Tuesday, December 22, 2015

Bicycle Touring Portugal: trip Summary

This map shows the Portuguese part of our trip but doesn't include the loop we did in Spain to Santiago.

September 8, 2015
Ruth: Today was the first day of school and already I am reminiscing on one of the best cycling trips that Gord and I have done. Our last three days were jam packed and we never did write a final blog on our last day's ride or our final stop in Lisbon. Sometimes life is just too much fun to find the time to write a blog.

Portugal is perfect for bicycle touring and yet, surprisingly, we saw very few others doing it. Here are some of the reasons why we think Portugal is one of the best places to tour.

Beautiful and varied landscape with lots of tiny roads away from traffic.
Friendly and warm people everywhere!
Excellent food, yes even including the Bacalhão.
Affordable with high standards of comfort. We averaged 80€ combined per day but lived like Kings.
Figs ripening along the roads.
Fabulous Medieval Hill Towns
Beautiful Natural Parks

We swung around to approach Lisbon with one last excursion through the Arrabida Natural Park. This is a stunning little gem that is wildly popular with weekenders from Lisbon.

Tuesday, August 25, 2015

The Cromeleque dos Almendres

Cromeleque dos Almendres
August 25, 2015
Gordon: "Doesn't clothing seem somewhat inappropriate at a Neolithic religious site?" I asked rhetorically.  And since we were the only people at the site, though we had passed a quartet of shaggy Druids on the way in, it was indeed possible to commune with the stones in a more natural manner.  

The Cromeleque dos Almendres is the largest Neolithic stone circle on the Iberian peninsula and we were fortunate to have it entirely to ourselves in the beautiful early morning light.  Set on an east facing hillside, it was constructed and modified during the period from 6,000 to 3,000 years ago.  Several of the stones have petroglyphs on them.  Remarkably, the Cromoleque dos Almendres was not recognized and investigated by an archeologist until 1964.  The area around Évora is studded with megaliths, including dolmens, menhirs and cromlechs.
As we were preparing to depart from the site, once again fully clothed, a solitary jogger trotted up, a rare enough sight in rural Portugal, wordlessly did some stretches against one of the standing stones, and then jogged off.  It felt as though we had somehow stumbled upon the set of a Jim Jarmusch film.

Ruth: In 2300 kms  of cycling we have only rarely encountered other cycle tourists. The Portuguese love cycling, but like the Italians it is day rides not touring. The looks we get from passing motorists only confirms my sense that our form of travel in Portugal is still quite unusual.  We are still surprised by this because Portugal is a fabulous place to tour on bikes.  This morning we spotted a lone woman hand pedalling her wheelchair/bike up a steep grade on the highway ahead of us. As we passed her on the climb we said hello and cheered her on, but then I realized she had a gear bag and map.  I quickly told Gord we have to stop and talk to her. Sylviana is from Austria; no, I mean she is from Austria and has hand peddled all the way here in the same time we have been touring! She is on her way to Lisbon to do the Camino Portuguese ( she has already done a number of the other Routes to Santiago).


Monday, August 24, 2015

Évora: Rest Day

Slightly creepy chapel bent on reminding us all of where we are heading.  Perfect for Gord's Birthday!

August 24, 2015
We now have only a few more days before we return to Lisbon and are spending two of these in Évora. The historic center of Évora is a listed Unesco site. Inhabited  continuously by the Iberian Celts, Romans, Moors, and Christians, Évora is a tightly packed medieval city full of treasures. We spent much of today just walking through the tiny streets exploring the quiet pretty neighbourhoods. One of our favorites is an area where houses have been built into the arches of an early 16th century aqueduct. A perfect place for two tired cyclist to have a rest day. 

Friday, August 21, 2015

Castelo de Vide, Alentejo

August 21, 2015
Gordon:  I had a flat tire early in the trip, and more recently a slow leak had developed, presumably from the patch.  When I picked up a thorn of frightening length in the same tire I therefore replaced the tube.  I have been carrying an extra folding tire( thanks Don), and I also took the opportunity to swap it for the quite worn original tire.  We carried the old tire for a few days as a spare, but yesterday morning we decided to discard it.  After all, I have toured for hundreds of days without ever needing a spare tire.  With only one more week of cycling, what could go wrong?

This morning we were about 14 kilometres into our ride when Ruth picked up a piece of metal or some such thing.  In a second it slashed the sidewall of her rear tire in numerous places, flattening the tube and rendering the tire irreparable.  I spent the next few minutes beating my head against the guardrail and chanting "Why did we discard our extra tire?"  While I was so engaged, Ruth flagged down a passing pickup truck, who took us to a tire shop in the next town.  Ruth selected an attractive red knobby number from their limited inventory of used bicycle tires (three) and we were on our way in a few minutes.

