Portugal was never in the plan. But then the whole reason for traveling
solo with no itinerary and no obligations is that you can stuff the plans.
Indeed, the only real reason to have any sort of plan at all is so you can
answer the question that just about every other traveler asks: "Where are
you going after this"? The "Where have you been/where are you going/how
long have you been traveling/how long do you have left" questions are as
much a requirement when meeting other travelers as the "Where do you work"
question is back in Silicon Valley.
Talking to other travelers is what got me interested in Portugal in the
first place. After the 10th person told me about their travels there, I
started feeling left out. By the time I reached Sevilla, almost everyone I
met was either just back from or on their way to Portugal. The great thing
about Europe is that everything is so close, you can decide on a whim to do
a sidetrip to another country, and in only a few hours, you're there. From
Sevilla, the border with Portugal was only about 100km away.
Unfortunately, international borders can often wreak havoc on what would
otherwise be a straightforward journey. Not only do you have to change
buses at the border, you also have to deal with a whole new transportation
system once across the border. My trip to Lagos, only about 300 km from
Sevilla, ended up requiring five separate segments: a train to Huelva, a
bus to Ayamonte, a ferry to Villa Real, a bus to Faro, and a train to
The Grottos of Lagos|
Lagos was the town that everyone talked about. My friend Soren had even
stayed for a couple of months and worked there. I arrived in town at
night, a hand drawn map, courtesy of Cheryl, in hand. I was having a hard
time correlating the sketch of town with the real thing, but with the
assistance of a wandering pack of local youths, I was soon at the youth
hostel. The hosel, like hostels everywhere, offered rooms with bunk beds;
in this particular case, four to a room. When I got to my room, it was a
disaster. Clothes thrown everywhere, garbage on the floor, and possessions
strewn across all of the beds, not leaving me an obvious choice of bunks.
I figured that my roommates had gotten just a little to used to having an
empty bed and had annexed the extra space. I decided to go out for a beer
and sort it out later
At 2am, when I returned from a quick tour of the town's bars, the
situation had not improved. One bed was occupied, but the other three were
still covered with junk. One bunk didn't even have a mattress, but the
base boards were still covered with stuff. I decided to just pick the bed
that required evicting the fewest number of things and set off to sleep. At
4am, I was awoken by the sounds of four laughing, extrememly drunk Germans.
About the only coherent words they could put together between fits of
laughter were, "There's someone in your bed." After several more minutes
of uncontrolled drunken laughing, they indicated that my bed was the one
with no mattress and lots of someone else's junk. Realizing that it was
not just a bad dream and that they were not going to listen to reason, I
grudgingly got out of bed and started throwing the offending items from
my bed onto the floor. I then installed the mattress, which was propped up
against the wall, and tried to return to sleep. The drunk Germans had
another idea, however, as they started throwing crackers and squirting
shampoo on each other. I yelled at them for a while, and eventually they
The world of youth hosteling always has its risks, and you just have to
take the good with the bad. The next morning, I rolled the dice again,
and changed rooms, and ended up with much nicer roommates.
Lagos is a traveler's party town. People go there to surf, lay on the
beaches, and drink. It's easy to see why; Portugal's dramatic rocky cliffs
provide perfect shelter for countless tiny secluded beaches. The weather,
however, was not cooperating when I was there. Cold, grey, drizzling
weather doesn't make for a very good suntan. I instead decided to rent a
bicycle and ride along the bluff. The rugged coastline, much like that
along California's Hwy 1, made for beautiful biking. I was even rewarded
with an appearance by the sun right at sunset.
In the evenings, I quickly settled into a routine: first, a visit to
the shawerma place for dinner. I found the food in Portugal to be quite
expensive and not very spectacular, so cheap shawermas were just the
ticket. Then, I would go to the nearby pub, to
watch a double header of the Simpsons. By 9, the first of a seemingly
endless series of happy hours would start, and I would load up on beers
with friends from the hostel. By midnight, everyone would migrate to the
next bar, Barroca, for dancing. When that closed at 2, the survivors would
move on to Zanzibar or Eddies, both open until 4. The final challenge was
waking up in time for the free breakfast, which they promptly stopped
serving at 10.
