Friday, 10 November 2017

The road to Lisbon - are we loving Portugal yet?

Compared to other means of travel I wonder if motorhoming results in a more varied experience of the places you visit. We have overnighted in graffiti daubed industrial parks, ramshackle smallholdings, dodgy suburbs, half abandoned resorts, supermarket car parks and even in a safari park next to a herd of elephants. It is difficult to maintain a romanticised view countries visited. Everywhere is a mixture of the good the bad and the ugly. 

However, it is also true that some places are more overtly charming than others, that there is something in their culture that feels welcoming and inclusive and the people have a friendly and generous demeanour. For us, despite being as good, bad and ugly as everywhere else, Greece, Italy and Spain are places we have fallen in love with, forgiving shortcomings and eulogising their charms as if stricken by a teenage crush.

I think it is fair to say we have not got to the starry-eyed stage with Portugal yet. It's not that we don't like it; the past few days on the west coast in particular have been wonderful, the wildness of the coast and the empty, remote landscapes - all very beautiful.

The port of Sines is the only town of any size on the whole coast south of Setsubal. Up until the 1970s it was a relatively modest sized place, then a big container port, oil refinery and power station were developed. There is a certain majesty about big industrial structures. If the electric car revolution happens as predicted we will need more butt ugly power stations not less.

There are charming places too. On the way to Lisbon we stopped for lunch at the riverside town of Alcacer do Sal. It was somewhere else that we picked up on the 'Park for Night' app as a good place to park for lunch. However, as the app suggests, the area autocaravanas by the river would work well as an overnight stop too.

Really we did not have time to explore the town thoroughly. In particular we admired the fortress on the hill above the river from afar. It has that chunky look of Moorish castle and the name of the town itself suggests Arabic origins. We contented ourselves with walking along the river side. It has an interesting mix of small squares, attractive whitewashed houses and an elegantly proportioned church. Cafés and restaurants abound; it feels prosperous, which is not often the case in rural Portugal. 

As well as interesting the architecture, the river's mudflats are home to an intruiging mix of bird life, none of which we recognised, prompting a conversation  revealing our utter ignorance of ornithology. something along the lines of:

Gill: Is that a stork in the water?
Pete: Dunno, can they swim?...I thought they just sat on chimneys...

The old iron bridges are interesting too, with a mechanism in the centre that resembles colliery winding gear to lift a section to allow river traffic through.

It may be a modest place, but Alcacer has a claim to worldwide significance. Like Vinci, Shrewsbury or Stratford-upon-Avon it is a small town which produced a towering genius. A statue of Pedro Nûnes dominates the small square outside the town hall. In the early 16th century Nûnes helped provide the mathematics behind Portuguese supremacy in navigation. His commentaries on Euclid and Ptolemy introduced the ideas about spherical trigonometry found in Classical and Islamic mathematics into the European mainstream. It was his work that Mercator developed to produce the projection still used on world maps today. 

This is the beauty about simply mooching about. We stopped for some bread and cheese by a river and ended up reading up about the history of mathematics. Travel does broaden the mind, but in a completely random manner.

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