This evening we are in another beautiful hill town, Castelo de Vide.  Although it may be done partially for the tourists, the village appears to be better maintained than some we have visited.  It has an extensive medieval quarter, including a small residential area within the castle walls. We have spent hours wandering the narrow streets.

Ruth: Gord is being more generous to me than he should here. I was the brainiac who convinced him that we have never ever needed a replacement tire and that we should just turf his old one.  Fortunately I have a super power which allows me to ask for help when needed. We made it to our destination in time for the Menu del dia ! I loves my kibble.

Wednesday, August 19, 2015

Monsanto: The most Portuguese village

August 19, 2015
Gordon:  The village of Monsanto, where we are staying tonight, was voted "the most Portuguese village" in 1938.  However, as Ruth commented "How can it be the most Portuguese village when it is unlike any other place we have been in the country?" Monsanto truly is extraordinary.  It is situated on an isolated hill high above the the surrounding plains.  From the castle on top you can see 30 kilometres in any direction.  As a result the hill has been occupied by successive civilizations since the Paleolithic.  The town itself is both carved out of the native granite and constructed from chunks of it.  Most of the "streets" are too narrow and irregular to allow the passage of vehicles, making it a perfect maze to wander on foot.

We are staying in a delightful guesthouse (Casa Pires Mateus) run by everyone's doting aunts, Edit and Nati.  They do not speak a word of English or French, but we have been getting on wonderfully.  They have even flattered my rudimentary knowledge of Portuguese by having me translate for a couple of other English speaking guests.  It has been difficult to practice my Portuguese, because most of the locals switch to English or French, if they speak it, or cease talking to us if they do not.  It has consequently been a real treat to talk with the Aunties.

Castles and Hill Towns in the Beiras

August 18, 2015
Ruth: We are now in hill town country as we head south along the border between Portugal and Spain. On our ride between Vila Nova de Foz Coa and Almeida we saw four Castelo or fortified towns. When planning our routes we try to link up as many of the towns mentioned in the Lonely Planet as possible, but sometimes the distances are too long and we have to find a place to stay midway. Sabugal was located halfway between the towns of Almeida and Monsanto. When we looked closely on google maps we could see that it also had a castle and a tight historic core. To our delight Gord found us a tiny stone cottage to stay in, that was located within the fortified core directly across from the castle's highest tower!! Sabugal is one of the many outstanding places in Portugal that never make it into the guide books. I could have stayed there for days.

Our tiny studio cottage is an ancient restored house that used to have a kitchen, three bedrooms and a pen for the pig all squeezed into this 250 square foot space. 

Sunday, August 16, 2015

Back to the Paleolithic (not a reference to a possible Conservative victory in the pending federal election)

August 16, 2015
Gord: We are staying two nights in Vila Nova de Foz Côa, which would have been of no interest to us or the many other tourists here prior to 1991.  At that time a dam was proposed for the Côa river just above its confluence with the Douro. During the environmental impact assessment process   an extensive collection of rock engravings were discovered.  The power company continued to work on the dam and the preservation of the engravings became a political issue complete with a supportive rap song "gravures não sabem nadar" (engravings don't know how to swim).  The engravings eventually won (sorry Dad) and Unesco designation followed.

The area is still an active research area so the engravings can only visited on tours organized by the related museum.  We were fortunate to get on a two hour tour with six other tourists and our guide.  The engravings are made by pecking or scratching the smooth surface of the schist rock.  They have been made during various periods, from the Paleolithic  (depictions of animals), the Iron Age (which includes images of warriors on horseback), through the historic period (Christian symbols).  We saw some of the earliest engravings, which are 30,000 years old.  They were representations of aurochs (cattle forbears), Mongolian horses, goats and other animals.  Although these are engravings rather than paintings they show stylistic similarities to the paintings at Lascaux, Altamira and other Paleolithic sites.  It is quite moving to see works of art that are that old, knowing that the artists lived in an entirely different world, yet are physically indistinguishable from us.

Ruth: Gord's Portuguese colleague Rick insisted that we stay in  at least one Posada ( A luxury guesthouse similar to Paradors in Spain), so here we are in Vila Foz de Coa at the "Posada  de Juventude". That's the name given to Youth hostels in Portugal. 

