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My husband and I are Canadian and originally from north eastern Ontario (Cobalt) and whenever possible, we always take the back roads!
It is April in Portugal. There’s been a lot of rain and although the Portuguese people are tetchy about the weather, we’re just happy it’s not snowing. It’s our first visit to Portugal and we are soaking up the intermittent sunshine and feasting our eyes on the striking vegetation of Portugal; a mixture of European, Mediterranean and some African species of plant life.
After a three day stay in municipality of Ourém, visiting specifically Fátima, Aljustrel and Valinhos we give a poignant farewell to Our Lady of Fatima and head to the west coast to our new home base of Nazaré.
My husband drives, and I usually hold the map on my lap, thus, I program the GPS. No toll roads, and yes, by all means, we’ll take the back roads. The GPS asks me one further question. “Do you want to avoid dirt roads?” No
The route is a half an hour longer than taking the Auto-Estrada (Motorway/Freeway) or Itenerario Principal (Highway) and it means driving through villages as apposed to bypassing them. We’re going to take this rental (Ford Focus wagon) on an adventure! With unlimited mileage and maximum insurance we’re going to create a one car rally race…possibly resulting in a potential Guinness World Records™ record for the slowest one car rally in the world! Now that’s exciting!
The GPS is directing us through streets that make me question whether or not it’s working properly. I’m pretty certain that the left turn we have taken is taking us into someone’s driveway…no…it’s a one way street…wrong again… there’s a car coming towards us…we squeeze right and I watch as the right hand rear view mirror misses the stucco wall of a house by less than an inch. I could have reached out and knocked on the door.
For Europeans, these narrow streets are not an unusual occurrence, but for a couple of Canadians it’s a hairy experience. I glance at my husband after we make it through unscathed.
“Good driving honey.” He’s a bit white around the mouth. “Don’t forget to breath.”
After an hour or so, we loosen up and wholly enjoy these old-world village streets, hairpin turns, and short cuts only the locals would know about. In one village we stop to let a Sheppard guide his sheep into someone’s driveway. I wave and smile as we go by, in a typical friendly Portuguese way he gives me a half smile and shakes his stick at me. I can almost read his mind, “Tourists and their GPS! Get back on the highway already!”
Don’t misunderstand me, the Portuguese are very warm and friendly, once they realize that YOU are warm and friendly. They also enjoy a good laugh when you try to speak their language, but it’s not in a mean spirited manner. They know you’re trying and they warm up to you even more.
Just as the sun is setting (the sky is clear) we take a turn and below us we can see the Atlantic. We have reached Nazaré. Our GPS is no longer of use as it won’t accept the address of our hotel. It looks like we might be driving through the town for quite a while searching for our lodgings. We are on the “main drag” along the beach and come to a halt at a stop sign. A woman appears out of no where shouting something at us. Did we just run over her cat? No, she’s wondering if we need a room for the night
As I stated above, April is low tourist season, the hotel rooms are cheaper and the beaches are empty. If we had just driven into Nazaré in July without a room booked we’d be sleeping in the car, but in April people will, apparently, run up to your vehicle and ask you if you need a room.
Quite by accident we find our hotel, check in and make our way to our room. I open the balcony doors and hear what I think is an altercation on the street below. I can hear women yelling at each other. I step out and tentatively look down, I’m wrong; I see two women wearing traditional headscarves and embroidered aprons over seven (above the knee) flannel skirts in different colours - they’re just having a conversation. It is a strong contrast from being surrounded by modestly dressed and very quiet pilgrims in Fatima and at first it’s an assault on the senses, but after a glass of wine on the balcony while watching the sunset over the Atlantic, the noise and activity of the streets becomes an appealing part of this vibrant fishing village/town.
Over the next four days we continue our Portuguese One Car Rally through central Portugal and visit:
The town of Tomar, complete with a visit to The Convent of Christ; a combination of a castle and a convent, built in 1160 and used by the Knights Templar.
The town of Batalha and a visit to The Mosteiro Santa Maria da Vitória, commonly known as the Batalha Monastery, constructed over a century starting in the year 1386.
The town of Alcobaça with a visit to The Mosteiro de Santa Maria de Alcobaça (the Cistercian Alcobaça Monastery). The AlcobaçaMonastery was founded by the first Portuguese king in 1153 and is the largest church in the country.
I won’t write about each town or awe inspiring site we visited – anyone can get this information on the internet or at your public library – I simply want to encourage you to get off the beaten path, use a GPS and have fun exploring Portugal.
The destinations, as extraordinary and remarkable as they are, were only an element of pleasure during our trip to Portugal. Making our way ancient towns via winding back roads and the narrow lanes of rural Portuguese communities made reaching our target destination slightly disappointing. Not once did I even think to ask the question “Are we there yet?” More often than not, when seeing that our destination was upon us, I said, “Ahh, we’re here already?
However, always choosing an alternate return route to Nazaré made the “homecoming” expedition just as adventuresome.
One Last Note
During our visit to Portugal we never have to pay for parking. So, after a while we stopped looking for meters and pay parking stands and simply parked the car and left. You know the saying “Never assume…” yes, it’s a good old adage and proved to be true, as while visiting the Alcobaça Monastery we didn’t see the pay parking ticket machine and low and behold we got a parking ticket. We’re both in our early 40’s and it was our very first parking ticket - ever. Yes, we’re that boring.
And so, we began “The Adventure of the Parking Ticket”. After an hour of trying to get directions to the police station (the magical GPS wasn’t helping) we finally found someone who would give us directions. The waiter at a local café refused to give us directions because we were driving a rental. We asked inside the restaurant all while the waiter is shouting “It’s a rental! Don’t pay it!”
Regardless, we felt we should pay it and we were happy to hear from the woman inside the café that it would only be about nine Euros.
After missing a turn here and there we finally arrived at the police station. We went into the wrong door and presented our parking ticket to the Portuguese equivalent of the RCMP (Royal Canadian Mounted Police) and were directed around the corner to the correct building.
I can only imagine how we looked, both grinning like idiots and standing in the entrance to the police station with a parking ticket in hand. The policeman who “helped” us was very appreciative that we actually came to pay a ticket.
“You did the right thing.” He said very seriously, as if we were turning ourselves in for bank robbery.
We continued to grin like idiots until he said “Thirty Euro’s please.”
“Thirty Euro’s? That’s more than we spent on a three course lunch for the both of us – with wine! That’s more than we spent on any one of our souvenirs!” We were gobsmacked – we were at the end of our budget – and probably going to have to eat supper at a McDonalds that evening, which my husband was excited about because they have Portuguese draft available to go with your Mc-whatever. (No, he wasn’t drinking and driving – it was a very small plastic glass of beer that had “I’m Lovin It.” printed on it. How appropriate.)
The policeman was very helpful and suggested we frame the paperwork he gave us, as it was our most luxurious souvenir. And how fitting that at the end of our Portuguese One Car Rally we would have made it safely through the twisting back roads, never clipping a sheep that appeared out of no-where or even coming close to hitting one of the many dogs that run the streets of Nazaré! We didn’t even scrape a stucco wall with a side mirror - but we managed to get our very first parking ticket.
Exploring Central Portugal off the beaten track with a GPS was a great adventure – the next time we’re going north. Porto or bust!
http://www.travel-in-portugal.com/Batalha/ http://www.portugalvirtual.pt/_tourism/costadeprata/nazare/index.html http://www.sacred-destinations.com/portugal/tomar
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