When Harri tried to recharge the iPad in our hotel room last night, the device had overheated and subsequently refused to switch back on. He’d used online mapping continually on this trip and had carefully plotted our route from Porto Novo to Torres Vedras today. In order to avert potential disaster, i.e. us getting lost and missing our train to the Lisbon suburbs (and subsequently our flight home), Harri had no choice last night but to study the maps on my tiny mobile phone screen and dictate details instructions into our digital recorder.
It took the biggest part of an hour, but having satisfied himself that we could now reach Torres Vedras without online mapping, Harri tried the iPad one last time this morning only to find it was working perfectly again!
The posh beachfront restaurant that we’d avoided last night doubled up as the hotel’s breakfast room. Inside, it was beautifully but simply decorated in Maine style, with a wooden decked floor and cool colours. Unfortunately, the sea views were obscured by mist, but what a wonderful setting for a romantic meal on a summer’s evening when the sun is setting over the sea. Once again, the breakfast offering was fit for a king and we feasted on scrambled egg, bacon, sausages, chocolate rolls, croissants, rolls, soft cheese, cake, honey, apricots, peaches and oranges (note, we didn’t both eat everything!).
Despite eating plenty at breakfast, I couldn’t help noticing the sweet bowl on reception had been filled with a ‘new’ selection of wrapped sweets. Last night’s offering was revolting, a mixture of liquorice and coffee; however, these brightly-coloured wrappers suggested something fruity lurked inside. As Harri checked us out of the hotel, the temptation to grab a few sweets was too great. I unwrapped one and popped it in my mouth. Yuk, yuk, yuk! The new sweets were menthol, one of the tastes I most detest. Of course, it serves me right for being so greedy!
Porto Novo’s claim to fame is that British troops disembarked here ahead of the Battle of Vimeiro during the first Napoleonic invasion. The battle in nearby Vimeiro – in August 1808 – put an end to the first French invasion of Portugal. In the mist, I could just about make out a tall figure standing on a jutting headland looking out to sea. Was someone about to jump I wondered, grabbing my camera. But it wasn’t a real person after all, just a statue of a saint in prayer, a tiny cherub close to her feet.
After a brief interlude of sunshine, it clouded over again. Harri reminded me that temperatures were forecast to reach 29⁰ today and it was likely to feel hotter inland than here on the coast. Despite the grey skies and a chill in the air, I opted for my shorter shorts and a vest. Our entire holiday wardrobes were stuffed into our rucksacks … if the forecast was wrong, it would be easy enough to change into warmer clothes.
Although we weren’t flying home until tomorrow, now we were heading back to Lisbon it did feel like the fun part of our trip was over. Torres Vedras was a decent-sized town about 16km from Porto Novo and 50km north of Lisbon, but it didn’t feature on my list and we viewed it simply as an essential leg of our homeward journey. From there, we’d catch a train to Lisbon and they weren’t very frequent so there was to be no dilly-dallying.
Almost immediately we left the coast, the landscape became agricultural again. It’s pleasant enough to gaze on fields of crops, but far easier to go astray than when we’re following a waymarked path (the GR11 being the exception) or a cycle path. One short, rutted tracked turned out to be blocked at the end by a private property, though, as Harri pointed out, just because a track is marked on open mapping, it doesn’t mean it’s a public right of way (or even accessible).
Midway through the morning, Harri realised that had we not deliberately killed time in the hotel this morning, we might have reached Torres Vedras in time for an earlier train and been able to pay a fleeting visit Sintra. At first I was disappointed we hadn’t considered this option earlier; however, the more I thought about it the more I realised it was probably for the best. Everyone we’d talked to in the Algarve had praised Sintra to the hilt, one Portuguese friend Miguel insisting that if we found ourselves passing through this exquisitely pretty town on a long-distance walk, we’d almost certainly abandon our hike and remain there for the rest of our trip.
The clouds gradually dispersed and the sun grew hot in the sky, making the walking along wide, mostly traffic-free roads tiring and increasingly tedious. After crossing a busy road on the outskirts of Torres Vedras, the last section of walking followed the river along a pretty, grass-lined track, which gave us great views of the hilltop fortification.
The castle at Torres Vedras is part of two lines of fortifications running from the Atlantic to Tagus which were constructed in secret by the first Duke of Wellington to defend Lisbon during the aforementioned Peninsular War. Incredibly, all 152 forts and 628 redoubts (temporary fortifications) were constructed by British workers during a ten-month period from November 1809 to 1810. The ground around the sites was cleared and the surrounding lands deliberately flooded so that the enemy wouldn’t be able to creep up on the forts. Impressively, the construction of the lines was accomplished without a word getting out to the enemy (one advantage of the pre-social media days!).
