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Current Status:
Back home in Seattle as of 1 August 2001

London Bombay Cebu

Still headin' south...
by Jim Laurel

Dispatch #3, Spain-Portugal Transit
25 October 2000
Sao Jacinto, Portugal
I finally feel that we are making some real progress, as we continue our transit through France, Spain and Portugal on our way to Malaga, Spain. When we crossed the Spanish border, we all felt the temperature had risen a few degrees. Though Bilbao has recently been getting some positive press because of improvements to the city, including the new Guggenheim museum, it certainly doesn't look very inviting from the motorway. As far as we could see were rows and rows of grungy-looking apartment buildings with laundry fluttering off the balconies. Just outside of San Sebastian, we were stopped arbitrarily by a Guardia Civil, who became quite agitated when I didn't hand him the vehicle documents he wanted on the first try.

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We kept a fast pace, surviving the winding coast road, and a harrowing encounter with a Guardia Civil bus, which ran us off the road and nearly killed an oncoming motorist. But at last, we arrived in Santiago de Compostella.

Santiago is a truly beautiful city, crowned by its famous cathedral, reputed to house the remains of the Apostle James (Santiago Apostol). And getting to see it was (almost) adequate compensation for the white knuckle drive it took to get here. The legend goes that James' remains were transported to the far side of Spain by two disciples after his execution in Jerusalem. They landed at Padron and managed to bury James in a spot about 20km inland. In 813, a bishop following a guiding star discovered the grave. The current cathedral is built on that spot, and since then, the faithful have been making the pilgrimage along the "Camino Santiago".

Our time in Santiago was over before we knew it, and it was time to press on southwards. We crossed into Portugal and were all impressed with the clean streets, well-graded roads, and spectacular coastal scenery. Our heavily laden Land Rover seemed to like Portugal, and we were actually able to maintain around 120km/hr. With the sun shining, we blazed through Portugal at a good clip, stopping in Sao Jacinto for a night at a "Pousada", one of the country inns operated by the Portuguese government. If you ever travel through Portugal, seek out the Pousadas. They offer a very high standard of accommodation, with excellent service at good prices.

Lisbon has got to be the most confusing city I've ever driven in. Although the street layout is based on a modern grid system, the street signs are virtually impossible to read (small 1x2 foot ceramic tiles with 2" letters mounted on buildings at the first floor level). Try reading one of those during rush hour, while reading a street map, with Peugot 206s swarming all around you! Before long, we did the smart thing, and Karin hopped into a taxi, which we followed right to our hotel…the best $4 we ever spent!

For some reason, we were feeling pretty weary while in Lisbon, so we didn't do very much touring. But we did manage to visit the Lisbon zoo, Torre Belem , and the archaeological museum. The Egyptian exhibit at the museum, though small, was one of the best I have ever seen.

Our impression is that this is a very underrated country, often going unnoticed in the shadow of it's larger neighbor, Spain. I don't know whether it was the fine weather, the beauty of the sun-bleached coastline, or the sunny disposition of the people we met, but Portugal delighted us. All the people we met were friendly and helpful, and many spoke English. This is in stark contrast to Spain, where the new, frenetic pace of EU membership seems to have changed the people, and not for the better. With the loss of their traditionally relaxed lifestyle, many Spaniards today seem harried and impatient.

Trying to capture some of the Spain I remembered from my youth, we took a detour off the main road to Malaga to overnight in Antiquera, one of Andalucia's "white towns". Of these, Antiquera is almost certainly the most beautiful. It is a very old town, dating back to the Moorish occupation, with characteristically narrow streets that we were barely able to negotiate in the Land Rover. At times, we had to make 3-point turns just to round a corner, much to the chagrin of drivers behind us.

Antiquera seems to be a popular place to have your wedding and, just as when were here last year, the town had several weddings in progress. Young couples have their ceremonies at the cathedral, then head up to the "Alcazaba" (Moorish castle) for photos and video. You can't blame them. The view of the town at dusk from the vantage point of the alcazaba is magnificent.

Antiquera was our last stop before getting back onto the path to Malaga, where we were scheduled to meet our guides from TAG Europe for an off-road trip through Southern Spain.

Join us in the next dispatch for coverage of the "Tracks and Trails of Andalucia"!

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