The Bridge from Nowhere
Spend a little time in Portugal and you get the feeling there is something unfinished about the country. Sadly, the world recession in 2011, the EU bail out and the resultant austerity measures have hit the country hard. Evidence, if it were needed, can be found by driving between Evora and Beja in central Alejento for the route is littered with the detritus of half finished bridges.
From afar they look like avant-garde sculptures rising up from the drab landscape. Up close they are sad and abandoned and have the look of some long forgotten brutalist Eastern Bloc monument that nobody apart from amateur graffiti artists and bill-stickers visit anymore. The colourless stanchions look out of place; their location seemingly random in the wasteland between fields and existing roads; there is no hint of a road or tarmac ever being laid in their direction.
Whatever the truth about these modern concrete megaliths they do provide an abstract and welcome distraction to the flat wide open fertile plains of this part of Alejento.
The most obvious explanation is the construction of a number of east – west routes came to a screeching halt as the funding ran out. However, speak to the locals in the nearest bar and you will hear a different version. The residents’ strident tone and no doubt expletive laden tirades were incomprehensible to me; but with the universal gesture of rubbing thumb and forefinger together the message is clear: corruption.
The Alejento White Elephant.
After a visit to Beja airport it came as no surprise to find that the: ”Portuguese view political parties as the most corrupt public authority, with 73 percent saying they believe elected officials to be: on the take”.*
Located about five kilometres from the town the terminal building rises up at the end of a very long approach road. The first thing to strike me was the paucity of vehicles in the car park. Mysteriously, the few cars there were all parked, front forward, next to one another; all saloons and immaculately clean. As I entered the terminal I was greeted by a well built and armed policeman whose smile belied the look of suspicion on his face. We exchanged pleasantries; I found out that the airport was open so wandered off to one end of the building. The only sound was the click-clack of the policeman’s shoes as he followed, at a distance but in step with my own pace.
At the one end there was a cafe; all gleaming tables and chairs. All empty. The serving counter was closed. Turning round I asked the policeman when the next flight was due. “Two weeks” his replied echoed off the interior, “Maybe next week” he qualified and with a shrug the conversation was over. “Where’s the toilet?”, he pointed towards the other end of the terminal so off I went to walk the 100 metres or so to find them past empty check-in desks, vacant vending machines, blank arrivals and departure boards; bright posters displaying local tourist spots and an uninhabited information desk all the time being paced by the click-clacking of my companion’s footsteps.
We were not alone in this ghost airport. One of the hire car concession kiosks was open, lights on and ready for business. I waved to the man and woman sat behind the desk but got only a look of incomprehension in reply.
The owners of the airport must have taken Auden’s eulogistic poem to heart: “Stop all the clocks, cut off the telephone…” as the second, minute and hours hands on the clocks hanging on the wall stood still, their faces taped over. Although, I’m sure the local authorities would have been happy to: “Let aeroplanes circle moaning overhead”, as the second verse starts, to disturb the funereal silence pervading the building.
I raised my camera but was told, very firmly: “No photo!”. I asked why, but was met with the same response , so decided it was best not to argue and left the terminal followed, now closely, by the policeman. As I wandered past the row of neatly parked cars I noticed the hire company’s window sticker in each. Looking in my rear view mirror as I drove out I saw the policeman was now joined outside the building by the car hire people. As they looked at my car driving round the car park and out the exit it struck me that this must be an exciting spectator sport round here.
I found out later the terminal, which opened in April 2011, cost €33 million to build; the airport has the longest runway in Europe on which about 100 passengers land a month (yes, a month). The airport was built in order attract low cost airlines and tourists to the area and the Algave a couple hours away. It seems profligate use of money when so much is needed to repair and maintain the infrastructure in what is Portugal’s poorest region.
Many of the houses in the remote villages dotted about Alejento are modest, single storey, many are empty; left by residents migrating to more prosperous regions and cities.
However, even Lisbon has it’s share of abandoned buildings. It was such a shame to walk around one corner to see an old theatre left to ruin. There are hints of the building’s elegant past. You can imagine customers leaning out of the delicate windows, having a smoke during a break in the performance or sheltering from the rain underneath the overhanging balconies that surround it’s imposing facade.
Now it stands, forlorn and lifeless like a rotten tooth decaying in an otherwise healthy mouth. It’s sad to see a beautiful building in such a state; I understand that Portugal’s economy is fragile with scarce resources needed to maintain hospitals, roads, public housing and the rest; but for a fraction of the money it takes to build an airport terminal this building could be restored to it’s former state.
*Transparency International’s (TI) annual report on corruption/2013