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Tuesday 10 November 2009

Far From The Madding Crowd

Some of those less charitably disposed towards those migrating to the UK use a variety of language to discourage: one such is that the place is “full up”, which a glance across all that open country shows to be so much drivel. The UK has an awful lot of space, but not as much as some countries on mainland Europe. A journey into the heart of Portugal’s Alentejo region today proved the point.

The Alentejo is, more or less, the region to the north of the Algarve. There are few towns, some smaller settlements, then the landscape is one of few trees, and yet fewer people. At night, looking out from the train speeding its way from Lisbon to Faro, all is dark – completely dark – for many miles at a time. Apart from farming, little else is done here.

At the junction station of Funcheira, I left the well filled and comfortable Inter City train headed for Lisbon, and joined a railmotor – a single coach train – to complete my trip to the Alentejo town of Beja. Along this route, only two services each way are provided daily, operated by vehicles recently rebuilt, but underneath dating from the mid 1950s. After looking at the extent of the refurbishment, one briefly wonders why they went to all the trouble, only to realise that it was rebuilding or nothing: train services in this part of the world enjoy what is called a “marginal” existence.

Indeed, there was only one other passenger on the journey to Beja: there were no takers at the two stops en route. No doubt at holiday times and weekends the services are busier, but there is little money being made here. Lineside telegraph poles, long out of use, have become birds’ nests. There are yet more wayside stations, all now abandoned. No freight – probably the reason for their existence – passes this way any more.

Beja is a typical Alentejo town, smaller than Évora to the north, but also occupying the high ground, and with remains of walled fortifications clearly visible. Here, the dominant civilisation for several centuries was Moorish, and, yes, Muslim. Now the dominant force is the unrelenting traffic, which, coupled with the cobbled streets, creates a constant background rumble, even within the pleasant park which sits below the Pousada de São Francisco.

The return journey brought better loadings: all of nine passengers boarded the railmotor at Beja, and there were even takers for the two stops: how they had travelled into town is unclear. Certainly, having a last train at 1417 hours tends to restrict the social world of anyone so constrained. At Funcheira, the crew changed ends and headed back to Beja: how much longer the Portuguese equivalent of what we in the UK call the “social” railway will continue is not known.

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