IR INTERRAIL 2003 > Day 11 > Lisbon - Tomar - Lisbon

Lisbon - Tomar

Following the overnight hell of the sleeper train, which really was an unfitting description that should have been taken up with Trading Standards, I hovered around the fairly bleak Santa Apolónia station in Lisbon searching for savoury snackfood. It seemed all that was on sale anywhere was a cake, which wasn't really the reward I sought or deserved after such torment. It also dawned on me as I gazed at an assortment of nameless pastries clustered too far away from the counter to simply point at, that this was my first time in Portugal and I spoke no Portuguese.

Spain was similarly new to me but I had acquired a decent level of confidence in speaking Spanish during the previous year, and I rather hoped that people this side of the border would be happy enough with some more. I had mistakenly thought that with Spain being the only direct neighbour to Portugal and owning a language spoken more widely across the globe, the Portuguese would readily accept this substitute lingo when requested. Alas, I soon found that Portuguese was nowhere near as closely related to Spanish as I had anticipated, and the way many people spoke it, I could have been fooled into thinking they were Russian. It contrasted sharply with the beautiful expressive verses of the Brazilians, whose own adaptation of the language now differed so drastically that many of them wanted to declare it a unique dialect.

As I advanced in the queue for the cake bonanza, I began trembling at my impending lingual ineptness. What would the people behind me think? - 'Bloody English git who can't even be bothered to learn our word for cake, what a cheek he has marauding through our land', most probably. I could feel the onus upon me to represent my country and convey the persona of the cultured English gent. People ahead of me took their turns to triumphantly retreat from the stall with an armful of sticky slices, crumbly buns, whirly things and fruit tarts. What if I failed so spectacularly that I came away cakeless and the whole concourse would erupt in pitiful laughter?

The guy in front had been speaking in English on his mobile phone and I gleefully awaited his own faltering attempts, knowing he would be the fool who would pave the way, and my own shaky follow-up would pale into insignificance. My assessment of him was as a young, mop-haired English mother's boy; he stood no chance. I listened intently as he greeted the stout stern lady behind the counter, then effortlessly selected a variety of the finest pastries money could buy, and relaxed into knowing laughter with the woman about the state of the current Portuguese political system. This immediately brought me to the unfair but necessary conclusion that I hated him. How dare he command a flowing usage of another dialect before I could, the smug prig? Still guffawing together, he wasn't intent on leaving and so stood aside as I approached the counter, making it his duty to hang about and befriend local folk, spreading his status of international charmer. This just wasn't cricket. Since when had ordering a cake become such a cruel sport?

It then struck me that I didn't know how to order one of these unlabelled items in Spanish either, or French, or indeed English. It was too hard to conjure up a description of 'that sleek, well-toasted golden trapezoid slice with the brown splodge sticking out the end.' Moments from certain embarrassment, a plan erupted in my head. I needn't appear English at all, I could pretend to be from somewhere obscure like Iceland, and it would be no poor reflection upon myself that having been raised on such a remote outpost, I couldn't speak a word of anything but Icelandic. Perfect, I would just point and use sign language, assume the mantle of hapless mysterious traveller from a faraway land, and leave everybody intrigued.

No sooner had this brainwave struck me than the lady spoke to me, I panicked, opened my mouth and said 'Bonjour'. What the heck? I never commanded my mouth to come out with that! Somewhere in the depths of my nervous system, something had triggered alert mode, and decided that such situations demanded the immediate emergency French greeting, even in Lisbon. It was a disaster, because without thinking, straight afterwards I apologetically tried to correct myself in English, giving the game away entirely.

In a flustered follow-up I used a combination of pointing and words vaguely resembling 'uno', until the woman had suggested all the cakes that I didn't want, finally arriving at my choice and wearily plumping it down on the counter. She sighed and gazed at Mr Refined English Ambassador, who conversed with the woman and they chuckled together privately. No doubt he was saying, 'One of my fellow countrymen, they're all idiots, so uncivilized.....' I wanted to punch him, he was everything I should have been in this situation, except for the mother's boy looks.

The café solo part of my order had been understood, but following this inadequate breakfast I mooched up the hill into the city, stopping for another coffee in a café that promised much and turned out to have only cakes again. The city appeared to have a lot of character, with old-fashioned yellow trams climbing the steep hills and all the pavements tiled with silvery-white mosaics. I gave one of my Renault 4 contacts Fernando a call, but he had just started work at 10am, and he and João would be unavailable until after eight o'clock in the evening.

