THE SUN WAS beginning to set over Madrid, turning the clear sky a venomous shade of orange and pink, the black mountains almost like a cartoon against it. Most towns and cities start to slow down at dusk, Ljubljana and Menton spring to mind, but then I realised Madrid was probably only waking up.
Our first experience of Seville was one of darkness, a few minutes after midnight. Even then the heat of the Andalusian capital was apparent; there was a mugginess that hung in the streets. Seville is not an enormous city, although the screenshot of the map I’d used to navigate ourselves from the station to the hostel was sufficiently vague for us to get a bit lost. Worry not, we managed to find the hostel, tucked away in the heart of the city, my back moaning in discomfort and my hair an inevitable mess. Needless to say we slept well that night, seemingly unperturbed by the snores and wheezes of the boy in the bunk beneath me. It was a little awkward at that point, as the cleaner clearly wanted to get in and sweep, and so we got ready and left.
Seville is perhaps the Spain most people are sold: the parcel of flamenco, guitars and tapas, wrapped in sunshine and offered with a generous jug of sangria. Of course this is true, and the market traders in the Old Town are the first sign of this, but Seville is more than its copious tapas bars and cheap black and red polka dot dresses hanging from the doorways of souvenir shops. Architecturally, it’s magnificent. We walked through the Old Town, this time in the daylight, which was not designed for backpackers and cars to use at the same time, and it’s in these streets that the real atmosphere of Seville can be tasted. The feel of the city is much different to that of Madrid or even Barcelona. Here you can clearly see the country’s past, entangled with Arabic rule: the churches, the palaces and the gardens all have a North African flair, in particular the Alcázar.
If there is one building that I will remember most fondly from our travels, it is this one. It might sound like a Disney villain, but the royal palace in the corner of the Santa Cruz quarter has nothing sinister about it. Immediately after paying to enter, we were transported – I don’t know whereto or to when – but somewhere peaceful, beautiful and timeless, where the only change would likely have been the life and death of the hibiscuses in the gardens. Several times I was tricked into thinking I was in a mountain retreat miles from anywhere, so silent is the Alcázar, the ancient domain of local rulers. It is a maze in itself, too – a labyrinth of brilliant cobalt blue tiles and colourful ceilings, archways and alcoves that lead you in and out of courtyard gardens, all of which appear to centre around quiet little fountains. Also, the gardens have peacocks, both of whom seem to have an ambivalent relationship with the duck who waddles around, the occasional nip and squawk a bit of a sideshow.
I was not content with the beauty of just the Alcázar, so we took to the Plaza de España, which is perhaps the final diamond in Seville’s crown. Fundamentally a colossal monument, a giant Moorish masterpiece in the form of a semicircle, bordered by a moat dotted with little rowboats. We didn’t row (ha! ha!) but we cooled ourselves down from the mist from the giant fountain, many other doing the same in the blazing sunshine.
That night we were back on the tapas. Frankly I hate the idea of not making the most of the best thing to come out of Spain after Penélope Cruz, and it’s so much fun to stand at an often crowded bar shovel olives into your mouth awaiting a cervecita and little plate of croquetas. I’ve decided I would like to own and run a tapas bar. The UK is missing out. Who knows – one day, some town in the UK could benefit from a Connor-owned French patisserie, Italian gelateria, Viennese coffeehouse and a Spanish tapas bar all in a row on a high street somewhere. That’s a bar crawl I would definitely go on.
The following day, after a chat with the American girl in our hostel dorm (whom I shall call Miley because she resembled too closely Miley Cyrus), in which she told us the best places for a ‘low-key night’ in Seville, we split up. Sean didn’t fancy paying €9 to get into the cathedral, but I wanted to see it. But the queue to get into the third largest cathedral must have been the longest in the world , so much so that I feared we would miss our coach later than afternoon if I joined the back of the massive group of Germans and lined up. So, I have a reason to return to Seville. And indeed, I would return
there, perhaps to work or something (if the job market improves…) as I feel compelled to improve my spoken Spanish. According to Juan, the young man giving out olive samples in the street, my Spanish was really good, although I don’t believe him because he was trying to sell me olives. Flattery doesn’t work. At any rate, we carried on in English, him telling me he hated selling olives and wanted to finish his economics degree and work in London. Then I had a brainwave – perhaps Juan was the one I needed to set up my tapas bar in The City. I’m sure he would be an invaluable resource in choosing the right olives to thrust upon diners at the bar.
