There is no doubt that it will rain all day, but this cannot affect my plans for today at all. After soaking up the sun for three days in Bilbao I am heading to the bus terminal to take the next – and last – international service towards Galicia, the north-western tip of the peninsula.
Across the rainy north
I am quite familiar with the climatic conditions of the continent but still, the scenery around the coastal motorway with its perfect lush green pastures surprises me. A very stark contrast exist here between geographical regions divided by no more than one hundred kilometres – and by a mountain range. These mountains in the northern and north-western edges of the Iberian Peninsula force the wet air masses from the Atlantic to rise. While doing so, its temperature drops and its precipitation falls, before it could distribute this further along its way inside the landmass. This is called the orographic effect and this explains why the climatic map of the peninsula is so contrasting – probably the most contrasting one in Europe (see map below). While Galicia and the northern coastal zone is characterised by oceanic climate with an average annual rainfall of over 1,500 mm, Murcia and Alicante near the Mediterranean Sea are very dry (Cape Gata 156 mm, making it the driest region in Europe, and the nearby Tabernas Desert is just slightly more than 200 mm).
But I stay on the motorway in the north for at least a few more hours, watching the valleys and the seacoast passing by in front of the large windscreen. The occasional stops give me some opportunity to get to know the fellow passengers a bit, and some of the service stations offer cooked meals and coffee. And there is no shortage of souvenirs either (luckily I’ve still got a bottle of pálinka [Hungarian fruit brandy] and a bottle of the famous dessert wine called Tokaji, also from my country).
The bus, which has been pleasantly empty until now, completely gets full at the coach terminal of Santiago de Compostela. The capital of Galicia is a symbol of the Spanish Christians’ struggle against Islam and has become well-known as a pilgrimage site as well.
A nicely dressed Asian girl sits next to me who, from time to time, looks up from her oversized iPhone as I try to exchange a few words with her. It immediately turns out that she is from California and has just finished the Camino de Santiago (the Way of St. James) – to my great surprise. She talks about the awe-inspiring sceneries and the kind locals she met as well as a kind of spiritual transformation she has overcome by the end, but also tells me about her disappointment. This Way is not the one she previously imagined but something that has lost a lot of charm because of its popularity: it has become something like ‘a mass tourist destination’. I also hear other North Americans telling their similar recent stories and experiences and I just start wondering how it is possible that these people simply and so naturally pop up at the opposite side of the world and it is considered absolutely normal… But is it normal that we can just go for a ‘walk’, say, up to the ancient Inca city in the Andes or visit the Giant Buddha in Leshan, China, or dive at the Great Barrier Reef – you name it. I am close to say to myself that our world has turned into a madhouse when, all of a sudden, I realise that I am just one of “these people”. Heading to one of the opposite corners of our planet to live and work there. All right, I am not going for a walk only, so my ‘way’ is not the same for sure, I may call it a ‘mission’ then.
I arrive in Porto late in the afternoon, before sunset.
To be honest I don’t fall in love with this city at first sight – the downtown street where the bus just dropped me off after a full day’s travel is rather empty and sleepy with only a few passers-by enjoying the tranquility. It is too early to judge, I know, and the fact that I am going to stay with a local family makes me feel great.
Do it how the locals like it
The next day, after the warm and friendly welcome, we go to the local fruit and vegetable market, but before that we pop into a nearby café for breakfast. We don’t have to hurry at all, because this is how everyone starts the day.
Although a tram line has recently been built to this part of the city, most people use their cars to do the weekly shopping, making it almost impossible to find a parking space. With a little creativity, however, we soon find a solution to the problem.
Fortunately, my host’s daughter speaks good English, because even though I can speak Spanish, I wouldn’t like to use it, simply because it is not really the best way to converse here. Obviously, we all know that Portugal is not Spain, but to many of us the two cultures are thought to be – understandably – very similar. The fact that Portuguese language is under-represented compared to Spanish – with only 10 million active users in Europe – further explains why locals here feel a bit sad about this. (But of course, I have to try to chat using my little Spanish, but only after a proper greeting in Portuguese. And no doubt, people in this country are so friendly and easy-going that it doesn’t really matter which way I ask or explain things.)
At the market I act as an observer and porter, while my arms start to feel that there will be no shortage of food for the weekend.
While Lisbon is the main business and administrative centre and the classic tourist magnet, the smaller, quieter and less multicultural Porto is best known for its wines, especially for the port. But let’s see what this is.
Hundreds of years ago the people from the upper section of the Douro River used a special method to stabilize their wine: they added wine-based distillate (brandy) to the must. So the port is a fortified wine, and the person who comes here and does not try it is, well, maybe a bit crazy.
But before I start thinking about what I miss by not trying this alcoholic delicacy, let’s have a look at the positive side of this decision: Porto is not only about its port wine production! The city has recently undergone a renaissance and has seen a spectacular boom in tourism, thanks to its World Heritage-listed historic city centre, the romantic riverfront and its colourfully tiled façades. This is why I prefer spending my limited ‘free time’ above the ground by just getting lost on the narrow medieval streets. (By the way, one can choose guided cellar tours from a range of advertisements, offering wine tastings as well, which is definitely a good idea!)
