Thursday 18 December 2014


In 1989, fed up and plot-lost after six years working in an English University, I left academia and went for a long walk. I was tolerably fluent in Portuguese having taken lessons in order to push forward some field work in the Portuguese Atlantic Islands: Açores, Madeira and Cabo Verde. That decided where to walk (the mainland; not round and round a dot in the middle of the ocean; and Brazil was too far and too big) and my hopelessness with maps suggested that walking up the coast would take care of the navigation: if I veered left I would get wet feet. Accordingly, I took an overnight train London Newhaven Dieppe Paris and another to Lisboa via and Irú While in the Portuguese capital, I went to the Instituto Geographico e Cadastral, the equivalent of our Ordnance Survey, and bought a set of 1:100,000 maps to cover the coast from Sagres in the bottom left-hand corner to where the Rio Minho marks the Spanish border 700km further North. The maps were 16 in number, weighed 750g, and when folded were the size of two fattish paperback books. That was about 10% of my pack-load, so must have seemed important. The next day I caught another train to Lagos in the Algarve, then a bus to Sagres and set off North on foot. Sometime in the middle of the morning on that first day, I realised that I had left my roll of maps on the train the evening before and debated briefly about whether I would plough on regardless on the left = wet-foot protocol.  But as I had already gotten lost twice in the chaparral trying to find the Atlantic coast, I stopped at the next village and caught the bus back to Lagos, retrieved my maps (phew!) from the station-master, and set off again.

It was lonely but it was lovely to have the world opening wide before me as I ploughed deeper into the dusty countryside. It didn't rain at all for the first week although it was late September, but on the seventh day the heavens opened and I slopped into Porto Covo de Bandeira with everything soaked except my precious maps. I had to decide that night whether to hug strictly to the coast and plod through the town of Sines - famous for its oil-refinery and the largest artificial container port in Portugal - or cut inland heading for Santiago do Cacém - which had a castle famous from the days of the Reconquista. It was a gorgeous morning next day and I headed inland trying to make out which of the maze of dotted lines on the map represented the upland track I was pacing along. Mid-morning, like a character in a folk-song, I met with a shepherd and asked if I was on the right road for Santiago and pointed at my map.  He said that I shouldn't try that road because that road had been flooded when they built the dam:
Albufeira da Baragem de Morgavel intended route = red dots
The most recent available map for this section of the route had been printed in 1970 and presumably surveyed at least 20 years ago. There had been a bit of development in the interim. The shepherd advised me to walk along the top of the dam rather than trying to negotiate the upper reaches of the albufeira (reservoir) to the East.  I took his advice and puttered across the dam and then through forests of cork oaks Quercus suber and past little farmsteads. I was completely lost, the map was on too small a scale to be useful, but I asked my way when I saw anyone and meandered along in a vaguely Northerly direction. Eventually I was spat out of a woodland onto the main road about 5km short of Santiago and after being buffeted by speeding container trucks for a while, stuck out my thumb and hitched into town. I spent three days in Santiago, nursing my blisters, and was more or less adopted by the patrão of Cafe Ribatejano who rented me a room for 700$oo a night which was about £3 in old money.  I've been meaning to go back for the last 25 years, but I know I'll be disappointed.

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