We have been to Spain many times – individually and together – and John has a whole bunch of cousins living in Madrid. A place neither of us had ever ventured, though, was Portugal. This seems strange even to me, since Spain and Portugal are, well, part of the same peninsula and getting there is so easy. We finally decided that we would make Portugal our primary destination and add on some days in Spain so we could spend quality time with the cousins and visit a few of our favorite Spanish restaurants, museums and historical landmarks.
Because the flight from San Francisco to Madrid was cheaper than any other entry city we could find, we started our trip in Spain’s capital city. However, on the front end of the trip we only stayed one night at the Marriott Atocha hotel located, conveniently, 250 yards from the train station. Early (for us) the next morning, we lugged our bags up the street and took a high-speed train from Madrid to Seville – a city that John has visited in his youth but was still on my list of must-visit places. Over the next 16 days, we made the most of our two country, six city, 2,000 mile, plane/train/automobile adventure through the Iberian Peninsula. We will chronicle our time in Sevilla, Lisbon, Porto, multiple Portuguese wine appellations, Zamora (Spain), and finally ending in Madrid in subsequent chapters of this Iberian adventure. But we wanted to share 10 important lessons that we learned about moving around in Spain in Portugal, whether by foot, by bus, by train, by plane or by car.
- Walking in Europe is an Olympic sport. I like to walk for exercise; John says “it’s not a workout.” Or at least he used to say that, I think he stopped mid-way through our vacation after several near-collapses. In the cushy comfort of home, a nice long walk for us on the weekends is about 3 miles. Multiple times during our vacation, we far exceeded 20,000 steps per day, including an epic 9-mile day in Lisbon which is one of the more hilly cities we have every walked around. Interestingly, because of so much car congestion in the big cities we visited, often it took less time to cover even 2-3 miles walking than it would have taken by car.
- But warning: pedestrians do not have the right of way. We have always heard in California that once a pedestrian sets foot in the street, he/she has the right of way and cars must stop and give them the right of way. In Spain and Portugal, it would be extremely life-threatening for a pedestrian to ever assume right-of-way. In most cases, drivers – especially the tens of thousands of cabs – do not stop or even slow down if a pedestrian tries to push his or her luck.
- Driving is a great way to get around. We rented a nice 4-door sedan and drove it for 2,000 kilometers – from Seville, all the way through Portugal, and then back to Madrid. Renting a car allowed us the freedom to make numerous side trips, leave from one destination to another whenever we wanted, and not have to lug our bags on and off trains or buses. Also, it allowed us to stop in unplanned places and see cool things along the way.
- And we love the freeways in Spain and Portugal. As they do in most of the rest of Europe, drivers in Spain and Portugal keep to the right when they are driving and only jump into the left-most lane when passing another car requires it. In our many miles of driving, we saw not one jackass driving 65 miles in the left lane blocking or slowing up traffic. This makes us wonder why we can’t have a similar system or convention in the U.S. In Portugal specifically, the freeways had another impressive feature: literally ever 25 miles, they have a full-service rest stop with a gas station, snack bar/restaurant, restrooms, and store, each fully equipped with wi-fi. No matter how rural the location, there would be the same full-service set-up. Because John tries to squeeze out every drop of gas before filling up, this decreased the stress level of our trip as I knew we’d never see a “next gas” sign like this one:
- But those roundabouts? No thanks! Who decided that roundabouts were more convenient (or safer) than stop lights? There must have been some genius somewhere that did a study and convinced the whole of Europe to put in roundabouts. These oddities pop up nearly every block in the larger cities, and even on the freeways as they replace on-ramps and off-ramps. Of course we were using navigation to get around, but our navigation did not help much with these peculiar traffic modes. In the U.S., we are used to “in 500 feet turn left/right.” In Portugal and Spain, our trusty Google Maps or Waze (we vacillated between them depending on which one screwed us over most recently) would say “at the next roundabout, take the sixth exit.” In Madrid in particular, there really are roundabouts with 6-8 possible moves. Let’s say the sixth is yours. What lane do you get into to be properly positioned to take the sixth exit? In our case, the answer was consistent: any land other than the one we were in. Really – always the wrong one. On quite a few occasions we whipped around the roundabout multiple times like a tube in a centrifuge, John’s genetically thin patience eroding usually after the second time around.
