The Citroen world tour continues
Driving west from Seville we crossed the southern edge of the Extremadura, the great desolate region of south western Spain that divides it from Portugal. Across the border we entered the northern Algarve. It was dry, dusty and red; reminiscent of outback Australia or northern Mexico. The villages of the northern Algarve were grim and poor. It was a particularly long drive that day and Shelly slept most of the way because she is very lazy. But she did wake up when we reached the tollway about 20kms south of Lisbon. This was probably because I almost caused an accident when the highway split from 3 lanes into a 27 lane free for all. Of course the cash only lane was the farthest lane from where I was, requiring a nerves of steel dash across lines of traffic. There was some screeching of brakes, bibbing of horns and a little screaming but we made it.
Welcoming us through the tollway of death loomed a giant Cristo Redemptor statue. We passed beneath his welcoming arms and onto the bridge that crosses the enormous gorge separating Lisbon in the north with its commuter satellite cities in the south. The bridge was shockingly high and just driving over it gave us vertigo. To say that Lisbon is spectacularly situated is an understatement. The city is built over and around a series of mountains and gorges that drop dramatically away to the waterfront. Bridges, overpasses, tunnels and viaducts connect the various districts. It was quite an overwhelming arrival but we managed to navigate ourselves to our destination just outside the old centre of town without any problem. We parked in an underground carpark for about 24 euro a night - not the cheapest parking we’d paid but certainly not the most expensive. We found another carpark in Lisbon that charged 235 euro for overnight parking!!! It was a short walk from the carpark to the Tourist Information office to pick up a map and then to our chosen pension, which fortunately had a vacancy. We were right in the heart of the old city.
Old Lisbon had its charms but had a definite run down and seedy feel. We couldn’t walk ten paces without someone offering us hashish or something harder so we were pretty much stoned the whole time we were there (ha ha!). Many of the old buildings were covered in tiles. Depending on the choice of pattern and colour the effect was either charming or reminiscent of a 1970’s toilet. Big hills loomed on either side of the old town - on one side the old castle, on the other a ruined monastery and the Barrio Alta, a former slum area now housing charming bars and restaurants (and lots of drugs!).
The path up to the monastery is exceedingly steep and at the turn of the century an elevator was installed to take people up what is effectively four storeys. The elaborate old iron structure is an elegant feature of the city that would not look out of place at the Eiffel Tower. There was always a queue of people riding the elevator just for the view. Around the old town there are two elevators and three funicular tramways.
Indeed, the city is positively criss-crossed with tramlines. Big new trams seem to run through every boulevard while the narrow, winding streets of the old town are serviced by tiny, old fashioned trams, some of whom have probably been rolling along those tracks for over a century. I am very fond of trams. They give a city a genteel kind of charm that other forms of public transport simply cannot provide.
Most of the buildings of Lisbon date from the 19th century. In 1755 an earthquake swept most of Lisbon off its hillsides and into the sea. The old cathedral above the port is probably the only survivor of the old Lisbon and even that remains partly in ruins. The castle offers good views over the city but doesn’t have much else to recommend it as there is an entry fee just to take in the view. There were a few rooftop bars in buildings nearby which offer the same view for the price of a coffee or beer.
A 15 minute tram or bus ride from old Lisbon brings you to the portside district of Belem. Look in any book about great architecture and you will find the Tower of Belem listed but I cannot for the life of me understand why. It may have been built as a fortification but today its little more than another 19th century folly with its all elaborate turrets and faux medieval features. Point for travellers - don’t get off the tram at the Belem stop but continue on at least two stops. The Belem stop is over a kilometre from the tower (which is not signposted - as it’s a kilometre away). The walk along the waterfront isn’t exactly the best.
About 500 metres back from the Tower of Belem is the Monument to the Navigators. It’s a large white marble sculpture depicting the Portugals great explorers. In the Age of Exploration Portugal punched way above its weight for such a small country. Nowadays, Vasco da Gama is probably the best known but pride of place in this pantheon of great men is Prince Henry the Navigator. A younger son of the royal family, Henry had no chance of inheriting the Portuguese throne so instead dedicated his life to the study of science and exploration. He sponsored the collection of Arab manuscripts and maps and investigated their navigational equipment and mathematics, which was centuries ahead of Christian technology. When the first (Western) explorers sailed around Cape Horn to India they were not - as is often claimed - sailing into the unknown. They were sailing towards well known and well documented destinations and they had Arab maps and navigational instruments to guide them. Whilst this little bit of history has been neglected (or deliberately distorted) elsewhere, Portugal rightly acknowledges “the important contribution of the Muslims to Portugal.”
