3. Barcoo across the Tejo

At around 3:30 I left Alcabideche on the N9 and the N9 is a very busy and very unfriendly road. In fact, used as I am to the instinctive paternalism of the UK authorities, I was a little surprised to find that walking along it was allowed. I think that is because I had misunderstood a key aspect of the Portuguese civic mindset. I guess that in a society where relatively few have any more than theoretical access to the legal system, local authorities can afford to allow the citizens to look out for themselves. Somebody dies? So what, nobody will sue. Besides, if walking were not permitted then somebody might demand an alternative – a footpath maybe. And that would cost money. Why invest money in solving a problem that it’s easier and cheaper not to create in the first place?

So walking on the N9 is permitted, it just isn’t advisable. In fact during the twenty minutes or so that I spent edging along it I saw only one other pedestrian – walking in the opposite direction and carrying what appeared to be his shopping along easily the most dangerous section of this generally dangerous highway. As it approaches Estoril the N9 crosses the A5 motorway and it does so by means of a long concrete bridge – thus eliminating at a stroke any roadside to which I or anyone else might retreat if faced with a homicidal motorist and offering in its place, the prospect of a terrifying plunge onto the carriageway below – so that if the fall wasn’t fatal the next articulated lorry most certainly would be.

I waved at the man trudging along the other side of the road and he waved cheerily back but in reality I was more interested in calculating how many more steps I would have to take before the beckoning void to my left would be filled with something reassuring – like dirt.

I was still doing that calculation when bridge ran out onto terra firma and the N9 somehow morphed into a benign and gently sloping residential street leading to a roundabout at the northern edge of Estoril. I stopped at the adjacent garage, and after a brief rest and a bottle of iced tea carried on, confident enough to allow myself the luxury of walking on a bearing – with no regard for the details of my route I simply kept a southerly course, shifting to the left where I found my way blocked but always turning south again at the earliest opportunity.

At almost exactly 4:30 I followed a sign indicating the presence of a ‘Viagem Inferior’ (a subway) passing beneath the coastal railway line, and emerged a few seconds later onto a broad concrete promenade nudging gently at a flat and shimmering Atlantic Ocean. I took a commemorative photograph and turned left.

This was the home straight - I had reached the final stage of the day’s exertions and I felt OK. The sea front at Estoril and for some miles to the east is a series of beaches and gardens and promenades, all swarming with people and all with designated paths where pedestrians may walk unmolested by motor vehicles. I couldn’t see the Ponte 25 Abril yet but I knew it was there – hidden by the next headland … or the one after that. Even I couldn’t get lost walking east along a more or less straight coastline. And I didn’t . But what I did do was confuse complexity with scale. It’s an easy mistake to make but a difficult one to explain – so here goes nothing.

In my imagination ‘Day One’ (as I liked to call it) had always been divided into two uneven sections – the hard part and the easy part. The hard part was navigating cross country from the coast at Cabo da Roca in west to the coast at Estoril in the south. The easy part was a stroll along the latter coast – all I had to do was keep the big blue wobbly thing to my right. How hard could it be? And therein lay my mistake.

When you work mostly with your head, as I and many like me do, size is nearly always a metaphor for complexity; a big problem is big because it’s complex – there are dependencies, nuances, obscure but important details etc. But when you walk, the magnitude of the challenge depends on its actual magnitude. Making judgements about where to turn left or right and how to be sure you’ve got it right can be wearing and frustrating but you will never fall to the ground exhausted from map-reading. It’s the distance that will get you – and when you’ve walked 20 Km in four and half hours, another 20 is tough even of it is over level terrain and in a straight line.

Day One's objective was to walk to Lisbon and cross the Tagus to its southern shore. Despite sending an email to the Lisbon port authority and searching all of the tourist websites and I had yet to find out whether it is permitted to walk across the Ponte 25 Abril from central Lisbon to the Almada peninsula to the south . So rather than take the chance, I had identified a suitable ferry service between Belem just west of the bridge and Trafaria on the other side. In practical terms then my goal was the ferry terminal – from whence I would sail to Trafaria where Alison would pick me up and take me to the hotel at Costa de Caparica. But two hours after emerging onto the glamorous seafront at Estoril, the glamour is wearing off.