In all seriousness, as Miley put it, Seville is a great place to live, and probably more fulfilling to be there as a resident than a visitor. Indeed, much of it can be covered in a day and a half, and it’s only the restaurants and bars that would keep you there for something new. It’s charming either way and a really wonderful spot to soak up sun and culture. And olives.
That afternoon we headed for the bus station. After research, I gathered that the rail links between Spain and Portugal are neither very good nor even existent, and so we had few other options than to jump on a coach. It was a strange feeling hearing the click of seatbelt as it pressed diagonally against my chest; for weeks I’d become too used to having two straps contort my back downwards that getting on a coach was a comfortably refreshing experience.
The coach dropped us off in Faro, my ears a little glad to escape the shrillness of the three Texan girls loudly discussing sports bras. The heat of the Algarve sun greeted us as we left the shade of the bus station, the gentle smell of salty sea wafting over the cobbled pavements. Faro, the Algarve’s capital, seemed relatively peaceful for an early Friday evening. There were even storks nesting on top of a lamp-post settling down for the night. For the first time, I felt as though we holiday. It reminded me of the holidays we’d had when I was younger, eating foreign ice creams under parasols, my parents doing a mediocre job trying to speak Spanish to the waiters. The same sights and smells were there, except this time I was bearing a rucksack probably not far off the same size as one of my parents, wandering through the streets of this unknown town in search of a toilet and a bed.
Hestitantly we lingered outside a peach-coloured building overlooking a square, where a boy with a Ronaldo football shirt was kicking a ball around. A man who looked a bit like a Oompa Loompa span round to us, stubbed out his cigarette and beamed. This was Fabricio, as he introduced himself, and it was his hostel we were looking for. A bit like Andraž in Bled, he proudly showed us around the beautiful, stylishly redesigned hostel. I asked if it was his home. He said no, which surprised me since he kept referring to the hostel as ‘the house’ and spent most of the tour being followed around by a cheerful little dog with an orange colour.
I got the impression that Faro is yearning for its annual tourists (mostly Brits) to throng its winding streets. That said, there were enough flip-flop-wearing Brits around to keep the cafés open. The town, or should I say city, seemed awfully quiet for a Friday night with four restaurant muggers hanging outside their establishments handing out business cards and luring us inside with ‘good music’ and ‘beautiful women’. We took one of the men up on his offer, although opted for the garden out back rather than sitting with the slightly bewildered gaggle of 40-year-old women as he suggested. Inside it wasn’t quite as quiet as the street, not least when the waiter wheeled out a cake that looked like a sausage roll with a candle in it and invited the restaurant to join in and sing Happy Birthday to a customer in Portuguese. We just clapped along.
It’s nothing special, but Faro is a nice enough place to dwindle your time with a coffee and pastel de nata, but I suspect it’s the legendary beaches of Portugal’s southern coast that draw people here and not the tempting offers of restaurant muggers.
In the afternoon we headed back to the train station for our last train of the trip to Lisbon. Boarding a train cannot be doing in any other way than clumsily when you have a rucksack of our size on your back, and I had to apologise to the woman carrying her cat on board. She laughed, so I don’t think she minded, although I doubt the cat felt the same. There were two German guys also travelling, it seemed, although had selfie sticks, something Sean and I had deliberately missed from our list of things to pack.
