You just can't get around them. Even in stories about bicycle travel they play a big role. Often there are too may of them, and at other times you have to use one, to get to the spot where you want to start riding your bike. That was the case in this case. I'll try to make it short, just a short factual description. But it bears including, because of the potential consequences. This is still a report about a bicycle tour. It just takes a little while to get to the bicycle part.
The last bike tour ended with a car incident. This one started with a car incident, actually a car accident. 170 miles were between me and the Denver, where an airport offered a means of escape. This meant I had to cross Vail pass in an automobile, something which happens thousands of times each day without much drama associated with it. Not so this time. A mile past the summit, spring had an ice storm planned. I tapped the breaks and it felt like I had no breaks at all. So I pulled onto the shoulder and tried to coast to a stop. A truck passed me on the left. Apparently he had no problems with the road surface. Actually he did have a problem with it. When he pulled back into the right lane, he jackknifed and came to rest across both lanes of traffic. I coasted to a stop right in front of him. - That was a close one - Thank goodness the danger is over - not so fast. In the following 40 seconds a total of seven cars plowed into the jackknifed truck. Another trailer truck elected to run off the road and down the embankment, instead of hitting him. And so my little VW van ended up on the side of the road, between several hundred thousand dollars of wrecked SUVs and two incapacitated semi trailer truck, without as much as a scratch. In the ice, the heavy jackknifed truck was pushed down the road a couple of feet with each impact. That helped absorb the shock. Therefor nobody was hurt. 40 seconds ago my old 81 VW van was an antique problem child, being tailgated as it had to slow to 35 mph to make it over the pass, sounding like a jet engine ready to take off, as it strained up the grade. A sign in the back said "for sale 2300$". Now it still was more or less 2300$ more worth than all those expensive, previously shiny SUVs with their 4 wheel drives. By the time the police came, the sun was shining and all the ice had melted. It was again just a regular spring day with a few dark clouds over the mountains. It was hard to explain to people in uniform what the conditions were like an hour earlier. But the evidence was fairly compelling.
The VW could remain at a friend's house in Denver, and I could ride my bike to the airport. This time it really was a perfect sunny spring day. The bike route to the Denver airport still leads over a four lane limited access express way. Little bicycle route signs line the four lanes of traffic to prove it. This was the first note worthy site on the ride, still so close to home. Where else does a city advertised bicycle route lead over at least 10 miles of limited access highway ? Caught up in the excitement of starting a long journey, I propped up my bike against a bicycle route sign, and took a picture of the bike with four lanes of cars speeding by as background. Wonder what the drivers thought of that. Maybe it's better I don't know.
"As Christopher Columbus once said, Eureka I have arrived". I overheard this sentence in of those annoying conversations with oneself, well actually with a cell phone. I was still at the Denver airport. But when I arrived in Lisbon, I thought it. And then, "Eureka, there's my bike". Lufthansa accepted it without a box and it doesn't look any worse for the wear. And double Eureka there's my stuff bag with all the rest of the stuff bagged into it.
If there were a guide book on how to ride from major airports around the world into the city center, I would certainly buy a copy. As far as I know there isn't one. But if there were one, the entry for Lisbon might read like this : The ride into the old Lisbon center is straight forward and straight ahead. Proceed with loaded bicycle out of the arrival lounge, which is about the size and shape of an old Saveway supermarket in the US. Proceed to the right a hundred yards to a traffic circle and take the only large straight ahead boulevard. Go straight as far as possible, on the order of 5 miles. If still in doubt how to continue at a junction, ask a pedestrian for "Rossio" with accompanying puzzled and friendly look on your face. Rossio is one of three large pracas (plazas) in the centre. But don't look for that name on an official map. There it's referred to as "Praca Dom Pedro IV". When the wide, straight boulevard finally shows signs of ending, and you are forced to choose between left and right, go right, and you are within 2 blocks of Rossio. Conditions become more challenging close to Rossio. The wide boulevard turns to narrow cobblestones. Narrow trolley tracks close to the edge of the road test your ability to ride in a straight line. Here old pre WW2 trolleys whirl around the corners and form the first lasting impression to this enchanting city. The road and its cobble waves demand undivided attention here. I reached this section in full rush hour traffic. I gave a signal to move into the right lane across the tram tracks. But the taxi driver behind me interpreted my hand signals as a sign for him to pass on the right - really not what I had in mind. What exactly does it mean when a cyclist sticks out an arm to one side and looks around ? Apparently some taxi drivers still are a little confused about this. I survived. After that experience I tried out a few other internationally known hand gestures on him. But he didn't show any signs of recognition to any of them.