I had to find something to fill the day, but I wanted to spend a little more time walking around the city absorbing some sights, the fresh injection of caffeine providing my motivation. I somehow managed to walk all around the foot of the famous castle perched high up on the hill in the Alfama district, without actually noticing it was there, after which I crossed the city centre, took in one of the several funicular lifts and sought out a small supermarket, where I would surely find more to eat than pastries. I had stumbled across the only store in Portugal suffering from a famine, and I could find nothing remotely tempting or easily edible on the bare shelves. I elected to leave empty-handed, but as I had found in other European countries, this was a shocking tactic to employ and demanded the thorough interrogation of the suspect and a full bag search. In British stores people would regularly leave with nothing, and staff would never dare question somebody's integrity, but several times around Europe I would either have my bag confiscated upon entrance or inspected upon departure. My whole life was in that bag, my used underwear, the lot. Examining the contents on the checkout conveyer belt was probably a health and safety risk.

I walked uphill to the opposite side of the valley which cradled most of the city centre, and sat down in a peaceful park overlooking the capital. A gentle, cool breeze rustled through the trees, and the previous night's lack of sleep began to catch up on me fast. I surveyed the area, pulled my hooded top up and rested my head on my rucksack, slowly dozing off for a lunchtime nap. Within minutes, there were voices around and I looked up to find several seedy men loitering near me in long macs. One of them came and sat down on my bench, which I found alarming due to the close proximity of many other empty benches. I clearly hadn't chosen a wise or desirable place to rest and so I left, descending on foot a steep hill which was served by trams, always free of passengers on the way down and packed out coming back up.

I navigated the busy shopping streets, and was bemused by people making various negative gestures towards me, sometimes muttering things with a sort of repugnance, shaking their heads and pointing at me. I was worried enough to take off my rucksack and check the back of my top, even stopping in a quiet alley and rummaging through my bag for my travel mirror, to ensure that my brief stay in Pervert Park hadn't resulted in a secret tattooing session whilst I was half asleep. There were no obvious signs of anything wrong, just me in my bucket hat, skinny white arms and t-shirt depicting a pint of Guinness - was this a symbol of passionate Portuguese hatred perhaps?

It stumped me, but I had experienced some similar reactions when in Salamanca days before. With Lisbon being such a cosmopolitan place I couldn't really put it down to backwards, insular people picking on outsiders. I may have had a certain touristy look about me but the city was full of visitors, and I was no different. My best guess was that my hat conferred the image of an American, and the current political situation stirred up such feelings in people that they would jump the gun and second-guess my nationality, signifying their disgust at my assumed country's actions. Indeed, I had encountered several people who had approached me believing me to be an American, so this was a possibility. But it still didn't make sense; the Spanish had sided with the Americans, yet the people in Salamanca took the same attitude towards me. It would remain a mystery.

I found my way back to Santa Apolónia, and sought refuge in one of the waiting rooms which had been lifeless earlier in the morning. They were now busy and again filled with many undesirable characters, staggering with cans of lager and hassling people for change. By this time I was totally exhausted and desperate for somewhere to put my head down for a few hours. Then I devised a masterplan, and scoured my rail timetable for a solution.

I had six hours to wait before Fernando and João would finish work, and I held a free rail pass. If I could find a service which would take me to some location and back again in that time then I could rest on board the train, figuring that anybody else on it would have bought a ticket for a reason and wouldn't be so prone to thievery or strange perversions. Ideally I needed to find a station about two to three hours away, and at the end of a line in case I fell asleep for too long and missed my stop. One such place existed, a town called Tomar to the north, and the train was about to depart. I leapt on and found my spot for a snooze, the ticket inspector passed thankfully soon and I snuggled up against my bag. Having to take a rickety old train in order to catch some sleep was a desperate idea, but it was a desperate situation.

Tomar - Lisbon

Tomar was a dusty, quiet little place, and in the scorching mid-afternoon sun it had a timeless quality as residents stayed indoors and let an eventless Monday drift by. I found another café occupied by a stout, stern-looking lady, yet although she spoke nothing but Portuguese, she was friendly and aided me in my selection of the ubiquitous cake. She also taught me the word for thank you, obrigado, which I had been trying to discover all day. The brief sleep had revived me a little, and another coffee spurred me on as I made a short circuit of the town, crossing the river along the way and stopping to watch the coots swimming past.

There were plenty of Renault 4s around here, as I had been informed of by many other enthusiasts who had visited the country. Small towns and villages around Portugal were full of them, and they still formed very much a part of everyday life for many people. As did the chemists. A plethora of them in every street, in Spain and France too. I couldn't grasp why there were so many; what was up with the folk over here? Too many accidents in Renault 4s perhaps? Certainly nearly all the 4s I had seen were bruised and battered, a common predicament familiar to all enthusiasts but especially noticeable here. These were questions probably best answered by my companions in Lisbon, who I was due to meet in three hours, so I completed my whistle-stop tour of Tomar and returned to the station.