I could compile a gallery of selfie stick users from the last eight months, if indeed I had the patience or phone battery to photograph all of the culprits I’d seen. In fact, I reckon I could build a ladder to the moon and back with half of the selfie sticks I’d seen, where I would dump the other half I’d confiscated on my travels so that tourists can go forth in the world and use the traditional method of taking a selfie using their underappreciated, free and incredibly useful arm. Not only do they look bloody stupid, but the people using them enter a smiling phase of temporary spatial unawareness, creating a space in front of them of around two metres where people have to go out of their way because someone is inconsiderate enough to occupy a generous chunk of pavement. Half of the time the selfie stick does not add anything to the photo, except perhaps a nice few centimetres of silver pole between the edge of the picture and the taker’s hand, and as I said, make you (and anyone else in the picture with you) look ridiculous as you smile vacuously into a phone attached to the end of a magic wand. Of course, I understand the need to put your Christmas 2012 present to good use, and if you are immersed in a swimming pool or something and need an extra bit of height for your selfie, or if you can’t fit all of the Leaning Tower of Pisa into one shot, then I suppose the selfie stick comes in handy. But really, there are few occasions where a bit of repositioning and moving around won’t do the trick, and you’ll look much less absurd if you stick out your arm for a couple of seconds. Failing that, just do the thing people used to do twenty years ago and ask someone to take the picture of you. I suppose the whole situation is made worse by the men wandering around cities half-heartedly trying to flog selfie sticks. I suppose they’ve had to adapt to the demands of the 21st century traveller and move away from selling only sparkly pink Eiffel Towers.
The landscape of Portugal seemed far, far away from those forests of the Czech Republic. Here the land is smothered by the sun, littered with olive trees abandoned farmhouses. Looking out of the window, I also wondered if anyone actually uses those plug sockets in the toilets and actually has a shave on a moving train.
When the Lisboans decided to build their metro system they either couldn’t think of names or didn’t like the concept of numbering the lines, so just gave them colours. It made sense, but it felt a bit childish calling them ‘Red Line’ and ‘Yellow Line’ for someone used to ‘Metropolitan’ and ‘Hammersmith and City’. Anyway we arrived at the hostel, impeccably placed in the heart of downtown Baixa, and then had a look around. At first Lisbon definitely pleases – the views of the city sprawling across the hills as the train arrived was impressive enough – but the city centre bubbles with a likeable energy, both charmingly quaint and jostling-ly important, indicated by the droves of people trotting along the mosaic-cobbled pavements. It’s an enjoyable place to walk around, even more so if it wasn’t for the shady-looking men of various ages subtly approaching us and brazenly offering ‘shish’ or ‘marijuana’ or even ‘cocaine’. Honestly, it was like swatting flies – every five minutes we were accosted by another trying to tempt us with what were no doubt crap quality drugs at stupidly injust prices.
Like Faro, there is a lingering scent of the sea filling Lisbon’s streets, no surprise since this is Portugal’s largest port and the key to the country’s distinguished maritime and imperial past. We were reminded of this in the evening after dinner, which, by the way, we were lured into by restaurant mugger Rafael and his multilingualism, which also seemed to ensare many other indecisive diners. Anyway, afterwards we passed along the long rua Augusta, which leads into the Praça de Comércio, framed by a royally regal archway. It was here that we both remarked at how dark it was – for such a monument of the city, there were no illuminations. Instead it was in darkness, the sound of faint chanting and cheering –
counting perhaps, we weren’t sure – coming from the other side in the Praça. We carried on, the wind billowing strongly through the street. A bedraggled beggar in a wheelchair called out to us with her coffee cup. A trio of Japanese girls ran past us wearing Disney t-shirts, giggling inexplicably. As we passed under the arch, there were flashes of light in front us, accompanied by the louder and louder cheers from the crowd, and an unexpected squawk of seagulls… The traffic in front us seemed to have no idea what was going on either for all their honking at pedestrians who dashed across the road like alarmed wildebeests. The whole thing was bewildering. For a few moments I’d thought I’d perhaps taken some of those men’s drugs unawares because it all felt a bit trippy.
