A few years ago now, my New Years resolution was “I must fly my kite more often”. I did not keep that up as much as I should. I recommend a good kite and some time together, you will love it. Last year my resolution was “I must eat more Olives”. Which, a little belatedly I am now covering. Every meal here comes with Olives. There is no meal that the Portuguese would consider unsuitable for an Olive accompaniment and they are good for you.
We went into Lisbon by train and spent a bewildering few hours walking around wondering why there are so many designer shops and flash cars in a country on it’s knees economically. It was perhaps all just too big for us. We got back to Setubal and decided that we liked it very much and for no more reason than it was just big enough.
We retraced our tyre tracks down to the ferry and went back across to the quiet of Troia. It is once again a beautiful blue sky day and the air is now full of Martins diving down to skim the water.
This time we turn left onto the N253 and head to Alcacerdo Sal. And here is the beauty of touring by bike. Viewed from the bridge you get a panorama of road works. It is undergoing a ‘tarting up’ that does not look as if it will be finished any time soon, if ever. It had just got to the point in any sort of DIY where it looks much worse than when you started, which is of course when they stopped.
Not everyone would stop. It has a castle, so Esther is excited and we stop after what is a laughingly short day. We conclude hotel negotiations (in a hotel where once again we are the only guests ) with a descent discount and start to explore.
It is a gem of a town if you overlook the building site. Up on the hill is the castle, but the real find is what is under it. The enthusiastic guy at the desk welcomes us into the ‘Archaeology museum and crypt’. “Best in Portugal” he says and then turns on the lights as we are the only visitors. Alcacerdo Sal, we find out, was important from the Neolithic times and really big when the Romans were here. The museum was amazing and I think we could conclude that the river frontage of the town for the last 7,000 years had never looked quite this bad.
Thanks to being lazy we got to see an amazing town and eat at a great restaurant – the Retiro Sadino, where we learned that most of the fields around are rice fields. We did a circle of the Bull Ring and headed out on the N253 past what we can now tell you are rice fields.
It is just 12’c and a misty start but within 10k we are happy that we did not bother to stop and put on leg warmers. It is 15’c and we start to climb back up amongst cork trees and sheep. These are all wearing bells and though I am quite good at sheep breeds I could only describe these as ‘biblical’. They have long floppy ears and sad faces and come in a range of shades of ‘dusty white to brown’.
Moving inland and more remote, drivers are now waving and sounding horns which is always nice. This is wonderful cycling. We go through Sao Cristovao and then take a very minor road to Santiago do Escoural, which we are pleased to see is surfaced. A black Merc drives by us, which I think you could have expected.
There is a big notice about local caves and the paintings of animals, which is the sort of stuff we love. We are taken to the archaeology museum by a local who hops on a bike and guides us. This is fantastic. “Can we see the caves?” we ask the woman at the desk. She shows us a book with 6 names in it, “the tour if full today”. “What about the stone circles that are all around here”. She has a think for a while and then “You won’t find them”. Come on Portugal try harder, please.
We ride on to Alcacovas on the N2. It is a beautiful town with a stunning castle so we want to stop. The lady at the castle phones around for us, which is possibly out of her job description but she does her best. Only one place and she makes the fatal mistake of saying we are English, so the price is a non negotiable €60.
We get supplies and prepare for a night of stealth camping. After 10k we find a spot to pull of the road and set up the camp. Who would have dreamed that a lad from just north of Birmingham in the English Midlands would ever camp under a Cork tree in Portugal. But there you are.
Had I remembered to give the stove some maintenance over the winter. Not at all, but we got away with it and we settled down. Sheep bells all around that go quiet as the light fades into night. I am drinking tea when I catch a glimpse of something in the cup. The reflections of the half moon are there and I am casting a moon shadow.
We love camping. The sheep go quiet and are replaced by insect sounds. Once it is fully dark, the sheep have another spell of moving around before they and we settle down for rather a cold night.
We are riding through a landscape of small hills and wide valleys. The bigger hills all have some combination of a town or village, a castle, a church and one or more windmills. Every town is a bit of a grunt of effort to ride up to and there is always a small crowd of men sitting talking. We are unusual enough to bring a small village to a halt in wonder and what I hope is admiration but may just be bored curiosity.
Near the village of Cuba the municipal dump is circled by Storks and Red Kites. We go into a cafe at a village called Beringel. It has the worst paved streets we have ever seen and one of the most wonderful churches.
The landscape is flatter now and the roads straighter. Again the weather and all that make a great day on the bike are here in just the right quantities. Again we stop at a cafe and bring it to a halt. It is small and full of people all of whom, this being Portugal, are all smoking. Just to our right are a set of saloon style swinging doors, which lead through to the ‘non smoking’ side of the same bar.
We sit down and order 2 coffees and 2 cakes – and sit back to watch some Portuguese tv. It is a popular soap and is terrible beyond words. There is a lot of crying and always is whenever we catch any soap here. What is strange is that the tv in the smoking room is crying 4 seconds out of sinc. All very strange but only €3.
It is now 26’c and we pass through Santa Vitoria and have another coffee stop. It is Sunday and the benches are lined with men in their Church clothes. It is full of character and many of the old guys wave. We say hello and get a dozen local variations in reply – wonderful.
We end our longest day, pitching the tent at the side of a field just outside Joan de Negrilhos. It gets down to just above freezing and is a star filled night which sets the local dogs off on a frenzy of barking.
In the morning I wonder about wild camping so close to a village. In the UK we would have been found by an early morning dog walker, guaranteed. They find everything. You can’t find a spot for a dead body in the Uk without a dog walker finding it. They don’t do dog walking here. They don’t do metal detecting either, so there must be loads of buried treasure and hords. You can’t bury anything in the UK without it being found.
The morning is just perfect in its early mist clearing to give a perfect sunny day sort of way. It starts with porridge and a stiff climb for us and the legs are not happy at all.
I do not know what has got it all started but the road today and yesterday has been covered in caterpillars. Thousands of them and all very hairy. You swerve to avoid one only to run over two there are that many. I kill more caterpillars in 48 hours than in the rest of my life. If you were a Jain Monk you would have to walk on tip toes carrying the bike for 200k to avoid eternal damnation.
We end a short day at our first legitimate campground in Castro Verde. It has a working windmill, which quite against the run of things, is open. The old guy who looks after it fires up the thing for us and we feel the tower move under the power of the sails. A strangely moving experience. We give him some money at the end for his trouble and I think he or us may cry.