“In Portugal, every website is broken,” says the concierge as we try for the third time, in vain, to book a bus ticket online. I suggest that he is exaggerating slightly. Three or four years ago I might have agreed, but nowadays the situation is much, much better. Sure, numerous major tourist towns have websites that were written by someone’s least technically minded assistant, many hotels fail to provide so much as a map to help their guests, and crucial sources of information collapse after about three clicks. Only restaurants and the railway company, CP, seem to provide good, solid websites. (It is my turn to exaggerate slightly.)
Despite the online (and other) adversities of being a tourist in Portugal (of which more later), it is perhaps my favourite country in Europe. Portugal possesses a combination of antiquated charm and a decent dose of decay alongside a vibrant, open approach to life and the world. (Just don’t get entangled in its bureaucracy.) And the Portuguese know how to cook meat and seafood. I think Portugal has left more positive memories of simple meat dishes than anywhere else on my various travels.
Even more prominent in my mind are the sweets, however. I think you’d be hard pressed to find a food culture in Europe with a sweeter tooth. Tarts, cakes and almond-and-egg confections abound. I just wish there were more chocolate!
My travels take me to inland Portugal, the Alentejo, stretching from approximately the same latitude as Lisbon southwards until it almost reaches the southern coast, the Algarve (where frighteningly white northern Europeans gather like albino seals every summer).
I arrive in Lisbon on my flying bus (the tightest squeeze I’ve had in a while) from Sevilla. Landed and released from my seat, I see my backpack arrive on the conveyor belt in just 15 minutes, about four times faster than on previous visits. A miracle! Lisbon Portela Airport is not many people’s favourite place. I venture into the loos with great reluctance, for this is where the airport experience can be least pleasant. Men’s toilets in Portugal aren’t for the faint hearted. To my surprise, it is a more pleasant greeting to Portugal than usual. Perhaps things have changed since last time.
I collect a map from the tourist office. I’m on my way to Lisbon’s main bus terminal, Sete Rios (no website). The friendly lady tells me to take a local bus from just south of the airport, a mere ten minutes’ walk away. With more time to spare and less threatening skies, I might have followed her advice, but I’m not in the mood for navigating airport roads to a large roundabout and trying to find a bus stop for a bus which might not run often enough to make my life simple. I’ve researched my own route in advance (little thanks to Lisbon’s dodgy new journey planner) and buy myself a rechargeable ticket at the post office, catch a city-bound bus, change to the Metropolitana (underground) and make my way to Sete Rios.
For reasons unknown to anyone but transport planners, it pays to know your way to Sete Rios before you attempt the journey. The Metro station is called Jardim Zoológico (‘zoo’). Sort of above it is the elevated CP station Sete Rios. Next to it is the bus terminal, also known as Sete Rios. On the underground platform there’s a sign pointing towards the bus terminal. I think it says Terminal Rodoviário. I don’t think there’s anything saying Sete Rios. When I surface into the concrete space between the raised CP station and the sunken Metro station there are no more signs. Walking straight ahead, I’m suddenly in one of those cold, grey, empty spaces where only people up to no good lurk. So strange. An elderly lady comes down a flight of stairs and I venture a few words of Portuguese, unpractised for three years. She points me up a (different) flight of stairs, unmarked.
I come to a pathway leading across a small road, past a few bushes and lo! into a large building. There’s an enormous bustle of people, from school students to crones, farmers to strange twitchy people. I buy a ticket for my bus, departing an hour later, and settle in to wait, watch, and avoid sitting next to the more inebriated travellers. Large, shiny coaches depart in waves every half hour, leaving the long concrete concourse briefly barren.
I’m on my way to Elvas, a small fortified town close to the Spanish border. It’s famous primarily for its aqueduct and its historical importance as a fort town. The trip takes about three hours. Elvas lies on the edge of marble country. From the highway I can see piles of white stone on hilltops.
We pull into the small bus station and I peer at my little map. There is, of course, no signposting anywhere pointing towards the old town. The bus station is to the south of the fortified walls, thoroughly concealed behind houses and some large commercial buildings. It’s a steep but mercifully short climb to the closest town gate. I walk along the battlements to my rather luxurious hotel. There weren’t many to choose from and, faced with the option of an overpriced ‘dingy’ (Lonely Planet) pension and a not-too-expensive fancypants hotel, it seemed a no-brainer for two nights. The Hotel São João de Deus isn’t bad at all. High ceilings, comfy bed, nice bathroom, complimentary breakfast in your room, bougainvillea covering the walls outside. Nice. Just a pity the aircon blows hot air even when set to ‘cool’. It’s Portugal. And the very slight whiff of sewer from the bathroom is an old Portuguese friend. (A common problem at seemingly any point on the accommodation spectrum.)