I hadn’t, as far as I remember, but what was happening was some sort of light projection show onto the arch and its adjoining buildings, exploring the theme of Lisbon: City of the Sea. It was very impressive, actually, if lacking a bit in information, and it received a round of applause from the crowd that had gathered in front. Sean thought it looked like a bit of a brainwashing propaganda video but I thought it had an Olympics opening ceremony feel about it. You may be able to deduce a bit about our personalities from that.
My rowing credentials aside, I can ride a bike pretty well, so I happily agreed to the idea of hiring bikes to cycle to Belém the following morning, a district west of the city. The route follows the Tagus estuary, passing through the largely renovated docklands, a lot of which is now vibrant restaurants with canopied terraces. The ride is facilitated largely by a cycle path although it wasn’t all plain sailing (or plain riding), because for most of the 4km journey we were swarmed with women of all ages and sizes in purple t-shirts on what appeared to be some sort of televised Portuguese Race for Life. There were literally hundreds and hundreds of them, walking in and out of pavements, roads and cycle paths, ignoring the ‘boost your walk!’ slogan across their shirts. Never mind, I suppose they were doing their bit, and more fool us for choosing that day to follow the same route.
And more fool us for choosing to cycle in 30°+ heat. When we got back to Lisbon, my hands sweaty and greasy, I then realised why the women were walking and not running.
Because of work duties, Sean had to head home on the Sunday evening, so I was soon on my own! I didn’t quite know what to do with myself – my feet were in a very sorry state and even the Lisboans agreed that the weekend had been especially hot. Following a chat with Karini, the Brazilian woman in my hostel dorm, I took her advice and headed to Bairro Alto, literally ‘Upper District’, no surprise given the fact the twisting alleyways cling to the cobbled hills above Baixa.
Oh, and if you’re thinking I’ve met an awful lot of Brazilians on my travels, you’re right. I have.
There I stumbled across a seafood restaurant, one of many in the Portuguese capital, and sat myself down amongst the chatter and clatter of diners tucking into spider crabs and the like. It took the waiters a while to see me; maybe because my t-shirt was the same colour as the wall behind me, as the German woman next to me pointed out. What’s more is that I’d perhaps foolishly chosen the seat next to the crab and lobster tank, a spot where I had to forgive numerous small splashes and sorries for the waiters each time they fished out a crustacean for the kitchen. All is forgiven; my prawns were very nice.
On Monday, again blessed with smouldering sunshine, I took the metro to the Oceanário. I either missed the signposts when I left the metro or the there just generally are no signs as I spent ten minutes wandering around the modern, highly renovated Nações area of the city in search of the aquarium. I eventually found it, jutting out onto the vast Tagus estuary. It was an ambient relief to mooch amongst the cool blue tanks and not the hot golden streets, even more so given the range and quality of the Oceanário, one of Europe’s largest. I like aquariums. I think it’s because it gives me the chance to look at sea life from behind thick, reinforced panes of glass, safe from any unexpected bouts of drowning or attacks from large carnivorous fish, all from the comfort of a dry and warm corridor, so I don’t have to get into the water to see sunfish or great barracuda. A dry and warm corridor sounds much more appealing.
I had a late lunch in the quirky Café Pois in Alfama, the old part of Lisbon, famed for its old cobbled hills that seem to feature on every postcard I’ve seen. Indeed they are steep, but what’s more amazing are the trams that dart around the city, including up the slopes of Alfama. A lot of them are almost as old as the streets they zip through, and are jam-packed with passengers, much like the local sardines, so it’s a marvel they move with such deftness. I took one of the trams back to ground level, the 28 I think, although I was unsuccessful in my mission to grab a seat since they were all occupied by like-minded tourists or grumpy locals. So, instead, I embraced the whole thing, body odour of some passengers and all, and stood for the journey, indiscreetly using my fellow passengers as supports when the incline got a little sharp. I’m sure they didn’t mind – in fact I know they didn’t because they kept doing the same to me.
