Spain and Portugal in a week, with back packs and a blind trust in the on-ground transport arrangements? Forget it! Within 2 days of our foray into Iberia it became obvious that we could not cover the ground we wanted. From Madrid's Barajas airport we did successfully navigate our way directly to Salamanca. This is a beautiful town and very much worth more than the 0.75 of a day that we devoted to it. Relaxed, very Spanish and with some truly marvellous architecture. No too many tourists but a good number of domestic travellers and visiting exchange students - mainly from the US. Accommodation on the Plaza Mayor - about US$26 per night in a budget room.
Portugal, however, beckoned, though the overland connections between Salamanca and Portugal are limited. Three buses a week (Madrid- Lisbon) pass through Salamanca and the train connection is patchy, to say the least. The through trains pass through Salamanca at about 2 or 3 in the morning. We took a bus to the border post at Fuentes de Onoro (120 kms) and walked across. No open borders here: passport checks were mandatory.
From the Portuguese border town of Vilar Formoso trains to the rest of Portugal run infrequently and are mainly of the local type and only run to the next main town of Guarda. Portugal and Spain, on first appearances, are very different. I got the feeling that the Spaniards had taken all the good fertile, flat lands of the central western plains and left the rocks and stones to the Portuguese, such was the change in landscape. The Portuguese were reluctant to speak Spanish and the converse holds true also. English was not very common in this part of Portugal.
Our plan was to reach Porto that day, but the rail connections only gave us the option of heading towards the coast and Lisbon. As it transpired, we headed for Coimbra: took one look and moved on, by taxi, to what we thought would be a 'small fishing village' called Figueira da Foz. Big mistake. Nice place, but not small and not really much to say about it. Reminded me of Brighton or any of those other nondescript southern beach resort in the UK. The countryside on the way I found to be curiously fascinating: green but untidy: much as I expect Greece would appear if it were miraculously transposed to the more verdant climes of the Atlantic Ocean.
Yet another train brought us to Lisbon the following day where we hoped to spend a day or two in the capital. My travelling companion was getting exhausted by this stage and unfortunately she didn't take to Lisbon... Lisbon is unlike any capital city I have seen before. The Lonely Planet guide to Europe describes it roughly as ' a faded patina of former glory - a crumbling reminder of an imperial past'. It can be a depressing place as much as it can be inspiring. I think the appearance of hundreds of Portuguese heavy metal fans on the streets and the ominous presence of armoured troop carriers on street corners prompted us to move on after only two hours in the city.
We hired a car and moved on immediately. In our quest to find a 'quiet fishing village' we detoured to the coastal areas south of Lisbon and came upon Sesimbra: another busy holiday town. Even the coastal fringes didn't offer much hope. We drove, with growing disillusionment directly to the Algarve, arriving late in the evening at Albufeira. Now a holiday resort in the full sense of the word, with British and northern European tourists in full swing is not everyone cup of tea, but that's what Albufeira is all about. To its credit, it IS an attractive little 'village' (or could be ...) and I can see why the hoards gather there en masse, but Albufeira and most of the Algarve is oversubscribed to and didn't provide the ambience we, with diminishing optimism, were looking for.
Sagres on the far West corner of the Algarve did provide some kind of respite from the over-commercialism of the Algarve in general and we spent three days in all. Watching the sun go down on the edge of Europe is magic and there is a kind of barren beauty about the area, but I think that what we were looking for is not to be found in Portugal - and that is no criticism of Portugal. Portugal seemed to be a curious blend of Latin temperament and Atlantic introspection. A forgotten corner of Europe where time has stood still for some time and only now is the land and the people awaking to the rest of Europe. My (subjective) view! I had mistakenly expected to find something similar to Greece and instead found ... Portugal!
We now cut across the landscape - the dry Alentejo district, reminding me very much of parts of South Australia -towards a gem of a place called Evora. This is Portugal's architectural jewel and very well worth a visit. This is a photographer's and historian's delight and for me captured the essence of Portugal. If it wasn't for our hire car on its last legs, we would have lingered in Evora but we had to get back to Lisbon - if at all possible - and rid ourselves or our increasingly more troublesome Fiat Uno. We lingered in Lisbon long enough to visit the Castello and central Lisbon. First time I have been in a city and could not find somewhere to sit down on a pavement cafe and have a cool drink. Maybe it was because it was Sunday...
We took the Lusitania Express that night to Madrid, sharing our couchette with 4 gregarious Spaniards, arriving in Spain's capital just as the Basque ETA group was exploding bombs in the city centre. We made hasty passage to the airport and headed back to Athens and to the main part of our trip.
Paul Hellander is a lecturer in Modern Greek at the SACAE, Adelaide, Australia.
(c) Paul Hellander