Portugal is a beautiful country, and one of our favourite destinations with or without a motorcycle -- though it has to be said that some of the towns are beautiful because the country was so poor for so long. Poverty is always picturesque, provided you don't have to live with it, and as recently as twenty or twenty-five years ago Portugal was incredibly poor and incredibly picturesque. Today, it is a great deal more affluent, but you have to look a bit harder to find the picturesque parts. You also have to look quite a bit harder to find the very low prices that characterized the old Portugal.
This is good news for the Portuguese people, and is one of the finest advertisements for the power of the European Union to level up, rather than levelling down, but it is not such good news (from a purely selfish point of view) for the motorcycle tourist. When we first went there in 1982 we stayed in excellent hotels, mostly the state-run 'pousadas', ate superbly, and still spent very little. Those same pousadas are out of our price range today, and although we still eat very well in Portugal, we pay quite a lot more for it -- though not as much as France or Germany, and certainly not as much as in England.
Broadly, you can divide Portugal into three. The far north, Tras-os-Montes, has seen the most economic growth. When we went back to Braganca (Braganza) in 2003, for the first time in 21 years, we could not recognize the place: there were so many new buildings, and new roads, that it was like another city. There are still a few old-style towns and villages in Tras-os-Montes, but this formerly very poor area is now surprisingly well-to-do.
The centre has changed less. On the coast you have the commercial powerhouses of Porto (Oporto) and Lisboa (Lisbon), while inland, you have terrain that is fiercely hot in summer, cold in winter, and mainly agricultural.
Then there is the south, especially the Algarve (from the Arabic 'al-gharb', 'the west') which relies on tourism. Although prices have risen, most other things have changed surprisingly little. There are parts of the coast that suffer from the worst kind of cheap, package-holiday tourism with tall, ugly hotels, overcrowding, and German and British food 'just like Mutti/mother used to make'. But there are also places of startling beauty, including one of our favourite places, Mertola, about 50km/30 miles inland.
This city already existed when the Romans took it over and renamed it Myrtillis; it is crowned by a mediaeval castle; and many of the streets do not allow even a donkey-cart, let alone a car, to pass through them. Some, indeed, are impassable even by motor-cycle: they taper to entrances too narrow, or execute a sudden right-angle when they are no wider than a garden path, or are steeply stepped. We have been there perhaps four or five times, staying for a few days each time. For us, perpetually travelling, this is most unusual.
There is always more to see in Portugal's back roads, but you really need a good map (see below) and preferably the Blue Guide as well. The tourist offices are mostly an appalling waste of money and resources: beautiful new buildings, or well-refurbished old ones, containing a handful of brochures and a couple of pretty, well-brought-up young women who are completely useless. When the publicity draws your attention to a place -- a particularly beautiful ruined convent by a river side, for example -- they won't know where it is, they won't have a map, and they won't be able to tell you anything.
What you see is, therefore, very much a hit-or-miss matter. Fortunately, even the misses are often wonderful surprises, so it doesn't matter too much. But it really is not a place where you can be sure of finding anything, without a good map and a good guidebook. Despite this, as already noted, we keep going back.
The web-sites are not a lot better than the tourist offices. For some reason, many Portuguese web-sites appear to run extremely slowly, and it is rarely worth waiting for the modest amount of information that you can glean from them. By all means try www.portugal.org or www.portugalinsite.com or www.portugalvirtual.pt or (if you read Portuguese) www.guiadeportugal.pt but don't expect much from them. That way you won't be too disappointed.
Maps are astonishingly hard to find inside Portugal -- very few bookshops carry them -- so the exact opposite of the usual advice applies: always buy your maps before you go. I know of no better readily available maps than the Michelin atlas of Spain and Portugal, on a scale of 1:400,000, 1cm = 4km or approximately 6.3 miles/inch, but apparently there are so-called 'military maps' which are proper topographical maps similar to the Ordnance Survey in Britain. They are semi-legendary: even Portuguese friends were uncertain where (or indeed whether) they are available.
Portuguese driving standards are frankly low, because many of the drivers are the children of peasants who never aspired to anything more than an ox-cart, but the drivers aren't aggressive or even particularly fast. This despite the breast-beating on www.portcult.com which devotes a great deal of space to driving in Portugal, why Portuguese drivers are so bad, and how (to my surprise) the death-toll per capita for drivers is the highest in Europe, higher even than Greece and four times that in the UK.
