Monday, September 17, 2012

PORTUGAL: Algarve tollways

Portugal at last!Leaving a still-sleeping household around 8.30 am we slipped out of Medina-Sedonia, first heading north towards Seville. We’d only had a coffee so far, but as we turned west towards Portugal we were lured into IKEA Seville sitting conveniently on the main road, for an English breakfast (with a scoop of lingonberries). Where IKEA Toulouse has a winebar, the Spanish outlet has an orange squeezer for assembling your own juice, and pre-assembled Spanish hams.

I stopped to refuel just before the border, having a premonition (correct as it turned out) that diesel would be more expensive on the other side. The gas station was lined with red bottlebrush (callistemon) shrubs more familiar in Autralia.

When we did reach the border around noon, we had to pull over at a special station to pay for tollway access. It was all very confusing for the assembled drivers, some of whom thought they had to queue up in marked lanes to go to a special payment booth. In reality you simply had to park somewhere and walk to a payment station. The single booth had a queue of people outside waiting to use the one machine for buying multi-day passes to the Portuguese road system. There were instructions in several languages but the choices were still rather overwhelming to many there.

One woman was very slowly working her way through the English-language screens (not her first language) and was baffled when the system wouldn’t let her go further. I saw she had primed a card with over €500, which the machine said wasn’t valid. It was taking her so long to parse the instructions that she didn’t realise that she’d typed 500 rather than 50, and then error message wasn’t specific enough. I intervened (in order to forestall adding another day to our journey) and explained the problem to her. The system made her restart from the beginning and she asked me what type of pass she should buy – I made a suggestion but she wasn’t sure as she didn’t know how long she would be in the country, and just gave up on the process and wandered off.

EasytollI was next, selected a €20 two-day pass and then found the machine would not accept either of my credit cards. So I went over to the nearby police station, which had “we cannot help with toll issues” notices stuck all over the door. I thought I could at least report a malfunctioning machine in advance of getting pulled over by police for non-payment. A policeman (long-suffering on this issue I gather) said I could find a gas-station further down the tollway and try to buy a pass there.

So I went back to the car and drove up to some gates which were another 20m along from the toll booth. These booths, labelled only in Portuguese and English, offered a different pay-as-you-go option than what was offered at the payment station. This at least took my credit card, and gave me a receipt which had my car registration number printed on it (taken from an overhead camera). I assumed I would be billed automatically thenceforth.

As I was doing this a throng of the mystified people from the payment station came over to ask me what I was doing. I explained my interpretation of the system - in English and French, as there were people from at least four nationalities present including Brazilian (and thus a Portuguese speaker) – wished them well and then drove off hoping I was done.

What a mess of a “system”! Like most automated payment systems across Europe which require interfaces in multiple languages (including parking and internet hot-spots) it was readily apparent that no user testing had been done. Portugal had been sold a unmanned road system with a high barrier to entry for users, laughably called EASYTOLL. I looked at their website*, which has more information, but of course who will know to read this before entering the country, or even be able to access the website? Even if you had roaming data access on the road, you’d pay a small fortune to access the information on the site, including downloading items buried in PDF files which could have been simple images.

*I note that the English version of the website is only part translated. The Toll Calculator is still fully in Portuguese.
Aljezur's amazigh sculptures
Our direct journey today would only be about five hours, leaving plenty of time for side-trips and perhaps an ocean swim. We continued west through the Algarve region, passing popular holiday destinations like Faro and Lagos which face south towards Casablanca. It wasn’t till we got off the highway and Aljezur, the first town on the west coast that we stopped to stretch our legs.

Aljezur, like Algeciras/Algiers derives from Al-Jazira (the island). It’s a white-town, but with terracotta rooves in abundance, and a sprinkling of playful statuary. Even amongst some of the shabbier older streets I could overhear English-speaking tourists, so there is probably a core of British expats living here away from the flashier southern beach communities.

We didn’t drive much further north along the coast as it was far too-slow going and would have doubled our total driving time for the day. There were many stretches of road planted with eucalyptus trees, to the extent that I thought I might have been on a hilly road northwest of Sydney. Apparently a lot of old oak forests in this part of the world have been replaced with these trees, with the unfortunate side-effect of making them more susceptible to forest fires.

Aljezur wall art

No comments:

Post a Comment

Flickr slideshow