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….

DSCF0454
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.

DSCF0486
Andalucian scenery – not bad to look at for a few days

DSCF0492

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.

DSCF0507
Sunset over Sierras de Tejeda

DSCF0509

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.

DSCF0538
Do you ever get bored of cycling? When the roads look like this… not so much

DSCF0561

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.

DSCF0570
El Chorro gorge

DSCF0579

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.

DSCF0623
Ronda’s impressive Puente Nuevo
DSCF0640
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.

DSCF0735
Typical small Andalucian towns

DSCF0645

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!

DSCF0763
Sailing to country number 15
DSCF0772
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.

Just because Google says it’s a road, doesn’t mean it’s a road. (Or, why it took us so long to get to Granada)

Turns out Spain is a pretty big country. On leaving Barcelona, our next must-visit destination was Granada, with some 900 or so kms to ride in between and no obvious route to follow to get there. After sticking to the coast for the first week, we decided to leave the Brits and the other Northern Europeans driving their motorhomes around the Spanish Costas and ride inland to Granada across El Altiplano, a huge and desolate inland plateau mostly over 1000m (England’s highest peak Scafell Pike is 978m to give some context).

DSCF0136
Climbing up to the Altiplano. A mild winter meant that the almond trees were in blossom in January

For a couple of days we rode on fairly big but quiet roads with a good shoulder, before reaching a point where the main road turned into an autopista (not a motorway but near enough to rarely allow bikes). I’d seen this on the map, but read online that if bikes are not allowed on a particular autopista “a viable alternative must be provided”. Google seemed to think we could ride either on or close to the road. So we assumed that either we could ride it or there would be a service road alongside that we could use. And there was. But the Spanish really need to think about the word “viable” (maybe it was lost in translation). First we were on a small road that served farms just off the A92. It was paved but patched badly, but the worst thing was that it went like this /\/\/\/\ while the A92 went like this ———. Knackering. Sitting having lunch on a kerb at a petrol station we cursed the road and hoped it would improve in the afternoon. Instead it turned to gravel….

DSCF0169
Ah, gravel… not a touring cyclists best friend (not ours anyway)

It’s difficult to describe the pain inside of riding on a road that goes up and down sharply, made of small stones at best, large stones at worse, and occasionally just a muddy track, when just your shoulder, the other side of a fence, is a flat, smooth road with a huge shoulder and hardly any traffic. Moral of the story…. Don’t trust Google to map you a bike route.

DSCF0170
Ah, smooth and empty tarmac… shame we were confined to the gravel strip to the left

Despite the brain shaking and the snail paced progress, there were some good points. The scenery was immense. Deserts, mountains, emptiness as far as you could see, this could not have been more different from the built up coastal riding. At the end of the first day of gravel, we were trying to find a the seven bedroom house we had booked for the night (sometimes we need our own space) which was in the middle of nowhere and Google cranked our off-road adventure up a notch by sending us on what can only be described as a sheep track through a canyon. Several hours later than planned we found ourselves out of sight of the A92 riding through scenery that could have been the moon trying to find the damn house but it was an incredible place to be – proper desert, no cars (unsurprisingly), no sounds, the type of adventure that gravel roads should bring.

DSCF0174
Definitely not a road… finding our way through the Baza desert

On arrival we were shown around each of the seven bedrooms, four bathrooms and three living rooms in our house for the night, the fire was lit, and as we cooked a slap up dinner of pasta and something I couldn’t quite rest as the feeling of being bounced around had set into my bones in the same way your body feels like it is swaying when you get off a long boat trip.

DSCF0176
Seven bedrooms was slightly overkill when all we wanted to do was sit as close to the fire as possible

After a second day of bone shaking, which didn’t seem quite so bad as we were at least prepared for it, we suddenly dropped down into another canyon. This time the track was sand but orange rock surrounded us and we twisted around rock formations, past cave houses and through gorges for the last hour of the day as the sun set. Damn you Google for even suggesting this might be a road but the backdrop was incredible.

DSCF0224

Finally we returned to the smooth, heavenly tarmac for the last day into Granada, excited at being able to ride over 10km/hr and not having to stop every five minutes for an ass break. Although the days were warm on the high ground, the temperature dropped with the sun and was below freezing overnight; my bike computer read 0 degrees at 8am that morning. But the stunning scenery again made up for any complaints as we skirted the northern edge of the Sierra Nevada, Spain’s highest mountain range, and the winding nature of the road meant that traffic remained light until we got close to the city.

