The Huns arrived in Europe from Central Asia in the fourth century AD. In just eight years, they built an empire that stretched from the steppes of central Asia to what now is modern Germany, and from the Black Sea to the Baltic. They rode small, fast horses, and spent almost all their time on them. The Romans said that the Huns fought, ate, slept and carried out diplomacy on horseback – so much so that they became dizzy when they set foot on the ground.
Which is rather similar to the state that we had attained last year, but without the Empire building and associated slaughter, and on bicycles. My goodness we were fit.
This season, at the start in Faro, we were in a rather sorry state as far as fitness goes. Having taken these first 400K at a very conservative pace, we are now getting our Mojo back. Which is good, as there are some nasty hills ahead.
We have come along the Algarve coast of Portugal, staying just a few kilometers north of the mass tourism and turned at Sagres to go up the Costa Dourada towards Lisbon.
Sagreswas rather magical and a great place for a ‘day off’. The castle takes up all of the cliff top at the end of the village, giving panoramic views of the coastline. It became a naval academy under Henry ‘ the navigator’, turning out enough sailors that could find their way around the sea – hence ‘navigator’, to turn Portugal into quite a world power.
The road towards Aljezur was calmer than we expected. Which is the thing with maps of areas that you do not know. It is an N category, the N268 to be precise and looks just as red on our map as any other main road. The first traffic island had cows grazing on it, watched over by a farmer of indeterminable age who spent his days leaning against a stick.
Further on there were more cows and a similar farmer, but this time he had the legendary ‘Big Dog’. Unlike the sheep and cattle dogs that we are used to, that are all bundles of energy and apply themselves to the task of moving livestock. These Portuguese dogs are there to guard against wolves and other dogs. Luckily, they appear to be as calm about touring cyclists as the rest of the dogs here.
Almost every cow has a big chunky bell and a herd of cows on the move are quite a treat for the ear. Goats have a smaller bell meaning that you can guess the animal in the woodland as you ride along.
A cheap hotel in Odeceixe and we were faced with the first lumpy bits of Portugal right after breakfast. Just 13’c, which is just the right temperature to give you freezing cold hands at the same time as you are dripping sweat onto your top tube with the exertion of the climb. The hills continue and the temperature rises to 18’c and so off comes the winter kit and things all even out a bit.
The road is lined with Eucalyptus trees, which make the climb a treat for the senses. The road plummets down to Sao Teotonio and of course I freeze, being too lazy to stop and put back on the clothing I have just taken off.
The road has become the N120 now and quite busy, so we turn onto the yellow roads on our map and head towards the coast. This is always a good idea here as the whole of the coastline is a National Park and is stunning. It is now 19’c and we know that cycle touring could not get much better than this, “It’s February Esther, February!”
We ride up a dead end at Almograve just to have a look at the beach and then head back towards the main road. The three months without rain, mean that the fields here are being irrigated furiously. So much of the agricultural land of Portugal has been abandoned, but here it is close to the Algarve and Lisbon and is quite intensively farmed. These quiet roads have a suspiciously large number of big BMW, Merc and the occasional Range Rover which is rather strange, all in a menacing black colour.
We are passed by our first Donkey in the back of a van. The beast looks to be enjoying the ride and towers over the drivers cab. “That donkey was huge”. Esther disagrees, “I think he was just a normal size donkey, he just looked big in a van”. It is all about context I guess, but he was very happy which you do not get very often with donkeys.
We arrive in Vila Nova de Milfontesand ask about accommodation in the tourist place. “All very expensive”, we are told. So we ride around and have a look. We like the look of a hotel above the river. It is 3 stars but I would guess from the state of things that at least two of those are not current. Esther negotiates the rate down by scribbling on a bit of paper what we are prepared to pay.
The rather large and very stern lady is not too happy with us but she agrees to our price and we take a room with a wonderful view. I think she punishes us by turning off the hot water. We are the only guests in this rambling hotel and she greets us the next morning in her night gown at 9.15 when we hand in the key. Again she shouts at us but I think she is happy we negotiated out the breakfast. I guess that not a day goes by when she does not wish she had sold the place 15 years ago in the boom time.
Again there are big climbs but for some strange reason, we are going well today. We pick up the N120 again at Cercal and stay with it as it turns yellow on our map, and away from Sines into the hills. This is perfect touring again.
The road here has Cork trees on both sides which occasionally become small woodlands with sheep grazing. The sheep’s bells are high pitched like bicycle bells and are all around us. Few are behind fences and often they are shepherded by the usual old guy leaning on a stick.
We have avoided going through Sines, which we are told is busy and industrial by turning into the hills on the N120 and we love it. We drop down to Santiago Do Cacem and manage to pick up the N120 again. Just out of town it goes by the best preserved mill in Southern Portugal. As we stand by it we can see a further four mills on the next small hill.
The wonderful ride continues towards Grandola. We find Cork trees fascinating and wonder how you can do so much damage to them and not kill them. Harvested Cork is dried in stacks at the sides of the roads. It all looks so labour intensive and yet so important to the countryside as there are many hundreds of these trees, all being harvested and marked with a year code.
Grandola is a bit run down and we have only one hotel choice. The hotel is in a crumbling square next to the Communist Party HQ. Again, it feels as if we are the only guests. I have no idea what economic model was used when they planned to build the hotel. A hopelessly optimistic one that is for sure.
We eat as much as is humanly possible at breakfast and then ride towards the coast. It is just 10’c and we can see our breath and our hands sting. The mist hangs in the valley making the Cork trees drip with dew. It is once again, quite wonderful.
The landscape changes to sandy even quite a way from the coast and the Cork give way to Pine trees. We are heading to Troia to catch the ferry to Setubal. This is how we are planning to see Lisbon without getting killed on busy roads. Stay in Setubal and go in by train for the day.
We get to the ferry terminal, which is all new and hopelessly optimistic. There is not a breath of wind and the mist is slow to clear. We push the bikes on to the ferry and we are off.
Setubal is vibrant and full of life. We push the bikes through the old town and are the centre of attention. The streets are so narrow you can almost reach and touch both sides. There are dozens of cafes and stalls and imposing churches, we absolutely love it. There is almost no tourism, but there really should be, it is a gem.
We have now done a bit over 400k, got quite a nice tan for February and are starting to feel like cyclists again. It is a rather nice feeling. If you would like to take a look at the sketches that Esther has been doing here in Portugal, click here.