Another long walk downhill; Covilhã to Guarda; A bumpy train ride; Guarda to Pampilhosa; Three hours in a dead-end town; Sheryl helps a desperate nun; In which we catch our train by mere seconds and nearly get run over by it; Pampilhosa to Porto; Dinner with a former colleague

We bid goodbye to Robert and Belinda early in the morning. They were off hiking, and we packed up and headed out along the highway, back toward Covilhã - a walk of six or seven kilometers around steep downhill hairpin turns. After yesterday’s hiking extravaganza of 25km up and down mountains, walking back to Covilhã was a bit much, but it was the only way to get there, since the bus into town doesn’t run on Mondays, and we weren’t about to pay €10 for another taxi. The walk was hot and the packs were heavy, and walking that far downhill with heavy packs on is somewhat hard on the knees and hips, as I discovered in New Zealand a few years ago. But we persevered. Sheryl was fantastic and didn’t want to stop for a single rest until we got to town, which took about an hour. We had a brief stop there to cool down and I reconnoitered and found a map. From there it was another half hour to the train station - still downhill. We got there with twenty minutes to spare before our train, which was very nice for a change.

The train from Covilhã to Guarda was awful. In the other direction it had been bumpy but tolerable, but the return trip was bone-rattling. My neck and skull were aching from being thrown around the little single-car train. We were very happy that the trip was only an hour and a half, and we staggered off the train in a state of collapse. It seems odd to me that the ride should be so much rougher in one direction than in the other - it’s the same tracks, after all. Anyway, we had half an hour in Guarda and then boarded a second train to Pampilhosa. This was two hours in a first-class carriage, which seemed like heaven after the last train.

Pampilhosa was a one-horse town until recently, when its horse died. Now it’s precisely nothing, with a train station. Oh, and flies. Lots and lots of flies. It’s dusty, empty, and whimpering under a burning sun. We had to spend three hours of our lives there, waiting for a train to Porto. We killed the time by combing the town for sandwiches and something to drink, and I did some writing. Sheryl entertained herself by helping an ancient, decrepit French nun dial the phone and tie up her luggage cart, processes which both took much longer than you’d think. In the end, when the train finally came, it was three platforms away and blocking all of the walkways across the tracks. Since we knew the train would probably only stop for a moment, we made a split-second decision to, instead of running around the back of the train (with our packs on, naturally), to dodge in front of the train and climb up the platform wall. I made it up and to the door, and was yanking on the handle as the train started to edge forward - with Sheryl still in front of it. The engineer gave a blast on the whistle that made Sheryl’s ears ring for fifteen minutes afterward, but stopped the train long enough for us to scramble inside. The car we needed was at the very back of the train, naturally, so we didn’t make any friends trying to navigate the narrow aisle of the second-class cars with our packs while the train bumped and swayed.

The trip into Porto was sedate compared with the exercise of getting on the train. It was only an hour, and we entered the city across one of the many bridges over the River Douro. Porto is a pretty town in the evening, and I saw lots of intriguing abandoned buildings from our vantage point high above the streets. We pulled into Campanhã station about 7pm, and got on the subway. Porto’s metro system is the best I’ve ever seen. It’s only seven years old, and it shows. The trains look like spacecraft, wide and sleekly pointed, with huge doors and folding seats whose upholstery hasn’t even frayed yet. The stations are huge and airy, and the fare-checking system is an unobtrusive arc of widely-spaced posts with magnetic-detection spots that you just wave the ticket across - not a turnstile to be seen. And everything, including inside the tunnels themselves, is sparkling clean. There are four lines, and about fifty stations. One trip costs €1.20 (about CAD$2.00) and you can get a day pass for €3.50. Granted that it was all built with the infrastructure money that flooded into Portugal when the country joined the EU, but still, it puts the Toronto Transit Commission to absolute shame.

The walk to the pensão from Trindade metro station seemed a lot longer than the kilometer or so that it really was, since we were hot, tired and footsore. But we had a private room waiting for us, with our own washroom and a door we could close, and that made it tolerable. We settled in and cleaned up, and I called a friend and former colleague of mine, Alexandre. I’d never met him in person before. It’s a strange world we live in these days, where you can have friends you’ve never met and whose faces you’ve never seen. Alex, I’m happy to report, was as kind, generous and courteous in person as he is through email (and his spoken English is excellent, whatever he believes). He took us on a drive through the city and bought us dinner so that we could try Porto’s traditional specialty, francesinha. It’s a sort of layered sandwich in a shallow bowl of something between soup and gravy - quite good, I thought, and nearly enough food for two meals for either me or Sheryl. It’s lucky we’d been on short rations for the last days, or we’d never have been able to finish them. We were all tired, though, and so Alexandre dropped us off back at the hotel at around 11, and we weren’t long out of bed. It had been a long day.

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.
This travelogue comprises 16,426 photographs and 402,515 words in 307 dispatches written from 335 places in 52 countries on 6 continents around the world.
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