We spent five nights in the campsite at Zambujeira do Mar and felt more than a little reluctant to move on but in the end the call of the road won and we set off north in the direction of Alcaçer do Sol.
Portuguese roads can be rough. This is a Yorkshire understatement. There are places where there are more holes in the tarmac than there is tarmac. There are also promises of A roads that turn out to be narrow, mountainous and winding with the added value of an unexpected meander through a tiny town where small elderly people wander aimlessly in the middle of the road. Portuguese roads can also be excellent; flat, wide and direct. Our problem is that the satnav doesn’t seem to know the difference and makes calculations based only on distance whilst telling huge porkies about the time it will take to get to your destination. To get to Alcaçer we needed to bypass Sines and the map showed a route hugging the coastline. Our satnav is a special version of Copilot designed for caravans and motorhomes. You set it to your height and length and then, in theory, it chooses a safe and suitable route. On this occasion it chose one of the tiny roads, meandering through villages where we caused alarm and confusion before taking us high up above the coast. Here we found ourselves turning and twisting before flying back down to the ocean. Having stopped for breakfast at 1 p.m. because we had found nowhere to stop until then, we changed drivers. Shirley took over, drove a short distance and found herself on the motorway. At the time I thought she had all the luck but a couple of days later the tables turned…
We were exhausted when we got to Alcaçer and rolled onto the parking place beside the river. There is an official motorhome parking place that has spaces too small for any van bigger than 6.5m. Thankfully we were advised that another big parking spot a little further on is fine for overnight stays. We were delighted to find ourselves literally alongside the beautiful river with a short step up onto the riverside path. From here we could see a footbridge over the water to the town where cafés and bars were winking at us and making suggestive come hither gestures. It wasn’t long before we had the dogs walked, fed and settled and we were over the footbridge and into a bar before you could say “Cerveja por favor”. On the way over to the bar we met a very friendly, pleasant lady who spoke no English. Despite my attempts at learning Portuguese using Duolingo I could not make out anything she was saying to us but this had no impact on her enthusiasm. She spoke animatedly, waving her arms about and smiling broadly. We could only assume she was telling us what a beautiful town it was … she was right. It is.
The next morning we made a rookie error. We knew that there was an Intermarché just up the road where we could fill up with water and empty waste but it would mean going a couple of miles off our route. We decided not to use it because we were going to the fabulous aire at Mafra, where parking and services are provided right next to the palace. We are big fans of Mafra. The town is lovely, the facilities for motorhomes excellent, the cakes in the Pastelaria Polo Norte (Patisserie North Pole) simply fantastic and we would be parked on proper hardstanding. By now we were heartily sick of parking on grit, gravel and sand, all of which makes its way into the van without any encouragement on our part. The motorhome pitches are very long at Mafra, giving ample space for the trailer and we approached feeling excited at the thought of going back to a place we had really loved on a previous trip. The route involved driving around the outskirts of Lisbon and crossing the Vasco da Gama bridge over the inlet. This is a treat in itself as you skim along, close to the water, watching the small sailing craft and fishing boats as you pass them by. It almost feels as though you could reach out and touch them. We pulled into the palace parking at Mafra, deftly reversed the trailer onto the pitch, unhitched it and then drove the van over to the service point. Here we discovered that the water was switched off for the winter. We had less than a quarter tank … no showers for us that night.
Of course we still visited the cake shop and wandered around the town remembering happy times there two years ago. We tried to arrange a haircut but the hairdresser was fully booked. That was her story. I reckon she looked at our scruffy shaggy locks and decided we were too big a challenge. Back in the van we were reminded of something that our rose tinted hindsight had forgotten. It is freezing cold up in Mafra. Getting there from Lisbon is a constant uphill road and we found ourselves in low cloud with a drop in temperature of about 10c on our previous stops. The next morning we did a quick run around with the dogs, hitched up the trailer, jumped back in the van and set off for Bombarral.