Saturday, August 15, 2015

The Upper Douro River

August 15, 2015
Today was one of the most spectacular rides yet. We coasted down into the Douro river valley for 21 km through terraced vineyards, almond and olive orchards. This is the upper Alto Douro, above the demarcated growing area for port wine and off the tourist radar.  In our descent to the Douro we saw only three vehicles: a car, a farm truck, and a motorcycle coasting with its engine off.  The tourist pace changed dramatically when we arrived at Barca D'Alva, where there were three river cruise boats moored.

We knew in advance the rest of our day would involve a great deal of climbing, but our host told us we could take a short cut which would allow us to miss some of the climbing and cut our ride by 20 kms. The farm track was not on any of our electronic maps except via Michelin, but when we stopped at the first and only house we were assured that the road did go through. The climbs were steep but we were rewarded with wonderful views of the Douro. On route we found a few fig trees with ripe fruit. When Gord spied the first one he said, "we better stop here for a few minutes," and then transformed into a fig eating machine. They were so good and just what we needed to make our final climb up to Vila Nova De Foz Coa. 

Friday, August 14, 2015

Freixo de Espada à Cinta

Freixo de Espada à Cinta

Gordon:  We had a lovely ride through hilly country today. Part of the day was spent on almost untraveled secondary roads.  They have more challenging grades, but gave us glimpses of rural life in the area.  Reaching the crest of the final hill, we were treated to the sight of the town of Freixo da Espada à Cinta, nestled in a valley and surrounded by vineyards and olive orchards.  We had no advance information regarding the place and I was frankly expecting a nondescript modern farming town.  While it has this component, it also possesses a castle, a Manueline church, and a well-maintained historic centre.  It is truly a delight.  We are staying in a bed and breakfast located in a 600 year old house, complete with several fig trees laden with ripe fruit.  We have spent some pleasant hours wandering through the town.  Many of the residents are sitting in front of their homes in the narrow streets, smiling and greeting passers by.  Tomorrow is a festival (the Assumption), so the town is decorated and the religious statutes readied for procession.

For those following the saga of Ruth and her multitude of small blood-sucking friends, she has counted over 40 bites on every part of her body.  Benadryl and topical analgesics help, but the bites are intensely itchy, particularly those on her hands and feet.

Ruth: When the brass band started up at 9pm Gord and I headed out to watch as the villagers made their  candle lit procession with the Virgin through town. One local dog claimed a front row seat and sang along with the band. 

Wednesday, August 12, 2015

Filthy little devils

August 13, 2015

Gordon: It's 3 am and we are sitting in the lobby of a hotel that I can no longer recommend.  Ruth was complaining about bug bites all day yesterday, but we managed to convince ourselves they were caused by fleas, spiders, space aliens, anything but bedbugs.  Sadly, we learned their true source when we examined our beds an hour ago.  Filthy little devils, as Humphrey Bogart described leeches in The African Queen.  I killed a dozen of them, mostly in Ruth's bed.  The rough edge of a sheet of particle board under the mattress appears to provide excellent habitat for these disgusting creatures.  There is no possibility of returning to sleep in our room, so we have retreated to the lobby.

Just a few days ago we were discussing the fact that we had not seen any evidence of bedbugs in Portugal.  I optimistically suggested that perhaps the warm, dry climate is not to their taste.  However, we seem to have an encounter with bedbugs once on each journey in Europe and this trip was apparently not fated to be an exception.  We will make our best efforts not to carry any on to future hotels.  And should anyone be in the vicinity of our home on the evening of August 30, they will have the opportunity to see a couple of scrawny cyclists stripped naked and dropping their clothing outside on the porch.

Parque Natural do Douro Internacional

August 12, 2015

Gordon:  For much of our journey in northern Portugal we have been tracing the border with Spain.  In the Parque Natural do Douro this line is hard to miss: it is the spectacular canyon of the upper Douro river.  We are staying two nights in the aptly named town of Miranda do Douro, which sits on the rim of the canyon at its northern end.  From the balcony of our hotel room (Residencial Planalto, 30 euros, including a great breakfast) we can see the town's cathedral and castle, as well as Spain.

This morning we cycled a marked 20 km trail that passes two canyon viewpoints, as well as several traditional villages.  It was a wonderful outing, marred only by an unpleasant encounter with some village dogs.  I was surprised that the black lab was actually able to bite Ruth, given its lurching, irregular gait.  We had to wash some foam off Ruth's cycle shorts, but everything seems fine now.

Ruth: OK, this is why I have to revoke Gord's  blog writing privileges,  I can see that he is slipping down a fictional slope. Mom,  I barely have a scratch to show for my slightly scary encounter, nothing that a couple of glasses of red wine couldn't fix, and the dog was not rabid.

