Into Spain in a small boat and gain 1 hour.

Climbing into the hills beyond Salir, Portugal.

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.

Sunday afternoon food in a 'Sleepy Village Bar"

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.

Very dry and hot and it has been for months.

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.

Time stands still on a Sunday.

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.

The usual chaos of our wild camps.

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.

An intoxicating avenue of Eucalyptus. or Eucalypti?

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’.

On the ferry €1 for the bike and €1 the rider.

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.

Welcome to Spain.
Best not to have too much pride.

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.

Villanueva de los Castillejos, Spain.

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.

Towards the coast.
Town square, church tower and Stork.

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.

Row after row of 'hot house' strawberries.
A coastal road - not too happy.

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.

El Rocio from our restaurant table.

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.

Away from the coast - they love their speed bumps here.

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.

Blossom and a nice road.
More blossom, that most cheerful of flowers.

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.

Sights like this perk up the spirit of the touring cyclist.
Stork in flight.

Alte again, Portugal.

A most photogenic chair.

We had a rest day in Castro Verde. I must say, on the subject of not pushing on too much, we are enjoying this slow pace. Walking around the town for the second day, we came across an open door and inside a vacant barbers chair.

Perfect, As I need a haircut and this may be the most photogenic chair in Southern Portugal. The place where the barber should be sitting and reading a two day old news paper was deserted. Half an hour later and we return to the same empty scene. A guy walking past assess our dilemma. He does a mime for us so that we understand the situation.  It had been a long time since he was at school and had been asked to do any sort of mime. So, to conclude. The barber was busy at the moment either getting hopelessly drunk in a local bar, or had gone down the street to the dentist. Such a shame either way.

The Basilica - a must see.
The wonderful interior of the Basilica.

Our stay in the little town had coincided with the closing times of the one ‘must see’ thing in Castro Verde, the Basilica. A late start in the morning and we were at the door just after it opened for business. Where the churches we had seen so far featured blue painted tiles on many surfaces, this took it to the logical extreme. Every surface that was flat enough to have a tile, had a blue painted tile.

The silver head of Pope something.

It managed not too look the horrible mess that you may have expected and there was an added attraction that will be one of the highlights of our time here. For €1 you could have a look in the treasure room, and I would suggest that you should. There are things that would normally take pride of place in fancy museums that have catalogues that cost much more than €1. The most amazing being a beautiful ornate silver head, inside of which is the skull of Pope something.

The N2 - we are starting to look quite good now.

We head South on N2, with a strong tailwind hurrying our progress. The last traffic island has several rows of benches, all occupied by village elders. They put in hours every day here making sure that they don’t miss anything and keeping up to date with news. There must be 25 of them, maybe more. If an accident happens here, the witness statements will take weeks to sort out.

A massive articulated truck comes past us at quite a speed. I wave, thanking him for giving us lots of room. Unbelievably, in what would have made a uTube viral hit if I had managed to film it. Just 20cm from the back of the truck, and with a stream of traffic close behind him, a local road cyclist his legs spinning in the big chainring. One touch of the brakes from the truck or a hole in the tarmac and this man is dead. We pull up, just to confirm with each other what we have just seen.

A rural chair for sitting and watching.

The N2 is fine enough, though perhaps a little narrow in places, but we want to go the scenic route to Salir. We pull onto the quiet roads at Almodovar and start to climb. These are the hills that you can see at the back of the Algarve as you look North from your ‘Time-Share’. They rise steeply from sea level, and had put the fear of god into two unfit touring cyclists when we caught sight of them on day one. The road performs a succession of 10% ups and downs from our direction, with tight curves as well. The temperature is now 27’c and for the first time, this could be described as real climbing. We have over 750K in our legs now, and with Spain, the hilliest country in Europe ahead we need this to go well.

Climbing - this would not have been nice 3 weeks ago.
Beautiful quiet roads - we have found so many in Portugal.
A car every 20 minutes.