The original town of Elvas is small, barely a kilometre across, enclosed by star-shaped fortifications (a ‘star fort’). The streets are narrow and frequently steep. It’s very sleepy on the weekend. Diminutive, leather-skinned elderly men in bars are complemented by a trickle of Spanish tourists passing through and the occasional couple of earnest Germans with their Nordic walking sticks. In summer it would see more traffic, I’m sure, as it lies on one of the main connections between Spain and Portugal and is listed in most guidebooks. (Elvas used to have a few daily train connections to Badajoz, across the border, making it fun for intrepid train travellers. The train service ceased a few years back. There are, apparently, occasional local buses that ply this route, but I saw no evidence of this and the Spanish bus company didn’t reply to an email. The Lusitânia night train Lisbon-Madrid-Lisbon ran via Elvas until early this year, when a landslide damaged the line. The train is now routed via Vilar Formoso. It is possible the damaged line won’t be repaired.)
Elvas is a fairly pretty place. There are a few churches and small museums. The views of the countryside are gorgeous on a clear sunny day. To the north and south are smaller hill forts, both military installations, I believe. And the aqueduct is humungous. I’d never thought of aqueducts as modern structures, but this one was only completed in the seventeenth century. A baby in the history of aqueducts.
Staying in a very small town from Saturday evening to Monday morning means there won’t be a lot of shopping to be done. Nor will some sights be accessible. That’s life. Elvas is worth a stay of about eighteen hours to get a feel for the place, or about four hours if you just want to see the main sites, have a refreshment and wander along the walls a bit.
I dine in the hotel restaurant, a respectable option in this town. When I arrived at the hotel, the bar was heaving with a wedding party. Unsure whether Saturday evening might be a big night out, I go to the restaurant just a little early for Portugal – about 8.00pm. The restaurant is empty (and would remain so for the entire evening). A waiter speaks a little English, while the younger waitress speaks none. Luckily, I’ve been eating in Portuguese for many years.
The couvert – the numerous little nibbles that appear unbidden (but not free) on your table at the beginning of every restaurant meal here – look great. Where many restaurants serve up a few containers of tuna paté and perhaps a small round of unexciting cheese, the hotel restaurant delivers marinated carrots and mushrooms, olives, roasted capsicum, an oozing aged ewe’s milk cheese (queijo ovelha curado, see also here) and some quite good bread. I could eat my fill on this and not worry about the roasted baby lamb (cordeiro de leite assado no forno) I’ve ordered.
The lamb arrives on a trolley. The waiter carefully removes all the meat from the rather small (ie, young) leg on his platter. He piles the meat in the centre of a plate and places it before me. Here am I, already quite satisfied from the couvert items, and I’ve got a week’s worth of succulent, fragrant, wonderful protein to get through. Sacrifices! This was accompanied by a glass of local red, Figueira de Cima 2004. It was stunning, though not the perfect match to the delicate lamb.
I’d love to skip the fact that I also, foolishly, had dessert. Luckily it was a pretty stingy slice of a slightly singed nut cake, submerged (much like a South Australian pie floater) in a sea of ovos moles, an excruciatingly sweet egg and sugar substance much favoured in Portuguese pastries.
The next day is spent climbing battlements, photographing churches and hilly streetscapes, and consuming numerous espressos. I love Portuguese coffee. It isn’t as dark as the coffee of southern Italy, but is rich and flavoursome without much bitterness. And it’s cheap, costing as little as EUR 0.50 and rarely more than EUR 1.30 in touristy areas anywhere. (That’s A$0.90-2.40.) I order a café pingado, an espresso with a little milk.
Rain clouds gather mid-afternoon. I curtail a walk in the municipal park, southwest of the town walls and divert briefly to a Lidl supermarket (little different from Aldi). It’s one of the few shops open and it satisfies my desire for chocolate. I haven’t had any chocolate (except the liquid variety) for ten days. I’m surprised I haven’t been whisked away in an ambulance.
The skies open just as I return to the hotel. Good timing. It rains for much of the late afternoon and into the evening, so I spend my time packing while watching Portuguese TV. The news broadcasts are long and stupendously boring. If a soccer player stubs his toe, it’s likely to be covered in minute detail for the first thirty minutes (actually, on this particular evening, it’s the retirement of Rui Costa). It’s also political party conference season, so another half hour is spent on the speeches of the conference of the Partido Social Democrato. The remaining half-hour (yes, 90 minutes in total) covers any remaining sports news, the occasional cow with three udders and, if you’re very lucky, some brief happenings from somewhere in Europe.
As my thoughts turn to dinner, I realise I’m still digesting last night’s meal. The thought of another large repast leaves me feeling queasy. Some savoury snacks and a righteous apple become the preferred nourishment. Atonement.