The A22, a wide-open road

When I arrived in the Algarve, a bit under two years ago, a new Socialist government had just been elected and formed a coalition that I thought for sure would take an important first step by eliminating the tolls on the A22 expressway that stretches the length of the south of Portugal. I can’t believe there’s still a toll.

Maybe I don’t understand socialism any more. In fact, maybe I don’t understand politics any more, with conservatives doing nothing to conserve anything and liberals showing very little, if any tolerance, for any differing points of view. And of course, Brexit means Brexit, even though it comes in at least two flavours like ice cream, hard or soft serve.

Be that as it may, my lovely wife and I love the A22. We’re more than willing to pay the tolls because it allows us to zoom from one end of the Algarve to the other on a wide-open, almost empty three-lane highway, that winds through scenic rolling hills and valleys filled with olive and cork groves.

On more than one occasion, our little compact has been virtually the only vehicle on the road. It’s like the Twilight Zone and we’re the only ones who didn’t get the memo about an imminent asteroid collision or WWIII. We keep the radio on, but it’s all in Portuguese so we wouldn’t know anyway.

Of course, every once in a while, a Mercedes overtakes us and whizzes past at what seems like 250kph since we’re coasting at 160, but that’s okay since the two left lanes are clear and there don’t seem to be many if any speed traps.

You would think they would hook up radar cameras next to the toll cameras in a scheme to discourage anyone from using the thoroughfare. Instead of creating extra revenue, income could fall even farther to nearly nothing, but, with no one on the pavement, maintenance costs would also be minimal.

It is still safer than the alternative parallel route N125, affectionately known to locals as “The Road of Death”. In fact, the A22 was built because the N125 was one of the most dangerous roads in Europe, which it still is since apparently most people are unwilling to fork over the toll money simply to save their lives.

Why would you want to cruise along with one hand on the wheel and your elbow getting sunburned, when instead you can white-knuckle your way through congested intersections and around cars whose noses are expectantly stuck out into oncoming traffic.

The idea of charging tolls was possibly based on the theory that people would use the road even if it cost them a small fortune. Wrong. Traffic volume decreased dramatically after tolls were introduced and has not grown because travellers are willing to wait in half-hour construction delays because they’re unwilling to pay or can’t afford the exorbitant tolls.

I mean, how much is your time worth to you? Do you actually want to arrive on the coast by sunset by whipping over to the Albufeira exit on the A22 or would rather sit while your car overheats in summertime rush-hour congestion just on the other side of the bridge to Portimão on the N125, while you can barely spot an orange glow on the horizon.

Another problem is that it isn’t that easy to actually pay the tolls, which are electronically accessed when an unsuspecting motorist drives under an array of cameras attached to a scaffold arched overhead. After the government paparazzi have photographed the licence plate, all anyone has to do is stop by a post office and wait in line for 45 minutes behind several people who have extremely complicated mailing arrangements or are attempting to pay their tolls.

One can only imagine how welcome this extra chore is to tourists, who didn’t notice the cameras in the first place and are actually passing through on their way to free highways in Spain. One theory is that the government is counting on many of us forgetting to pay at all, so that when we finally do remember extra charges have been added.

That’s okay with my lovely wife and me, since we’re retired and working diligently to spend the inheritance while we’re still alive and able to enjoy getting to Lagos in 45 minutes instead of two hours stuck behind a line of frugal caravans crawling around roundabouts on N125.

By Pat, the expat
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For the previous 10 years, Pat lived in Panama which used to be rated above Portugal as a top retirement destination (but not any more), where he wrote a column for a tourist publication.