Sunday, 15 July 2018
How you get to Portugal depends on how much money and time you have to spare. If you're lucky enough to have both then the drive down through France and Spain can be enjoyable. The secret is to plan your journey time carefully. Give yourself enough time to savour the very different delights both countries have to offer.
But, if like me, poverty is a way of life rather than an abstract philosophy (copyright the Conservative Party), then there really is only one way - the Brittany Ferries sailing from Plymouth to Santander in the north of Spain. This takes 24 hours and sails twice a week (sailing times differ depending on the time of year). Price at the time of writing is £138 single or £276 return. Open returns are available and recommended. Just make sure they shut the doors. Discounts are available and can be considerable. I hear that Bike magazine do have dealings with the ferry companies but since I'm over 18 I'm not allowed to buy it, so you'll have to find out for yourself.
How you ge into Portugal after you get to Santander is all a matter of personal preference. You can hang a right out of Santander and take the coast road, the N635 (E50) to the north of Portugal but, and here’s the rub, very few people in that neck of the wood speak English and getting fed, drunk, housed and directions can be tedious and frustrating.
Better to start in the Algarve, where English is widely spoken and you can begin to practise the Portugese you learnt at evening class. But seriously, folks, make an effort to learn at least a bit of the language - it'll make the difference between having a good time and having a complete and utter ball. Courses are available in most large towns, your local library will have the details.
One route you can take is as follows: Take the N623 through Burgos to Madrid (about 200 miles), then take the E25 to Cordoba (but, please, please, watch out for a very nasty junction at Bailen) - 260 miles. Then through Cordoba to Sevilla and then take the N431 to Vila Real, a mere 160 miles. These mileages are just a rough estimate to give you some idea, and I only recommend this. route because I like to spend at least one night in Madrid if I’m in Spain!
Remember, also, to give yourself plenty of time to get used to driving on the right, especially pulling out from gas stations and junctions. First impressions upon arrival in the Algarve are not good. Try to imagine Wigan basking in 120F and you have some idea what Vila Real is like. It’s what I would call a working town, though it does have a good plaza in the middle of the city with cheap sidewalk cafes. If you're so tired you can't ride any further, book into a pension and go to the town cinema (the last place I'd go - Ed) as going to the cinema in Portugal is a must as films are almost always in English and have half hour in-_ tervals to let you get pissed at the inevitable bar.
Once out of Vila Real head along the N125 to Faro. This will give you your first taste of Portugese driving. If you thought the Spanish were bad they've got nothing on these guys. One incident will stay with me forever. Most of the main roads in Portugal consist of two lanes with a hard shoulder (of loose red dirt) on either side. I had just turned a fairly tight right hander to be confronted with a bus doing about 70mph, overtaking a heavily laden lorry. It would normally have been quite easy to avoid by pulling onto the hard shoulder but no-one, and I mean no-one, can predict the driving antics of the Portugese driver. On the outside of the bus - on the hard shoulder was a BMW motor doing 100mph overtaking the bus! Luckily, I was driving a car at the time, so locked everything up and ended on the verge on the wrong side of the road (the only space left) I watched in horror as the BMW went round the corner on the wrong side of the road followed at high speed by the bus. And this is where I begin to have my doubts about life, the universe and the idea of riding a motorcycle abroad.
Behind the first bus was another bus doing exactly the same thing! Staring open mouthed in astonishment rapidly becomes a normal part of your day. If you manage to make it as far as Faro, my advice is to drop a gear and power on through. Because the airport is right on its doorstep the rip-off merchants are out in force. Prices in the shops and cafes are just stupid compared to the rest of the country. If you want a quick bite to eat and a drink, go to the cafe/bar opposite the railway station.
If this begins to sound a little grim, never fear, there's worse. It’s called Albuferia. Fortunately, the main road goes past it, so you dont actually have to visit it. But it's a great place to see Monty Python's Watney's Red Barrel sketch on a grand scale and get hassled by time share salesmen.
Fortunately, the rest of the Algarve is free from these rascals. If you want to find the limit of your temper then take a walk down to the beach at Albuferia, the shitheads just wont give up, but you can have some fun at their expense. Say your interested but are really starving and are just gong to grab some lunch - without fail they will pay for it and a bottle of wine in the hope you'll get drunk enough to sign up (although it does help to be over six foot when playing out this ploy). And that’s the worst over with.
Portimao is the next town you hit, renowned for its seafood. Go down to the quayside and have lunch at the open air restaurants, gorge on king prawns and barbecued sardines, washed down with the local wine. Great stuff(ing) and all for two or three quid.
Unless terminally homesick, avoid all the English owned bars for two reasons - they are two or three times as expensive as the local places and are nearly always owned by complete pricks - and this goes for anywhere in the Algarve. About this time, with a bit of luck, you'll discover the Task. These are really slummy bars but great fun. If you want character these are the places to go. Even asking for directions to the nearest Task will bring a me grin to the face of your friendly native and do your street cred no harm at all. If you want something a little more civilised - tut, tut - then there's a huge choice of eateries.
