IR INTERRAIL 2003 > Day 13 > Lisbon - Barreiro - Faro - Vila Real de Santo António

Lisbon - Barreiro

With the Renault 4 side of my travelling affairs over, it was back to another regular day. The sun was shining brightly with not a cloud in the sky, and I was setting off on another train for a new adventure. My own experience of Lisbon had probably not been typical of most tourists'. I'd wandered rather aimlessly around the city upon first arriving there, absorbing many of the sights without actually visiting anything specific. I had then spent two days detouring to other towns outside the region, and two evenings being shepherded around by two residents of the city, enjoying some of the nightlife from their perspective. There was probably a good deal that I had missed, but I felt the need to press on with my travels as it was my aim to reach the halfway point in Morocco by the end of the week. João and Fernando had been keen for me to go to Soria with them for their meeting with Asier and Luis, and it had been tempting to join them all for the party, but I might only have one opportunity in my life to sail across the Strait of Gibraltar, and missing Morocco entirely would be a great pity.

Today's agenda presented some pitfalls, the first being that in order to catch a train south to the Algarve I needed to cross the expansive River Tagus. This wasn't much of a problem in itself, as I had suspected that there would be little likelihood of having to swim over, but sorting out my train connections for the day was providing some headaches.

I knew of a potential stumbling block for train travellers trying to negotiate the south of Portugal and the border area of Spain. The railway ended on the Portuguese side of the border and a combination of boats, buses and feet were required to continue eastwards to the cities of Huelva and Seville where the tracks re-emerged. So I decided that my ultimate destination for the evening should be the border town of Vila Real de Santo António in which there was a Portuguese hostel, and to get there I needed to catch the train from Barreiro station on the southern side of the Tagus. Lisbon had four main rail termini, yet none of them were particularly large or served very many destinations. I felt sure that it would be far better to have one big terminal right in the middle of the river and be done with. Of course there was the minor issue that all the trains would sink, but the world would go nowhere without radical thinking.

The Metro could only take me so far as the central area of the city around Restauradores, so I nipped into Rossio station again to see if I could book my ticket from Barreiro in advance. An unexpected farce of ticketing arrangements was about to unveil its first act. After half an hour of waiting in line, the clerk serving my queue rather surreptitiously stuck a sign in his window which I failed to notice. I had wondered why so many people were gradually drifting across to the other queue, and had I bothered to look behind me I would have seen that the eighteen persons previously lined up had all disappeared. I was only two off the front of my queue when the blind was pulled down and I finally noticed the sign in Portuguese, which was related closely enough to Spanish for me to realize that it said 'I'M CLOSING FOR MY BRUNCH AND AM GOING TO TUCK INTO AN ASSORTMENT OF CAKES, TEE-HEE.'

Most of those who had moved across had since been served, so I faced the unenviable prospect of either trying to push my way into the other queue, which would undoubtedly result in some hostilities from unsympathetic strangers who would be unaware of my previous high ranking in the order, or standing at the back of it and waiting for a further half an hour, whereupon the second clerk would probably take their turn to indulge in a cake-fest at an equally inopportune moment. I was fed up, and decided to walk to the ferry terminal where, according to my guide, I could buy a combined boat and train ticket and sort everything out together. That was providing I could find the ferry terminal.

With the quayside boarded off and hidden from view due to the laying of a new underground line, I was having trouble locating the spot from where the boats to Barreiro departed. The dock for services to other destinations across the Tagus was clearly marked and I strolled past, following the advice in one of my books that the terminal I required lay further east along the quay. Eventually I walked for a mile, and instead of finding the boat station I found the train station at Santa Apolónia.

It could have been worse. At least my aimless stroll had presented me with another ticket office, this time offering instant service, and located out of sight from the cake stall woman and Mother's Boy who was doubtless still standing there two days later peddling English refinement. But upon enquiring about my day's boat and train itinerary, I was angrily redirected to the ferry terminal by the station staff, who insisted that I must obtain a ticket to ride to the Algarve from Barreiro, not any other city station. This was all a bit of a pain in the arse. My feet were wincing at the notion of trudging straight back along the quayside under the baking sun, but I had no more time to waste. The ferries operated in conjunction with the trains at Barreiro, and I had to be on board the next sailing in twenty-five minutes else my train would leave and I'd be stranded in Lisbon for another night.

It transpired that the ferry terminal I sought was hidden beside the other one which I had ignored, around the back of the hoardings in the middle of a building site, and not signposted whatsoever. Once there, however, I found more ticket offices, including one which also dealt with train services. Again I was met by a very stroppy, angry man who protested at my polite query as to whether I could converse in either Spanish, French or English. He passed me over to another lady who pointed out in a very patronizing manner, that this office was for selling tickets on the big boat which she pointed to outside the window, suggesting I was some kind of dummy, and that no train tickets were sold. So my natural line of thought was, why the hell had they put a big sign above the window showing a train and the word 'tickets'?

Perhaps it was just an unwisely situated corporate art installation which ironically poked fun at the idea of a heavy goods train setting sail across the seas, in a genre of humour only appreciated by the Portuguese nautical industry. I was more tempted to believe that it was sloppy organization, inadequate staff training and mismanagement but I wasn't going to take up the issue there and then. With only a minute to spare I settled for purchasing just the boat ticket which was very reasonable at only 1 Euro, and I set sail on the half-hour journey across the Tagus.

