My goodness does the mind wander, given straight roads and time to idle. I listen to Podcasts of an evening. Esther puts the time to rather better use and is doing a crash course in Spanish. But who is it who can enliven the time between any useful thoughts or even the next bend when the road becomes tedious? “Esther, who by quantity is the largest tyre manufacturer in the world? ( Answer at the end of the blog ).
Every time we have 2 consecutive days off the bike, we get butterfly stomachs at the thought of starting again. You are not going to become useless over night, but it feels that way. If you have hit a goal and had a bit of rewarding comfort time, all confidence evaporates.
We set off from Auntie Maya having done a sort of squashed ‘O’ shape tour of Portugal. We are now going to turn it into an even stranger squashed and now inverted ‘Q’ shape, by reversing out, and then heading for the border of Spain. Alte, and the area around it, once again looks fabulous cycling country. We pass Solir and are now on unfamiliar roads that start to climb.
We go through Barranco do Velho and meet up with a group of road bike riders. It is hilly now, but we are strong enough to stay with them and have a bit of a peloton chat. 24’c and we are amongst pine trees that are filling the air with lavatorial freshness. You only get this smell when there is intense heat and stillness.
The hill becomes an official ‘mountain stage’ when it continues upward for 20K and then 30K. Oh, the bitter sting of lactic acid. Thank goodness we have got some sort of form back or this would have been misery. This area is dry and very hot as we climb amongst Eucalyptus smells thick enough to taste and sting the back of your throat. The climbing exertion opens the lungs for the oils to penetrate deeply. It feels unnatural and chemical like a night in a smokey pub for a non smoker. I bet we would fail a dope test it is that intoxicating.
It gets even drier as we ride East, towards Spain. They have had 1 day of rain in 7 months here, and it is now the start of a hot summer. Field after field is abandoned to the drought. We wait for dusk and pull off to wild camp near Martim Longo. Our pitch is dusty, iron hard and smells of Camomile. We settle down after food and a church bell sounds 8 o’clock. Two minutes later another does the same and a minute after that a third. It is 8 o’clockish and already the ‘milky way’ is a clear belt of light in a pitch black sky into which the moon has yet to rise.
A cold night, that then gets colder. So sleep is punctuated by cursing a plenty, as I search for ever more layers of clothing and a merino wool hat, none of which is where I distinctly remember putting it.
Next morning gets hot quickly. 31’c before 11 and we are passing through villages where the adjective ‘sleepy’ would be overstating any tendency for activity of any sort. I am sure things happen here, but it is generational if not quite geological in time span. There is a useful ‘per capita’ amount of sitting and watching being done.
We are heading towards a village called Alcoutim, where we have been told there is a ferry that will take us and our bikes across to Spain. We are rather painting ourselves into a corner here. We have not been able to check these important details with anyone since we were told them a week ago. The conversation worryingly included the words ” I think there is” and “I have never used it myself”. As we descend a long 14% hill towards where we hope to catch the ferry, there are dark thoughts first of which is’ this would be a bugger to go back up’.
Bingo and praise be indeed, there is a ferry. It goes across and back and then across again, and we have stood and watched it do it. We go and find something to eat and then push the bikes towards the ferry. Not a sign of life of course, and we have our first encounter with the unimaginable time span of the ‘Spanish Siesta” whilst still in Portugal.
854K completed in rather a lazy way in Portugal and not a single insect bite to report. Does it deserve the title ‘best undiscovered place to cycle tour in Europe?’. Well we loved it, that’s all I can say. On to San Lucar de Guadiana on the Spanish side of the river Rio Guadiana and lets start to compare.
Not a thing there at all. In a complete contrast to the other side. The road climbs at 10% and it is now 32’c. We push the bikes for the first time, and curse a bit if truth be told. The road opens out at the summit to a frighteningly wide vista of nothing at all, before the N490 reaches a far distant horizon. Welcome to Spain. Everything in the first village is closed. Spain has a way of closing so tightly shut that you doubt they are still in business. We do not know this yet but in these first days we will pass through whole villages that look as if they have all handed back their house keys to their mortgage company and fled.
We go on a bit to Villanueva de los Castillejos, where as ever, Esther finds that one of the olive coloured old boys who are sitting and watching is German. It is a vague, half remembered German from almost half a century ago, but just enough to steer us towards the hotel. We log onto the WWW, only to find that we have lost an hour crossing into Spain. I could have swam the river in less than a minute. If it does not rain you will be able to walk it soon, and yet it is an international time zone. Of course there was no signs about this, we could have been out of sync for weeks.
We pedal along the A495, south towards the coast at Mazagon. The road is far busier then we had judged from its yellow colour on the map. We spend a fruitless day taking turns to try and find quiet roads. The last road before the coast becomes quiet just before it then turns from tarmac to deep sand. We then take another road that should not be surfaced but is. Long story short, we are not enjoying this at all.
Only some time later, when we have left behind the dreadful coastal developments do things improve. We get to the village of El Rocio and go into a restaurant to celebrate being somewhere nice. There is a saying that goes, “A waiter will only ever see you when they are ready to see you”. Two hours after we arrived we leave a very small tip and leave, happy that it did at least have a nice view. We could have passed the time trying to guess ‘the nominated drivers’ at the tables around us. As difficult as finding a Higgs Boson, believe me.
We camped in an expensive and pitifully poor campground and had another Spanish low moment or two. We took comfort in a bottle of frighteningly cheap sherry before a night of barking dogs, and the competing calls of first Donkey and then Cockerell.
We were missing Portugal more than anyone who does not hold a valid Portugee’s passport has ever done before. But just then, things improved a bit. We moved away from the Agribusiness of the coast and their single minded pursuit of getting strawberries on to your table two months before the strawberries want to be there. We crossed the busy A49 to Sevilla and found an almost charming, almost minor road that took us to Sanlucar la Mayon.
So, in the last few kilometres, with the last kick of the ball, Spain has improved a bit. It was always going to have a hard task following Portugal and there are probably countless treasures ahead, you will know just as soon as we do. Esther managed to laugh when I told her that the largest manufacturer of tyres in the world is LEGO. Now you know why I married her.