Help from an unexpected quarter; Coimbra to Guarda and thence to Covilhã, in a sudden and dramatic change of plans; Serendipity in travelling companions; A long walk uphill; In which we decline to walk any further uphill and call a taxi; Facing imminent starvation; Abandoned buildings; Serra de Estrella National Park; Expensive ham and cheese sandwiches; There is always more Up; A long walk downhill; I find out that I know someone who once touched Anton Corbijn's Leica

We had a very slow morning and didn’t get out of bed until past eleven o’clock. Lazy, but we felt we’d earned it after the night before. There wasn’t time to catch the morning train, so we hung around the hostel for a couple of hours. We took a very dim view of the idea of walking back to the train station and decided to take the bus this time. A nice Coimbra local named Miguel, who works at the hostel, gave us bus tickets, which was unexpected and very generous of him. The bus trip was painless and we arrived at the station in perfect time… for a change. There was time enough for Sheryl to find us sandwiches and for me to get in trouble for taking pictures of the railway siding and some neat doors with danger stripes on them. It may have been dodging across the tracks in front of a train that was the problem, though.

The idea was originally to take the train from Coimbra to a town called Covilhã, on the edge of the Serra da Estrella National Park. But the only hostel seemed to be 10km out of town, and it was an extra two hours on the train, so the night before we’d decided to stop short and go to Guarda instead. On the map, Guarda is at the edge of the park just like Covilhã is, but when we arrived at Guarda, we couldn’t see any mountains - or indeed, anything interesting at all. So followed a sudden reversion to the original plan and a frantic attempt to secure lodging in Covilhã before the train left in twenty minutes. Payphones in Europe are the bane of my existence, though, and we weren’t able to place the call (and wasted €1 in the process as well). We decided just to board the train and play it by ear when we got there.

On the train there was another backpacking couple - Robert and Belinda from the Netherlands. Sheryl was feeling quite motion-sick and was lying down, so I struck up a conversation with them (partly to double-check that we were on the right train, I admit). Sheryl and I probably didn’t make a very good first impression as savvy world travellers, I suspect, due to being scattered from our sudden change of plans and having done no research at all about the destination. Also I misread the schedule and thought the trip from Guarda to Covilhã was longer than it actually was, so when we arrived at Covilhã we had to gather our things and leave the train in a rush.

Robert and Belinda had, happily for us, done the research we’d failed to do, and they knew of a campground five kilometers out of town. Also, their guidebook was much better than ours and had a map of the town. They’d planned to walk to the campground, and having no better option we decided to tag along. There was a walk of about two kilometers up a lot of steep hills to even get inside the edges of the guidebook map, though, and the idea of walking to the campground lost its appeal very quickly, especially after it became clear that the walk would be a steep uphill one all the way. When we finally found ourselves in the middle of town, Robert ducked into a café to ask directions to the church, hoping that we would find a taxi there. The café owner was very helpful and actually called us a cab. He and the cabbie both spoke French - far better than I do - but I had a very hard time understanding their accent. It didn’t help that they both had the Portuguese habit of slurring all their words together into one long indistinguishable word. But we got to the campsite all right, and set up the tents before it was fully dark.

Sheryl and I had very little food to last us two days, since we’d had no opportunity to visit a supermarket since Lisbon three days before. We had biscuits and dried apricots, and Sheryl had a bag of trail mix. Robert and Belinda came to our rescue again with leftover pizza, for which we must again thank them. We’re usually much better prepared, honest. I was happy to see that the campground had a cheap restaurant - €1.10 for an albeit very thin ham and cheese sandwich, and €0.80 for a bottle of beer. We’re both unbelievably tired of ham sandwiches, but were prepared to live on them for another couple of days if we had to. We all sat up talking for a couple of hours, until the wind picked up and the temperature dropped. Since Sheryl and I were wearing thermal tights, two other layers, and jackets with toques, we decided it was time for sleeping bags and retired for the night.

In the morning, Robert and Belinda headed into town for park maps and supplies. They were planning to stay for two days, though, and since Sheryl and I were only staying for one day we decided to skip the town run, have a quick load of laundry done (we had a lot of laundry and had to supplement my dedicated clothes-line with Lev’s talisman rope), and fake the park. We were told there was only one marked trail anyway, so we got directions to the trailhead and started out. It was a very steep uphill climb - a two-hander, at points - up for a hundred meters or so. It wasn’t possible to get very far away from the road - the park is crisscrossed with roads and even a highway, and there are towns and villages scattered within it - a stark contrast to the national parks at home, where development is forbidden. After that climb we were above the tree-line at about 1100 meters, and into scrubby bush and a few stunted pines. We followed the road for a little while and came to a cluster of abandoned buildings, including one of the most amazing abandoned structures I’ve ever seen. It was a huge flat five-story building with three wings, and an impressive stone facade with two sets of flanking stairs, a central arch, and a balcony above. The centre roof came to a point with a lightning rod on top. The building was in an advanced state of decay - most of the roofs and the central stairwell and elevator shaft had collapsed, there were graffiti and paintball splashes everywhere, and it looked as if it had been partially demolished at some point. Demolition may have been ongoing, because we heard the unmistakeable sound of a hacksaw from one of the upper floors.

