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My Summer 2010 Tour: Portugal
“Estación de Autobuses de Granada” simply means Granada Bus Station. Like “set a thief to catch a thief”, one has to take a bus to reach the bus station as it is located far away in the outskirts of the city.
I approached the information-counter and wanted to know about bus timing for Sagres. The counter clerk punched the name in acomputer but found no results. “No bus for Sagres”, he said. I was taken aback. So I ventured to ask, “Some other bus company?” “No other company” was the curt reply. I talked with his supervisor but it appeared that nobody knew about the place which was located at the south-western edge of Portugal. It was a landmark and the mariners in the ancient world believed that it was end of the world and going into the water was to face the demons of the unknown.
I asked the counter clerk to give me a ticket to any other town a few stops before Lisbon. Certainly, there was a communication gap as I was given a ticket far beyond Lisbon to a place called Porto, up in the mountains. If you don't know where you are going, any road will get you there . So I boarded the bus to hack a 1,200 km distance in about 15 hours. It was awful but best advice would be to “close your eyes and let your spirit soar ”.
The first stop was Seville, a gorgeous city with a river running through. It had magnificent castles and holy places including the third largest church in the world (Catedral de Santa María de la Sede). Huelva was next. Also known as ‘Coast of Light’, it had endless beaches, landscapes of pine and juniper. Soon the bus crossed the Guadiana River which formed the borders between Portugal and Spain. Being in Schengen Zone, there were no immigration or custom controls.
The bus passed by Vila Real de Santo Antonio, a small town on the Portuguese side. The town was completely destroyed in 1755 earthquake but was re-built in just two years using pioneering technique of prefabrication. The road beyond the town weaved through charming villages with strong castles. The terrain reminded me of “A Fistful of Dollars” with unseen banditos eyeing from the rooftops..
Faro and Ourique
About 48 km further, the bus entered Faro. It had attractive squares and a ‘natural lagoon of the Ria Formosa Nature Park with its sheltered anchorages and spectacular bird life’. After Faro, the bus took a 90 degree turn and went up north seemingly on a "Road to Nowhere".
About one hour later, the bus passed by Ourique which had witnessed battle between Prince Afonso Henriques and Moors led by Ali ibn Yusuf. The area was dry but suitable for small scale grazing. There was a tranquil feel of the pace of life. Many small castles had been converted into pousadas which were surrounded by vast gardens. It was a place where storks glide, house martins dance and wild flowers bloom.
Further up, the terrain turned into sloping hills and the road started hugging the sea. The area was famous for the sardine industry.
Beyond Setubal, there were visible changes in the terrain. From dry, it turned into wet. It seemed a stopover for migratory birds.
The Pamplona of Portugal
In the early morning, the bus reached Lisbon and I changed to another bus and continued the onward march. About an hour later, fine bulls were seen grazing in rich pasture. The bus was heading towards Santarem said to be "the Pamplona of Portugal," where there's the running of the bulls during July and October. In Portugal it is illegal to kill a bull in the arena, so it is “removed and slaughtered in the pens as fighting bulls are useful only once”.
A dip in the spritual world
The bus was now dipping into the spiritual world. The world-famous pilgrimage site, Fatima, was just ahead. It was there that the Virgin Mary revealed three secrets: World War II, Fall of Russia and the attempt on the life of Pope John Paul II in 1981 .
Throughout the year, pilgrims make their way to the Basilica of Fatima, some on their knees. A daily torch-lit procession takes place at dusk ‘giving the site a constant atmosphere of spirituality’. There were dozens of springs with therapeutic value and windmills clacking in the breeze.
Beyond the Holy City, the route became scenic with vineyards, sugar-loaf hills and small rivers. Soon the bus slowed down for a brief stop at Coimbra, a university town like Boston, USA. It was famous for its two festivals: Latada, to welcome the new students and Queima das Fitas, at the end of academic year when “more beer is consumed than Oktoberfest in Munich, Germany.”
At long last, the bus entered the city of Porto but stopped abruptly by the side of a road. The driver called it a day and the passengers started getting down. It appeared that Porto had no central bus station but only make-shift arrangements.
After leaving the bus, I searched for a hostel suited to my budget. There was none but far away. Luckily, Proto was a city based on the peak of a hill and road to the suggested hostel was sloping downward. It was a breeze to drag the carry-on. In about 40 minutes, I reached the place, Hospedaria Nassa Senhora do Rosario, Rua do Rasario, Porto. For € 20 a day, I got a spacious room and hit the bed.
The hospedaria was quite near to Aliados which was termed as the “Monumental Heart of Porto”. It had a sloping boulevard with a central promenade. On the high-end stood the Town Hall, a palatial building with its 70 m tall bell tower. The lower side was occupied by Praca da Liberdade, a square adorned with a statue of King Pedro IV on a horse. There was a lot of hustle bustle of tourists; some cipping coffee at roadside cafés and watching the world go by.
While wandering in the streets of Aliados, I came across a kiosk of ‘Hop-on Hop-off’ Bus and bought a 48-hours ticket for €13. Sitting on the rooftop of the bus, I had a glimpse of what Porto had to offer. There was a lot: old quarters filled with cafes, cathedrals, museums, forts and modern high-rise buildings.
