Tuesday 6 October: Pa was one of 120 Dutch men who gathered at Atocha station in late January 1944. They boarded a special train for Portugal, but were not told their exact destination. The train headed west, and their first stop was at Elvas, just across the border. There they had to change trains, because the Portuguese gauge was different from the Spanish.
There are no trains now to Elvas. You can go halfway by rail, and then get a bus to Badajoz on the Spanish side of the border; from there you need another bus or taxi to Elvas. And unfortunately the times do not mesh. So having explored all possibilities, we decided once again that it was necessary to hire a car. After paying our visit to the El Greco Museum, we drove from Toledo to Elvas, crossing the old railway line twice on the way.
Wednesday 7 October: We’d never heard of Elvas before we started planning our trip, but it was well worth a visit. The old town was atmospheric last night and beautiful in the morning sunshine. All of the buildings were painted white with yellow trim: the only exception we saw was yellow with white trim (obviously owned by a rebel!). We first went on foot to visit the castle and some of the churches. Then we collected the car and went to places further out: the Fort of Santa Luzia, the impressive aqueduct and (most important for us) the railway station. We could not verify the different gauges: as far as we could tell, all the railway lines were the same width. But there are amazing tiled pictures all along the platform, now being carefully restored by two artists whom we saw at work.
From Elvas Pa’s train continued west, and it seemed that they were heading for Lisbon, perhaps to fly to England from there. But then the train changed direction and headed south until it reached the Atlantic coast, then back east until it finally stopped in a small fishing village close to the Spanish border. We followed roughly the same route (but by motorway) until we reached the Algarve. This is one place we’d never been, but wanted to visit; moreover, it seemed a shame to come so far and spend so little time in Portugal. So we had a break from our research and turned west instead of east, for a few days R&R.
Thursday 8 October: We drove to Cape St Vincent, the most westerly point of Europe, and worked our way back from there to Lagos, where we were staying. On the way we visited the fort at Sagres, the fishing village of Salema, and the thriving holiday resort of Luz. Before returning to our apartment, we drove out to the Ponta da Piedade, and enjoyed seeing the amazing rock formations in the late afternoon sun.
Friday 9 October: We went first to Silves, a picturesque town with the best-preserved castle in the Algarve – we walked right round the battlements. On to Alte, the prettiest village in the Algarve according to the guidebook, but we found it disappointing. Then Paderne Castle, in an isolated position some way out of the village. Ian did not want to drive on the rough track, so we left the car and walked the last mile or so – only to find that the castle was closed!
Saturday 10 October: After days of blue sky and sun, it was a shock to awake to grey skies and pouring rain. When we left the apartment the rain had eased, and we convinced ourselves that it was getting better. We headed for Albufeira, but on the way the rain came down in torrents, and made driving difficult. We diverted to Portimao, where we visited a church, had coffee and looked in some shops. But the rain poured continuously, we were soaked and there was nothing else we could do. So we returned to our apartment in Lagos, changed our wet clothes and had lunch there.
During the afternoon, the rain finally stopped and we went for a walk around the city walls. We then found a bar by the marina and started the celebrations for our wedding anniversary – 45 years today! We continued later with dinner at a nice restaurant in the town centre.
Sunday 11 October: Cloudy this morning, but at least it was fine. We checked out of our apartment and headed east. First stop was Armaçao de Pera, where we walked along the beach and the cliffs admiring some typical Algarve scenery. While we were doing so, the sun came out – the weather was changeable all day. Next stop Albufeira, the very popular resort. We thought that Lagos was busy and touristy, until we saw Albufeira!
On to the Roman ruins at Milreu, and nearby Estoi – we hoped to see the 18th century palace there, but discovered it is now a small luxury hotel, so not open to the public. Finally Faro, capital of the Algarve, which was more attractive than we had anticipated. We strolled through the town and along the waterfront. Baffled by the sight (and sound!) of many Scotsmen in kilts, we asked the reason, and discovered there was an international football match being played later that day.
Monday 12 October: We continued east, stopping at the two main towns in that part of the Algarve: Alhão and Tavira. We were disappointed with Alhão, but liked Tavira. We ended up at Vila Real de Santo Antonio (VRSA), on the border with Spain. This is where Pa’s long train journey ended. We were back on the trail!
Pa described VRSA as a small fishing village. We guessed it might have grown (most towns have) but were amazed to see crowds of people and cars – we drove round and round looking for somewhere to park. We later discovered that there was a four-day ‘party’ going on, though we never found out what they were celebrating.
Tuesday 13 October: VRSA is almost due south of Elvas, but there is no direct train line, which is why Pa’s train took a seemingly roundabout route. Trains still go east-west across the Algarve, and we’d crossed the railway a few times in our wandering. We went to the station in VRSA: it had a definite 30s art deco look, but we were confused by pavement artwork with the date 4-9-45. However, we confirmed later that the station was built in 1936, so was definitely where the Dutchmen arrived.
Pa mentions two other places in the town, but our lack of Portuguese made research difficult. The fact that the tourist info office remained closed while we were there did not help either! Pa and some others slept overnight on the dance floor in the village hall. We found one quite elaborate structure which dated from the early 20th century; it was originally a barracks, then a market, and is now a cultural centre. We thought maybe this was the village hall, but were unable to confirm it.
Pa saw sardines being loaded from the canning factory onto a waiting British ship. No sardine factories remain, but we were directed to the far end of the quayside, where there are the remains of several factories. It seemed unlikely though that a big ship would be able to moor close by, and why did he talk as if there was only one factory? By chance we managed to talk to a fisherman with a long family history in the town; he spoke good English and knew lots about World War II! He directed us to the ruins of a solitary factory much closer to the village centre, with the remains of an old jetty close by. This fitted Pa’s description much better.
Just north of VRSA is Castro Marim, a castle within the walls of an older castle. Research done, we visited the castle before saying farewell to Portugal and heading back to Spain.