There was little need for a map when I finally departed Sintra. Martin, whom I’d met when I first arrived in the town, and whose house I’d been staying in for the previous week, had the route planned out for us. He’d cycled most of it before as a tour guide, or had at least visited many of the places at some point during his childhood.
At first I was a little hesitant when he expressed an interest in joining me for a week. Despite being fluent in Portuguese, well informed about the history and culture of the country and altogether one of the funniest characters I’m likely to meet on the road, he was also used to a style of cycle touring where budgeting wasn’t an issue.
Cycling through the Centuries is a company offering guided tours for clients who generally eat in the best restaurants and sleep in luxury Pousadas. I’d met some of them during my stay in Sintra; middle-aged Americans with professional jobs who sought comfort and security in their travels abroad. It probably came as a shock to them, and Martin, when I explained that my daily budget was usually less than 10 Euros. Just how a self-supported skinflint and a credit card tourer would get along on the road on this basis I wasn’t sure.
It was a pleasant relief therefore when Martin enthusiastically arrived home several days before we departed with a new tent, sleeping mat and an inflatable pillow. Ironically they were all far cheaper and of inferior quality to the camping gear I have, but riding with the best equipment is less important than just getting out on the road and riding itself. I’ve managed with a crap synthetic sleeping bag at over 5000m in altititude so had little doubt Martin’s 25€ tent would suffice for where we were going. He’d bought them all from Decathlon, which seems to be the IKEA of sports goods in this part of the World. Jealous of the inflatable pillow (they always puncture at some stage so I’ve often managed without one in the past) I made my first visit on the morning we departed.
We followed the coastal road towards Lisbon, Martin bedecked in the bright yellow colours of CTTC and clearly visible as we weaved between the pedestrians and sea-front cafes as far as Belem. This waterside suburb owes its importance as a starting point for many famous maritime voyages of discovery, although I’m not sure the egg tarts, for which its also well known for, were around when Vasco de Gama set sail. I happily devoured a few before we hopped aboard a small ferry to cross the River Tejo.
Martin referred to the southern district of the city as “redneck country”. It clearly had less lofty heritage compared to Sintra and many of the buildings looked in need of a lick of paint as we left the port area and pedalled south.
Seeming that he was close to home it made sense to leave Martin responsible for making route decisions. I didn’t envisage that this would involve cycling, or rather pushing the bikes in the dark along a sandy track during the first evening. I’m not sure he did either. “The GPS shows 4km until we reconnect with the road.” We could have easily turned back, but Martin was having too much fun. “I love riding at night. It’s such a rush”. My mind was more concerned with where we would sleep that night. For me cycling in the dark is usually done out of necessity. Arriving in a new place or finding somewhere to pitch a tent when it’s dark usually evokes stress. For Martin this was just an opportunity for adventure that probably didn’t exist working as a guide.
It was possibly due to the stress, and also tiredness, that when we emerged from the pine enclosed darkness an hour or so later (still with no idea where we would sleep) I knocked my compact camera off the table of a restaurant. It was a careless accident and the metre drop onto the concrete floor below did a fine job in breaking it. It’s still in my possession, but the chances of fixing it without sending it away and waiting weeks seems quite unlikely.
We ended up camping on the beach that night, or more precisely in the nearby car park, awaking to a thick mist the following morning.
Packing up was done slowly, and it was amusing to watch Martin struggle to fold up his tent, which sells itself on its ability to be pitched in 2 seconds. The fact that he had slept without taking a shower was also an issue that would repeat itself at times over the following week as he made various comments regarding the uncleanliness of his skin or clothes.
The days generally started late, but we rode at a pace faster than I’d usually do alone, averaging between 18-20km/h and often riding after the sun had set.
Such was the scene on the second day as we rolled off another ferry that transported us south from the bustling fishing port of Setubal. Here a quiet road stretched along a narrow spit of land flanked by sandy scrub-land. Martin had visions of camping wild on the beach, but 4-wheel drive would have been necessary to tackle the sandy tracks that separated us from the sound of the nearby surf. It was also dark again, which was probably a good thing when an hour or so later we decided to set up camp on the wooden decking of a beach restaurant. The place was closed and the wide empty beach was ours. I boiled up a bag of pasta and mixed it with tuna and tomatoes for dinner. It was a familiar dining experience for me, much less so for Martin. He ate with surprised gusto and seemed generally enraptured by the unplanned and adventurous aspect of this kind of touring, but insisted on a night-cap at a nearby bar. Our daily budget, not that Martin seriously had one, was about to be blown on expensive brandy and beer, until the restaurant owner took an interest in what I was doing and decided to throw in an extra meal, more drinks and charge us nothing.
I would have happily continued along the coast, but from the town of Milfontes we headed inland, cycling through a rolling and sparsely inhabited landscape of olive and cork trees. Roads became quieter – the rural tranquility occasionally broken by local villagers riding museum age motorbikes. Under blue skies the whitewashed villages also appeared more authentic than many I’d seen in the north.“The Alentejo is my favourite part of Portugal”, remarked Martin. I was glad he’d chosen this route. It does indeed seem like a part of Portugal where the vestiges of tradition have yet to be superseded by the ugly face of modern development.
The town of Mertola displays this contact with the past more than most in the region. Here a Moorish castle looks down over winding cobbled streets and the River Guadiana, which runs close to and then along the border with Spain. On the outskirts of the town sits an old convent, which is now a kind of eco-commune. Martin had visited the place as a school student on an art-field trip some 15 years ago, but I’m not sure the Dutch owner recognised him when he sweet-talked his way into being given permission to pitch the tents for the night. A group of volunteers from various European countries were here for the week to build an earthship. This consisted of a building made from used rubber tyres, each of which had been compacted with dirt using sledgehammers. It was a construction process and a scene that would leave most people pretty baffled.
The original plan had been to cross the Guardiana into Spain and cycle together to Seville, but instead we rode south into the Algarve, camping together for the last time beside an idyllic stretch of the river in a grove of pomegranate and orange trees. Like much of the Alentejo this part of Portugal has yet to fall prey to property developers. It’s a slightly different scene down here on the coast, although Tavira, where I am now, retains a charm that I imagine other parts of the Algarve have now lost.
I said goodbye to Martin at the weekend as he pedalled off to the train station, half-wishing he could continue with me into Spain and Morocco. Fortunately more company is on its way soon when Tim, whom I first met while cycling in India, will join me for two weeks. First I have to reach Gibraltar, or more specifically the nearby school I had planned to visit in October. They’ve already organised a fund-raising activity for the charity so I better pay a thank you visit.
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