Two Weeks Backpacking in Portugal, June 2002

As part of my blog I am adding edited excerpts of emails I sent on past travels.
In June 2002 (between my first year of graduate school in Monterey, California and the start of my one year of study in Singapore) I backpacked through Spain, Portugal, Gibraltar and Andorra for a total of six weeks. Two of those weeks were in Portugal. I entered the coastal south of the country by bus from Seville, Spain and departed from the midsection by truck to Caceras, Spain. I visited Tavira, Lisbon, Sintra, Obidos, Nazare, Porto, Viana do Castelo, Coimbra, Evora, Portalegre, and Marvao.

It was a fantastic two weeks, I think in a large part because I traveled about one week of it with CH, a woman from New York I met in a hostel in Lisbon. I remember us heading to a small bar/restaurant in Lisbon to listen to Fado music. In Obidos we stuffed our faces with plums we stole from someone’s tree. In Porto we took a wine tour and watched the US beat Portugal in a World Cup match shown live in a local theater. In Viana do Castelo we strolled through the old town and skipped rocks on the beach. And the most memorable part of Coimbra was our drain-less shower in the hostel! CH and I are still friends to this day.

I also particularly remember Portugal because I hitchhiked there. Twice! I still have a hard time believing I really did that, but I did. I have only done so maybe 5 times in my life (twice in Japan and another time in Taiwan).

Day One
I entered Portugal from Seville to stop first at Tavira on the south coast. I am sure I stopped here for historical reasons and chose to avoid the more touristy/more popular town of Faro on some kind of principal. Unfortunately I did not like Tavira. Perhaps I was too tired from the bus ride and the already two weeks backpacking in Spain? The only thing I wrote about Tavira was “Great if you like absolute Boredom! OK, I am not good at relaxing. I was so bored I paid 2 euros to ride toy train about town. And the town was so small they even took us to some run down parts which you wouldn´t think would be on any tourist toy train trip.” Ouch.

Day Two
I took the train to Lisbon. Part of track was broken, so at one point the whole train load had to get off and take buses to the next part of the track. Then we changed later to a boat to take us into Lisbon. Lisbon is nice but I was tired. It was an easy day.

It does not sound easy when a train has to unload and then take buses to the next part of the track and then load back onto the train and then change to a boat, does it? However, in my travels I have found I am often amused and delighted by such things as train delays. In my day to day life this would drive me nuts, but I am willing to accept and embrace it when traveling. I remember when I took a bus from Sydney to Canberra in 2000 and the bus broke down. I recall it being fun.

Day Three
Lisbon. I visited the Aquarium. I had to since I attend graduate school in Monterey where there is a popular aquarium. I also visited the Monastery at Belem-beautiful. I took a tram up the windy streets to Sao Jorge castle, but disembarked early because of an overzealous American hater. I only asked him if this was the way to the castle and I got a monologue ‘I don´t know. I have been going nowhere for 20 years. My wife and I love Portugal, come here every year (and yet he does not know where the castle is?). We just were in Paris, but are stopping here for a week. Best place, Lisbon. Up ahead on the left is a church where they had the body of the king of Romania for years because no one else wanted him. [I interject with a “wasn´t he executed?] What? No! They never execute anyone here, not even the bulls…..Where are you from? America? They don´t much like Americans here, and I agree. That crazy president…’ As he simply continued on and on I got off the next stop I could. That night I went to see Fado, a traditional Portuguese song and music, with two girls from the hostel. Really nice Fado, really bad waiter.

Day Four
I visited Sintra, the former summer residence for the monarchs of Portugal. It is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. These days I absolutely love visiting UNESCO World Heritage Sites – I thought I was at the time I visited Sintra as well. Yet the only thing, and I mean the ONLY thing I wrote about the town was that it is “Beautiful, but COLD.” It must have been quite cold. I do have a pretty strong dislike for the cold and apparently it can blot out memory of all else. Perhaps I need to visit Portugal again?