Maybe I've just been lucky, but I don't think so. I must have ridden and driven three or four thousand miles in Portugal, and the drivers just don't seem that bad. Perhaps they kill themselves rather than other people; perhaps the majority of the accidents are in winter, or on the motorways; but really, I wouldn't be put off riding in Portugal by reports of bad driving.
Motorcyclists are well regarded, though you are unlikely to have the sort of experience we had 20 years ago of whole road-mending gangs stopping and waving as you go past. Big motorcycles are rare, except in the hands of tourists, but surprising numbers of unusually attractive young women ride scooters: not as a fashion statement, but as a means of transport.
Helmets are compulsory, and widely worn; only out in the country will you see the occasional helmetless young lad. Daylight riding lights are apparently now required and are a good idea. It is common (though by no means invariable) to signal your intention of passing with a flash of the headlight or a beep of the horn, and all changes of direction (pulling out and pulling in) should be signalled, though most people only signal pulling out. A first aid kit is not required.
Portuguese roads are very variable indeed. The best are brand new, superbly surfaced and well laid out. The worst are a patchwork of repairs (actual potholes, on the Greek or Maltese model, are comparatively rare), and very winding. Many -- probably most -- of the major roads have been completely rebuilt in the last 20 years, though sadly this means the disappearance of the wonderfully picturesque (though admittedly very chunky) granite setts that sometimes went on for mile after mile. Often, you'll see where the old road used to go around the side of a hill, while the new road has been straightened quite considerably through a cutting. All this road-building is necessary because of a very considerable increase in vehicle ownership in the last 20 years or so.
Tolls are charged on some of the motorways. These are only slightly less per kilometre than in France, but the shorter distances make them a lot more tolerable.
The basic speed limits are simple: 120 km/h (74 mph) on motorways, 100 km/h (62 mph) on non-motorway highways, 90 km/h (56 mph) on other open roads, 50 km/h (31 mph) in towns -- unless, of course, otherwise signed. Apparently, three-quarters or more Portuguese drivers confess to speeding on a regular basis but from my own experience a surprising number seem to drive well inside the limits.
If you come across what looks like a very low speed limit on the open road, especially in the mountains, pay it heed: there are some impressive blind corners. If the sign says 30 km/h (19 mph) you may be able to get around the bend at 35 or even 40 km/h (22 to 25 mph) but you may wish you hadn't tried.
Riders who have held a full license for under 1 year, or are under 19, are limited to 90 km/h at all times, even on notorways, and must have a '90' sticker on the bike.
As noted, all overtaking should be signalled. A broken single white line in the middle of the road may be crossed, but a solid single white line may not. Vehicles over 2 metres (6 feet 7 inches) wide are supposed to pull over as soon as possible to allow overtaking, but don't necessarily bet on this happening.
Parking on the sidewalk (pavement) is illegal. So is parking on fast roads, or those carrying heavy traffic; parking on the roadway at night, outside built-up areas; or parking where visibility is restricted, or within 3 metres (10 feet) of a tram stop, or 15 metres (50 feet) of an official bus stop, or 20 metres (65 feet) of a road junction or crossroads, or anywhere traffic or access might be restricted. Parking lights are theoretically required but no-one seems to use them.
The Algarve is mild, and indeed often sunny, even in the depths of winter, but the proximity of the Atlantic keeps maximum temperatures down: only in July and August are average daily maximum temperatures in Faro above 80 degrees F, 27 degrees C, and you wouldn't want to be there anyway at that time because there are too many other tourists.
Even in the coldest month, January, Faro has daily average maxima of 60 degrees F, 15 degrees C (and minima of 48/9); February is a degree or two warmer; March (the wettest month, with 10 days having an average of 0.1mm or more of precipitation) offers maxima of 64F/18C; April is a little warmer again, with just 6 days rain; and in May and June average daily maxima are in the 70s F, low-to-mid 20s C, with 4 days' and one day's rain respectively.
After the high summer, temperatures die more slowly: September and October still offer 78F/26C and 72F/22C respectively, with 2 days' and 6 days' rain. Even November offers 66F/19C, with 8 days' rain, and December levels are back to the same as February.
These are very much averages. In October and November, for example, the highest recorded temperatures in Faro have been in the 80s F, around 30C, while the lowest have been in the 40s F, single figures C.
In the far north, summers are much the same but winters are a good deal colder: snow is not unlikely around Braganza. Rainfall is also much greater: twice as much per month, or more, falling on as many as 17 days in December, the wettest month.