On the high street I decide to take a break and go for a coffee and a couple of Portuguese egg tart pastries (pastéis de nata). Fortunately, the owner of the family-run café speaks English very well, so once he realizes that football won’t be our common topic, we turn to questions from around the world, and then to local economic and political contradictions. I also tell him that I had to make a difficult decision years ago when I was trying to choose the country and the city for my foreign university studies. According to my scoreboard Tartu, Estonia won the final, but now ten years later I finally made it to Porto! Before we say goodbye, he even invited me for their tomorrow’s daily menu, which, unfortunately, I have to miss at this time.
São João Festival (St. John’s Eve) is just around the corner. The public spaces are vibrating with people and vendors, musicians and bars have moved out into the streets as well. And I just got a message from Claudia that she has managed to book a table for four at their favourite local restaurant and bar for tonight. Sounds like a plan!
Roaming around Europe while enjoying the comfort of trains can cost a fortune nowadays, but combining this method with no-frills coaches can be a smart way to save quite a lot. Thanks to the pre-purchased tickets, my journey across the continent did not cost significantly more, than if I had done this by air. (In general, however, this city-hopping style of travelling is hardly a budget alternative to a direct flight, simply because of the spending in each place, but this is what we live for, right?)
So everything has gone according to schedule, so far. My intercity train to Lisbon leaves Porto main station fifteen minutes late, but the ocean view and the 180 km/h speed compensate me.
Lisbon is a different world.
Due to the capital’s marginal role in the world economy we might not classify it as a global city. However, because of this vibrant mix of peoples who immigrated from former – especially African – colonies, we can consider it so.
Damaia is my next ‘residence’, where I spend two days. For the first time, I feel a little bit like an alien because of my skin colour: the majority are of African descent here, coming almost entirely from the former colonial world. They are followed by European immigrants – mainly Ukrainians, Romanians and Moldovans. This is the first time that I am visiting a European city with such a big proportion of non-Europeans, since I left London. According to my host, who also has Ukrainian ancestry, they have no problem with each other – Damaia is not a no-go zone.
As a result of its once extensive colonial empire, the societal composition of the country (but mainly that of Lisbon) has been fundamentally shaped by migration over the past centuries. Emigration, return-migration and immigration have had a significant demographic impact.
The disintegration of the Portuguese colonial empire began in the second half of the 20th century and it was a long and painful process. The constant military response to the 13-year long armed independence movements in the African colonies of Portugal didn’t only cause undesirable financial and political consequences for the small European country, but it also kick-started a mass migration. After the independence of these colonies roughly at the same time in 1975, around 700,000 settlers returned to the European motherland, almost immediately (retornados – returnees). Census data of Portugal show the demographic impact of this influx: after the stagnation of the previous two decades, the population grew by nearly 14% between 1970 and 1980.
Afterwards the recovering economy was the main driving force for immigration, mostly from Africa as well.
As a Hungarian (coming from a country with similar geographical and socio-economic characteristics), I always wonder how this relatively small-sized country could once discover almost half the globe and could keep its world empire running for centuries.
According to my map, I crossed the imaginary line between the milder/humid north and the warmer/drier south on the way from Porto. But I don’t feel it today. The weather is mild, but when the clouds open up, the steeper streets of Lisbon, covered with white limestone, become very dangerous – my friend managed to draw my attention to this by slipping on it – thank God he broke only his umbrella.
But the city survived an even greater shock in 1755, when an earthquake followed by a tsunami and ravaging fires, almost completely destroyed it. Seismologists today estimate that the size of the trembling measured between 8.5 and 9 on the Richter scale. The number of human casualties was particularly high as it occurred on the morning of All Saints’ Day when many were in the collapsing churches.
It has been raining for a while now, and we are late too: the terminal of the buses towards the Atlantic coast is far from our apartment, and I should also top up my smart travel card to use it on the underground. I try this at the Damaia metro station, but the only terminal seems to be busy and I have to take the challenge. So for the first time in my life I jump the gate and hope that unlike in China, the Portuguese government have not yet installed any facial recognition mass surveillance camera system. Transport systems that are equipped with physical fences and gates are generally characterized by weaker control on board the vehicles, meaning that if you are inside the gate, you are “safe”.
This is not the case now: at the next station I spot a couple of men on the platform who do not seem to get interested by the arrival of the train: they slowly stub out their cigarettes and then just before the doors close they also board.
And the adjoining metro car suddenly gets packed with police officers. It also means that for me, this journey will be more expensive than if we went by taxi all the way to the coast…
But seemingly many young fellas jumped through the gate as well, giving me some chance to survive the remaining two stops. (Actually, I would have already got off at the next station if the guys hadn’t calmed me down – they certainly know the local bargaining techniques.)
The one-hour less adrenalin-pumping bus ride is followed by a nearly ten-kilometre coastal walk, thankfully with no rain, but still on slippery rocks.
Almost half way, we get terribly hungry, but since I convince the guys to try something local, a traditional fish dish in an authentic small restaurant, quenching our hunger is not an easy task. What we finally find, though, is a gemstone hidden in the maze of the old streets – Restaurante O Gafanhoto – I can only recommend this.
And beyond the background in the distance, are the silhouettes of Cape Roca, the westernmost point of continental Europe and the Eurasian giant landmass, which is not only the end of the continent, but also means that my visit to Europe is over – at least for a while, again.
Lisbon Airport. I am waiting for the departure of the Cabo Verde Airlines’ flight to Brazil, with a bottle of liqueur and a port, bought in the duty free. I bring one to my next host, whom I will meet soon. I hope you stay with me, it’s worth it, I promise! Until then: Adeus!
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