Hot and thirsty after our fast-paced half-day yomp, we set off in search of a bar. Fortunately, it didn’t take us too long to find the main praça overlooking the Igreja de São Pedro (currently closed and undergoing extensive restoration works). We found a table outside Bessa Bar and enjoyed an hour of people-watching. Our ice-cold beers cost just €1 a bottle, half what we were paying in bars on the coast … it would have been rude not to have a second.
After eating our picnic lunch in full sunshine on a nearby bench (we kept getting odd looks from locals), we thought we’d better find the local supermarket to buy some nibbles for tomorrow. It was here we met another Miguel, a local man who spoke excellent English and loved everything British, including the Rolling Stones. On learning that we were looking for chocolate croissants, he directed us to the local patisserie further down the road. Moments later, he came running after us, just in case we’d misunderstood his directions he told us. This massive fan of punk revealed that he wished he’d been born in London – we didn’t have the heart to tell him we’re not massive fans and rarely visit the UK capital ourselves.
Eventually it was time to leave Torres Vedras. Our single fares to Lisbon were just €4.25 each for the one-hour journey. As we couldn’t ‘book in’ to the private apartment where we were staying until 7pm, Harri thought it best if we walk there instead of changing trains on the outskirts of Lisbon as we originally planned. It’s only another five kilometres or so, he added persuasively.
Like many railway stations in Portugal, the station at Torres Vedras was ‘decorated’ with graffiti. If we thought that bad, we were in for a shock when our train rolled in. One side had been paint-sprayed to the extent that you couldn’t see in or out of the windows. We chose seats on the other side; however, it was frustrating not to see anything of the landscape to the right of the track.
We have visited Lisbon on two previous occasions but just for the day. Then, we’d explored the stunning historic districts, hopped on and off trams, wandered around the crypt-filled cemetery, window-shopped, dined and meandered along the Tagus. That tourist-filled Lisbon bore no resemblance to the place we now found ourselves, a land strewn with concrete apartment blocks. We crossed a busy road and Harri guided us through a maze of cul-de-sacs until we reached some scrubland.
Unfortunately, the footpath we joined, which had been clear at the outset, rapidly petered out until we were fighting our way through a large area of overgrown scrubland. Brambles and thorns tore the skin from my legs, while the nettles we were battling through were making them itch like crazy. Just when I thought it couldn’t get any worse, we plunged into a bog. I’d had enough. Harri must have been as fed up as me because he agreed to turn back. After several false starts, we made our way slowly back across the vegetation and located the original footpath leading from the street. We were back in ‘apartment land’ but at least the ground underfoot was dry … and there were no brambles.
The two hours between leaving the train station and reaching the apartment where we were staying the night did nothing to reassure me about the wisdom of Harri’s ‘stay out of town in cheap accommodation and catch an early taxi to the airport’ plan but I didn’t have worried. The couple who were sharing their apartment with us were wonderful hosts and the apartment, once inside, felt more like a spacious, traditional house. Their pet parrot Chico stood on one leg and then the other before deciding we were okay and deserved a friendly ‘ola‘.
We celebrated our last night in Portugal at an ‘eat all you can’ Chinese buffet, recommended to us by Julie and within a five-minute walk of the apartment. At €7.85 each, including a dessert, it was excellent value and with beers our meal only came to €20.05 (the cheapest of our holiday and one of the advantages of staying off the tourist trail).
When Harri asked me to write down all the places I wanted to visit in Central Portugal, it was just a ‘wish-list’ and I didn’t expect to see half of them. Yet, true to his word, Harri had come up with a long-distance hike that had taken us from Tomar to Castanheira de Pera, Coimbra to Nazaré and Peniche to Torres Vedras. We’d walked on mountain tracks, alongside rivers and lagoons, got soaked through, battled along beaches and marvelled at medieval architecture. Once again, the Portuguese people had treated us with generosity, kindness and endless patience as we frequently struggled to make ourselves understood.
We will return to this beautiful part of Portugal … and soon.
There’s no online mapping for today’s route because Harri inadvertently left the tracker on when we were on the train to Lisbon!!
The Via Algarviana – an English guide to the ‘Algarve Way’ by Harri Garrod Roberts is available from online bookstores, included Amazon’s Kindle store and is priced at £2.99.
The Via Algarviana: walking 300km across the Algarve by Tracy Burton is available in paperback (£5.99) and Kindle edition (£2.99) from Amazon.