PORTUGAL

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.

MOTORING AND MOTORCYCLISTS

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.

ROADS AND RIDING

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.

WHEN TO GO

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.

PUBLIC HOLIDAYS