5 things I learned travelling in Portugal and Galicia

If want to know everything about the sights, sounds, smells and tastes of Iberia then a Trip Advisor will probably give you a better idea of what it's like than I could. However, I can say that I found Portugal a colourful place, with very warm and educated people. Its geography really brings the past to life, which to me was infinitely more interesting than taking endless photos.

During my Easter break I went through Portugal and Galicia, managing to cram in seven cities in just over a week. But instead of boring you with a blow by blow account of my movements, I'll tell you what I learned instead.


1. The best stories don't make sense

I spent some time with an interesting Brazilian chap called Marcelo (not the wild haired Real Madrid left-back). He told me a host of funny stories, none of which made any sense.

One time, he said he broke into the botanical gardens at night trying to find his way back to the hostel. When the police detected his presence and kicked him out, he offered to buy them wine and went merrily on his way.

Another tall tale was that of a theft. I found him just one day after having his iPhone stolen. He was distraught, but that didn't stop him going out and buying another one that very day. This left him with 20 Euros to last until the end of the month. "It's OK," he said, "if I run out of money, I just sell the iPhone."

Even though he had no money, Marcelo preferred to eat Brazilian food bought from a café, than the free Easter party food provided by the hostel. He had rice with couscous, potatoes, and chicken. Apparently it was carbs day.

My favourite of his strange stories was how he attended the fight of the century in Recife (his home town). The match was seventh and deciding bout between life long rivals Todo Duro and Holyfield. At the time of the last fight they were 50 and 60 years old respectively. Including all of the on screen bust ups, these blokes lived out a real life version of the distinctly average DeNiro picture Grudge Match. Thankfully, Kevin Hart made no appearance in the Brazilian version.


2. People power rules

Brother from another mother - Me and Filipe in Porto
Hotels, taxis and tour companies no longer have monopoly on our tourist dollars. BlaBla car has introduced Europe to ride sharing, AirBnB and Couch Surfing brought us home sharing, and tip based tours allow you to pay what you can for genuine local insight.

This new wave of peer to peer tourism is quite divisive among the older generation, as it can drive property and public transport prices up, but it's allowing some of the tech savvy younger generation to make ends meet.

What is definitely true, is that these good value services give you the chance to meet like minded souls; from locals to people from all over the world. Your money makes a real difference too. When you give a tip, buy someone a drink, or even pay a set price, that money goes straight to the person at the other end of the service.

One particular highlight of using BlaBla Car was travelling from Lisbon to Porto with Fred, a Portuguese entrepreneur and dog trainer. Amongst other things, he prepares pedigree Boxers for dog shows around Europe, and drives long distances to exchange pooches for breeding. On the journey, he told me about his six day round trip from Lisbon to Bucharest, picking up BlaBla Car sharers every leg of the journey. There was a rancid rasta, an Italian opera singer, pouting French teenagers and of course a dog. Fred went to great lengths to point out that he wasn't 'cocky' like many Lisbonites. I'm not entirely sure he knew what 'cocky' meant as he used it in almost every sentence with a variety of different meanings - unfriendly, aloof, posh, annoying, aggressive, closed minded - none of which are actually mean cocky.


3. Writers need to travel

I am rarely at a loss for story ideas, but travel throws up so many interesting characters and situations, that you can't help but be inspired. When I look out over a foreign town, I often wonder Who lives here? What do they do? What are their lives like?

In one hostel, I met Mikael a Transilvanian software engineer who is a Scrabble champion and an ultra marathon runner. He had a high pitched version of Mr. Bean's voice, and intimately knew Coventry and the Isle of Wight due to his board game tournaments. He had a ghoulishly pale complexion, which worried me as he was due to walk to Santiago on the Portuguese camino, which was undoubtedly going to be weeks of blazing sun. He had a funny little nervous laugh which he gave at the end of every sentence too. Guess which one he is in the photo.

Another character was an old Tommy Chong lookalike I met in a hostel in Sintra. He is part of the new breed of Adventurous American retirees, who find it cheaper to hostel hop abroad, than to live within the bounds of their own white picket fence.