Apart from the Portugese, the many Indonesian restaurants are damn good value. And don’t worry about overstaying your welcome as the Portugese expect you to stay all night. Every small village has at least two restaurants and it’s well worth getting on your bike and finding some out of the way place. The only thing on the menu that might stretch your budget is lobster (Lavagante) This is priced in kilos and this can catch out the unwary. Still, it’s delicious.
Leaving Portimao on the N125 (N stands for National, some of which is like our motorways but mostly it’s similar to our A roads) you'll see the signpost for the 902 to Monchique. Take this road and you'll see some of the most beautiful scenery in the world. Drive up through the rugged and wooded Serra de Monchique and can almost see the greed in Bogart’s eyes (anyone care to explain this? Ed). This is a Spa town famous for its pure and natural water. Accommodation is fairly limited, although there is a good hotel that can be used outside the peak tourist season (it’s a bit of a tourist trap but commonsense will see you through). Back down the 902 and onto the N125 towards Lagos.
This gives a fine chance to sample village life. About ten miles along this road, turn off to Mexilhoeira Grande and have a drink in one of the roadside bars. You will soon be accosted by the local bike maniacs. These guys drive around on heavily tuned 125s of homegrown or Spanish origin; no Jap crap here. Speaking of home grown, those of us who like to put our Rizlas together three at a time will find the quality here a bit of a revelation, as well as cheaper. But be warned, the jail in Vila Real is full of German hippies who thought they were still in Spain.
But I digress, you may be tempted to have a go on one of these bikes but be careful, Portugese riders think that brakes are for Nancy boys. And I speak from bitter experience. The first time I rode one of these things I found a 200rpm power band, no brakes and a dry river bed that resulted in a broken arm, bike and bank balance (insurance is also reserved for closet benders). Mexilhoeira Grande is also the home of the infamous Campismo.
Words fail me when I try to describe it. All I can say is that if it’s open, try it. Apart from Bastardos I wouldn't really recommend using campsites. They insist that any food/booze you consume on site be bought from their on-site shop (expensive). No noise after 10.30pm (radios, motorcycles, etc). And they charge for the tent, the number or people in it and the bike. Much better to stay in pensions.
These are cheap, clean and you get a comfortable bed. Best place is to get one at the local railway or bus stations where the landladies tout for business (an ambivalent statement if ever there was one - Ed). Don't be put off by their insistent style, it’s just the way they are. As most are middle-aged they don’t speak English. Thus, do you have somewhere to park my motorcycle is, "Tem em qualquer lado sem perigo estacionar minha motocicleta?" Incidentally, in all the time I was in Portugal I never had anything stolen, quite the reverse, in fact - twice I lost my bag containing passport and cash and twice I had it returned intact.
If Vila Real is a working town then Lagos is where you go to have fun. Most of the town centre is traffic free and at the cafes and bars you can make and meet friends from all over the world - mostly Germany. The Krauts are out in force, although they’re not such a bad lot, but jokes about the war leave them baffled, as does humming the Dam Busters theme every time they walk past.
Places to visit are the well preserved Slave market (the original Jobcentre) and the old fort. The nightlife is great, as you'd expect in a town crammed full of young, adventurous people. Actual nightclubs are few and far between, but with bars and restaurants open to the early hours who needs to spend £5 to stand on a sweaty, crowded floor listening to George Michael (you sure it's not covered in vomit - Ed) at five billion watts. Greens can check out the veggie restaurant close to the main police station.
Most of the police are OK. They come in three different types. The ones dressed in green with the pill-box hats are mostly simple chaps who try and ignore the fact that tourists exist. Requests for directions will be greeted with a blank stare. The regular Guarda are dressed in blue and include the traffic section. If your documents are in order then the worst you'll get is an on the spot fine for speeding. If they are not then you will get a lot of hassle, but on the whole they’re OK. Also dressed in blue but issued with mirror shades and commando style berets are the PCP. These bastards are only found in the Algarve in the summer months.
How bad these guys are is borne out by the wild rumours that circulate as to where these guys come from - the one that was going around before I left was that they were murderers who had to do this duty before they got parole. This is quite credible - avoid like the plague.
After the excesses of Lagos, where better to let it all drift away than the End Of The World. No, it's not the apocalypse, just what Cabo de sao Vicente used to be called before Christopher Columbus discovered America and, by some strange twist of fate, this was where he learnt how to do it (well, he probably learnt how to do it in Lagos). This is where he went to the School of Navigation set up by Henry the Navigator.
The ruins of the school stand atop cliffs that drop down a 100 feet, Straight down into the Atlantic Ocean. It’s the kind of place that makes you feel you're the small, insignificant speck you always suspected you were. It must have taken some gall to set out across a massive ocean with little idea of what you were going to find (happily they found Brazil and all had a far out time screwing the Incas.)
