24 September 2011

CYCLING PORTUGAL



13 August Redondela, Spain – Viana do Castelo, Portugal - 95 km

It was only 35 km to Tui and the Portuguese border. The weather was excellent: nice and hot and even a bit of a tailwind. After stopping for coffee in Tui, I crossed the river and entered Portugal. As always, I was excited to see what a new country would bring. My first town was Valença and so my impression of Portugal will always be one of cobblestone streets. I continued along the coast and was once again amazed that you can experience a whole new culture simply by crossing to the other side of a river! It wasn’t long before I spotted fruit stalls along the way. I must have been thirsty because once I spotted the juicy looking peaches I had to have myself some of them. I stopped under the nearest tree and scoffed the whole lot.

I followed the N13 which is a brand new road so is a pleasure to cycle on as it has a nice wide shoulder. I arrived in Viana do Castelo and was pleasantly surprised to find an interesting city with an old fort, historic centre, old churches and a lively festival underway.

Just across the river I found an interesting campsite, which was more like a farm with plenty of animals. The showers were converted horse stables and were huge!! One could have had quite a party in there…



14 August Viana do Castelo – Porto - 70 km

The previous night the fireworks carried on until 3 in the morning, so I only woke up after 8 and the campsite was still as quiet as a mouse. It made me wonder if there was perhaps a time change, I should find out - it would make a lot of sense.

It was an overcast morning as I took my tent down and loaded up the bike. A fine drizzle set in as I pedaled along the coast. The Sunday market was in full swing along the road. The narrow coastal road was jam-packed with what appeared to be city slickers in their fancy convertibles. All seemingly out to buy some of the nice fresh, home-grown veggies being sold along the way.

I had my first flat tyre in Europe. I don’t know how I do it but fixing a flat tyre always leaves me covered in grease!

Once I reached Porto I followed the road signs for “centro” and was once again surprised to find a historic centre. I was blown away by the spectacle of it all. I soon found out that it has been declared a World Heritage Site by UNESCO. I also found out that port wine is named after the city as this is the region where port was first produced. It was time to go and taste the good stuff. I suppose that’s the beauty of travelling without a guidebook: everything is a surprise.



15 August - Porto

I was up early to explore the city further. I first popped into the historic railway station, which is still in full use, and I found the most beautiful railway station I have seen to date. The walls were lined with tile panels depicting the early history of Portugal.

A trip to the harbour revealed narrow alleys flooded with the smell and smoke of fish-braais. The fresh catch of the day was on the coals and ready to be devoured. The seagulls no doubt knew what was going on as thousands were hovering over the area.

Further along the beach, fishermen were casting their lines, all trying their luck. Most, however, seemed unlucky although I could spot fish swimming in the ocean with the naked eye. The beaches were packed as it was a lovely sunny day and a public holiday as well.

Back in my room and browsing through my pictures, I realised that people could easily get the wrong idea about Portugal. Portugal is actually quite a modern country with loads of modern buildings designed by famous architects, both local and foreign. It’s just that I’m so taken with old buildings that I hardly ever take pictures of the modern stuff. They just don’t seem that interesting to me. The same goes for the smoky fish-braais in the back alleys: they are far more interesting than the glitzy restaurants in the city centre.

16 August - Porto – Ilhavo - 88 km

I ate breakfast at the hotel before I left. It was an easy day’s riding along the coast, past the nice beaches of Valadares and Espinho. It was holiday time and people were out cycling and running along the beach front. This is still the Atlantic Ocean so I don’t think the water is very warm - I didn’t see people just running into the ocean, but entering rather slowly instead… I reached Aveiro with its many canals, colourful boats and old churches. It was all very touristy and there were no camping facilities to be found. The nearest camping area was 10 km along the highway so I continued along the road to Ilhavo. I still couldn’t find any camping though and there was only one very expensive hotel so I just paid the money and enjoyed a bath, TV and room with a balcony!!!




17 August - Ilhavo – Coimbra - 65 km
Included in the hefty room rate was a lovely breakfast spread. Whatever you could think of was there, but unfortunately one can only eat so much. I knew it was a short ride to Coimbra so I took my time in packing up. Along the way a friendly local cyclist caught up with me and gave me plenty of information about the area. We even stopped and raided a fig tree along the way, which he seemed quite happy to do. I always know it’s time for a reality check when people say “You can come and shower at my place!” - definitely time to do laundry again! Eventually it was time for him to turn off and I continued down the road in the direction of Coimbra.

Once in Coimbra I took a room again as the campsite seemed quite far out of town, so it was my second night in pricey accommodation. I wasted no time in setting off to explore the well-known city of Coimbra. Coimbra has a history dating back to the Middle Ages so there was plenty to see. Even more well-known is the University, which is situated high up on the hill and surrounded by narrow cobblestone alleys with niches and steep staircases.