Lagos was a strangely alluring place. While really not uniquely
Portugese, the convergence of so many travelers made it a great place to
party for a few days. But I still wanted to go off and see the real
Portugal. When I had gone to rent my bicycle, the same shop also rented
motorcycles. My mind pretty quickly got set on the idea of renting a
motorbike for a few days and checking out southern Portugal. If I really
was planning on a six month motorcycle journey across Asia, it seemed like
a good idea to do a trial run. Anyway, I had lugged a motorcycle jacket
all the way from the US, and it was time to put it to use.
Friends out on the town|
The motorcycle rental was amazingly cheap - only 14,000 Escudos (~US$65)
for a Yamaha 350 Enduro bike for three days. I didn't have saddlebags, and
I wasn't about to rig up anything elaborate for carrying a pack, so I just
gathered together a few necessities (including all my camera gear, of
course) and hit the road.
I didn't really have a plan, but I was hoping to make it as far as
Lisbon, the capital of Portugal and a city with many points of interest. I
didn't get far. Only ten minutes into my ride, I stopped just outside town
to fuel up. When it came time to get going again, the bike wouldn't start.
The battery was dead.
If you are going to have your battery die, one would think that the best
place is at a gas station...just make sure it's not a Portugese gas
station. There were no jumper cables to be found. The attendant suggested
I push start it, so back and forth I ran, the bike barely managing an
occasional cough. The attendant, a stocky man of about 22, had no more
success than I. Finally, I phoned up the rental shop, and they said they
would be right over. I was expecting someone to arrive with a new battery,
but instead, a man showed up by motorbike, and he too tried his luck at
push starting it. It took a good 10 minutes, with him pushing the bike up
and down a nearby hill, but he finally managed to start it. He then rode
it back and handed it back to me. I tried to argue that I should get a
different bike, or at least a new battery, but all he said was, "Don't
start it with the lights on."
Near Sagres, Portugal(5Nov00)
With those feeble words of encouragement, I was off again. I had
already lost a fair bit of time, so I decided to only go as far as Sagres
that day. Sagres is the southwesternmost point of Portugal, and in fact
all of Europe. Between Lagos and Sagres are a string of small fishing
villages, connected together with small, sometimes dirt backroads. Seeing
as I was on an Enduro bike, I felt obligated to see how it handled on the
I arrived in Sagres just before sunset. There isn't really much in
Sagres; about the only thing of interest is a lighthouse perched on the
barren cape of Cabo de Sao Vicente. As the sun set and the sky lit up, I
saw my opportunity for a great photo; the silouette of a lone lighthouse
set against the fire red sky. I raced off to the point, trying to catch
the light at its peak. I was trying to line up the lighthouse so that it
lay just on the horizon with the sun directly behind, but everywhere I
stopped, things just didn't line up how I wanted them. I finally
calculated that the ideal vantage point was going to be of the road, on
the barren, brush covered bluff. The only way to get there was by a rocky,
rutted trail, and time was running out. In another minute, the sun would
be gone altogether and so would be my shot. An enduro bike, however, is
designed for just such harsh conditions. Its long travel suspension and
knobby tires just eat up rocks and ruts. In just a few hops, I was just
where I wanted to be.
I had no time to waste. I hopped off the bike and immediately began
setting up the tripod. As I was doing so, I kept hearing a trickling
sound, nearly like the sound of a small brook. Odd, I thought, since the
only water in sight was the ocean hundreds of feet below. Once I got back
to the bike, it all made sense; fuel was pouring out of the bike. The
fuel line had been severed from the ride.
Near Lagos, Portugal(3Nov00)
I frantically whisked out my tiny flashlight and tried to assess the
damage. Hanging off the carburator were a tangle of three cut hoses, one
of which was continuing to empty my fuel tank. I couldn't make any sense
of it - if the fuel line had been cut, why would there be three ends of
hose? I made my best guess and removed one of the dry tubes from the carb,
replacing it with the gushing one. Just for laughs, I gave it a few cranks
to see if it would turn over, but with the battery on its last legs, I
didn't try for long.
I was stuck. I was a good kilometer off the main road, with only a
loose, rocky, rutted trail to get me back. Even if I could push the bike
through all that, I would still be 4 km away from the nearest gas station.