DSCF0246
Approaching the Sierra Nevada mountain range
DSCF0261
That small blob is Debs… small people, big scenery

With smooth tarmac under our wheels, jam sandwiches for fuel, snowy mountains over one shoulder and Granada, one of the few places on our European must-see list finally within our reach, the gravel tracks faded into an adventurous memory and Google was almost forgiven. Almost.

Thanks to Pascual in Albatera; Nacho and family in Velez-Rubio; Rudi in Benalua de Guadix; and the Sierra de Baza ranger who drew us a highly detailed map and spoke in very slow Spanish to try and help us stay on the best of the gravel tracks….

Barcelona: Christmas number two

 

Christmas in January at the Nou Camp

 

Some places have got it right – why have one Christmas when you can have two? It’s weird writing about Christmas in February but then again it was weird enough experiencing it again in January.

After Christmas in Tuscany, we said goodbye to the animals in the rain and went by train to Pisa for some final sightseeing. Some places are empty when it rains – Pisa not so. We were the only fools there on bikes though and had to fight our way through umbrellas to take the obligatory photos. The rain got heavier, we set off on the 20km ride to Livorno, made it as far as Pisa train station before sacking it off and taking our second train of the day. Then after a horrific ride several kilometres out to the port on roads that were definitely not designed for bikes we pulled into the waiting area, got off the bikes and heard an English accent say the magic words – “alright girls, fancy a cuppa?” Wet and cold and with a couple of hours still to wait this was music to the ears. Bob was from 3 miles from where we live and was campervanning around Southern Europe for the winter. After a brew and some warm shelter, he sent us off with a massive handful of PG Tips bags and Sue Perkins’ book. Magic indeed.

 

A rainy Pisa

The ferry from Livorno to Barcelona goes on to Morocco, and the vehicles being loaded on were piled high with possessions cling-wrapped or tarped to their roofs. Most passengers were on for the full duration and were clearly seasoned ferry travellers. Gaps under the stairs had been turned into bedrooms and one guy even had an extension lead and electric kettle. We had the luxury of a cabin but eyed the electric kettle with jealousy. The weather meant a rough 20 hour crossing which was about 19 and a half hours too long for us.

 

Some serious luggage on the ferry

With a few days to explore Barcelona we ate tapas, wandered around the streets, toured Gaudi buildings and watched a football match at the Nou Camp. But the main event was Los Tres Reis – the three kings – Christmas number two. 6th January is when the Kings brought the gifts, so in Spain this is when many families exchange presents. On the 5th January the Kings come to the city on a boat and parade through the streets taking gift letters off the kids (giving a seriously short turnaround time) and handing out sweets at the end. We were told this was a popular parade in Barcelona and had expected a few floats and some crowds but we seriously underestimated the scale of this. Everyone in Barcelona was out on the streets waiting and like the prepared ferry goers, some of these kids were seasoned paraders. Parents had brought stepladders to give a better vantage point for the kids and they were armed with shopping bags to collect as many sweets as possible. The better prepared had the bigger reusable supermarket bags. All we had were our pockets but we were prepared to fight it out with the kids when it came to it. And it did – after half an hours worth of elaborate floats with some kind of story to it that we didn’t really understand but had an undercurrent of kids must go to sleep to get gifts, if not they get coal, sweets were shot out of huge spray guns at the end. We fought our corner and came out with a few handfuls, bowing down to the more experienced youngsters who somehow filled their bags while we caught a few. The worst thing for the kids is the next morning they got their gifts (or coal, who knows) but then go back to school the day after giving no time to play with the new toys. The following weekend there were many kids wobbling around the bike paths on new rollerblades and bikes.

 

Something about dummies

 

Something about letters

 

Something about stars

Another strange thing about Christmas in Barcelona is El Caganer – translated as the crapper. This is a Catalan nativity tradition of a figure with his pants down having a poo. Every nativity scene has one, every home, even the large public ones in the streets. You can buy a crapper figure of any famous person/character imaginable. This year there was talk of removing the crapper from public nativities, as authorities trying to stop people urinating in the street recognise the irony of having a crapper in public. Yet public power – including a song supporting the continued inclusion of the crapper – won and for another year at least he remains. Strange old country. But we had a great time.