Trás-os-Montes was historically isolated from the rest of Portugal and this insulated character has preserved many of the region's early traditions, with origins reaching back to the Celts. Their version of a Morris type dance with sticks is done in similar, but even more outrageous costumes, including men wearing lace petticoats topped with hats covered in flowers and ribbons. During the Festa dos Rapazes,  held in December, single men light all night bonfires and rampage around  the town in robes of rags and scary masks made of cork bark. The local museum has some fine examples of these masks. 

One of the most unusual sights in town is the Boy Jesus in the Cathedral.  He stands in a case dressed in a snappy outfit that includes a top hat, surrounded by a wardrobe that would make a Yaletown metrosexual envious. Strange indeed.

Monday, August 10, 2015

Parque Natural de Montesinho

Our wonderful hosts at Varandas da Capela

August 10, 2015

"There are a number of people in the village in the summer when the emigrants return for a visit, but the winter population of that village is only four" explained our host.  "And how many people would have lived there 50 years ago?" I asked.  "About 100."  This in a nutshell is the story of rural northeastern Portugal in the second half of the 20th century.  Our host was the coordinator of the local festival for the emigrants, who typically return to their villages each summer.  "We have a festival in their honour because we owe them so much."  Indeed, we have been seeing posters for these festivals for a while.  Most of the emigrants that return seasonally now work in France.  The predominant second language in this region is consequently French, and as obvious foreigners we are generally addressed in that language.
Our hosts are one family that is trying to remain in their village, Tuizelo.  They operate a small cattle farm, and they have recently renovated the family home (constructed in 1671, and in the same family until the present) as a bed and breakfast.  We are among their first guests and they lavished the legendary hospitality of the region upon us.  The family also grows chestnut trees, seeing revenue from both the nuts and the wood.  Our host says the demand and hence the price of chestnuts has spiked in recent years.  They are the predominant crop in the area, and we have noticed many new orchards being planted.  In giving us a tour of the house our host's mother points to the beams, railings and steps: practically all of the wood in the house is chestnut.  The house also has a unique feature: an attached chapel that was constructed at the same time as the original house.

Ruth: Gord and I don't have many rules on our trip, but one that has served us very well is to never refuse an invitation. When dinner was offered at our Bed and Breakfast we enthusiastically accepted. 

It was a lovely meal and a wonderful opportunity to learn more about the region from our hosts.

Saturday, August 8, 2015

Prato do Dia

August 7, 2015
Chaves to Rebordelo
The best part of everyday is sitting down to lunch at around 1:00, when we have either reached our daily destination or are close to it. I love the riding too, but eating is bliss. Prato do dia or diaria in Portugal is a must. Mid to late morning, either Gord or I mentions to the other how long it is until Prato time. The whole ritual is wonderful. Cracking the ice cold beer and watching Gord have his first sip with a look on his face that could only convey that he has indeed found enlightenment. Then the soup, which is a simple creamed vegetable and adds to the beer in our efforts to rehydrate.  Next up: the main course, which usually involves a choice of fish, or meat. What arrives is always a surprise but invariably tasty. We quickly learned some important vocabulary after my plate of gizzards in Guimarães, and another one where a morsel of liver had been slipped in. This is not a dining experience for vegetarians, but most hostels do have shared kitchens if food preparation must be done without slaughter. Dessert is often flan, cake or huge slices of melon. The wonderful event comes to a close with an espresso. And the bill: 5 to 10 euros each, with an increasing trend towards the lesser figure.

Gordon:  At our last two lunches I have continued my research into the forms in which bacalhau can be prepared.  Yesterday's offering, a "bacalhau salad" was particularly distinctive.  It turned out to be a tepid mixture of raw salt cod strips, boiled potatoes, and chickpeas.  It was quite delicious.  Today's bacalhau was a more conventional thick slab of breaded fish.  We see bacalhau in the supermarket everyday and it always looks like irregular pieces of building material.  It is a mystery how it can be changed into a form indistinguishable from fresh fish.

Thursday, August 6, 2015

Into Trás-os-Montes

August 6, 2015 
Gordon:  As we were grinding up the long grade we heard an odd mechanical noise coming from the cable span far overhead.  Looking up, a torpedo hanging below the cable shot by us.  "What was that?"  We had no idea, until another one passed when we were closer to the span.  "My god, that's someone in a prone harness riding the mother of all zip lines.  That span must be more than a kilometre."  When we looked it up later on the Internet we learned that the length of the Fantasticable is in fact 1.5 km, allowing thrill-seekers to achieve speeds of 130 km/h while hurtling along 150 m above the valley floor.  While it did not fit into our plans for the day, that is one Yahoo adventure that I would happily pay 25 euros to participate in.  Ruth's only comment was "I wonder if they have facilities to, you know, clean your cycle shorts after a ride."