There is a Youth Hostel in the old school but you'll have to book during the summer months. A YHA card is quite a useful thing to have. It’s only a few quid and you can join at your local Youth Hostel. The card is valid all over Europe and gives you access to cheap if basic accommodation.
From here take the N268 up to Aljezur. This is a great bike road that runs for the most part alongside the ocean. I remember riding up it one morning with the temperature hitting the nineties, wearing only a pair of shorts, Hawaaian beach shirt and a pair of the ubiquitous shades. By the time I got to Aljezur my teeth were speckled by flies because I couldn't keep the grin off my face.
By the time you get to Aljezur you will be on the N120 to one of my favourite places outside the ALgarve - Grandola is famous for nothing in particular except having amidst its populace the most honest person I've ever met. It had been three years since I was last there and I'd only been in town about ten minutes when a taxi pulled up beside me. I was about to wave it away when the driver leapt out and thrust a pair of sunglasses into my hand. “Here you are," he said, "you left these in the cab the last time you were here!" Things like this happen all the time in Portugal but you never quite get used to it.
Grandola has good nightlife for its size, the restaurants are well cheap and the bars appear to be open 24 hours a day. A few miles down the 825 is the Praia de Melides, a beach much used by the Portugese - and they should know where to go. The fresh water lake only 50 yards from the beach gives it a great advantage. There is a campsite here but you can camp on the beach - illegal but generally accepted on this particular beach.
Either take the N120 and then the E52/E4 (tolled motorway) to Lisbon or, preferably, the more enjoyable route of the 261 and then the oe to Setubal, joining the E4 further up for the spectacular ride into the heart of Lisbon. Driving over the massive bridge, joining Almada and Lisbon is quite an event in itself. Looking back and to the right you'll see the huge statue of Christ, a slightly smaller version of the one in Rio de Janerio. Looking down whilst crossing the bridge can have interesting results. The roadway is cast grid-iron which means when you're moving at speed and look down there seems to be nothing between you and a 300 feet drop into the water. I only mention this because when I first did it, I almost fell off - forewarned is forearmed.
Lisbon is Disneyland for adults. You can have some serious fun in this town. The Bairro Alto district is where it’s happening. A magazine article I once read described it as Lisbon’s Soho, but this is like fish paste to freshly caught salmon. The Bairro Alto is a wonderful, friendly place - the worst thing about it was having to leave. There are far too many places to visit to list here, so I won't. Just go there with an open mind and enjoy.
Again, I would recommend staying in a pension. The Tourist Info place will give you a list with phone numbers, although if you do phone try to get a Portugese speaker to help you. Last time I was there I paid three quid a night and they didn’t care what time I rolled in. If you're rich, hotels are about £40 to £50 a night for a double. During the summer months you'll have to book well in advance.
At the Gulbenkian Art Gallery, you can feed your face as well as your mind, lunch is so good you will find yourself eating there every day. Other places that might not be in a regular guide include the amazing fun fair that’s straight out of the 1920's. The roller coaster might not be the biggest in the world but it’s definitely the most terrifying - how long you're on it depends on how long the attendant’s in the bar across the road. And you can go see A Clockwork Orange, a film that is banned in Britain, but on in Lisbon all the year round - don’t ask me why.
Going out at night to drink is best done by leaving the bike at home, instead use of the cheap and sometimes cheerful, taxis. They'll save a lot of hassle and won’t try to rip you off. As a matter of fact, they will only charge eight quid to take you the five miles to the new Potugese GP at Sintra (and not, as Bike magazine put it, probably in Spain).
Estoril and Cascai are in the same neck of the wood and are often billed as the Portugese Riviera, but they're not really in the same class, maybe they're talking about the prices on the seafront.
Well, if you’ve read so far you should have avoided most of the horrors and tasted some of the real Portugal. My advice now is load the bike and go and explore. There are many delights to be found inland from the coast and friendships to be made that will last for years.
Make the effort to speak the language and you'll find a race of people devoid of any of the greed and avarice that has become the norm in our beleaguered isle. And when you get home? You can snap your fingers at principles and prejudices, smile indulgently, thrust your hands in your pockets and see yourself as a shrewd man of the world. You have moved around for a brief while in the comfortable and warm life of the South. And never after this will your bike drive along clear or troubled roads without at least one coloured pennant fluttering its confident defiance - Sim, Gosto Muito!
Just a couple of things before you go. You will need a Green Card to make your insurance valid. Driving through Spain will require a Bail Bond - if you don’t have one and have an accident then the Spanish police will probably throw you in a cell for a few days/weeks/months. I was going to recommend a get-you-home-breakdown scheme but the more I think about it the more I’m convinced it would be cheaper to take it to the nearest train station and take it home yourself.
Anyway, with all the engineering shops around it would have to be pretty major before you'd have to resort to that. So, I think I would save the cash for some Madronha, a weird drink that should be left to the professional dipso - don't blame me if you wake up in the wrong place with some strange woman, you've brought it on yourself.