I suspect that even the residents of Bombarral would wonder why anyone would want to come to stay there on a tour of Portugal when so many other towns are more beautiful, interesting and accessible. The reason is simple. It is about two miles from Buddha Eden and has a free motorhome stop complete with services. I realise that this account could easily become a “why we hate our satnav” saga but this time the beastly thing really went too far. Bear in mind it has our dimensions set including the trailer, making us a fearsome 12 meters long and 3 metres high. We are a big rig. We were directed right into the middle of the town where space is tight, even for normal cars and then the ‘voice’ told us to turn left. Shirley said “I think it’s a one way and we’re going the wrong way” but I believed the satnav – more fool me. Being the navigator I have to take full responsibility for the mayhem that followed. After all, I should know by now that our satnav does not ‘do’ Portugal efficiently. A man walking down the road towards us sprinted into the middle holding up his hands to indicate that a serious incident was likely to occur if we went any further. He explained to us that we were going the wrong way up a one way street and I pretended to be surprised. He then advised us to turn into a square that was clearly not designed for vehicles as this would be our only feasible way out of the mess we were in. Cars were filing up behind us, waiting patiently to go the right way out of town and, to their credit, not a single horn was blown or rude gesture made in our direction. Shirley manoeuvred into the square while I walked in front of the van to make sure she didn’t hit any trees, plinths or pedestrians until a car driving on the other side stopped and another good samaritan opened the window and asked if she could help. With just a couple of easy directions she got us out of the centre of town and onto the ring road where we found the motorhome parking and settled down for a restful evening. Before long another motorhome appeared and we chatted to the other couple who told us that they were also planning to go to Buddha Eden the next day. I waxed lyrical about its delights and we parted happily saying that we would see them the next day. We did, but not in the way we planned. We woke up the next morning to torrential rain, had a brief conversation with the neighbours, all happed up in wet weather gear, before deciding that it was much too wet to even consider going to see the Buddhas and the visit was abandoned. Fortunately we have been before so we weren’t too disappointed. We can thoroughly recommend it. Read all about it.
Moving on, we decided to go to Batalha, a place famous for its wonderful monastery. Here we were too big for the motorhome parking but we got advice from Tourist Information who told us we could park across the road in the place where the market happens on Mondays. “Just make sure you leave by Sunday”, they said … so we did.
Batalha (pronounced bataalia) is a truly lovely town that welcomes motorhomes with open arms. Services are free, space is plentiful and you are right in the heart of the town. Not only were we within very easy reach of the monastery but we were just steps away from a Pingo Doce supermarket, close to numerous coffee shops and, joy of joys, a hairdresser who was prepared to take up the challenge of our very shaggy locks.
Hairdressing Portuguese Style
This was the second haircut we’ve had in Portugal since arriving two months previously and we found a rather disconcerting similarity between the two. Having a haircut here is a much more violent experience than at home in the UK. When the stylist wants you to move your head she shoves it to one side or pushes it forward with a sharp jab, causing on one occasion a cracking sound to reverberate up my neck. I wasn’t expecting a touch of karate to accompany my haircut so I was more than a little surprised. Both haircuts we’ve had here have been very good but the abrupt shoves and pushes made them a less than relaxing experience. The other unexpected part was the use of a blade rather than scissors for a good bit of my haircut. I am now shorn and suffering nightmares but otherwise everything is fine.
The Unknown Soldier
In a side chapel of the huge monastery church in Batalha is the tomb of the unknown soldier. Walking into the room you are met with an extraordinary sight. Two soldiers stand guard beside the tomb all day every day. The young men, wearing battle fatigues, stand on either side of the tomb, completely still with their feet wide apart and holding a gun resting on the ground as though to help them keep balance. A third soldier waits quietly outside the chapel ready to take his turn on guard. There was something profoundly moving about this and despite our mutual hatred of war and violence we could not help but be moved to tears by the symbolism of young soldiers many generations after the great war, watching over the unknown one who represents the multitude of young men who were never found or identified.
Before leaving Batalha we spent quite a long time discussing the relative merits of continuing to the north of Portugal and then right across the north of Spain to Sitges or cutting east earlier on our route and travelling north east across country. There are pros and cons to both routes so we did our own version of tossing a coin – we looked at the weather forecast. Check in soon for the decision we made and the story of the biggest treat of all.