The coast road, previously a paragon of straightforward simplicity has degenerated into a busy and dirty commuter route for traffic entering and leaving central Lisbon. The transformation starts at my Father’s then home town of Pacos de Arcos; to its west, a seaside resort with gardens and a pleasant harbour; to the east a grey and brown urban sludge where the pedestrian is once more a rarity – although there are still pavements available for the few who venture out.

A little further inland a new motorway runs parallel with the coast road, draping itself across bridges and broad causeways to connect a series of gleaming business parks; I saw them from the car as Alison drove us to Cabo da Roca that morning. Now a little further south and headed in the opposite direction I see the flip side; what happened to the old road once the new one had been built – what you might call the ‘Bates Motel’ effect.

In truth they must be several miles apart but the coast road feels like the dirty back yard of those business parks to the north. Neglected like the rear of a parade of shops and restaurants, with mottled steel waste barrels waiting in grubby alleys; all the more grubby for the contrast with the inviting and brightly lit windows facing the main street.

Seen from the motorway Alges and the other Lisbon suburbs of the North Tagus shore are clean and prosperous and without character. Seen from the rear they are poor and depressed with plenty of character – mostly bad. I suspect this is an area with gang problems; groups of young men on mopeds, ebbing back and forth along this shadowy vale - setting and resetting territorial boundaries with tribal graffiti and occasional violence. But in the early evening the traffic is all that moves.

The pavement in this area is antique. White slabs speckled with soot, worn and polished like the stone floor of an old cathedral; the legacy of those hordes of pedestrians who used it every day back when most people didn’t have a car. Now it is irrelevant, squeezed between a chain link safety barrier and a rank of indifferent buildings – few of whom acknowledge its presence with a door or even a window that opens onto this side.

So when I saw an open door a few yards ahead of me, I wasn’t sure what to make of it. I half expected to find that it opened into an empty storage space or a dark stone cavern – but it didn’t. It was a café – basic and functional and populated by a handful of slightly dishevelled middle-aged men drinking coffee and beer presumably at the end of a day’s work. But where did they work? There was no sign of any businesses nearby and even if there were a few small garages or workshops tucked away in the side streets that opened onto it, a café perched on the edge of the main road seemed an odd place to choose for an hour or two’s relaxation.

It’s possible I suppose, that the door I peered in through was the back door – and that the street on the other side of the building was alive with cafes and bars but in that case, why open the door on this side at all – why leave it open anyway? It can scarcely add to the ‘omby-ons’ to have lorries and pick-up trucks rattling and thundering by.

I decided they must be diehards. They had been coming to this café every Monday evening for years; since the days before the traffic on the coast road became impossible and the city responded with its motorway; intended to relieve the pressure on its older neighbour – instead merely draining the life out of it and still leaving it with all the traffic it could handle.

Daylight is fading as I reach the far end of this dark landscape and antique pavements give way to sandy paths through shadowy roadside gardens. I hope this is Belem. There are gardens at Belem. These are gardens, this must be Belem. So where’s the ferry terminal? Time is getting on. It’s coming up on eight O’clock and although the guidebook says that the ferries run ‘late’, it doesn’t say how late exactly.

I found 2 old women and an old man sitting on a bench and decided to ask them where the ferry terminal was. My reasons for selecting this particular group were a mixed bag, some valid, some insanely optimistic like the one about their being old and so statistically more likely to have encountered and even acquired a little English. And there were three of them – so the chances could be trebled. During a combined lifespan of at least 200 years, how likely was it that fate had failed to teach at least one of them a few words of English?

Well as it turns out, ‘pretty likely’. Fate it seems has been focusing her attention on the young, who are more attuned to American culture, more likely to travel and generally more cosmopolitan in outlook. Which is not to say that the three pensioners that she pushed in my direction were not charming, polite and eager to help; like dwarves of the same names, they were all three. But so far as any acquaintance with my mother tongue was concerned? Not a word.

I attempted to construct something in Portuguese. ‘Por favor’… I was pretty sure that this is a phrase common to Portuguese and Spanish and if nothing else it would set a respectful tone. ‘Por favor’, I scoured my memory for any recollection of the word for search. Perhaps French would do - try that - “Je cherche le…” another dead end loomed as I realised that I’d misplaced my memory of the French word for boat – but in Spanish I think it’s “barco”; it was used recently in an advert for Spanish beer and I remember a story in rhyme that I used to read to my eldest son where a ‘Pobble’ sets sail in a in a ‘friendly bark’ .

