Sunday, November 28, 1999

TR Portugal

Trip Report
Lisbon, Portugal
(Spain #2)

Now where were we? Oh yes, just arriving into Madrid by night train from Barcelona.

As usual my first stop was at the tourist/hotel desk in the train station to find a hotel for a few days. My quasi-street person disguise started to come in handy. The agent took one look at me and tried to direct me to a hostel. When I stated that I wanted a 2 or 3-star hotel with an ensuite bath and at least one English channel on TV she obliged me and quoted the bottom end of the price scale but looked at me like “Sure, and how are you going to pay for it”? That ugly warm-up top was one of the best investments that I ever made. It kept me from freezing to death and probably saved me hundreds of dollars on that trip alone!
The Spanish student had advised me to stay in the Central Zone close to the Plaza Mayor and the Parque del Buen Retiro. This turned out to be the correct advice for me. Madrid is big city with lots of traffic and you can smell and taste the pollution during the busy traffic hours. Fortunately Retiro Park which is the old gardens and hunting grounds of the kings was only a mile from my hotel. So I could jog over to the park and run the many dirt trails through the park, as I needed to continue my training runs. The central area is compact enough that one can walk almost everywhere and there are lots of tourist attractions to see: palaces, museums and of course churches.
I took a city tour immediately to learn the layout of the city but walked everywhere after that. But after two days in the city I had seen everything I wanted to see and I was also getting very tired of the Spanish routine. It is completely out of phase with my normal routine. I was eating dinner every day at midnight. And I was tired of Spanish food. During the day all you can get to eat are bocadillas (sub sandwiches) or tapas (appetizers or finger food). The evening meals are all fried. I couldn’t find a boiled potato or pasta!
So I decided to escape to the countryside. I took a tour to San Lorenzo De El Escorial and Valle De Las Caidos. El Escorial or the Royal Monastery is considered to be the 8th wonder of the world. It was built by King Felipe II in 1562 to honor the Spanish victory over the French at San Quentin. It was also built to house the pantheon for all the Spanish kings. I continued my European history lesson as I discovered that not only are the Spanish kings buried there but many of the Hapsburg dynasty including Queen Maria Teresa who ruled all of Europe in the 17th century.
The tour also took us to the Valley of the Fallen that is a memorial built by Franco for all soldiers killed in the Civil War. It is marked by a 450-foot high cross and a church that is carved 400 feet into a granite mountain. Of course Franco is buried in the church!
Then I decided to go off on my own to visit Toledo, an old walled city 70km south of Madrid. This is an old city originally founded by the Romans and then captured by the Arabs. The city has been captured by so many people and cultures and all are evident in the many old buildings. Most streets are the same as they were 2000 years ago. They are very narrow and wind around all over the place. I got lost several times –and I had a map! Unfortunately I only had one afternoon to tour the city and it was not enough!
It was time to move on to Lisbon to meet my manager, lover and companion (Nicole) who was bringing me fresh clothes and supplies. This time I decided to reduce the number of roommates and increase my chance of getting a good sleep on the train –translate that to hopefully no snorers! There actually was a first class sleeper coach on the night train to Lisbon so I booked a semi-private cabin. My roommate was a 75 year-old retired pilot from Sao Paulo, Brazil. He was a nice gentleman – but he snored! But he made up for it by taking me under his wing when we arrived in Lisbon. He hired a taxi and dropped me off at my hotel and wouldn’t accept any payment!
Since I had arrived in Lisbon at 8am and Nicole wasn’t arriving until 1pm, I decided to go to race HQ and pick up my race package. Upon leaving the HQ I ran into a friend from the 50+DC club in the street and we decided to tour the city together and have lunch while I was waiting for Nicole.
After she arrived I was able to show her around the old center of Lisbon where our hotel was located. The next day we took a city tour. There are lots of attractions such as the Castelo de San Jorge that overlooked the city and our hotel, Jeronimos Monastery, Torre de Belem –a 14th century defense tower built in the Rio Tejo (Tejo River), a duplicate of the Christ Statue in Rio de Janeiro (but not as tall), and the Discoveries Monument. Portugal is very proud of their place in history as one of the dominant explorers and colonizing countries.
A few things that are also strictly Portuguese and amazing are the use of ceramic tiles everywhere and their sidewalks. Many of the building exteriors are completely covered in ceramic tiles, many hundreds of years old with very detailed patterns and murals. Every sidewalk in Portugal including many roads are made of small (2 to 3 inch cubes) of limestone set in sand. Many have intricate patterns also built in by using small cubes of dark basalt. The labor to build these walks and roads has got to be tremendous as it is all done by hand!
But overall both Nicole and I were disappointed in Lisbon. It is not nearly as dynamic or as picturesque as other European cities. Most of the buildings in the old section of the city are run down and poorly maintained -but could look great if someone would just paint and fix them up!
The next day we took a private tour up the Estoril coast north of Lisbon. We stopped in Cascais, a small picturesque resort town that we really liked. We passed by Cabo da Roca, the most western point in continental Europe on our way to Sintra. Sintra is a Portuguese version of Toledo; a walled city built on the top of two mountains. It is not as old but it is very pretty. There are three palaces. We toured one that had been built four hundred years ago and was noted for the ceramic tiles that were used to decorate the interior. I thought they were very garish but they are the original tiles!