But back to what "Cycling Guide to the world's major airports" might have to say about this : Just within a block of Rossio, you traverse another large plaza, and this one cannot be mistaken for anything else. Near its centre stands a huge statue of a prancing fully armored conquistador in full battle garb. This is Pr. do Figueira. You are now in the centre of the historic centre of Lisbon, in a section known as Baixa. This barrio of Lisbon is the floor of a steep sided valley opening out onto a huge river, the Rio Tejo. The floor of the valley is covered by an orderly set of rectangular blocks, the result of a large central planning effort after a huge earthquake in 1755. For the first night it may be convenient to find a place to stay in this area, before venturing out into the more confusing streetplans of the Alfama and Barrio Alto.
The Lisbon earthquake sounds like more than an earthquake. The scene was the catholic holiday of all soul's day, 1755. "It was recorded that at 9.30 am, when the churches were packed, the river seemed to boil, after which the water drained away until it was completely dry". One has to assume that at this point the earthquake had begun. "When the actual heaving of the earth up and down and sideways ended, the river returned in the form of a tidal wave, accompanied by a shrieking gale of wind that fanned the hundreds of fires started in the fallen buildings, before the flooding water put out as many more." Lisbon had been an ancient city founded by the Roman emperor Augustus. After this all souls day disaster, only portions of the Alfama district survived.
The floor of the valley in which old Lisbon sits, was rebuilt with a vision. The Marques de Pompal had power, money and taste to rebuild the Baixa section in a very attractive and dignified style. The streets emanating from the harbor were designed to maximize the ease with which the goods could flow there. Each street in the grid was designated for a specific trade. You can still see signs of this division today. Today one of the designated trades is a street of restaurants which I sampled one evening. More about that later. Baixa is the commercial section of old Lisboa, the section of plazas and elegant statues, conquistadors, statues of elegant men with a walking stick, balancing high up on columns. Below them gather groups of Portuguese speaking black men from countries of the old colonial empire.
It was a steep learning curve between day one and two. During that time I came back to the statue of the prancing conquistador again and again. It became the true centre of Lisbon for me. The first time I saw it, was when I was caught up in a the river of Mercedes taxi traffic from the airport. Box shaped trucks and rounded passenger vehicles swirled around in merciless circles. Your powers of observation are definitely limited in a situation like that. I was looking for places to stay and never saw the pensao signs high up on the buildings surrounding the plaza. The first night was spent in a private room further towards the waterfront for 15E. Private rooms are usually a great value. But this one had no window, and an open vent above the door made me feel a little closer to the family and its conversations than ideal. For the second night, my home was a room with a balcony looking out onto the stone conquistador. The day before I never saw the small "pensao" signs, high up on the upper floors of the buildings surrounding Pr. do Figueira. It required a slow exploratory walk the next day to actually see them.
The first meal also has to be viewed as an educational experience. A waiter in one of the restaurants on restaurant street in Baixa suggested a special fish dish for a reasonable price. He then proceeded to set the table with a plate of three bony small herring like fishes, and all sorts of bread, spreads and hors oeuvres. Since I didn't know exactly what I ordered, I naturally ate everything that was set before me. On a bike tour, it's the only logical thing to do. You can always use the calories later on the road. In retrospect this was a mistake. Just because they serve it to you doesn't mean you ordered it. Before you take a bite out of something, it's advisable to check one more time with a trustworthy person, if you did indeed order this particular dish. But trustworthy people were a rare commodity in this establishment. When I got the check, the single plate of mystery fish was listed with the quoted price. It wasn't hard to discover, that additionally, all the other little bait paraphernalia were listed on the bill too, priced at 1 Euro each, regardless if it was a fish cake, a slice of bread, or a miniature amount of butter. I showed the appropriate amount if indignation, and then paid up, resolving to cook myself from now on.
The second meal was as big an improvement over the first meal, as the second room was an improvement on the first room. Meal number two was prepared on the balcony of the likewise greatly improved room number two, with view on conquistador. A loaf of pao coracao (really good bread), 40 cents worth of Mortadella, a hunk of Brie, and a barrage of strawberries made for a much better meal, and it didn't contain any fishbones. Now the whirlpool of traffic below had a different effect than the day before. Now it was a pleasant almost hypnotizing effect with which the traffic kept on spinning. It felt much better above the traffic circle than in it. What a difference to 24 hours earlier !