Day Five
Obidos and Nazare. I took a bus to Obidos, a really nice town, with two women from the hostel – Sun Hua from Korea and CH from New York. We left our bags at a grocery store and explored until the bus to Nazare arrived. As we walked around the town we found a plum tree. CH marched up and plucked a plum and ate it. So soon we were all robbing the tree of its fruit and stuffing it into our bags and mouths, though mine all went into my mouth. We walked atop the town walls and met a nice American couple and did the obligatory photo exchange. Then we happened upon a guy below the wall behind a house doing the same as my man in Seville. The guy was busy exciting his equipment in full view of the wall, and it brought more excitement to him that we came upon him. I couldn´t believe this, two guys in less than a week. I am sure this happens frequently enough, but I don´t usually happen upon them! We took off as quickly as the thin walls with a 10 foot drop would let us hurry, though later we thought we should have heckled him or something.

We then caught the bus to Nazare, known for its traditional dress of seven petticoats, and for the most aggressive housing ladies in Portugal. I was a bit disappointed that only one lady, with big hair, gold teeth, and lots of gold jewelry, met our bus. She was aggressive, but after all only one. We got down to the main street and then we were swamped with offers of places to say about every few feet. It was difficult to walk the 10 minutes to the tourist office, because we had to stop every few feet to find out about some place to stay. I was very keen to take the funicular car up the hillside for the great view, but of course it was broken! So we walked up. Nice view though. Cute little town, and the older women really do wear the traditional clothing.

Day Six
Porto. It was raining, a bit of a disappointment. Porto is supposed to be really nice, but at first it was hard to tell in the rain. And it was a bit COLD. What in the world, it was JUNE! We found a nice place to stay though, the woman there was so super. Smiles all the time. Really sweet. She more than made up for the rain. So we rested. I was still traveling with Sun-Ha and CH. In the evening Sun-Ha fell asleep really early, but CH and I took advantage of a lull in the rain to take a bit of a stroll about town. The big bridge over the river was beautiful at night.

Day Seven
Porto. We caught the Portugal-USA World Cup game for free at a theater, where a wide screen television was set up. We got all kinds of stuff, whistles and some plastic things to beat together, as well as a game schedule. It was quite fun, but as you can imagine since the US won, the mood was a bit somber as the crowd filed out. We tried to get on tv, and they did come over to us, but then proceeded to ignore CH and I in order to interview Sun-Ha. What! South Korea wasn´t even playing! Then we headed over to a Port wine cellar for a free tour and free samples. None of us were wine drinkers but we each had a taste. It was fun, and the weather was very fine! We walked back over the top of the bridge (all the wine cellars are on the other side of the river because the temperature and soil are better or something). I want to go back someday in September when the grapes are harvested so I can take part as some wine houses we still do the wine processing the traditional way-with feet! I want to do that! We also visited some sights in Porto, including a tower and the old Stock exchange. A very good day.

Day Eight
Viana do Castelo. It rained for much of the morning and early afternoon. I was thoroughly disappointed that once again the funicular which was to take me to a top of a hill for a beautiful view was out of service. What is it about the funiculars in Portugal? CH and I had an adventure trying to find the supermarket, but we took a wrong turn and it seemed everyone had been sent to avoid us. We saw an old man who looked as though his path was going to intersect ours so we slowed down to time it right. CH went up to ask him and he ignored her! She said ‘Pardon’ about three times before he seemed to notice we were there. CH and I took a stroll around the old town, which seemed deserted, and skipped stones by the beach.

Day Nine
Coimbra. I had not intended to visit Coimbra, but I wanted to head south to the city of Evora next and the trip by bus was going to take me 8 HOURS from Viana. I just couldn´t face it. So I decided to rest a day in Coimbra before venturing on to Evora. Coimbra is home to Portugal´s oldest university. Of course it was cold and raining when we were there. We still went up to the University and checked things out. But even with umbrellas the special sideways rain soon has us soaked and we took refuge in the Geography building, or it could have been the Science building. Anyway, we joined the ugly, unfriendly dog already hiding out there, and hung out and sang songs and watched the antics of the dog and his little dog friend until the rain subsided. The most memorable thing about Coimbra was the dog.