- What sadist decided to put a traffic light inside a roundabout? I am not making this up. In Spain, they actually have giant roundabouts that have multiple traffic signals in them to help deal with the fact that cars are exiting onto and entering from a half-dozen or more intersecting streets. If you are making the very last exit in a roundabout, you may encounter two stop lights before you make your way around. I wish we had a camera in the car to capture John’s running commentary as we navigated through one of Madrid’s largest roundabouts in Plaza Colon, though we would have had to bleep most of the dialogue.
- Lane markings are for suggestion only. Especially in roundabouts, but also at the occasional stop lights, there are usually more cars occupying a particular space than there are lanes. A 4-lane-wide stop light might have five cars waiting for the green light. Or six. And between every car there will be dozens of motorcycles and mopeds and, unbelievably, cyclists. It shocked us that we saw but a handful of accidents in our entire time in Spain and Portugal. Clearly the locals have figured out how to maneuver this chaos.
- European streets are not built for large cars. Because one of our kids was joining our trip for a few days; we didn’t want to limit our luggage; and we anticipated buying quite a bit of wine – we rented a 4-door BMW. By American standards, it was a mid-sized car, and it was very inexpensive to rent. But by the standards of streets built 500 or more years ago, we might as well have been driving an aircraft carrier. We lost count of the number of times we had to fold in the mirrors to make it through a city street without putting our rental deposit in jeopardy. On one such street in Lisbon, Google Maps instructed us (we’re pretty sure it wasn’t our mistake) to take a right . . . . onto a one-way street. As the old joke goes, “It’s okay, we’re only going one way.” Sadly for us, it was not the way that the five cars heading our way were going. Imagine if you will be entertainment value of a “mid-sized” sedan trying to do a 3-point turn on a one-way street with cars on both sidewalks and about six inches of clearance on each side. It brought to mind this scene from the movie “Austin Powers.”I should have counted the number of “points” in John’s attempted 3-point turn. For sure, it was not three. Or even thirty. Probably less than a hundred though. Some day, we’ll look back on the incident and laugh. For right now, though, the scars are still too fresh.
- Every road is a toll road. On the modern freeways in Spain and Portugal, toll booths (automated and manned) pop up frequently along major routes. A 50 mile drive might land you a $15 toll if going, for example, from Madrid to Segovia. On one stretch in Portugal, we approached a toll spot and were trying to figure out which lane was the right one for us. There were symbols for cash, credit and some Portuguese version of “fast pass,” but they were not intuitive to us. We accidentally entered the “fast pass” lane (no ticket to take, just breeze through) and at the next toll station were charged a toll as if we had entered the freeway at the very bottom of Portugal – ie, the max toll. I won’t say how much it was, but it would have purchased a bottle of nice Napa Cab (or 20 bottles of nice Touriga Nacional).
- What’s worse than finding a ticket on your windshield? Not finding your windshield. One morning in Lisbon we woke up with a plan to drive out to the stunning castles in Sintra, close to the coast. John went down to get something from the car and came back quickly. “The car is gone,” he said, more calmly than typical. “Gone?” I asked. “Gone. Like, no longer here,” he helpfully explained. This was puzzling, since our Airbnb host assured us that the spaces in front of our building were legal parking spaces and we paid the daily parking fee and had a sticker on the dashboard. Regardless, the car was mostly definitely gone as I was able to verify when I went down a few minutes late. What do you do if your car has been towed in Lisbon, Portugal? You text your license plate to a number and seconds later you receive a note telling you where to pick up your car. We thought that this was amazing technology for a country that likely lacks needed infrastructure in many other areas. But we have learned that if there’s one thing countries at any level of development are proficient at, it’s collecting fines and penalties. It cost us half a day and $210 to retrieve our car.
How much did we love Lisbon? So much that this item #10 above didn’t even ruin that day.
June 20, 2018