Once at the centre, the old bicycle has limited usefulness, at least for exploring the immediate city surroundings. The Old Lisboa center is best experienced on foot, tram or elevator. After the short ride from the airport, my bike was in hotel storage for several days. I was free to walk around. On its east side of Baixa, the medieval Alfama quarter spreads its crooked stairways up to an ancient moorish castle. Alfama is the oldest and only section of Lisboa that survived the devastating 1755 earthquake. The part of the Alfama that faces the river is the moorish section, established to house the remaining moors after they were officially expelled. Alfama is the quarter of shopping bag toting women stopping to let their blood pressure recover. Miradors along the edge of the valley let you wonder at the Baixa grid pattern below. In these romantic scenic spots old men sit and do cross word puzzles to the sounds of fado. Wild plants have taken hold of the crevasses in the church walls. If there's a 2 foot gap between 2 houses, a calcedhina leads you to another view of the maze after half a minute. Blue tiled paintings rule the houses.
In parts of the Alfama even the trams have to slow down to walking speed. They can turn on an incredibly tight radius, because of their short wheelbase, about 10 foot. The history of trams in Lisbon goes back all the way to 1837. Back then they were pulled by horses and were called "Americanos". Electric traction arrived early, in 1901. Then they roamed up to 190 km of streets and alleys. In 1974 the decision was made to abolish the Lisbon trams. But the oil crises of that year saved the old electric mass transportation devices, at least a part of it, and today a full 50 km of tram lines are left. If you like trams, especially historic trams in action, this just may be the most interesting city in the world to you. Trams zip by in every direction, and emerge from every corner to squeak around them like a midday siren.
The next day I walked in
the opposite direction, up another steep hill leading to a more elegant
Lisboa quarter, the Barrio Alto. Here the plazas are more artistically
refined and cared for than on the other side of the Baixa. The statues
portray thinkers, or they portray ordinary people, seen through the
refined view of a true artist, images of people that to me always look
like train conductors. The statue and fountain filled placas are laced
together by exotic plants. These, as a sideline, also serve to frame
magnificent views of the city below. Up here, if it's not a praca or
park that's shouting for attention, it's a church. They are integrated
into the city landscape, much like a regular house. They're a little
bigger perhaps. But the facades are comparatively simple and the
buildings are often not free standing. But the simple outside lies about
the wealth that hides on the inside. There isn't just a single altar in
front where the priest does his job. A whole series of altars line the
inside walls. Each one is themed separately. One is done in golden
leaves. The next one features golden lattice work resembling a bush, on
the next a flurry of golden crosses here, a parade of golden weeping
statues there. The commonality of these altars is their gold content.
These side altars pull the unsuspecting visitor stumbling in through the
rather plain facade on a round trip circumambulation, with the head
permanently turned in one direction, marveling at the gold from South
A long long time ago an old girl friend once asked me, if everybody else in my family had a favorite form of public transportation too. I'm not so sure about the rest of the family. But it was hard to hide the fact that I had one, one that involves a couple of rails. The Barrio Alto contains irresistible attractions for the rail public transportation enthusiast. The exotic trams that whirl and squeak around corners of Baixa and the Alfama also climb the Barrio Alto. But other yet more exotic devices exist. Two funicular like trams scale the valley walls. They look like trams set on a triangle. This way the inside is level while the outside is angled at 20 degrees. They look like trams, but they operate like a cable car, two of them in tandem tied together with a steel rope. When one is at the bottom the other one is at the top. The one leaving Baixa just 4 blocks from Rossio was built in the very late 19th century, first powered by water displacement, then steam, and finally electricity. In this case "finally" means about a hundred years ago.
So you're still not satisfied. You still want more superlatives in the exotic public transport department. Lisbon has them. A freestanding rod iron adorned tower offers yet another way to the Barrio Alto. It serves as an elevator. On the top of the elevador de Santa Justa, a walkway opens up on a short bridge, and there you are, first bajo now alto. All this means that you can make two roundtrips from Baixa to the Barrio Alto, surveying a new device on each ascent and decent before you have covered just the funiculars, the elevador, and just one "regular" 19th century tram.
Two days were spent on all day walks through Lisboa. In retrospect, much too short a time, but enough to form lasting impressions. The old quarter of Lisboa is the opposite of a city like New York or Frankfurt. There is none of the power and arrogance of business apparent here, no skyscrapers and none of the hurried preoccupation. The power and arrogance that existed here has had several centuries to mellow out, and become likable. When Vasco de Gama returned from his first expedition from India, he brought back enough pepper to pay for the trip three times over. That was the time when Lisbon became the capital of a wealthy colonial kingdom with possessions in Africa and Asia. Depictions of the city hundreds of years later still show the opulence from that period. Convents, cathedrals and palaces make up an illustrious skyline. Then the earthquake of 1755 destroyed much of this wealth. In 1988 a fire swept across the Barrio Alto, destroying all of the Chiado section except for a few store facades.