And the sun was long gone, and it was dark and cold.
Just then, a truck came bouncing along. It was an old Portugese
fisherman, returning from a day's fishing out on the point. I flagged him
down and gestured I needed help. I tried talking to him in English, but he
didn't understand. It wasn't until I thought of trying Spanish that we
managed to communicate. I had given up trying to talk to anyone in Spanish
- the Portugese seem to hate the Spanish and they get offended when you
address them in Spanish.
The fisherman offered to take me and the bike into town, but first we
had to get the bike on the truck. The rear wheel of the truck was on the
top of a large rut, so we had to lift the bike about 3 1/2 feet to get it
into the bed. As impressively strong as the fisherman was for an old man,
between the two of us, we couldn't do it. Just then another fisherman came
by on another motorcycle, and between the three of us, we managed to just
barely lift the bike up. The fisherman soon had it tied down tight, and we
were on our way into town.
We went to a service station, but we realized that it was Saturday
night, and nowhere was going to be open on Sunday. By this point, I was
half a day away from Lagos, and the rental shop wasn't going to be able to
just pop by. With no better option, we unloaded the bike at the service
station, and I walked to the nearest place that had rooms to rent. THere
was nothing I could do until the morning.
After a lazy start in the morning, I walked down to the bike to ponder
my options. Before calling the rental shop, I thought I would give the
bike one more look. I pride myself on being able to fix anything, and not
being able to figure out the fuel lines was really eating at me. I
eventually determined that one of the hoses must be a drain of some sort,
so I just removed one of the other hoses and connected it to the first. It
was the same thing I had done the night before, but this time, the bike
started immediately. I was on the road again.
I still had my heart set on Lisbon, so I started to make up time by
traveling on the highways. By late afternoon, I was within striking
distance of Lisbon. The weather, however, had taken a turn for the worse,
and by 4pm, it was pouring down rain. That, combined with the sheer number
of vehicles heading into the city, resultd in a monsterous backup reaching
for miles outside the city center. For two hours, I essentially walked the
bike, occassionally darting between the rows of stopped cars, all the while
trying to avoid stalling the bike at all costs.
Lisbon is a huge, sprawling city, and I arrived in the drenching rain
and dark of night. The face shield on my helmet was scratched and fogged,
making it difficult to make out anything other than blurry shapes, but it
was better than being pelted in the face when the shield was up. The
only guidebook I had covered all of Europe in one volume, and the map
it provided of Lisbon didn't even have the youth
hostel on it. So I just rode aimlessly around, hoping to find someone or
something that would point me in the right direction. Every few minutes,I
would stop, get off the bike, retreat to an awning out of the rain, and
pull out the compass to see where I was. In a complete stroke of luck, on
one of my stops, I was informed by a passerby that the youth hostel was
only a 1/2 block away. Minutes later, I was defrosting my body under a hot
Since I had been delayed so much getting to Lisbon, the next day I had
only a few hours to tour the highlights. The weather was strange; every
few minutes, the sun would burst out from the clouds, lighting up the white
buildings against the grey, bleak sky. With uncanny regularity, everytime
I would get on the motorcycle, the sun would disappear, and the skies would
start pouring rain. The moment I would get off, it would get sunny again.
It made for treacherous biking, with wet cobblestone streets and trolley
tracks, but it made for great photos. By early afternoon, I had to get
back on the road to Lagos. Technically, I didn't need to return the bike
until the next morning, but I was hoping to get to Lagos in time for one
more night on the town.
St. Georges Castle|
Lisbon, Portugal (6Nov00)
Lisbon lies on the north shore of Rio Tejo, so you have to cross a
bridge to get out of town. Getting to the bridge, however, was another
matter. I soon gained renewed appreciation for bicycle touring; when
you're bicycle touring and you get stuck on a road going the wrong
direction, you can always cheat and hop the center divider. In a
motorcycle, you're pretty much stuck following all the traffic rules, even
if doing so sends you to the wrong side of town.