In between, the weather is also in between -- though the further inland you go, the hotter it gets, and near the Spanish border in central Portugal it can be very hot indeed in the summer.
In other words, you can go touring in southern or even central Portugal at pretty much any time of year -- but note the comments on accommodation, below.
Movable Christian feasts observed as public holidays include Mardi Gras (Shrove Tuesday, Carnaval), Good Friday and Corpus Christi.
From England, allow a two-day ride if you go via the Channel ports, or a fairly easy day from Santander if you take the rather expensive Plymouth-Santander ferry which takes 24 hours. Note that the Plymouth-Santander ferry company is somewhat schizophrenic on the subject of older bikes. In their literature they say they don't carry them at all but when interrogated they said that it wouldn't be a problem. Check this one for yourself.
When there were border stations, some of the smaller ones closed at night. Since the Schengen accord, though, border formalities are casual in the extreme: in fact, we have never seen any. Last time we were there (early 2003) there wasn't anyone around and there was no sign of a barrier on the road -- though that was on a very minor road between Puebla de Sanabria and Braganca.
When we went through the same road, over 20 years before, at about the same time of day (just after nightfall), the two border guards were playing cards and drinking brandy. We had the impression that they wanted us through as soon as possible so they could get back to both. They were polite and punctilious, but quick.
For EU citizens, nothing unusual is required in the way of papers: passport, bike registration, insurance, and a letter of authorization if the bike is not yours. Otherwise, a passport is all that is needed for most visitors. Almost no-one from a well-to-do country needs a visa. There are no special health requirements. Once you are in, the water is generally safe, though apparently there is a question mark in some of the southern resorts in the summer, when all facilities are simply overloaded. European visitors should carry an E111 for reciprocal treatment in case of emergencies. Americans (as ever) need insurance.
Customs are the usual EU standards, though unexpectedly, coffee and tea are restricted to 'small quantities for personal use'. It is also illegal to bring fresh meat into Portugal. If you are carrying more than 12,000 euros (or the equivalent thereof in any mixture of currencies) this should be declared on entry and exit.
Currency is of course the euro, and prices are still for the most part low. Credit cards are widely accepted in the more expensive hotels and restaurants, but you can't rely on it; carry cash as well. At least there are free toilets in some towns, and cafes don't seem to blink if you go in just to use the toilet, but a small purchase seems the decent thing to do. Hole in the wall machines (autotellers) are increasingly common but can be a fair way apart so don't cut it too fine.
The first thing to note about shopping hours is that Portugal runs on the same time as England, i.e. one hour before Spain. This means that if you cross the border at (say) four o'clock, it's suddenly three o'clock. If you don't realize this, everything seems to be open later than it is.
In the country, shops typically open between 0800 and 0900; close around 1200 to 1230; and then re-open at anything from 1400 (unusually early) to 1600 (unusually late) before closing in the evening at 1900. Many close on Saturday afternoons and most are closed on Sundays. In the larger cities, some malls and shops are open seven days a week, quite possibly from 1000 to 2300.
Bank hours are normally 0830 to 1500, Monday to Friday, closed week-ends.
Tips for 'servico' are often added automatically at 10 per cent; otherwise, work on the usual 10-15 per cent, or for very small purchases (see the 'drink' section) just leave the change up to the nearest euro or two.
Petrol prices are a bit above the European average, and significantly higher than in neighbouring Spain. There are plenty of petrol stations, and all seem to take credit cards nowadays, but many keep only normal business hours (see above) and they may close on Sundays, especially in rural Portugal. I tend to make sure I've got a full tank on Saturday morning. 'Lead free' is 'sem chumbo'.
Oil is quite spectacularly cheaper in the supermarkets than at petrol stations and service stations -- literally a fraction of the price. This was brought home most forcefully to me when I was in my Land Rover rather than on the motorcycle: old Land Rovers (mine is a 1972 88-inch) burn a lot of oil, and leak quite a bit too. Five litres of oil in the supermarket was between one-quarter and one-fifth of the price that the garage a hundred yards from the hotel (in Braganza) was charging.
There are a lot of mechanics in Portugal, and they are busy men: the Portuguese attitude to maintenance is sometimes casual, and fixing things when they break is probably more common than preventive maintenance. I've never had to use them but I've heard that they are pretty good. Prices are modest.
There may well be other agencies, but the only one I have pinned down is in Cascais, www.transrent.pt. They hire a wide range of bikes up to 1100cc including Honda Pan-Europeans, with one day rate up to 3 days and another for 4 to 8 days. The site is only in Portuguese -- look for 'aluguer de motos' -- and although rates include insurance and unlimited mileage, IVA (VAT, sales tax) is extra.
