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Saturday 14 November 2009

An Enigmatic Man

The rebuilding of central Lisbon after the great earthquake and tsunami of 1755 would not have happened without the advocacy of one man, the Marques de Pombal, who by all accounts was more brutal and dictatorial than Antonio de Oliveira Salazar.

He got the job done. The city’s central Baixa district is, more or less, as he decreed, with a grid pattern of streets, central to the scheme being the north-south pedestrian axis, the Rua Augusta. Lisbon does not forget his endeavours: a statue of the man on horseback overlooks the Rotunda between the top of the Avenida da Liberdade and the Parque Eduardo VII (that’s the British Edward the Seventh). Just to keep visitors confused, the Metro station there was initially called Rotunda, after the roundabout, but is now called Marques de Pombal, after its statue.

The Marques also founded a new town at the eastern end of the Portuguese Algarve, next to the Guadiana river, which marks the border with Spain. Vila Real de Santo Antonio is now an established and growing settlement with the obligatory complement of expat Brits, but this was not always so. The area was predominantly marshland, so there was no farming, and no port. Consequently there were few takers.

As so often, the arrival of the railway made a difference, and now there is less marshland, plus a port. Nearby Monte Gordo is a recent addition to the list of familiar Algarve resorts. The pleasant town centre features a square bearing the name of its founder: around its edge are orange trees, and behind those on each side are similarly styled whitewashed buildings with red tiled roofs. The Marques might have approved of the symmetry and order.

Unfortunately, the railway that helped to bring the rest of the world to Vila Real de Santo Antonio does not fully appreciate the utility of the place: the station is out of the centre in the “zona industrial”, while the former terminus station by the Guadiana, which is next to the bus and coach park, and adjacent to the ferry landing, lies derelict, home only to a number of mobile caravans. At least, unlike so often at home, there is still a chance that the trains could return, as there has been no haste to build over the site.

Not only in the UK have transport planners repented at leisure.

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