Aside from the wafting smell of sewage during the train journey back, which emanated from the storage tanks underneath the carriage and blew up thoughtfully through the vents by my feet, I took the opportunity to rest once more. It didn't work this time, as the coach was too hot and full of noisy teenagers, and so I contented myself with the passing scenes of lazy, rural Portuguese life. This evolved into views of fashionable urban dwellings when we reached the former Expo 98 area on the outskirts of Lisbon, now occupied by many contemporary buildings and apartment blocks. Back at the station I telephoned Fernando again and ordered my Renault 4 cab to come and pick me up.

I had seen Fernando in many of the photos he had sent to my website over recent years, and I would have recognized him easily, even without the obvious gleaming cloak of his red Renault 4. Having travelled so many hundreds of miles from home through unfamiliar territories, it was a heartening sight to see this trusty little car appearing through the city streets and pulling up outside the station. Fernando had always wanted a red car - not easy to attain when nearly all those 4s that existed in Portugal were white - but he'd eventually found his pride and joy and was keen to show it to me. We pulled away, and within seconds João appeared in the rear view mirror in his white 4L. The gang of three was complete, and without further hesitation I was driven in convoy like a sort of VIP to a very snazzy restaurant down by the riverside.

We parked ourselves down at a table by the window overlooking the River Tagus, and the magnificent suspension bridge which spanned the estuary dividing the north and south sides of the city. As dusk fell it became illuminated and the river sparkled with its reflections. Towering above on the hill to the south was the giant Christ cross statue overlooking the capital, similar in its dominating stance to the one in San Sebastián, or indeed Rio de Janeiro. I had never been Jesus' greatest fan exactly, but I was happy enough for him to look in on me eating.

I certainly hadn't expected any special treatment but my companions were determined to offer the best hospitality, and the meal was on them. The discussion inevitably involved many intricate details of the Renault 4 and its multitude of merits, as we sketched crazily like children on our place mats and compared our R4 masterpieces. It was strange to think that our sole reason for gathering here was because more than four decades earlier, somebody had sat sketching images of a car which, largely as a result of budget constraints, had then evolved into a most bizarre little vehicle. And for this reason more than any other it had won the hearts of so many people, and would against all expectations go on to become one of the biggest selling cars of all time, serving the needs of millions in every corner of the globe. The designers could never have predicted that around forty-five years later, people would be meeting up across the world and sitting in restaurants discussing their original concept.

Fernando, myself and João enjoying a beer outside a bar in Bairro Alto

João and Fernando the Portuguese R4 kings

The next priority was to find somewhere suitable to stay, since with my unscheduled day out to Tomar I had not got around to making any overnight arrangements. It was late, and I worried that all the youth hostels might be full, but on arrival at the Pousada de Juventude de Lisboa I received a very friendly greeting from a rather forward, outgoing girl. I confirmed my stay for two nights, hoping one of them might involve her in some way.

Fernando and João were chauffering me around, and they next took me to a bar up the hill in the trendy Bairro Alto district, where we stood in the alleys outside downing a few beers (above and left). Being a Monday, the streets were comparitively quiet, with no signs of the bustling nightlife for which the area was renowned.

Once more my French skills were called into play, since João and Fernando both spoke Portuguese and Spanish, but my ability with the latter was reserved for fundamental situations like buying tickets and asking directions, and French was our only common ground. Fernando's English was near perfect, and the conversation would often take a triangular path as sentences were diverted for third-party processing. Once more it was a mix and match approach in which a single comment would often span multiple languages, a sort of improvised Esperanto. Several beers later, I was returned to my hostel and we agreed to meet there again the following night. At last I could look forward to a proper bed and a good night's sleep.

HOSTEL REPORT: Pousada de Juventude de Lisboa, Rua Andrade Corvo 46, 1050-009 Lisboa
My travel guide had specifically warned to beware of thefts from this hostel, but I thankfully didn't experience any problems, always being over-protective of my property wherever I went. The dormitory was clean, comfortable and quite airy, although some improved air conditioning might have been desirable in such sticky weather. The one receptionist I spoke to was delightful, but I often noticed large queues of people waiting for attention at other times. Breakfast and facilities were quite reasonable, as was the price, although it had unfortunately risen to peak season tariff on the very day I arrived (mid-June). One thing which let this hostel down was a water outage on the second afternoon that was not attended to until very late at night, and which left scores of hot sweaty residents unable to wash, shave or flush the toilets. The location north of the centre was ideal, being close to the large Parque Eduardo VII, many shops and amenities, and right outside Picoas Metro station. Score: 7/10

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