The Portuguese police seem a friendly enough crew, especially (as ever) the motorcycle police. They are apparently hard on drinking and driving, so if you are riding badly and smelling of booze, watch out: you may well spend the night in jail. The Portuguese themselves reckon that a lot of police are just lazy, while a small but significant minority may also be corrupt. This does nothing for traffic safety but equally it reduces the chances of getting nicked. Apparently they rarely put the bite on foreigners because it's too much trouble to try to extract a bribe in English: definitely an occasion when it is as well Not To Speak Portuguese.
The emergency number for all services is 112.
The police can impose on-the-spot fines, and prefer to target foreigners because they are required to pay on the spot. Portuguese nationals aren't, and often don't pay at all. Fines are apparently a significant source of revenue for the government: before the end of the 20th century they were apparently running at 110,000 euros a day. But of course they can't see the nationality of a bike from the front...
Always call the police to anything but the most minor accident, especially if there are injuries, or if the accident is severe, or if you cannot agree what happened with the other party (if there is one). If you don't call the police, fill in a constat a l'aimable.
The Automovel Club de Portugal (ACP), www.acp.pt, only in Portuguese) operates a breakdown service, and members of affiliated clubs may get free service for minor call-outs, but if the breakdown van has to travel any distance or if significant work is involved, there is as far as I know a charge. Breakdown insurance is strongly advised, or check with your own club to see if there are reciprocal agreements. Their phone numbers are 22 83 40 00 1 in the north of the country and 21 94 29 10 3 in the south.
Portuguese food is rarely subtle, but it is uncommonly honest. Order clams (ameiojas), and probably, that's all you'll get. No potatoes, no rice, no other vegetables, nothing. Once I ordered clams and pork, to see what would happen. There were chunks of pork in the broth in which the clams had been boiled...
Admittedly, when I ordered octopus in the Spanish style, I got a boiled potato with it; I think this was a Portuguese comment on the Spanish, because the octopus itself was a plain boiled chunk of tentacle -- though remarkably tender. That was in a small, cheap working-men's eating house in Alfama, the old quarter of Lisbon. In one corner there were two barrels, one of superb Portuguese olive oil (often needed to dress some of the simpler Portuguese dishes) and the other of good vinho verde, on a help-yourself basis.
Then there is bread soup: a garlic stock, with bread in it. Truth in advertising! Normally, I'd go for caldo verde (literally, green soup), a cabbage-based soup which is superb at least nine times out of ten.
Do not imagine, though, that merely because Portuguese food is straightforward, it is not good. The best is very good indeed. Once I ordered 'roast meats' as a starter (and got beef, lamb, kid and pork -- no vegetables) and roast leg of kid as a main course. Guess what the main course consisted of. Whole. And grilled pork cutlets? You've guessed. Incidentally, those were heavily salted before cooking: order 'sem sel' (without salt) if you don't want grilled meat heavily salted. And remember to order vegetables separately.
The seafood can also be excellent: in more traditional restaurants, you buy it by weight, raw, and then tell them how you want it cooked. Be careful with lobster: being doused in a prawn-cocktail type sauce does nothing to improve one that has been freshly grilled.
Bacalhau (dried salt cod) is something of a Portuguese national dish, and they are reputed to have several hundred ways of cooking it -- though some are indistinguishable except to the true aficionado. The local bacalhau specialty (wherever you may be) is usually worth trying, but ultimately, it still tastes as if it was made from dried salt cod and you may decide that you prefer more variety in your food.
Prices vary enormously. In an expensive restaurant in a touristy area, you can pay English prices; in a small eating-house in a small village, you may literally wonder if you have heard right, because a set meal for two costs less than you would expect to pay for one. Even in Mertola, one of our favourite cities and moderately popular with tourists, we found we could eat very well (with wine) at around 15 euros a head.
In 1999 a French survey named the Portuguese as the top piss-artists of Europe, putting away 11.3 litres of pure alcohol per adult per year. Luxembourg came a close second at 11.2 and the Gauls themselves a poor third at a mere 10.9.
Portugal is mainly a wine-drinking country and the main everyday wine is vinho verde, 'green wine'. Although the white (brancos) vinhos verdes do indeed have a slightly green-gold tinge, 'green' refers more to the age than to the hue: these wines are drunk young or 'green'. You can get red (tintos) vinhos verdes too, but I think you must need to be born Portuguese to be able to drink them: they taste like a mixture of red ink and battery acid. Vinhos verdes are often slightly petillant or 'semi-sparkling', with an agreeable prickle, and they are very low in alcohol, often under 10 per cent.