Now it was time to prepare for the big race. Up to now Nicole and I had been enjoying some great seafood which was such a pleasant change from the Spanish diet. But I needed pasta. There were only a few Italian restaurants in the whole city and they were too far from the hotel so I ended up eating something they called ‘spagetti’ at the hotel. Ugh!
The marathon started just off the main commercial square in the old city, ran north into the hills and returned to the center of the city to go out along the Tejo River toward the Atlantic Ocean before turning around and heading back to the commercial square. For the first time in 147 marathons I was misdirected off course by race officials. About 5K into the race they sent about twenty of us off course with the 10K racers. It took us about five minutes to realize that were with the wrong group, retrace our steps and cut a few corners to rejoin the marathon pack. I figured I lost about two or three minutes. Now I am trying to convince myself- “Don’t get flustered and don’t try to make it up all at once-take it easy and catch up slowly”. But of course subconsciously you pick up the pace and when I passed the half three minutes ahead of my expected time I figured I was heading for trouble. But trouble never did appear and I finished in 3:28:39 so I was very happy in spite of the screw-up!
Now it was time for some good seafood and wine! We had a great meal and Nicole really enjoyed her $80 lobster. Actually most food in Portugal was relatively inexpensive so when I calculated the price of lobster I thought it was a good price. Only problem was I dropped a zero (0) in the currency conversion. I thought it was $4/lb – it was $40/lb. Oh well. Nicole did enjoy it! And you have to treat your managers well, especially when they bring you fresh supplies and take back your dirty laundry!
The next day Nicole had to return to England and work (yuk-what a dirty word!) so I left early by train for Faro and the Algarve Coast. It was a very boring ride –not much scenery and it rained all the way. It was still raining when I arrived in Faro so I decided not to rent a car and just stay in Faro. I had to leave the next day by bus for Huelva, Spain because there is no rail service between the Portugal and Spain in the south. I could pick the rail system back and use my Rail Pass again from Huelva. Because it was off-season I managed to find a room in a brand new 3-star hotel in Faro for only $30. This place even had CNBC on satellite so I was able to catch up on the stock market and determine whether I could afford to continue the trip. Thankfully tech stocks are ridiculously high so I was able to continue!
But a humorous (in hindsight) thing did happen at the hotel. As I was checking out my glorious and fabulously modern room I decided to go out onto the balcony to check the view. Since it was still raining lightly I closed the patio door behind me. As it closed I heard an ominous CLICK!
I knew instantly what had happened. The door had locked itself! Now I am on the top (3rd) floor balcony locked out of my own room! After trying to beat the crap out of the door I gave up that attack and tried to catch the attention of anyone on the street. I am shouting “hey Mister, hey Senor”. A few look up but scurry away. Then I decide to shout “hey, Asshole” just to make sure they don’t really understand English! Still no takers or helpers. What to do? I am getting wet and cold! I start to consider throwing the patio furniture down into the street hoping that the hotel staff would notice. But finally the lady proprietor of a hair salon across the street came out for a cigarette and noticed me waving and shouting. She went into the hotel to probably inform them that there was a lunatic on the top floor. But it worked as the desk clerk came to investigate and let me back in.
After my little adventure I decided to stay away from the patio and do a walking tour of Faro. It is a small town and not that pretty. I assume from pictures and postcards that the scenic part of the Algarve is west of Faro but I never did get the opportunity to check it out. As I was traveling east to Spain the next day I was not impressed with the scenery in that direction.

I picked up the Spanish rail in Huelva and headed to Seville. I contemplated trying to make a quick side trip to Gibraltar but realized that I did not have enough time since I wanted to spend at least two days in Seville and I had to be in Valencia by Thursday to catch the night ferry back to Mallorca. Oh well, another time!

And I think another time or report to finish off this trip. Stay tuned for the final part.


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