This small statement marks a significant difference in the Portuguese and Spanish national characters. A Brazilian author once commented that the Portuguese forged their empire by “f*cking everybody they met” while the Spanish became obsessed with racial, class and religious purity. The Portuguese today are a diverse melting pot of different peoples - Europeans, Africans, Indians and Asians. Which possibly explains why Portugal seems to have no specific ’national’ cuisine. Maybe I’m being harsh but to be frank the ‘Portuguese’ restaurants in Lisbon were uniformly sh*t. Every day we had to walk through a gauntlet of restaurant touts to and from our hotel every day (it is ALWAYS a sign of a BAD restaurant if you need to have people out the front haranguing passers by) and swore we’d steer clear of such dodgy establishments. On the recommendation of our hostel we went to an area further from the old town to ‘where the locals go.’ It proved to be simply more of the same - same haranguing bullsh*t, same sh*t menus. However, after hours of fruitless searching we decided to cut our losses and chose a restaurant that seemed to be serving more locals than tourists. Not only were both our meals awful but the b*stards tried to rip us off. They were all pretty standard tricks and are probably common to all the dodgy restaurants in downtown, so for the benefit of other travellers -
1. Undisclosed service charges but also insisting on a tip;
2. Not providing a drinks price list and then claiming to have served you the most expensive wine or beer on their menu;
3. Dual pricing trickery - having a cheaply priced menu board on the street that the tout talks to and a separate menu with higher prices when you sit down.
Needless to say when we got the bill and noticed the price of the meals were different to the board we’d ordered off we refused to pay. They initially tried to claim they were lunchtime specials but as we were beginning to cause a scene they adjusted our bill. We still paid way too much.
The next night we went to Barrio Alta and found an Italian restaurant that served us an absolutely superb meal.
Is there any Port left?
The fortified wine we know as Port originated in the town of Porto in Portugal. It was quite long drive from Lisbon to Porto and we only made a brief stop at Navarre on the Atlantic coast. Navarre is quite dramatically situated on a beach at the bottom of a cliff. The town earns its living from fishing and tourism. It does have very nice sandy beaches and although it was a little cool there were a couple of brave souls out on the beach. We stayed long enough to dip our feet in the Atlantic, take a couple of pics, have a drink and fend off the old ladies offering us rooms (oh, unless I completely misunderstood that conversation!)
Porto was huge and due our inadequate Lonely Planet map and VERY POOR road signage we had to drive around and around for quite a while until we found a landmark we could recognise. Funnily enough, the carpark we pulled into was right around the corner from our hostel - another lucky fluke!
As in Lisbon, there are no flat streets in Porto - it’s all up and down - and although Porto seemed more run down than Lisbon it also seemed to have more character. Nevertheless, when we got down to the old port we had no better luck finding a decent restaurant. This wasn’t because the restaurants were sh*t - some were very nice - but they were all seafood and/or expensive. After much wandering and hand wringing we settled for a toasted baguette. It was also a Sunday and about 9pm a public PA system somewhere in the streets began broadcasting the mass. It was ear splittingly loud and went for almost an hour followed by religious music. That was enough for us. We took the hint and went home to bed.
The next day we ventured back to the port for some sight seeing. On the main boulevard just outside the old town however we encountered a massive traffic jam. All the streets into and out of the centre of town had been blocked for a rally by the Portuguese Citroen owners club. There were hundreds of them. The funny thing was the Citroen CV2 had become the unofficial mascot of our holiday. We spotted them everywhere, especially in Germany (but strangely NO VW beetles!). We kind of went mad and took lots of photos which I will email to my mother later. When I was 18 and looking for my first car the only car I could think of that I actually liked was the Citroen DS (I used to have a little matchbox toy). My mother told me in no uncertain terms that if I ever brought one I was NEVER ALLOWED TO RETURN HOME EVER AGAIN. To this day she’s never explained this pathological dislike of Citroens.
After the Citroen frenzy, Porto kind of paled into insignificance. The old port is very beautiful however and we did sample the ubiquitous port of Porto, which was very very beautiful. But as the morning turned into afternoon we decided it was time to push on. We were driving north back into Spain to... SANTIAGO!
Here is a link to some of the photos we took of the Citroen rally