Everyone needs company, and old people like to talk, but this guy talked at people, firing out sentences like a stuttering machine gun. He also committed all of the seven deadly backpacker sins:

1. Asking leading questions just to talk about his own life.
2. Complaining that places used to be nicer, but tourism has ruined them.
3. Boasting about the places he had been, including other hostels in the same town.
4. Boasting about how little he paid for some things.
5. Saying how there was no more 'undiscovered places' now because of technology.
6. Endless repacking of his bag in the dorm, especially of weird plastic bagged foodstuffs.
7. Assuming that everyone speaks colloquial American English and has an in depth knowledge and great interest in American culture and politics.

Apart from all of that, I suppose he was alright.


4. Pretty isn't always best

In terms of towns, chocolate box houses and intricate religious stone masonry just don't do it for me anymore. Perhaps it is not fair to judge Santiago de Compostela if you are not a pilgrim, but it held no special significance for me. I used it as a base to explore Galicia. The old town, with its hundreds of towering churches is impressive, but I didn't find it the least bit inspiring.

The city is a maze of brick-a-brack shops and overpriced restaurants with thousands of smelly hikers jubilant at having reached their destination. The very nature of the pilgrimage makes it a wealthy and lively place, but it is built on a one day turnaround. For centuries, thousands of people have filtered in an out in twenty four hours. I for one, was glad to filter out.

On the other hand Sintra, is a pretty place, with big palaces, great views out to sea and a lot of greenery. Many people just go for the day as it is close to Lisbon. They take their pictures and go. I stayed a couple of nights which gave me more of an understanding of the place. Sometimes a place is more than just museums and restaurants, it's the feel of it.

Finally, a rather unheralded spot for tourists is the city of Vigo. It's the biggest city in the area and is an industrial port. Apart from a hill fort mirador, with views over the bay, it isn't pretty. It is a mixture of roadworks, smog and shipping containers. However, it had something real about it. There was a lot of fascinating movements of people, boats and settlements spread out across the landscape.

I had a train early the next morning and managed to find a host on Couch Surfing. David gave me a good insight into what what the people are like, and how they live in Vigo. If his flatmate is anything to go by, they watch live basketball late into the night and snore like broken power drills - but hey, a couch is a couch. Another fringe benefit of these 'real' working cities is the low cost of living. David's flat was nice, and in a decent location and he pays 125 Euros per month. Drinks were under two Euros and came with huge tapas portions, so you can eat and drink for a fiver. Not bad.


5. People take photos of the wrong things

I make no claims at being any good at photography. You can't master everything, and taking great pictures is one thing I've chosen not to spend time perfecting.

I find myself torn when I see people spending inordinate amounts of time setting up the perfect shot. On the one hand, you do want to present the best encapsulation of a moment. On the other, it's not a real moment. It only becomes real when you look back at it (which we rarely do now). I think what I am saying, is that we use photos almost exclusively to boast now.

I was here.

Everyone needs to be in the picture, in front of something - a view, a monument, a shop. It is like plonking yourself in front of something makes you own it somehow. I saw a girl have her picture taken in front of an African sculpture (which was for sale). The sculpture was nice, but had no real relevance to the setting, yet not nice enough that a picture of it without her, would be a good keepsake.

Putting yourself into the frame is only valid for two reasons:

1. To give perspective or contrast.
2. If you a the main subject of the picture (i.e. a family shot).

Don't even get me started on selfies, or food photography.

When I am busy not taking pictures, I am busy looking. Looking at the amazing, real life scenes that unfold every second. I saw sun dried old men fishing in Lisbon with a bottle of wine for company. I saw a family kicking a battered football around in a tiny cobbled side street under a famous bridge. I saw a boy in a wheelchair listen to a busker in absolute ecstasy, waving his hands about, like a flamboyant Italian conductor.

Only real photographers, have the know-how and the bravery to capture these scenes. And if you can't take a good shot, just Google it!

So there you go - make sure that you travel, get inspired by odd people and ugly cities, and remember not to take any photos. And if your stories don't make any sense, then they are probably all the better for it.


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