 

The Crapper comes in many guises

Thanks to Sam and friends in Barcelona for helping us to experience all things Catalan!

Getting ready for a rest…

 

Nothing to see here. Just a sunday bike ride.

To make sure we arrived at our Christmas work-stay fresh, energetic and ready for labour we smashed out a few sightseeing days in Rome, exhausting ourselves walking for miles looking at awesome fancy old stuff. There is so much to see in Rome and I would highly recommend it for a city break, though probably don’t arrive by bike, there was a few crazy big roads until we could get on the Tiber route. If you do arrive by bike, make it a Sunday, as then you can ride right past the forum and up to the Colosseum traffic-free, except for pedestrians. Two of my favourite things were 2000 year old dice in the colosseum, just the same as modern ones, and a 2000 year old door that still opened and closed with fully functional lock and key in the Forum. The Romans were chuffing smart. There were loads of churches, artworks, ruins, musters of starlings and great Christmas lights. Total winner.

Life size nativity and rainbow baubles at St Peter’s

We had to cheat and get the train to Florence to be on time for our Christmas break, gaining an afternoon and evening to walk even further around the sights of Florence. This was aided by the best sandwich I have ever eaten. A few weeks later someone from Florence asked me what I liked about the city. They seemed slightly offended by my focusOn the sandwich. They really shouldn’t have been. Go try for yourself. Confident that it was a short ride out of Florence to our Tuscan Christmas residence we rode up an extra hill to Michaelangelo’s tomb and a great view of the city. It proved to be a good warm-up, the 35km ride was absolutely brutal, lots of very steep climbs and not so many twisty descents.

 

‘I think i can see the sandwich place from here’

We arrived at a hill top outside the village just as the sun was setting, and Tuscany did a great job of looking exactly like Tuscany should. Soft light, layers of steep hills, farms dotted around. It seemed our decision was a good one.

 

Tuscany: Does exactly what it says on the tin.

The family were lovely and we learned lots quickly about donkeys, dog treats, olive oils and (most importantly) food. This is no light matter.

“I do not trust an English woman to cook pasta. I will teach you once, and maybe once you will get it wrong. This is ok. A second time wrong, this is not ok”.

Ditto polenta.
As we were in charge of things for a week alone, we spent a lot of time with this motley crew…

The Donkeys

Judy (middle)

Likes: big fringes, apple pieces, suddenly diving into vines when walking

Sofia (left)

Likes: being pretty, a controlled hairstyle

 

Not sure what the donkey on the right is called.

 

Guarina

Likes: trying to get out, stealing food, being noisy.

 

Guarina checking out the exit routes

 

The Cats

Luna

Likes: Antagonising Vesper, tagging along with dog walks, cuddles with Jo, thieving the dog food. (Caught out one day by loud crunching).

Dislikes: the pink labelled cat food tin, the nativity scene, the hiding of the dog food bag.

 

Nap buddies

Vesper

Likes: James Bond, pretending Luna starts the crazy chases, cuddles with debs, sitting on the dining chairs right before dinner, the English Premier League.

Dislikes: Moving too much, the pink labelled tin, being tipped off the dining chairs so people can sit in them.

 

Come on the foxes

 

The Dogs

Phoenix

Likes: Collecting sticks, food, playing with sticks, doing her own thing, walking slowly, going in the truck, teasing Oliver with sticks.

Dislikes: Responding to commands in any language, walking quickly, walking far, being on a diet.

 

Phoenix probably going the wrong way

 

Oliver

Likes: Being super cute and friendly, long walks, escaping, cuddles, sticks.

Dislikes: Walking at Phoenix speed, smelling nice, the donkeys, the barking dog at Lucardo.

 

Such a cutie but so much trouble…

There are more Oliver stories for another time. The countryside was lovely and we ate lots of awesome food in between feeding the animals and walking the dogs. When the family returned there was more food (including a jabugo ham from Spain) and time for cycling – to San Gimignano and other pretty towns. We also enjoyed the village new year party.
Thanks to everyone in Tuscany who made our Christmas break fab, especially those at Fattoria Barberinuzzo.