Your holiday disaster: How a pit stop in Portugal forced Tim Evans to change his image

IT WAS the fourth day of our two-week holiday enjoying the off- season delights of the quieter Estremadura region of Portugal, between Lisbon and Oporto.

The early morning sunshine cheered us as we left the walled city of Obidos, where I had celebrated my birthday, and tootled towards the coast in our hire car. Parking on a bluff above the shimmering Lagoa de Obidos, we clattered down some steps to enjoy a milky galao in a ramshackle beachside cafe.

Returning to the car, we noticed something odd. The parcel shelf had been flattened over the rear seat. The glove-compartment hatch lay open. We had been robbed. All our luggage, including my presents, had been plucked out of the car and then whisked away.

At first, we felt completely helpless as we gazed across the empty car park and at the shuttered off-season hotels. Not a soul.

There followed a pointless period of driving frantically around in search of the vile perpetrators. Historically, Portugal and Britain had never taken up arms against one another - and now this, I thought as the Vauxhall Novo was thrown round the cafe car park for the fourth time.

When sanity returned, our first stop was the police station at Caldas da Rainha, where a laborious discussion in pidgin Portuguese ensued. This resulted in us taking the bus to Lisbon to visit the British Consulate and the Tourist Police, where an official statement could be made. (We left the car in the police car park at Caldas - Lisbon's traffic was a hurdle we couldn't face.)

That night, equilibrium was restored in a tiny Goan pensao, whose owners' concern restored my bruised faith in the accord between our two great seafaring nations. The next day, still in the same clothes, we were back in Caldas, fresh off the slowest train in the Iberian peninsula.

A police officer with a smattering of English took our statements but doubted we would get anything back. He mentioned that some more considerate thieves posted items they couldn't use, such as passports and air tickets, into a local letter box. Not in this case, though. I asked him whether there was much crime in the area. "Mainly in the tourist season," he replied glumly. "It is mainly to buy drugs." Then he brightened and added: "Anyway, the quality of the heroin at the moment is bad - they'll be dead in six months."

Cheered by this news, we set off to the town's market, where only days before we had smugly observed: "So this is where they buy all their cheap clothes." Minutes later, it was where we bought all our cheap clothes.

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