I got down at the last point, Ribeira, an old medieval town by the side of River Douro. It had narrow, cobbled and winding streets. Its old houses were equally fascinating with colorful facades and terracotta roof tiles. There was a long line of bars and restaurants by the riverside offering a variety of foods and drinks. Besides, there were as many as six bridges spanning the river, the most spectacular being ‘Ponte de Dom Luis’.
In the downtown, I went to a fortress-like cathedral known as ‘Se de Porto’. It was originally constructed in the 12th century but underwent many alterations over time. As per guide-books ‘the rose window in the west front is the only remnant from the 12th century, a Gothic cloister was added in the late 14th century, and the main chapel was built in the 17th century. A staircase to upper levels was added in the 18th century.”
Though I had planned for Sagres, I was dumped into Porto by some misunderstanding with Bus Company. But it was a blessing in disguise as Porto turned out to be a most beautiful city in Iberian Peninsula. There was no dearth of transport. Old trams were rattling in the city along with a most modern subway started in 2002 at a cost of €1.3 billion.
The food was good and rather inexpensive. Eating was a fun as the dishes were set on the tables with embroidered cloth. Seafoods especially cod fish were quite common. Pastries were specialty of the city. Of course, the city was famous for “Port Wine”. There were many wine museums and cellars offering free tasting.
For going to Lisbon, I preferred train since the fare was the same, i.e. €20 but time and comfort were added advantages. I reached Lisbon in about three hours. Once out of the train station, I boarded a bus for Rosario, the main square. I had reserved a room in a guest house , Aljubarrota at Rua Da Assuncao N 53 4Th Floor, Baixa / Chiado, Lisbon. It was housed at the fourth floor of a 18th Century building and had no lift. It was an uphill task to scale 75 steps with luggage. I got a room for €30 with a spacious balcony overlooking the busy streets below.
In the evening, I set out for a walk in the Baixa District. It was the main shopping centre vibrating with old tramcars, street performers and vendors.
I stayed at Lisbon for three days. Two landmarks, Lisbon Cathedral and St George Fort , were nearby. In fact, I could see them from the balcony of my room.
The cathedral was built by Portugal's first king on the site of an old mosque in 1150. It resembled a medieval fortress with two bell towers and a splendid rose window. It had many sacred objects like a casket containing the remains of St. Vincent.
The cathedral was located at an elevated part of the city. Further up was St. George Fort. In old day, it used to protect settlement along the River Tagus. Nowadays, the bulky castle was crowning the most densely populated area, the Alfama. Besides, the fort had some gardens where geese and ducks were roaming oblivious of the world around. The visitors were allowed to climb the towers and walk along the reconstructed ramparts of the castle walls enabling them to have a spectacular view of Lisbon and the Tagus River.
After visiting the cathedral and the fort, I had round of Alfama. It had narrow and winding streets flanked by old houses. It was like a trip in the time tunnel giving smells and sounds of old Lisbon. After the earthquake of 1755 while other areas were rebuilt, Alfama was simply restored to serve as a living history blending the past with the present.
I went to Belem on train to visit the monument of Padráo dos Descobrimentos. Before the monument, there was a mosaic decoration showing a world map with the routes of various Portuguese explorers. The monument itself was built in 1960 to celebrate 500th anniversary of Portuguese who took some part in discovery. It consisted of a 52 meter-high slab of concrete, carved into the shape of the prow of a ship. It had marble sculptures showing Henry the Navigator leading the discoverers including Vasco Da Gama.
Another important monument was “The Torre de Belém”. In old days, it served as military tower to guard the entrance of the Tagus River to Lisbon. Originally, it was built in the middle of the river but now stood on one side as the river had altered it course.
A trip to the Jerónimos Monastery was thrilling. It contained the tombs of King Manuel and other Portuguese Royalty as well as many important figures from Portuguese history.
A part of the monastic complex was the Chapel of St. Jerome, a small rectangular building with conical pinnacles at the four corners and stone "rope" along the roofline. In 1984, it was declared as World Heritage by UNESCO saying "Standing at the entrance to Lisbon harbor, the Monastery of the Hieronymites - construction of which began in 1502 - exemplifies Portuguese art at its best."
On 21st July, 2010, I flew to Istanbul by Turkish Airlines. In the 30-day tour, I had spent about €3,600 (Equivalent to four lacs rupees) or €120 per day. It would have been much higher had not I travelled frugally, trying to save every penny. I spent another 15 days in Turkey and wrote two hubs: (i) The Shrine of Hazrat Ayub Ansari and (ii) The shrine of Mevlana Jalaluddin Rumi.
I thought it was successful tour without any mishap. But not so !!! As per Italian Embassy's condition, I was to report back to thier Consulate at Karachi. When I went there, I was attended by a lady who asked me to show her my passport. She thoroughly examined it and got flared up when she saw a small ‘exit stamp’ of Portugal Immigration Authority. She started screaming “In your visa application, you said only Italy. How come you stepped out of it. It is a serious violation.” I replied very humbly, “I’m sorry, I didn’t know of this condition.” “Ignorance of law is no excuse”, she retorted at the top of her voice so that other offenders, if any, sitting the hall should take note of it. I just wondered over her attitude as the embassy had given me a card along with the visa which, inter-alia, stated that "a Schengen visa allows you to enter and to travel within the countries that are: Austria ...................... Switzerland." There was hardly any clue that, in my case, it was restricted to Italy.
I end this travelogue with this proverb which appropriately applies to me: