Back in the saddle in Latvia

After our unplanned return from China and two months at home we were itching to get back on the road, so we had planned a final European loop to get us to Helsinki, from where we would ride home, completing the round the world cycle trip. It is now a few weeks since we pedalled away from Measham for the second time. As with our initial departure in September 2015 we were aiming for the Harwich-Hook of Holland ferry, and as the first time, we rode in glorious sunshine through beautiful English countryside. There really is no better place to ride when the sun shines. We mainly followed national cycle routes on small country lanes, though with a few more hills than our out of practice legs and lungs would have liked.

An overnight ferry (full of other cyclists, none of whom spoke to us – strange lot us Brits are) landed us in the Netherlands at 8am on Debs’ birthday. What better way to celebrate than to stock up on pastries at Lidl and head to the beach for a birthday breakfast. The sun was still shining, the wind was behind us and we were back on the best cycle paths in the world (not confirmed) surrounded by elderly Dutch cyclists on their upright bikes. The paths are almost totally flat, but can have a short steep(ish) incline and then drop at times. On one of these, one of our Dutch cycling friends warned us that “there is about another ten of these steep hills on this path ahead”… a Dutch steep hill that is. Two or three hard pedal strokes and you are up and over the peak. Rocky Mountains they are not. We were pleased to be back in Europe.

We had a lot of time on the ferry

A short ride to Dan Haag (we will be back…) and four trains later we were in the port of Travemunde on the north east coast of Germany, via Hamburg where we stayed with a friend for a couple of nights. The ferry from would take us to Leipaja in Latvia and we were mostly in the company of truck drivers. We settled in with a Lidl picnic and enjoyed the sunset from the boat. It was the smoothest sailing I have ever experienced. A mere 28 hours later we were in Latvia. 


As we arrived at 10pm I had booked a cheap hotel room to save us having to “ride around a strange town in the dark” looking for a place to stay. Rolling off the ferry at 10.15 pm, the sun was still above the horizon. We were five days from midsummer and the days were long. Ah well. The Sport Hotel was the bargain of the century at only €14 for the biggest room ever, with the answer to every British cyclists dreams, an electric kettle. There was even a sofa. Welcome to Latvia.

Shops were sometimes hard to spot. Few windows. The signs helped at this one.

Finally we were back in the saddle, and set off the next morning with no idea what to expect from Latvia and no real plan, other than “ride to Estonia”. Riding up the coast seemed a good place to start, without realising we were apparently following a Eurovelo route (though we are a little sceptical of some of their “routes” that are often just someone’s nice idea) and before we’d even left town we saw five other touring cyclists. That’s more than we saw in the whole five months in Europe at the start of our trip. Cycling in the summer is more popular than the winter then. 

Leipaja had a few sights including a very shiny Russian Orthodox Cathedral and a soviet-era prison but soon we were on the open road and navigating by keeping the sea on our left. The sun was shining but our legs were weary from riding the loaded bikes for the first time in a couple of months. Ride all you like at home but nothing prepares you for carrying the weight of the bags. The first night in the tent since February was strange, it didn’t get properly dark at all so we had to use our buffs as a blindfold to give the illusion of night time. After a night camping by the sea we turned inland and with the help of an amazing tailwind that we savoured every minute of – as most of this leg will be riding west into the wind – we were in Riga two days later. Latvia was flat, green, and mostly well kept. Towns had attractive parks, old wooden buildings, castles and were very pleasant indeed. There was the odd soviet style concrete tower block but not as many as we had expected. 

Making friends with the locals.

It was a rainy morning’s ride to Riga, and included a comedy moment of hiding in a bus shelter when the rain was particularly fierce only to be completely soaked by a truck riding through a huge puddle/lake that had formed next to the kerb. By the time we arrived in the picturesque capital the sun was shining again. Riga is mostly known these days as a stag party destination thanks to Ryanair and cheap beer, but the old style buildings are ornate and the different pastel colours makes the whole place very easy on the eye. I say old style because most of the city was destroyed during WW2 and has since been rebuilt to look old. It’s actually pretty compact, we had a day to walk around but found that we had covered most of the old town in a few hours. Including sampling a couple of bakery treats.

Great fancy buildings in Riga
Great fancy cakes in Riga

Luckily we had arrived on party weekend. Midsummer, or ligo (pronounced leegwa, strangely) in Latvia, is celebrated on 23rd June and is said to be bigger than Christmas. Though most people celebrate by heading out into the countryside, lighting fires and drinking all night, there was a music festival in the city which had a nice atmosphere, even if it was like being in the middle of the Eurovision Song Contest. Latvian pop music is not to our taste. People were drinking and dancing, we saw at least three people fall over they were so drunk, and at one point there was a circle of women close to us who were all at least six feet tall. Apparently Latvian women are the tallest in the world, and on that evidence, I wouldn’t argue against it. 

An annoying-to-navigate ride out of Riga (as most cities are) had us riding up the coast towards Estonia. Our mistrust of the Eurovelo bike route deepened as the bike signs seemed to direct us into the sea – it actually went along the beach for 6kms. The sand was mostly hard packed but the bikes are so heavy it was tough going. Once off the beach the rain returned and we hung out at our usual bus shelter, watching as youngsters stumbled past drinking and singing, the beach party clearly rained off but not their enthusiasm. It was still the holiday weekend and we pulled in to a campsite that evening to find groups of Latvians keeping the fires burning and the alcohol flowing. One guy could speak fairly good English so spoke to us at length about immigration policies (“your mayor, she doesn’t want Eastern Europeans in the country but she lets all the Muslims in”; “do you see any brown people in Latvia? No, we kill them”) before rejoining the party. We fell asleep to the soothing sound of more Latvian tunes, hoping that when we crossed the border into Estonia the next morning the music as well as the weather would improve. I’m not sure I can ever watch Eurovision again.


Latvia had been a nice return to the cycling lifestyle. Flat, easy camping, cheap food, tailwinds. It was good to be back on the bikes again, although I found the first few days quite tough mentally. I had optimistically assumed that normal life would fall back into place as soon as we were cycling again, but in reality everything had changed and it was hard to focus on what we were doing rather than what we would have been doing if we hadn’t had to return home from China. Cycling also gives you a lot of time to think – I had spent most of my time at home busy and suddenly my mind was empty and I thought a lot about my dad and what had happened over the past two months. Even though I often felt sad, I knew it was the right thing to be back cycling and finishing the trip off in the best way we could.
Thanks to: Svenja, David and Zane.

An update and a plan

Happy Sunday morning. I’m enjoying mine with a brew and smug-feeling inducing carrot, apple and cinnamon porridge in my parents’ kitchen in Leicestershire. If I’d had to predict 2 months ago where I would be on June 11th my answer would have been west of Stockholm, but east of Copenhagen. Not much has really gone to plan in the last 7 weeks and for that reason the blog is now the most behind it has ever been. Jo will be writing to explain more about all of that, and i’ll be trying to catch up on the so far ignored bits of Thailand and Laos.

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Sharing the road in Laos

It has been good to have the chance to see lots of family and friends during our return to the UK. Being car-less that has meant we have spent quite a bit of time doing the same as being on tour. Riding bikes with panniers, staying only one night at various friends/family then going somewhere else, navigating new routes to get there. There’s been some brilliant cycling in Leicestershire, as enjoyable as anywhere in the world, so if you’re local, get out and explore some of the lovely roads. The area between Measham and Hinckley is especially good, pick the smallest roads and you will pretty much only see other cyclists, and loads of them.

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Lovely Leicestershire roads, nr. Shenton

Despite the fun at home, we very much feel that we need to finish (Finnish) the trip off properly, or as close to ‘properly’ as we can. There was never a fixed route for the ride, but 18000 miles was always in mind as a minimum distance – it’s what Guinness count as an around the world ride. Although we have not succeeded in our aim to cross Asia overland (we were always going to have some train help), we were pretty clear on still reaching this total. To make life easier with visas (and Jo’s almost full passport) we decided to restrict this final leg of the journey to Europe. Unlike the UK government, this week we made a plan for how we would tackle it.

If the original route had worked out, we would have arrived in Helsinki by ferry and ridden home. So we could fly to Helsinki, but that seems a little dull/easy/annoying with bike boxes. Instead, here’s a rough outline. When I say rough outline, I mean, here’s all of our planning to date:

Ferry Harwich-Hook of Holland : Ride to The Hague : Eat Dutch apple cake : Train from the Hague-Hamburg : Ride to Travemunde : Ferry to Latvia (I know, definitely NOT in the original trip schedule) : Ride to Tallinn, Estonia via Riga : Ferry Tallinn-Helsinki : Ride home from Helsinki.

Seems reasonable to me, though the menus need more work. We don’t have to fly and get two Brucie Bonus capital cities to visit. There’s at least 3 overnight ferries for pretending to be in an Agatha Christie novel. It should take about 7-8 weeks, back in time for the incredibly early school term start in Leicestershire, and takes us comfortably over the magic 18,000. Route advice always welcome if you have knowledge of the area.

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But which way is Finland?

Once again we have only a few days to go, and virtually nothing ready. Seriously. We currently don’t have a tent –  somehow the poles got left in China. Yes, I agree, it is a wonder we got so far unsupervised. Friends should feel relieved at this point that for this trip we are not moving out of a house. You will not be required to install carbon monoxide detectors, search through piles of our disorganised paperwork, or felt the shed roof. This time we thank you instead for driving out of your way to see us, giving us places to stay, taking us to train stations, squeezing bikes in your cars and generally being kind and wonderful during the return we didn’t plan for.

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One of the many Leicestershire – N Yorks train trips. Some train bike racks are brill. This is one is rubbish.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Sliding doors: Cycling home from Bangkok

The other day we saw the sea for the last time in a long time. This will be the third major land crossing of the trip, and the biggest by far, after Netherlands to Italy (1 month) and Boston to Anacortes (3 months). Right now I’m not even sure where we will next find the sea. Best guess, visas allowing, it will be in St. Petersburg.

The bikes have had enough salt water, so our feet got a ceremonial dunking

Before the trip, it was never our intention to ride all the way across Asia. A long distance train was always part of the plan, and it is only every so often one of us says “Well, we could ride all the way…?” We could. For sure. Bangkok to London is less than half of the distance we have ridden so far. Google tells me I could walk it in 98 days. The thing, is I don’t really want to cycle it and neither does Jo. There are a few reasons for this, mainly time. China is extremely big. We would spend a long time riding there. This is not a life ambition, and doing something to say you’ve done it isn’t often a good motivation. We have reached a point in the trip where we have started to think about doing other things, like cycling LEJOG, going to an English pub, seeing live music, riding our fast road bikes, eating a roast dinner, going back to work (just me) and – most importantly – seeing our family and friends.

China: chuffing huge, 1 month visa. Those sums don’t work.

I’m still excited about the next bit of pedalling. I’ve even spent some time today looking at a route in Southern China with some big mountain passes. It’ll be great to eat Chinese food. Though remember there they just it call it food, Friends fans. In the shorter term, we’ll visit Angkor Wat next week. Lucky people indeed. There are also still lots of places I’d like to cycle in the future. This probably isn’t the only long tour, though I suspect it will be the longest.

Choosing to start going home has been easy. Choosing a route home is a bit more problematic. Visas are tricksy, especially as Jo has only a few clear pages in her passport. We really don’t want to fly so are page-saving where possible. Some visas have expiry dates (China by May 2nd, the race is on) and for some we need to have booked train tickets etc., but as yet have no idea of dates. Roughly, we’ll get trains from China to Russia via either Kazakhstan or Mongolia. From St Petersburg there’s a ferry to Helsinki. Helsinki to Hook van Holland is about 2500km with some ferries. We’ll be in Harwich eating fish and chips in no time. Or more likely, in July.

Pedalling along, looking out for crazy stuff.

With all this in mind there a lot of decisions flying around at the moment. It is hard not to see them all as super important trip changers. I think this happens at home too. Luckily, every so often the universe has a way of helping to put these things into context so you can concentrate on the ones that really are important. Like, when to cross the road in Bangkok traffic. THAT is important. A slightly longer route to Vientiane? Probably not such a big deal. Stopping early one day because you see a nice beach? Definitely ok. It’s like sliding doors, you just get something else instead. Because we stopped early (3pm, not really that early, but we could have got one town further) the next morning was different, and it turned out to be brilliant different because we went to a Thai wedding with some Malaysian holidaying cyclists. If we’d ridden on, we would have missed it. Who knows though, if we had ridden on, there might have been a cake festival in the next town… So whatever route we go, it will be great trip home.

Enjoying the wedding breakfast.

I still love riding my bike every day and seeing new and awesome stuff. I’m just starting to get a feeling of needing to contribute more than instagram pictures to the people who are important. For us, the cycle touring lifestyle has an expiry date. It’s not even about the home comforts, though I can’t deny it will be delightful to make tea with real milk from a fridge and I absolutely cannot wait to turn the tap on and drink the water that comes out of it. See you in July UK!

Saving the world, one plastic bottle at a time. Race you to the tap in Helsinki.

Ups and downs in Portugal

Six days in a flat in Lagos doing very little except sleeping, wandering around and eating pastel de natas allowed us to recharge the batteries, knowing that once we left the south west corner of Portugal we would be riding north towards home for the first time since leaving over four months ago. We met up with our English friend Bob (who we met before the ferry to Barcelona, he made us a cup of tea…) one day for his birthday lunch; watched Leicester City beat both Liverpool and Manchester City and turn into real Premier League title contenders; and after spotting an ocean rowing boat with a GB flag dwarfed by the yachts in the harbour, discovered that a bunch of strapping Englishmen were leaving Lagos the same day as us but heading across the Atlantic to Venezuela, hoping to beat the world record for that crossing. (They did). We also ate many pastel de natas. What we didn’t use our time to do was catch up on the blog, plan our route ahead, etc etc.

 

Cape St Vincent (the lighthouse is there in the background)
 
Before pointing our wheels North towards home we rode out to the most South-Westerly point on the European mainland, Cape St Vincent. The ride there was memorable as being the first time a motorhome with GB plates had tooted and waved at us as we passed – we had made a habit of waving madly whenever we saw one but usually this was ignored. The cape itself had a touristy lighthouse and a busy car park but plenty of quiet spots to sit on the rocks and watch the waves crash against the cliffs. We had saved a can of Sagres (one of the two Portuguese beers that you find everywhere) for a celebratory lunch before riding north up the west coast for a few hours to find somewhere to camp. This stretch of coastline was probably our favourite of the whole trip – rugged cliffs, huge waves, small coves, tiny towns with little more than motorhome car parks and miles of empty beaches. Pretty much the opposite of the Algarve coastline. The road is inland but there are plenty of opportunities to turn off down to the sea – these are generally unappealing on a bike as they involve out-and-back detours often down a huge hill but when the coast is this nice… One day we even stopped at 3pm, unheard of for us who normally ride until it’s too dark to see, to walk a bit of the coastal path, take in cliff-top views and watch the sun set over the Atlantic ocean.

 

Prevailing wind direction…?
  
 
The closer we got to Lisbon, the worse the weather got, and after a day of solid rain we arrived at our hosts in the Portuguese capital dripping wet and took two days for everything to dry out. Lisbon is surrounded by upmarket holiday resorts and the one place everyone had told us to visit if we were in the area – Sintra. Perched high up in the hills about 30km from Lisbon, Sintra has palaces, an old ruined castle and gardens to visit, and if you google it (other search engines available) you will see why it attracts the crowds. However the weather was even worse, and after riding uphill to get there, including a really steep cobbled road (aka death trap in the wet) could see nothing but cloud. 

 

Wondering why we didn’t stay inside eating pastel de nata…
  
Beautiful Sintra (behind the cloud somewhere)
 We weren’t the only fools there – a few coach loads of people were wandering round with their umbrellas up craning their necks trying to imagine what was the other side of the crowd. Customer service in Portugal hit a new low when we weren’t allowed into either of the palace or castle cafes as they were inside the gates. So we drank nearly-warm tea from our flasks and took shelter under a stone walkway. Until we were moved on from there too. No sympathy for wet cyclists in Sintra. So we went to a cafe and ate tourist priced (double the usual) pastel de natas.

 

Bus shelter lunch
 
The weather improved a bit (it didn’t rain all the time) as we rode up the coast to Aria Branca youth hostel to have a day by the sea. It is right on the beach and very cheap, but being winter was almost empty. One night there was only us and a middle-aged Swedish guy, on a bike, who was staying there for 4 months and doing what looked like very little. Bit weird. The sun was out but in place of the driving rain was now gale force winds, and it was difficult to stay upright walking. The day we packed up to leave we got 5 miles down the road, realised we could hardly keep the bikes upright never mind ride, and so turned round and went back to the hostel. The receptionist was not surprised to see us return.

 

Cycling around Portugal’s highest mountain range
 
On the recommendation of local cyclists we then left the coast headed inland towards Serra de Estrela, Portugal’s highest mountain range. On the way we stayed with a couch surfing host who was doing a volunteer exchange, and had a fun evening with her and the other young volunteers in the town. They had taken to wine tasting (wine is so cheap, what else would you spend your spare time doing) and we were up until 1am helping taste wine and feeling old. It took us about a week to recover. The small road in the foothills of the mountains that we followed went through small pretty villages but unsurprisingly took us up and down some seriously steep hills. One night we stayed at a campground (we were as usual the only tent) and gained attention from all directions – an English couple invited us into their camper to drink wine and eat cheese and biscuits (yes please), the Dutch owner gave us blankets to keep warm (definitely yes please) and the resident cats swarmed around our pitch and climbed all over our stuff as we tried to pack away (less helpful). 

 

That little bit of grey up to the left was our road…
  
Debs making it look like hard work
 
Our final night in Portugal was spent in a small town high up on the edge of the mountains in a small hotel that hadn’t been redecorated since the 1950s but we didn’t care because they let us keep the bikes in the dining room (shh health and safety), had a restaurant next door where we ate a 3 course meal with wine for €7 each, served a massive buffet breakfast and filled our flasks with tea. But all of this didn’t quite compensate for the terrible, impatient driving that had started to knock the pleasure out of cycling in Portugal and so we sped (actually, rode very slowly as it was mostly uphill) towards the Spanish border and didn’t look back. Portugal, until your drivers learn a bit of patience you will stay fairly low down the list of recommended European cycling destinations. But you were pretty to look at, had some great coastline and of course our favourite bakery treat…

  
Thanks to Jim and Tricia (again, you made it onto two posts!), Jose for the tips, João and family, Miguel, Daniel at The Bike Shop (Terrugem), Henrique and Paula, Muge and the other international volunteers, and Rich and Angie. 

Tapas and tarts: Eating (and cycling) towards Portugal

Arriving in Granada meant that for the first time since arriving in Barcelona three weeks ago we had finally reached one of the places on our must-see list. Ever since seeing a picture of the mighty Alhambra palace in front of snow-topped mountains this was one place we wanted to work into the trip. We just hoped the gravel road trek across inland Andalucia was worth it….

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The Alhambra, with the Sierra Nevada mountain range as a backdrop

It was. Although taking a couple of days to rest in a city where the sun always shines and every time you order a beer it comes with a side of food was unlikely to disappoint. First up was a visit to the Alhambra itself, the 13th century walled complex/palace/castle/fortress that stands high above the city. The fort and old walls were cool to wander around, the palaces and gardens unbelievably intricate and fancy and being perched on top of a hill there were several different vantage points across the city. We were pleased we booked an early slot as by lunchtime the place was full of school trips and coach groups. Although early in the morning up close to 1000m above sea level it was pretty cold and so we were pleased to beat the queues for the hot chocolate machine.

Granada, being fairly close as the crow flies to Africa, has strong Moorish and Arabic influences and so is a nice place to see a different side of Spain. We’d also been told it was the best place to have tapas – although this is popular across the country, Granada bars have kept the tradition of serving free tapas dishes (small plates of food – bread, meat, olives etc) with every drink bought. On a sunny Saturday afternoon the cobbled streets were full of people spilling out of bars but we managed to squeeze into a few and have our own pub crawl Granada-style.

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Andalucian scenery – not bad to look at for a few days

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Back on the bikes we started pedalling towards Portugal, knowing that we were only a week or so away from a holiday on the Algarve. Plans to take in Gibraltar on the way were shelved in favour of the more direct inland route to Sevilla and the Portuguese border. There is some seriously hilly terrain in Andalucia and for a couple of days we rode either up or down steep hills – no sign of flat ground or even a slight incline. But as is always the case, these roads have the best scenery and we joined up small white-washed towns that the region is famous for. The first night after Granada we stayed in an empty lodge on the edge of a natural park, and in trying to take a short cut through the park to get there ended up riding a steep downhill gravel road for the last hour. The view across the park and down into the valley we were aiming for as the sun set was magical but the last 10km in the dark was not so fun.

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Sunset over Sierras de Tejeda

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The small inland towns and villages we were passing through could not have been more different to the coastal resorts that were only a 30 minute car ride away. We always stopped in one mid-morning for a break/toilet/50 cent coffee and even at this hour bars were full of men drinking coffee and spirits simultaneously. At one particularly memorable bar stop, an old guy was wobbling around at the bar drinking tequila trying to insist that I tried some – being an athlete in my prime this was not what my body needed for a hilly days ride but he was not taking no for an answer. He ended up spilling most of it on the floor which was a sad waste but probably the best outcome all round.

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Do you ever get bored of cycling? When the roads look like this… not so much

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The sun continued to shine, and we camped at the dramatic El Chorro gorge but were so tired from riding up so many hills to get there (much more total climbing than the day we crossed the Alps) we had to take a day to rest. Lucky we did as mid-afternoon the next day the sky turned black and it rained and hailed for over an hour, so loud that all conversations inside stopped as it was impossible to hear. Our tent was at the bottom of a path that soon turned into a river, and our porch was the most direct way for the water to get to the other side. All we could do was watch from our undercover vantage point and cross our fingers that the tent would pass its first serious wet-weather test. Aside from the river running through the porch and trying to wash away everything we had left in there, all seemed ok. Waterproofing test, passed; decision-making regarding tent pitching position, requires improvement.

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El Chorro gorge

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From El Chorro we climbed out of the gorge and over a few passes on our way to Sevilla. We called in to Ronda, balanced on the edge of a deep gorge, to admire the ridiculously impressive bridge and get my brakes fixed – the hills had taken their toll on the poor things.

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Ronda’s impressive Puente Nuevo
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Sad that going to Sevilla meant that we would not be going to Moron…

Sevilla is another Andalucian gem, and for the first time in a while we arrived at our destination with a few hours of daylight left to explore. Fancy buildings lined the wide streets, as well as many bars claiming to serve ‘world famous’ churros – strips of fried dough served with hot chocolate to dip them in. Of course we sampled this excellent cycling fuel. Strangely there was also a Christmas market – very odd (and unsurprisingly deserted) at the end of January.

Towards the Portuguese border the landscape became flatter and filled almost entirely with olive or orange tree plantations. Our last night in Spain was spent sleeping on the floor of an aircraft hangar where we were invited to help ourselves to oranges from the trees. Our host for the evening told us that the cost of having the oranges picked is higher than they can fetch, which explained why we had cycled past so many overflowing orange trees with their fruits covering the floor and being left to rot. Thinking about vitamin c deficiency in kids in developing countries, this waste made us sad.

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Typical small Andalucian towns

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Crossing into Portugal by the coast requires a short boat ride across the river Guadiana that forms the border. The first Portuguese resort of Villa Real felt different to Spain – the buildings were more jumbled after the uniform white-washed Spanish towns of Andalucia, and it was the first time in a while we had seen more holidaymakers than locals. Unfortunately as soon as we left town another main difference between Portugal and Spain became clear – Portuguese drivers are terrible, and the cycling experience is made worse by poor quality narrow roads. The only thing we could possibly do was search out the nearest bakery for a pastel de nata, a Portuguese custard tart, essential cycling fuel. After half an hour on the N125, the most direct way to Lagos at the Eastern end of the Algarve, we put our survival over speed and simplicity and tried to pick our way through small roads closer to the sea. There is, in theory, a bike route stretching the whole length of the Algarve coast but after trying to follow this became frustrating we turned inland and didn’t join the coast road again until we were close to Lagos. Being inland meant that we didn’t have the opportunity to call in to beaches or resorts and the route was hillier but the roads were small, quiet and scenic. After a day and a half in Portugal we reached Lagos, excited about spending a few days in a tourist resort where we the high number of ex-pats meant that we could understand what was going on around us!

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Sailing to country number 15
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The first of what was to be many pastel de nata snack stops…

Thanks for this stretch to Maria and Zigor in Granada, Raul in Alcaucin, Moses in Utrera, Amelia in the aircraft hangar, Steve and Karen of http://www.my-bicycling-adventure.com and of course Jim and Tricia for allowing us to have a relaxing Algarve holiday.