So I revert to Spanish – ‘Donde esta el barco?” I manage proudly and with enough uncertainty in my voice to correct the impression of arrogance that might be created by barking “where is the boat” at three total strangers. But from the diminutive Charming, Polite and Eager to Help – no reaction. Sign language was all that was left to me. I pointed at the lights across the river and repeated ‘barco?’ – “Aaahh”, something was dawning on one of the ladies, Charming I think. She turned to her companions, “barcoo” – she said amongst other things that I didn’t catch, and then a satisfied chorus went up from all three of them - “barcoooo”, they sang.

Still attached to the notion that the Portuguese for boat was same as the Spanish, I took this to mean that although Barco was ‘boat’, Barcoo (or Barcu as Imagined it was spelt) was a type of boat – specifically a ferry. Only later did I discover that actually the letter ‘o’ in Portuguese is often if not always pronounced – ‘oo’, which means that ‘Barco’ is boat in both it and Spanish but they disagree on the pronunciation of the ‘o’.

“Porto Brandao?” she queried. I had no idea – I didn’t recognise the name or even hear it at first, but they seemed to know where the ferry or at least a ferry left from so I decided to go with it. “Si”, I said, growing in confidence and feeling slightly vindicated; I may have been wrong about their language skills which made it tricky to ask the question, but once that obstacle was out of the way, these residents of longstanding, most certainly knew the answer. Charming pointed in the direction that I had been heading, nodded and added, amongst other things that I didn’t understand – “trenti minutos”, close enough to French for me to understand as thirty minutes.

Thirty minutes? The ferry would still be running at eight thirty-five surely. Alison had called from the hotel to tell me that according to reception, the ferries ran every twenty minutes and, as per the guidebook, that they ran ‘late’ – but again nobody seemed to know what ‘late’ meant exactly. I had no other way to reach the hotel. I wanted to run but my legs and feet were capable of no more than a kind of tottering hobble. Fifteen minutes later I tottered and hobbled into a busy pedestrianised shopping complex centred on a bus and railway station and the coast road effectively vanished.

Guesswork was all that was left to me. I guessed that the road would continue on the other side and that the way to reach the other side was to enter the subway that connected the railway station’s ten or so platforms. It seemed to head in roughly the right direction and in my experience most railway stations are accessible from roads on two sides. And so it proved in this case – although the road on the other side was a quite different proposition to the one I left behind me; empty of both people and traffic and poorly lit but still following, so far as I could tell, the line of the coast.

But despite the obvious truth that a ferry terminal must connect land and sea and so would be hard to miss provided I tracked the coastline, I remained ill at ease. Self-respect and British reserve now in pieces I accosted a jogger. ‘Barcoo?’ I asked pointing – “yes” he said. “Fifteen minutes?” I queried. "Ffifteen minutes yes – maybe” he smiled encouragingly and jogged away.

I gritted my grit and went after him through the gloom; passed the depots and factories that gather around large railway stations and then past a small marina – and then another. I looked back – I was sure of it; there was no way that a road concealing a ferry terminal could have had slipped between me and the water’s edge – so it had to be up ahead. And now I am surrounded by gardens again – but these are lush and well kept gardens with grandiose sculptures and water features – THIS is Belem.

I stop 2 tourists. “Barcoo?” I point again. “Yes” says the girl in English but “it’s a long way – twenty minutes maybe”. I recalculate. It’s been nearly half and hour since the dwarves sent me on my way. Another twenty minutes – I won’t be there until nearly nine O’clock. But I have no choice. I thank my tormentors and carry on, ignoring the paths and taking a straight line across the lawns and peering ahead until about five minutes later I see a road that crosses the park and then a square yellow at its southern end. And the building is painted and carved with the words “Estacio Fluvial” (River Station) and I stagger inside.

It’s about eight forty-five. The next ferry to Trafaria leaves in 10 minutes. Porto Brandao turns out to be its first stop – Trafaria is the second. I have time to buy a ticket (1 euro and 40 cents I think) and a bottle of water before going back outside for a cigarette and reflecting on the lessons of “Day One” - that Estoril is nice, that Alges is nasty, and that the Portuguese for boat is ‘Barco’ - pronounced ‘Barcoo’