Old men dressed in tweeds and caps that had been their grandfathers, tend their gardens. Each takes the time to lean on hoes and wave as we slowly pass on our way up the climbs. We stop for our third coffee of the day at a remote bar. Looking across the valleys we can see a feature that we recognise from our time here a few weeks ago. The prayer flags and brightly painted buildings of a Buddhist Monastery. We had no idea at all that we were on this road and decide to see if we can stay the night at the Temple.

The Stupa of the Monastery.
Pulling up to the main buildings.

It is 571m above sea level and we pull our heavy bikes up to the Stupor to take in the panorama. Inside there are hundreds of Buddhas and sacred items built into the structure. We go in search of someone to ask about staying the night. Twenty minutes later we give up and go back to the last cafe to find a telephone number for the place.

Back up the hill we come and have one last look around. No one, so we phone. Within a minute someone comes out of one of the buildings we have just been knocking at, having got our call. “Sorry I didn’t hear you at all, I was studying”. We feel more than a bit responsible for interrupting and Esther tries to apologise. “I guess you can lose yourself studying something so deep and absorbing as Buddhist texts”. “Oh it’s not that, I have my Theory Test for my driving licence next week”. Which just goes to show that you should not jump to conclusions.

Descending the next morning.

The full moon and the sound of a hundred dogs or more giving voice to a primal urge fills the evening and night. We have the best view in Southern Portugal and settle down to try and get our the full 12 hours of sleep that we seem to need after a hard day on touring bikes. Life is good and we get away with another day without a plan.

This is cycle touring heaven. Going down at least.

Part of the consequence of not planning too much is that we only have a packet of nuts for breakfast. We head down what would be one of the finest but stiffest road biking climbs anywhere if we had the misfortune of coming the other way. We pull in at the first cafe for a breakfast of cheese and ham sandwiches and a plastic bag full of cakes. This is going to be the hottest day yet and we still have to do some climbing.

Cafe table football. the local rivalry of Lisbon teams in miniature.
Nearing Maya's house Alte, Portugal.

We go to Salir to have a look at yet another castle and then make our way to Alte in what has become a hilly 31’c day. By early afternoon we are back with Esther’s aunt and trying to describe our travels through Portugal. “Do you know the book about a guy who hitched around Ireland with a fridge?” She didn’t but got the concept, “Well you could do that here and no where else in Europe I think”. She had a bit of a think about the proposal. ”  Well I hitched around Germany with my Cello”. Well we didn’t expect that. “I needed to keep up my practicing so I took it with me”. I don’t think a fridge would work in Germany but a Cello is a different beast.

Hello again auntie Maya.

Castro Verde, Portugal.

The perfect Olive Tree.

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.

Entering Alcacer do Sal.
By our hotel, Alcacar do Sal.

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.

Above the town - bellfry.
The view to the river.
Washing line with a view of the river.

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.

Cleaning the church carpets.
Communal washing with dog.

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.

Back streets - Alcacer do Sal.
Back streets - Alcacer do Sal.
Local broadband speeds are not her concern.
Inside one of the many churches.

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.

The Bull Ring.
The Bull Ring.
Remote roads and Cork Trees.

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’.

Warning something ahead.
Rolling road, touring perfection.

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.

What joy indeed.
Entering Santiago do Escoural.

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.

Cork Trees and washing.
Stork nests in pylons.
Stork nests in pylons.

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.

Observed at Alcacovas
The splendid castle.

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.

We did get to Cuba.

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.

Perfect landscape and a tailwind.
Graveyard full of stories.
The church and Esther's bike.
The church and Esther's bike.

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.

The worst main street yet.

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.

Great coffee stop.
Santa Vitoria.
Santa Vitoria.

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.

Climb at the end of the day.

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.

We turned and camped here.

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.

Camp site at morning.

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.

Attractions to be had.

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.

The miller.
Working mill, Castro Verde.