The Praça do Comércio seen from the boat leaving Lisbon for Barreiro

As the ferry chugged away from the quay, I looked back at the Lisbon waterfront and the large square known as the Praça do Comércio (above) which dominated it. As we floated further out into the river, there was a glorious view of the city's famous suspension bridge, which connected the north and south sides of the capital (below). The boat trip provided a splendid opportunity to admire the Lisbon skyline (bottom), which was opposed by the giant cross statue on the southern side of the river. It could be appreciated just how enormous this monument was as it towered over the bridge, which was clearly a mammoth construction itself.

The suspension bridge spanning the River Tagus, connecting the north and south sides of Lisbon, with the giant Christ statue visible on the left

The calm waters of the Tagus were interrupted by the wash of the ferry, over which gangs of water-skiers appeared like pirates, leeching their entertainment off of every passing vessel. Several perfectly bronzed men with six-pack stomachs and big muscles leapt across the ripples and tried desperately to impress everybody on board our craft. The passengers stood silently watching and bottling up their emotions for the inevitable moment when one show-off got a bit carried away, mis-judging his jump and flying upside down through the air before being dumped into the water. There were smirks to be heard all around.

Another view of Lisbon from the boat on the Tagus

Barreiro - Faro

The station at Barreiro was another unspectacular affair but it was very busy, and I ensured I was first through the crowds to reach the ticket office, the holy grail of my morning's drudgery. After all my rejections and redirections to this place from elsewhere, I expected it to be bedecked in gold. The reality was a shabby little place with a chubby, sweaty man behind the counter, whose shirt had almost wholly turned to liquid form, although he was excused from his condition in consideration of the soaring temperature in the stuffy office. I made my reservation, and when the train arrived a few minutes later there was not a spare unreserved seat on board, so I considered myself lucky to have secured a place.

I didn't feel quite so lucky when the train trundled through the scorched countryside of the Algarve at reduced speed for several hours, whilst I sat by the window on the sunny side baking like a stew in a slow cooker. The landscape of low undulating hills began as the home to varied agriculture, but towards the south this gave way almost exclusively to endless rows of citrus groves. There were very few urban developments, just rustic villages and small farms which often had a trusty Renault 4 sitting in the yard. Many passengers disembarked at the towns of Tunes and Albufeira, with the remainder continuing to journey's end at the resort of Faro. We were forty minutes behind schedule when the train pulled into the station, but the connecting service was still waiting for us on the adjacent platform. How kind.

Faro - Vila Real de Santo António

The remaining part of my day's travels would cover a relatively short distance along the southern coast of the country, but it seemed to take forever. If the previous train had crawled like a tortoise I was now on board a mechanical snail, although life inside the shell wasn't as homely. A group of teenagers occupying the carriage were clearly high on something more potent than drink or smoke, and they aggressively taunted many passengers whilst acting like buffoons. They steered clear of me, probably because I had chosen this bright day to don my shorts, exposing my white stick legs which would be cause for anybody to leave me well alone.

The sun was setting as the sleepy town of Vila Real de Santo António finally appeared, and I negotiated the grid maze of streets in search of the hostel. I was immediately made aware by the staff that I could only stay for one night, because the place was fully booked up for the following day. This seemed unlikely when I looked around and found just one other guest inside the building, so whether they had received a group booking or the receptionist had just eyed my legs I wasn't sure.

Certainly I wasn't having much luck with people I met today, confirmed when a beautiful Dutch girl who I encountered in the dining room invited me to share her bottle of wine. Despite my assurances that I would return in a few minutes to join her, she had disappeared without trace when I got back. It surely couldn't have been the swinging atmosphere elsewhere in the building which had diverted her, since the place was completely vacant, and I sat alone on the small, pleasant patio in the centre of the hostel reading a book for the rest of the evening. It had been a long day which had dragged by, and I had done little except travel to my next destination. I never enjoyed such times when the only achievement of the day was to get from A to B, and I was determined to relax and take it easy tomorrow, only hampered by the knowledge that I would have to move on and find another place to stay.

HOSTEL REPORT: Pousada de Juventude, Rua Dr. Sousa Martins, 40, 8900 Vila Real de Santo António
This was a pleasant hostel with some old character, located in one of the many criss-crossing terraced streets in the centre of the town. There was a nice kitchen with plenty of facilities, a lounge with a bar (closed during my visit) and a lovely small central patio on the first floor, perfect for sipping drinks on a balmy night. My dormitory was small and had just two beds, with communal bathroom facilities along the corridor, although one problem presented here was the advertised availability of hot water for just one hour per day. Breakfast was good and the staff were generally friendly and helpful. A sign pointing to washing facilities led upstairs to the roof, where some old-fashioned sinks were found, but these grotty old relics of yesteryear couldn't tempt me into action despite my desire to do some laundry. The town was a peculiar place that seemed to be half-abandoned and had perhaps lost some of its original tourist trade, but was full of cafés and bars around the corner from the hostel, which was one of the most charming I visited. It was only a shame that it was almost completely empty. Score: 8/10

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