example of Manueline architecture; the ornate intricacy of the decoration is impressive, but my personal taste led me to prefer the more austere design of buildings such as the Torre de Belém and another similarly simple building, set in a park on top of a hill, from which I watched the sun set over the Atlantic one evening.

The making of decorative tiles known as azulejos is a historically popular art form in Portugal; the technique was adapted from skills learned from the Moors during the period of their dominion over much of the Iberian peninsula. I spent a day at Lisbon's Museo Nacional do Azulejo, housed in a former convent; to my mind, the craft is particularly fascinating when it combines decoration with geometry to create some amazingly intricate patterns.

Before leaving Lisbon, I spent a day in nearby Sintra, long a popular tourist destination for Portugese royalty and English nobility. A visit to the inside of the Palácio Nacional de Sintra was beyond my means, and though I was able to walk right up to it, I couldn't get a very good look at the outside either; the building is painted bright white, and the sunlight reflected off of it was so intense as to prevent me from being able to actually look at it. I did, however, manage to explore the Palácio de Peña, the Monserrate Gardens, and the grounds and ruins of the very cool hilltop Castelo dos Mouros, where I ate my lunch on a rampart looking down upon the hills and plains of central Portugal. I returned to Lisbon in the evening with an Australian guy who was also staying at the hostel, and who talked me into splurging on a decent Portugese dinner and a half litre of Sangria.

The following day, after some haggling over student discounts (for some reason the only Euro under-26 cards good in Portugal are those purchased in Portugal — what does the "Euro" part mean then, I wonder?), I ended up on a bus to Lagos. Although I wanted to have a look at the south of Portugal (the region, called the Algarve, is sort of Portugal's answer to Spain's Costa del Sol), I hadn't planned on going to Lagos in particular; so many people recommended it to me, however, that I decided that I had better check it out. I arrived in Lagos shortly after dark, got directions to the hostel, and set off. Walking through the centre of town, I could hear music coming from a bar with an open door; it subconsciously registered that the music was the Tragically Hip. All of a sudden it dawned on me that I was not hearing the Hip while walking down a street in Kingston, Ontario, but in southern Portugal. All would soon become clear, however, when I realized that Lagos is largely populated by young Canadians, Americans, and Australians who hang out at the beach all day and in the abundant bars all night. The people I met there were extremely friendly, and I could see how it would be easy to get caught up in the lifestyle and stay for a while. Fortunately I was still feeling enough stress on the financial front to keep me from getting too comfortable.

I ended up spending 3 nights in Lagos, but only 1 day lying around on the beach (it was a little cold for the beach, anyway). On my last day in town I rented a bicycle and rode 40km out to Sagres and on to Cabo de São Vicento, the southwesternmost point of Europe. The scenery, all cliffs and crashing waves, is quite spectacular, and the remains of a fort established by Henry the Navigator stand on the outskirts of the town. I didn't realize how strong was the tailwind I had enjoyed on my way out until I had to ride back to Lagos; it took 3 painful hours, and I arrived well after dark (at one point I had to jump off the bike and over the guardrail to avoid getting smucked by a car that couldn't see me in the pitch black). My consolation was that before the sun went down I passed a genuine shepherd (i.e., an old guy in robes with a staff standing around watching sheep) not far from the road.

The following day I set out on the 3 hour drive to Sevilla in Andalucia, Spain with another Canadian and a German I had met at the hostel who had a rental car; it was nice not to have to worry at all about transportation for a change.

More information about Portugal:

Also in this section