Day Ten
Evora. Evora is supposed to be Portugal´s premier town, a UNESCO world heritage site. For me a backpacker now on my own again, and really needing to pee, it was a nuisance. After hopping off the bus, I inspected the bus station toilets, which were horrible. Squatters and each with a little surprise pile in the middle of the toilet. I thought I would just walk into town and find a place to stay and go there. Yet it took me one and a half hours to locate the tourist office and a place to stay. The youth hostel was booked up, and so were all the other cheapies. Luckily there was a public toilet I could use and I didn´t have to wait the whole 90 minutes and the place I found. I paid 22 Euros for it, the most so far! And it was bare. No sink, no toilet, just a bed and a night stand. Though it did have a tv with CNN, so it was okay. The shower was a trickle, and there was this annoying ritual to get into my room. The room I was staying in was in another building from the reception. So I had to go to the other building first to have them let me into my building every time. I asked why we couldn´t have a key to other building and just received a withering glance from the 14 year old boy running reception. So I often went to the public toilets instead of back to my room for emergencies while strolling about. And there were no grocery stores. I had to eat in restaurants! The shame of it! 🙂 I have just been eating cheaper recently. The one grocery store had about three little aisles, with old vegetables, candy, a few blocks of cheese, and a whole aisle for detergents and stuff. Not exactly a place to stock up on food. There was the Roman era Temple of Diana; that was nice. The center of town was nice too. I followed the aqueduct out to an old poorly cared for fort, and that was it. So I decided one day was enough in Evora.

Day Eleven
Portalegre. I caught the bus from Evora here. I was going to continue on to Castelo da Vide, but since I had to wait several hours for the connecting bus I gave up and decided to stay. Besides Portalegre looked appealing as we drove up on the bus. (It had finally stopped raining when I was in Evora). And they had a REAL supermarket. So, I stayed the night there. I walked around the nice center of town and found it more pleasing than Evora.

Day Twelve
Castelo da Vide. I was the only person on the bus from Portalegre to Castelo da Vide. A whole 20 minute trip that I waited overnight to do and paid 4.80 Euros. Robbery! I paid 11.70 Euros for the four hour bus trip from Coimbra to Evora, and I paid only 1.10 Euros for the 50 minute train ride from Lisbon to Sintra! In C. da Vide I put my bag down in the tourist office, picked up my tourist map and had a look about town. It is a very nice town. Again, I enjoyed it more than Evora. I left my bag at 12:30 and was to pick it up at 2 pm when the tourist office opened again, but I caught the last 30 minutes of the Portugal-Poland game in a smoky cafe, where I was the only woman. I got a few looks, but I didn´t care. It was a great last 30 minutes.

Then I had to decide what to do next. I wanted to go to Marvao, a town about 12 kilometers from C. da Vide, but it being a holiday there were no buses, only taxis. Sso I decided to try hitchhiking. I had a black marker and I printed in big letters MARVAO on a piece of paper, then I headed down the road. I figured even if I was unable to get a lift, it would only take me FOUR HOURS. Surely I could not be so wimpy as to be unable to walk for 4 hours with my pack on, could I? Off I went. I sang songs to myself and amused myself with thoughts as I walked. When I heard a car approaching from behind, I would hold my sign up over my head. I managed to sing the whole of 100 bottles of beer on the wall! It was warm, there was shade and the walk was not all that unpleasant. After one hour of walking I got a ride! Three siblings, two brothers and a sister, picked me up. They live in Lisbon but have a house in Marvao, which is a small hamlet of only 187 souls perched high on a hill, with almost everyone still living within the old medieval walls. As we drove up, I thought I would have never made it up that hill… The siblings not only gave me a lift but also invited me to dinner and to stay the night. So I stayed with them. I took a stroll around the town, which is applying for UNESCO status, and again, I liked it more than Evora.

Day Thirteen
Return to Spain. Now Marvao being near the border as it is, of course has no public transportation to Spain. There was only one train leaving from another town 9 kilometers away, departing at 1 am. Very convenient. Since I thought the border was only 5 kilometers away, I was resolved, with my success from the day before, to walk across the border and get a bus there, or to get a ride all the way to Caceras in Spain, just 100 kilometers away. I made a new sign CACERAS-ESPANA and started to walk. But at 10 am it was already hot and there was no shade. I quickly doubted this was a good idea. Still, I kept going. But lucky me because a Spanish truck driver stopped for me just 20 minutes into my walk. As he was heading to Valencia he agreed to take me the whole way. We conversed about the EU, the possibility of a Mexico-US alliance like the EU, jobs, the differences between cows, and the like in Spanish. It took a bit longer to get to Caceras because the truck was old and he had to pull over and check the tires and other parts a couple of times. Yet he did take me all the way to the center of Caceras, shook my hand, and then was off. But now back in civilization where buses roam, I will be back to buses.

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