I thought the building must have been a boarding school, based on the remains of segregated washrooms on the main floor and the many small rooms flanking the central corridors of the wings on the first and second floors. The second floor in the centre of the main wing just above the stone entry stairways was a stunning place, with beautiful empty airy spaces, pillars along one wall, and arched doorways at either end. At one side, a tree was growing up through the floor. We were trying to walk as quietly as possible, since we didn’t know who the hacksaw-operator was. It can be anyone in this sort of place, from demolition workers to junkies looking for scrap metal. It was hard to be quiet, though, since the floor was littered with crunchy broken glass, tile fragments, and bits of ceiling plaster. I didn’t stay far enough away and got caught - it turned out to be an older man in coveralls with the air of a man annoyed by an interruption to his work. He yelled at me and told me in Portuguese that this was private property and it was dangerous and I was trespassing, so get out if I didn’t want him to call the cops (I don’t speak Portuguese, but if you explore enough abandoned buildings you eventually get to learn this speech by heart, and the hand-gestures matched). He didn’t bother escorting me out, though, and so we left in our own time, taking a few more shots on the way. Robert found out later from a slim guidebook he’d found in the tourist office that the building used to be a sanatorium for railway workers, of all things.

Proceeding onward and upward through another steep climb and a 45° slope of prickle-bushes, we eventually reached the top of the nearest peak, which was surmounted by a small, squat tower with a very bored-looking man in it. I can only assume he was a park ranger. We wandered for a few hours more, sometimes down into small valleys, but tending upward. We found a field dotted with strange grey twisted bushes, quite dead, and everywhere there were charred black pieces of wood - remnants of the summer of forest fires which devastated Portugal three years ago, I imagine. We found lots of little lizards, and a sweet little stream with a pool full of dragonflies and damselflies, and one small frog, but that was the only wildlife we saw apart from the omnipresent signs of sheep and goats.

Toward the late afternoon we reached the town of Penhas da Saúde, at - I’m guessing - about 1350m elevation. We were getting very hungry, our breakfast ham sandwiches not having gone far, and so we stopped at a roadside café for lunch. Out of lack of imagination and lack of Portuguese, we ordered yet more ham-and-cheese sandwiches. We had a rude shock when, about to leave, we discovered that the bill was €14.00! €6.00 for a ham-and-cheese sandwich! That’s more than ten dollars! I’m still outraged. It’s my own stupid fault for not asking the price before ordering, though, so I have nobody to blame. It pissed me off, though, since we’d been somewhat successful at reducing expenses the last little while, and because we were camping I was looking forward to a couple of cheap days.

Stomping out of the town in a huff, we used the extra energy the annoyance gave us to summit one of the higher of the nearer peaks, at 1650m, and had some magnificent views of the flat valley between the two mountain ranges. We split up an hour later, Sheryl having decided to return to camp, and me heading onward. My goal for the day was to reach two short round-topped towers I could see in the distance at the top of the highest mountain, which looked to me like astronomical observatories. After another hour of overland through crispy, dry knee-height spike-bushes, spiderwebs and gullies filled with head-height crispy, dry spike-bushes, I finally gave up and returned to the road, where I found a sign telling me that the towers were in the town of Torre (appropriately), the highest point in the range, at 1992m elevation, and 7km away. It was a quarter past six at that point and the shadows were lengthening, though. I did the math and realized that with nearly 9km along the road to return to the campsite, which would take me two hours as it was, there was no way I’d be able to add another three hours for the round-trip to Torre and still make it back to the campground before dark. Disappointed, I started the walk back. 9km downhill is more fun than the same distance uphill, and I had some beautiful views of the mountainsides, the reservoir near Penhas da Saude, and a huge flock of goats and sheep, all with bells, making an almost musical cacophony spoiled only by the screaming of the shepherd. I also amused myself by playing counting games - I take an average of 1400 steps to the kilometer, downhill and lightly-loaded, in case anyone cares.

Sheryl had gotten back to camp an hour before me and had taken down the laundry from the line, which left me with nothing to do except to go and get some beer from the restaurant. It was much warmer than the night before, the wind having dropped, and it was a pleasant evening as we ate nearly the last of our food and chatted with Robert and Belinda. Robert, I found out, works as an airport security guard at Schipol airport, and once had the famous music press photographer Anton Corbijn come through his security line. Not only that, but in the course of his duties, Robert got to touch Corbijn’s camera. I have no words. Anton Corbijn is one of my photographic idols and influences, and to meet someone who once touched his camera means that I am one step closer to enlightenment.


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2 Comments on this Dispatch:

July 15th, 2008

One of my fondest memories of my Father is having a glass of port and a good cigar at Christmas. Forget the cigar but not the port. You two stay safe.

¬ John sometimes known as Dad
July 16th, 2008

It seems to me, considering the elevations you described, that the socks you made fun of would have been a good idea!

¬ jan liberty
Chris Liberty - Dispatches from a Gentleman Adventurer
Being the internal dialog of a vagabond who chased his own tail across five continents for 4 years and 2 days from May 2008 to May 2012, in search of something that never really became clear.
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