I dined alone again; not that I mind much – it’s strangely appealing to sit in a restaurant and watch other diners: their body language, the way they eat, what they eat, their English pronunciation when asking for the bill. What’s more is that I felt a little as though I had my own private butler, which is a nice feeling, until they bring you back down to earth with the bill.
Walking back through the city reminded me of what a great place Lisbon is. I find it quite unique since there aren’t many cities, capitals especially, that feel both relaxed and frenetic at the same time. There aren’t many cities that feel old and new, either. Lisbon beats with a youthful heart, superseding the age of its buildings, which range from cluttered cobbled passageways to long, grand avenues. I can see myself returning here, along with the many travellers who choose the Portuguese capital as a city break. Lisbon is giving in to the tourists who descend upon it, however. I suspect there wasn’t much of a tourist trail twenty or so years ago, although nowadays you’re not hard pushed to find a place to buy a fridge magnet or a figurine of the Barcelos chicken, which to most people is known as the Nando’s chicken. Funnily enough there weren’t any branches of Nando’s in Portugal, that I saw anyway, and I’m fairly certain any self-respecting Portuguese person would probably confirm that a ‘cheeky’ piri-piri grilled chicken is about as Portuguese as a branch of McDonald’s, which I have proudly not entered anywhere on my travels.
No matter how much I love to travel, I’m not sure I will ever be quite as enthusiastic about 4.30am starts, chimed in with the hideously monotonous jingle of my alarm. Starting at that hour almost always makes me feel nauseous, coupled with a faintly bitter bloated feeling from the coffee I drink to evoke some more life in me. I’m good at mornings, but dressing in the dark so as not to wake the two sleeping Chinese guys in my dorm is not quite as fun, or as easy, as doing it with the light on. I had visions of them waking up and flicking on the light as I was halfway through putting on my boxers. Fortunately that didn’t happen. I was quietly relieved as I attempted to make my bed with patchy vision. That was that! The bed before me was the last one, the last of seventeen beds I’d slept in over the past five weeks, the last hostel I’d stay in for a while. It was a strangely humbling thought; this quasi-nomadic lifestyle I’d been living was almost done with, and real life and permanent sleeping arrangements were to come.
My early flight to Heathrow was too early for the Lisbon metro, which starts at 6.30am. Even if I could have taken the metro, there was a strike. Taxi, please!
Fast forward a couple of hours, and also two coffees, and I am writing the last few snippets of this journey at 30,000ft, somewhere above the Galician coast, peering into the blue expanse that is the Bay of Biscay. I’d like to personally thank the pen with which I have written this whole thing – not once has its ink faltered on me, nor has it leaked or broken or got lost. You won’t be able to read this, or even understand the concept of thanks (because you are a pen), but you’ve been very useful. I gave a thought to all the faces I’d met along the way, and where they might have gone and what they might have done after our paths crossed. I wonder if Brad from Virginia got hold of his ‘stuff’ in Berlin, or if the girl in Milan found her tongue, or if the Madrilenian I asked for a prostitute managed to find a cigarette. I don’t suppose any of these mysteries will ever be answered, which is, I’ve deduced, part of the beauty of travel.
I suppose I’ll go home and then shower, unpack and perhaps sleep, in an order I don’t know yet, and fantasise about the continent I’d left behind, a chequerboard of colour and culture, each square a new chance to briefly experience something different. I will no doubt linger over the memories of Parisian lookalikes and Sachertorte, of rowing and drunken tapas, of well-decorated hostels and the smell of the sea and morons with selfie sticks. I will also book an appointment with a podiatrist; my feet have been in an unspeakable state since Faro and are covered in blisters. My blisters even have blisters. Perhaps then, when some gifted Thai woman is tending to my feet, I will ponder the next adventure.
PS – If you’re thinking of visiting any of the cities we went to, I’d be more than happy to give you some recommendations for some really great places to stay, plus anything else you’re interested in! Just not cocaine.