Finally out of Lisbon, things only got worse. The road signs in Portugal
are atrocious, with none of the highways actually marked. Instead, they
simply state the name of either some tiny place I couldn't find on the map,
or Lisbon. It seemed that every option went to Lisbon, which was the one
option I didn't need. I eventually make it out of the suburbs of Lisbon,
to a city called Setubal; a city with apparently no exit. I rode from one
side to the next, eventually getting so confused that I had to backtrack
all the way back to where I had started two hours earlier. By that point,
the sun was setting, it was getting cold, and I was still only 60k or so
outside Lisbon. The only freeway I could find was a pay freeway which,
having been charged 1000 Escudos on the trip into Lisbon, I was trying to
avoid. I also wasn't looking forward to being run over by bad Portugese
drivers (they're known as Europe's worst) going 130 kph on wet roads at
night, but I was running out of time and desperately wanted to get moving.
THe problem with the toll roads, as I found out the hard way, was that once
you get on the onramp, you're committed. I followed the signs to the
freeway, but I was given only one choice, and that was Lisbon. It was 35km
later when I encountered a toll booth and was allowed to escape (I had to
pay, of course.) It had taken me almost 4 hours to get 40km outside Lisbon.
Another 20 minutes of riding around, and I eventually found an overpass
which got me to the other side of the freeeway, and to an onramp heading in
the correct direction.
Tower of Belen|
Lisbon, Portugal (6Nov00)
By that point, it was clear that I wasn't going to make it all the way
back to Lagos than night, but I wanted to get as far as possible. I got
back onto the pay highway, put the bike in high gear, and started blasting
towards Lagos at 120 kph.
Somewhere along the way, I had to make a turnoff, and I was
understandably paranoid that I would miss it entirely. So, a few
kilometers short of the junction, I pulled over to consult the map.
Once convinced I knew exactly where to exit, I attempted to start the bike and
leave, but I was greeted with the sickly sound of a dead battery. I was
stuck on the side of a deserted highway, with no gas stations or even
phones for as far as I could see.
I decided to push start the bike. I knew it was humanly possible, so I
ran as fast as I could, the bike awkwardly bobbing back and forth with each
step. Each time I engaged the clutch, it would sputter and grind to a
halt. I repeated the exercise a few dozen times more until, if nothing
else, I was no longer cold. I realized that the only way I was going to
start the bike was if I ran faster, and the only way I could do that was to
run alongside the bike, then jump on as it started. Bad idea. Much to my
surprise, the bike started on my first attempt, but I was so caught off
guard that I didn't mount the bike successfully. The bike fell to the
ground, breaking a tail light and bashing my knee in the process.
After a few minutes quietly contemplating why I was doing all this
instead of sitting safely back at home reading the paper or something, I
eventually pulled myself together, got back on the bike, and managed to get
it started. For the next hour or so, everything went smoothly for a
change; I was making good progress towards Lagos. But with the way my day
had been going, I knew it wouldn't last long.
Indeed, a short while later, I flew by a sign pointing to Lagos. I
quickly turned around and headed in the direction indicated, but after a
while, it became more and more apparent that I had been led astray. I was
on a series of tiny backroads, which, while a pleasant alternative to the
chaos of the main highway, were anything but easy to navigate. I had to
stop every five minutes to consult the map. For the next two hours, I
didn't see a single car, hotel, or, more importantly, an open gas station.
I had somehow ended up in a natural park, which, while having beautiful
roads for riding, did not look promising for fuel. I had never ridden over
100 km on a single tank, but I was already over 140. With no other choice,
I kept riding, and through nothing short of a miracle, made it to a small
town that had a hotel. Cold, tired, and traumatized, I went straight to
Safely back in the pub|
Lagos, Portugal (7Nov00)
When I went out to the bike in the morning, I was horrified; there was
the cable lock, melted all the way through the rear fender. Apparently,
the lock had slid back at some point during the previous night's ride and had
ended up directly behind the hot exhaust pipe.
At that point, I was just thankful that I had made it in one piece, so I
rode the bike, sputtering and coughing, to the gas station, filled up, and
rode the last 70 km to Lagos. I was fully expecting to get screwed when I
returned the bike, with a melted fender and broken tail light. Instead, they
looked at the fender and said, "It's not your fault, it's not my fault,"
and let me off only having to pay 3000$ (US$15) for a tail light.
I walked back to the hostel and began the long process of drying out. My
Portugese adventure was over.