The Fantasticable was our introduction to the Trás-os-Montes region.  This area "behind the mountains" is one of the poorest parts of Portugal, with a sparse population and something of a wild west feel.  With limited economic opportunities, residents have been emigrating for more than a century, first to Brazil, then to North America, and more recently to France and Germany.  The region has 30 percent fewer people than it did 50 years ago.  

Add caption

From a cyclist's perspective, this is Big Country, with 20 km climbs and endless descents.  I am afraid I may have misrepresented it to Ruth.  When we had reached the first summit of the day and we were gazing at the succession of ridges extending into the blue distance I suggested that we would be descending to the plains of Trás-os-Montes.  Ruth looked up and said "what planes?"  No longer trusting my judgement, she has purchased a new app that generates elevation profiles for a route.  The profile for today looked like a cross-section of Dolly Parton.

Tuesday, August 4, 2015

Bom Jesus

August 4, 2015
There are days when I suddenly want to throw down my bike and yell, "Wait a moment, I'm not Catholic or even religious! What am I doing climbing a up a mountain to see another pilgrimage site?" Today it played out pretty much that way. At the lowest moment our road became smaller and then turned into a  steep farm track accessing a terraced vineyard. If you have ever tried to get up and out of grape terraces it's not easy, and when you finally push up to the level just below the road there is a big wall. So that's why I am now sitting in a coffee shop eating a pastel de nata while Gord continues up  to see the famous staircase to the Bom Jesus de Monte outside of Braga.  As I was cranking up the  last of many steep climbs I grumbled to Gord that it would be a very bad sign to end up with a bum knee enroute to the Bom Jesus. 

Gordon:  I feel I must interject to provide an explanation for visiting religious sites.  We fell into this pattern on our first pilgrimage in 2009, and it guides many of our steps to this day.  In the first place, churches, monasteries and other sites were among the foremost institutions in Europe until recently, and became important manifestations of architecture and repositories of art.  And because, together with defensive structures, they were the best constructed buildings of their time, they are often the most obvious surviving link with an historic period.  As we have become more knowledgeable about the art and architecture found along pilgrimage routes, there is also the satisfaction that comes from recognizing features and reinforcing existing knowledge.  And because churches, cloisters, and related structures are variously designed to convey an atmosphere of sacredness, humility or contemplation, they have this effect on us, even if we are not religious.

As for the the Bom Jesus, it does not really fall within the preceding discussion.  What you are visiting is a staircase ascending to a neo-classic church on a hill.  That said, it is allegedly the most visited tourist site in Portugal.  It is consequently worth visiting to see the other people that are there, and try to understand their motivation.  And while the church is not in a style I really appreciate, there was a full blown, life size sculptural depiction of the crucifixion behind the altar, complete with Roman soldiers.  Quite a sight.

Monday, August 3, 2015

The Descent from Peneda Geres

August 3, 2015
The ride down from our village in Peneda Geres was breathtakingly beautiful. We passed through a couple of lovely villages set on the edge of the deep valley surrounded by ancient terraced slopes. Theses are just a few of the signs that this area once supported a much larger population. 

After twenty five years with Gord,  he continues to be recklessly drawn to the edge of precipices  with only my hen pecking keeping him alive. How did he survive before he met me. 

Saturday, August 1, 2015

A little stone house in Branda da Aveleira

I am standing beside a cow pie in the only spot with any cell coverage in our village. Just moments ago Gord had to have a signal so that he could continue his 349th consecutive streak learning Portuguese on Duolingo. 

August 1, 2015

Yesterday was was the toughest day so far on the trip. Starting from an elevation of 120 meters we climbed up to over 1000 meters a few times before finally arriving at our little mountain house on the edge of the Peneda-Geres National Park. "No one cycles up here" our host remarked, as she unloaded bread, meat and cheese to stock our larder: a nice addition to the groceries we lugged up here. We are staying in a place called Branda da Aveleira, which would be a ghost town if it had not been reclaimed as an Aldea Turistica. Many of the old seasonal herder's cottages have been restored and are now popular tourist rentals. So popular, in fact, that some new "old cottages" are being built near by. We are on the edge of some very dramatic scenery. Our hike this morning took us up over the heather clad hills to some stunning views into the park. 
Wow way too many Ruth Photos today and I just stepped in a fresh cow pie writing this.