18-19 August - Coimbra – Nazare - 100 km
Of course I had breakfast at the hotel before setting off in the direction of Nazare, a beach town along the coast. It was an uneventful day on the road. By then I had been totally spoilt for views so what I would normally have considered a good ride, I now described as “uneventful”.

As usual, I dreaded getting to my final destination. I felt I was going slower and slower in order to avoid the inevitable. After feeling particularly strong (both mentally and physically) in the past few months, I found it hard to deal with feeling lethargic. On arrival at Nazare I took the first campsite I saw.

The next morning I woke and found I had little energy to load my bike. With plenty of time on hand before my visa ran out, I made the decision to stay another day. It’s quite amazing how one can do absolutely nothing for an entire day. Although it was a very nice campsite, the flies bothered me endlessly. It was already way past their bedtime, but despite the hour the sun was still high in the sky. In order to get away from the flies, I took the bike and went for a ride. The views were too hazy for taking pictures so I returned to my fly-infested campsite. I sat people-watching while having a glass of wine and realised, once again, just how similar people are all over the world.

20 August - Nazare - Obidas - 42 km
Back on the bike I followed the coastal road towards Lisbon. I even bumped into my cycle friend from 3 days ago. This time he was in a car, so we had a quick chat and then I was on my way again.

My first stop was at Caldas da Rainha where I nearly stayed as it is such a picturesque village. The Saturday market was in full swing and the cobbled alleys, where people sat at sidewalk cafes, looked very inviting. I continued however and a good thing too, as I soon spotted the ancient walled city of Obidos, high up on a hill. I could not get myself to cycle past without stopping, so I booked into a rather expensive room. Although touristy, it was worth every cent. The city has a history dating back to BC and has changed hands many times over the years. Today it is considered one of the 7 wonders of Portugal and rightly so. I wandered around taking a zillion pictures, ate small “milk tarts” till they came out my ears and drank liqueur out of small chocolate cups: now that’s what I call a good day!!

21 August - Obidas – Ericeira - 60 km
I did not anticipate this day’s ride being so hard. It was fairly hilly but worse, there was a strong headwind. Once along the coast it was great as the views were stunning, but views like that do not come without climbing up a hill or two.

Due to the strong wind I camped early at Ericeira which had a nice campsite with all the facilities I could wish for.

22 August - Ericeira – Cascais - 50 km
I packed up in a fine drizzle for the final cycle into Cascais. The road led me past Sintra, another interesting town. Finally I arrived in Cascais, where my friend Carlos lives. I have known Carlos for many years since our days of working together at Syfrets Trust in Cape Town, South Africa. Today Carlos is living with his wife, Melody, and her two beautiful daughters, in Cascais. They have a beautiful home high up on a hill overlooking the coast. I was shown to a large comfortable room where I could spread out (what luxury!!).

That night Carlos, in true South African style, lit a fire and we had a real SA braai with “boerewors” made by a South African now living in Portugal.

The following day we took my bike to the bike shop for a service and to be boxed for the flight to Rio. I also booked my flight to Rio for the 27th, giving me a few days of R&R in Cascais.

24 - 26 August - Lisboa, Portugal
On the 24th August I took the train into Lisbon, got myself onto a hop-on-hop-off bus and explored Lisbon. Once again it was the old quarters that were most intriguing to me, and where I could wander around for hours.

The 26th arrived too soon and it was time for me to pack my bags and get ready to leave Portugal the following morning. Carlos arranged a lunch for us at the South African embassy in Lisbon. We were treated like real celebrities by the very nice group of South Africans who head up the office in Lisbon. Afterwards we stopped and had some small milk tarts before picking up my bike from the bike shop. My bike was all boxed and taped up, so I hoped all the necessary bits were going to be there when I opened it in Rio.

That evening Carlos, Melody and myself went out to a local restaurant. I ordered the chef’s recommendation and landed up with an entire plate of meat - ha, ha – I thought it was going to be a stew!! Well, Carlos and I had fun with all the strange bits of meat on that plate. Melody was more sensible and ordered a seafood dish. At least I can now say that I have eaten pigs’ ears!!

27 August - Lisboa, Portugal – Rio de Janeiro, Brasil - By plane
I was up early and ready to depart for Brazil. Carlos was kind enough to take me to the airport. Things at the airport took much longer than expected: the queues were long and slow and I realised just why they require you to be at the airport 3 hours before departure.

I also had a nasty surprise as I had to pay an extra 150 Euros for the bike (no negotiations). That is a serious amount of money! After all the delays I only just made it in time for the 9h30 departure. Good thing I didn’t bargain on doing any shopping at the airport. I then settled in for the long, boring flight to Rio. It was a fairly old plane so there were no individual TV screens, only one small one in the front for the whole plane. Fortunately I had checked-in online and had a nice seat with loads of leg room.

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