My daughter, Faye, and I are down in the lovely Portuguese Templar town of Tomar, just north of Lisboa. It took a bit of time to orientate ourselves when we arrived, as the place has two sorts of street-name plaques – 1. Absent, and 2. Written in some curly medieval script. Neither is very useful as you're trying to negotiate the narrow, cobbled streets and to obey the No Entry and One Way signs. In a car, I mean.
Armed with advice from our expert on Portugal, Alfie Mittington, we were able to quickly identify the hostel he recommended. And that's when the fun started. The young man at the desk was pleasant but inept. We got through the registration process well enough, using a mixture of Portuguese, Spanish and English, but things went downhill from there:-
I'd like two single rooms, please.
OK. The price is X, including breakfast.
Except we don't have any single rooms for tonight.
OK, how about a double room with two beds.
OK, I'll just get the key.
We move into the corridor and he tries the key. After a minute or two, he finally gets the door open. To find that the room contains a double bed. Back to the desk, where he picks up another key. We then move, via a seriously steep set of stairs, to the next floor. Again he wrestles with the lock. Finally, he opens the door, looks in and tells me it's 'under maintenance'. Back to the desk again for a third key, and back up the vertiginous flight of stairs that Alfie failed to tell me about. I feel we should be roped together and wearing oxygen masks but say nothing. To his evident delight – and after the by now standard wrestle with the lock and door knob – he lets me into a room with two single beds and I say 'Fine. But where is the heating?” He points to the radiator, says something like 'mechanical' and tells me it comes on at 5.30. Needing to conserve oxygen, I don't argue.
I return to the car to tell Faye we're fixed up for the night but she's not happy about sharing a room. I ignore her protestations and we take out bags to said room. Having seen it, Faye trots off down the corridor to see if she can better it. But she can't. We then return to the car so I can put it in an underground car park I'd seen. This was large but contained only two other cars. My suspicion was that this owed something to the fiendishly complex schedule of 15m, 30m, 45m, etc. charges displayed at the entrance. I tried to get Stephen Hawkings on the phone to help me with this but, as usual, he didn't pick up. Without his input, I managed to work out that the overnight charge would be over 20 euros, more than I've ever paid in the centre of Madrid. These Templars may not have been good Christians but they were clearly ace businessmen. I don't think it's a coincidence there's a synagogue and a Hebrew Museum here.
Having settled in, Faye and I set off in search of the restaurant recommended by Alfie.
Which is when we got caught by a freak wind and hailstorm as we were crossing the raging river to the new barrio on the other side. So, it was good to find the restaurant closed when we sought refuge in its entrance. As was every café, bar and food place within a quarter mile of it. Except for a pizzeria that Faye felt she just had to avail herself of.
And then we finally found an open café, with WiFi and the girls on the next table smoking. Which came as a shock. But I guess Portugal is still at where Spain was a couple of years ago, leaving to the owners to decide whether or not to ban smoking.
And so, as I finish my beer, in the café and contemplate the challenge of finding a restaurant open, I raise my glass to Absent Alfie. Just imagine what problems we'd have had without his input!