ONE of the best things about Spain is its sheer ability to cater to almost every budget. And in no case is this more true than its public transport.
With 900km of countryside lying between the Spanish port city Valencia and Portugal’s capital, Lisbon (and with the clock ticking on our 12 month European visa) we’ve decided to turn a month of cycling into two days and the best part is it’s costing next to nothing.
If you’re willing to sit on a seriously outdated locomotive with an average speed of 50km/hour than train travel is bloody affordable (it’s just 35 euros each to Madrid) and while the upside is eight hours of pleasant central Spanish scenery the flip side is – well the seven hours.
The Spanish government recently spent a small fortune on an impeccably efficient high speed train network and if you’re willing to fork out the cash you can be in Madrid (from Valencia) in under two hours. It’s a hit with business travellers (the aim was to provide some competition to domestic airlines) but for backpackers it’s out of the question.
And so here we were: nestled on an ancient train among rustic looking grandmothers and students watching the scenery turn colder and colder.
Madrid sits in Spain’s central mountains and it’s on average about 10 degrees colder than eastern coastal spots such as Barcelona. As the train chugs past patches of snow that give way to white powder coated plains I feel relief that we’ve ditched the bikes for a heated cabin (especially with the nearby roads bucking and dipping through mountain passes).
We aimed to spend just a couple of nights in Spain’s capital city and thanks to some generous Warmshowers.org hosts we have accommodation.
Inma and Carlos live just a couple of kilometres away from the city’s main train station (Atocha) with their chubby cat Chusco and about 10 bikes (Carlos is a cycling enthusiast to say the least) and within minutes of arriving we feel at home.
Inma is an editor for the Spanish education system and Carlos is an aviation engineer for Airbus and between the two of them we’re treated to some pretty interesting stories followed by some pretty awesome food.
Cured meat is not just a popular food in Spain, it’s an institution bordering on religious reverence.
Your average Spaniard doesn’t buy sliced meat from the deli – instead they buy an entire leg of pig which is then wrapped up in cloth and can last up to three months (depending on how much you eat).
Quality, Carlos says, depends on how many acorns the pig consumes (and for how long) and the highest quality meat (I’m talking an all acorn diet for a serious length of time) costs up to 400 euros.
With the air of someone flourishing an ancient porcelain tea set Carlos whips out his big leg of pig (a middle of the quality range cut, he says) and begins reverently slicing off layers to sample.
The salty meat does have a surprisingly nutty flavour and we much on pieces alongside fried eggs and marinated mushrooms.
For the next two days we explore Madrid, munching on tapas, chowing down the famed chocolate churros (like a long donut with a pot of melted chocolate for dunking) and take in the classic architecture. We also walk the giant flea markets and stroll around the enormous lake Buen Retiro Park where you can hardly see the water thanks to the flock of tourists packed into tiny row boats.
On our last night Inma and Carlos serve up cocido madrileno – a dish served in three stages and including a soup, stewed meat and chick peas which is altogether mouthwatering.
The following morning we toy with the idea of stopping off at Avil and Salamanca on our way to Lisbon but with the Europe clock ticking and a need to reign in the spending we opt for a train that will take us directly there.
The only problem is those trains don’t allow bikes and they charge a small fortune.
This leaves us with one option – the bus – and at midday we not only find a carrier that will drop us at Lisbon’s doorstep, but charge just 100 euros with our bikes. It’s a 10 hour trip to Portugal’s capital and one long and boring ride later we find ourselves in a backwater station at midnight with 10km left to peddle to our hostel.
It’s cold and the streets are mostly empty so we jump on the beasts, fighting off yawns, in the hope the route is downhill.
We’d been warned well in advance that Portuguese drivers were shocking bordering on downright dangerous and within minutes we get a first hand view.
Despite light traffic thanks to the late hour cars veer dangerously close at high speeds on what I could only think of as the most shocking stretches of bitumen in six months of cycling.
We peddle down three lane main roads into the heart of Lisbon at a snail pace in a bid to dodge pot holes the size beach balls and it’s nothing short of terrifying. Without warning the road sometimes completely crumbles off into a ditch at the right and I wonder if every member of the city’s road council had been sacked. The contrast between Spain and Portugal already seems immeasurably vast and it begs the question: just how bad is the economic crisis in Portugal?
The next day I have my answer.
After a short sleep (we crawled into our dorm room at 1pm and fell asleep after 2) we begin a slow walk around the city the following morning to get a taste of Lisbon.
Beggars huddle on almost every corner, poor looking pedlars desperately hawk anything they can sell and empty buildings lay in a crumbling state of disrepair.
Despite this there’s sheer beauty in the twisting cobble stone streets of the “old quarter” and the magnificent castle at the top looks out grandly over the city.
Statues and fountains built in better economic days liven up the myriad of market squares where tourists snap photos and small cafes teem with visitors and locals alike.
It’s a stark contrast to soak up and an Australian girl (who works in the hostel) claims even doctors and lawyers are forced to take salaries as low as 500 euros a month due to the extreme unemployment rate and with rent for a one bedroom apartment sitting at about 300 euros a month she says it leaves very little in the coffers.
If this is the case for professionals I wonder how on earth unskilled workers manage to eat.
For two days we walk the streets, sample Portuguese tarts (simply divine) and munch on cheap supermarket meals (cafes are surprisingly expensive considering the state of the economy) and plan a day trip to the World Heritage site at Parque Natural de Sintra-Cascais, the town of Sinta itself, and the most westerly point of Portugal.
The aim is to then jump back on the bikes and peddle the west coast down to Gibraltar where we’ll catch a ferry to Morocco but beyond that our plans have turned hazy.
We’re excited to reach hot and colourful Morocco but it’s already proving a headache as we realise very quickly that this route’s almost a dead end.
We’d hoped to initially take a ferry from the African nation to Sicily (and cycle up Italy) but no such ferry exists.
We feel reluctant to dramatically change our plans but we felt stuck between a rock and a hard place and so we decide to place the problem firmly on the top shelf and continue on regardless.
From here it’s stunning coastal scenery down to Andalucia and with the weather slowly improving and Morocco’s sun just around the corner it’s hard to feel too worried… for now.