There are many other wines in Portugal, including some that are esteemed great: if you like Spanish wines, you'll probably like Portuguese wines, possibly even better. We rarely drink great wines, partly because we can't afford to (especially in restaurants) but partly too because we rarely go in much for truly haute cuisine: a good, middle-of-the-range wine, or even a decent table wine, suits our pockets and the food better. Portuguese plonk can be excellent.
Port is treated with less reverence than in some countries. It is often served chilled, and we got into the habit of ordering it at pretty much any time of day as a pick-me-up: most bars and cafes keep a bottle open. Among spirits, you need to be fairly fond of brandy to drink the Portuguese variety -- it's like most Spanish brandies -- but there's not much incentive to drink it when you can get bagaceira (the local version of marc, grappa, tsikoudia, call it what you will) instead. Imported spirits are frankly expensive.
The beer is perfectly drinkable, but it's like French beer: you really only drink it when you're thirsty. There are plenty of mineral waters, most of them not too salty.
As with food, prices vary immensely. For example, in early 2003 we paid 95 centimes (a dollar, under 70p) for a coffee and a bagaceira in a small village cafe-bar in the north, and 2.50 euros (pushing three dollars, just under a couple of quid) for exactly the same thing in a cafe-bar some 30 or 40 km (20 or 30 miles) from the Algarve coast. And we could probably have paid twice that in Lisboa.
Blood alcohol levels are disputable. A few years ago the limit was dropped to 0.2 per cent (20 mg/100 ml) but the country's wine-growers protested that this reduced wine sales to a level that would bankrupt them: drops in sales of 30 to 50 per cent were claimed. The law was therefore suspended pending further inquiries, with the level going back to 0.5 per cent. The suspension seems still to be in effect but I wouldn't like to bet on it.
In the south, or around the tourist honey-pots such as Lisboa, there is plenty of accommodation and it is not too expensive -- though it is no longer silly-cheap as it was when we first went to Portugal in 1982. The less heavily touristed the area, the fewer the rooms, though the prices are not necessarily all that much lower. You may however find it distinctly difficult to find anywhere at all to stay in the remoter parts of Portugal, especially in the winter.
It is also worth remarking that even if you can find somewhere to stay in the winter (and that really means going south) the nights can be quite chilly. Because the Portuguese have a self-image that includes being a warm country, heating may be frankly inadequate. Also, many Portuguese hotels and pensaos (guest houses) use deeply vile remote-controlled heaters that don't come on until five minutes after you have pressed the 'on' switch (I am not kidding -- it says this in the instructions) and some require you to put your key in a slot inside the entry door to turn on the power. You cannot, therefore, put the heater on; go out to dinner; and come back to a warm room. Actually, you can, if you threaten to check out unless they give you a duplicate key to leave in the power-slot. We had to do that once.
You should be able to find a decent double room, with private bathroom (usually shower, actually) and WC for under 50 or at worst 60 euros in most of the country, or under 40 euros out of season. You can easily pay more, though, and the wonderful 'Pousadas' are for the most part well over 100 euros a night and can even top 200 euros for the best rooms in the best locations. Pousadas are state-owned hotels, many of them in areas of outstanding beauty, some of them in historic buildings, and if you can afford them, they are the places to stay.
Portuguese sounds a bit like slurred Spanish; Shpanish if you're shloshed, short of thing. Most Portuguese can understand Spanish, but prefer not to, unless you apologize for speaking only Spanish, wearing the kind of expression that makes it clear that this is very distasteful to you.
It's not a particularly difficult language, except perhaps for the words that end in '-ao' with a twiddly bit (tilde) over the 'a'. This is quite close to '-ang': 'nao', Portuguese for 'no' is like a cross between 'now' and 'nang'.
If you don't speak Portuguese or Spanish, probably the most useful language (slightly unexpectedly) is French, unless you are in the tourist areas in the Algarve where they appeal to low-end British and German tourists who don't speak anything except their own respective languages. English is quite widely spoken elsewhere, too, especially in the more expensive hotels.
This information has been verified as far as possible but should not be taken as definitive. You alone are responsible for your safety on a motorcycle (or elsewhere) and should always ride and behave accordingly. Click here for the Official Health Warning.
last updated: 24/11/03
© 2003 Roger W. Hicks