The city is filled with reminders of power and arrogance from past centuries, the old Moorish castle on the hill, the stone conquistador prancing in the center of the plaza, triumphal gates, stone men from past centuries with walking sticks balancing high above on a column, azulejo tiled buildings where nature has added a few more rusty color variations, convents that are now museums. Maybe it's not surprising that Old Lisbon has more of the feel of an old elegant kingdom, where traditions from North Africa, and Iberia blend to something elegant and beautiful. Instead of skyscrapers there are parks. Instead of hurrying suited business men, old men sit on benches in mirador parks and do crossword puzzles. Instead of obnoxious rap, the melancholy sounds of fado emerge from a street band or a CD player and blanket the area with a soothing sentimental sound. As soon as you leave the handful of hills that make up the Old Lisboa all this disappears, and you are back in the modern world.
Did I mention that it had rained every day so far ? I must have forgotten. How could I ? They weren't the kind of all day monsoonal downpours that happen in the mountains. It was just a little bit of rain each day. During the afternoon the sky would get a little darker, very slowly. It happened so slowly that you forgot to notice. Then in the afternoon a few drops appeared, and by late afternoon people ran for cover. In an hour it was all over.
A whole week had passed, and when I flicked on my cycling computer, it still only showed a single digit other than 0's. I finally wanted to get to the bicycle part of the bicycle tour. I knew what it was like to ride in rain. But the memories weren't fresh any more. They had time to mellow out and dull over the last four years. They didn't let me feel the wetness any more. They just told me, when you ride in the rain you get wet. Besides, it only seemed to rain an hour each day.
The plan for the first days was to follow the Atlantic coast South, to the most Southwestern corner of Europe. It was Sunday morning. The short ride down to the river to catch a ferry across the Rio Tejo showed off a sleepy city. - So much concrete, so few cars. Left behind was a lot of unfinished tourist business. The exploration monument of Belem receded away from the ferry. I just caught a glimpse of the likenesses of Vasco de Gama and others prancing out onto the river on a slanted wedge of rock. What better place than this monument do discovery, to start your own private exploration to see just what exactly is out there ? Initial discoveries were nothing world shattering. But then, Columbus saw mainly ocean too for quite a while. Suburbs are out there. The other side of the river revealed itself as consisting of loosely spaced villages with heavily populated suburbs down the coast. But the weather was starting to make more of an impression than the surroundings once again. It rained, in hearnest, repeated short bonesoaking downpours.
The rain had already done its job. I was wetter than a wash cloth. The only real reason I still wore my rain jacket was because there was no reason to take it off. Resigned to being wet, I asked a man in the wooded coastal suburbs for directions on how to get to Sesembra. With the help of an umbrella he was busy unloading the contents of his car to his comfortable suburban home, nestled into green soaking woods. "Sesembra ?" I asked, holding a copy of a map that was about to dissolve. There was enough room under his umbrella for both of us, and he offered me half of the dry space under the umbrella. That was a very nice gesture. Next thing I knew, he was telling me to hold the umbrella, while he ran inside the house, and he didn't even have a raincoat, much less an umbrella - any more. That was a lot more than a nice gesture. It was determined selfless hospitality. I was standing in the rain straddling my bicycle, holding an umbrella, completely wet - what a silly picture - wondering what would happen next. My thoughts were that maybe he rain inside to get a better map, hopefully one printed on water resistant paper. He returned shortly with a charming woman fluent in English. Five minutes later I sat inside at the kitchen table, being repeatedly offered tea, bread and cake. Daniella had a degree in human resources, studied in Lisboa, and now couldn't find a job because of the recession. It was a conversation where we fell over each other backwards saying great things about each others countries. I lamented the fact that Americans generally don't use their school vacations as much to make their own discoveries. Instead they spend their time looking for summer jobs. "But when they work in the summer, that is an experience also, and it would be good if I would have that now". was her opinion expressed in perfect English. We had to find some common ground. "If people in the US traveled more they wouldn't support Bush's war on Iraq now" I tried. - "That is true they are more ethnocentric" she said. That's just the word I would have been looking for, had I known it existed. There's nothing like going to Portugal to get an English lesson. Oh yes, I got directions to Sesembra too, on a handdrawn map, and an additional map of Portugal and Spain that was much better than the one I was carrying.
The bad weather was driven onto the coast in atmospheric waves from the Atlantic. Two days ago the "bad weather part" of these waves was simple rain. The "good weather part" was just milky atmosphere. Now "bad weather" meant open faucet streaming rain that laid a 1/2 inch carpet of water on the entire road. "Good weather" meant light drizzle. If this had happened a week into the ride I just would have stopped. But excitement tends to build up at the beginning of a tour, to a point where you don't want to let anything stop you, least of all a little cloudburst that shows every sign of flooding the streets. I got wet.
The ride was quickly turning into a series of sprints in between stops waiting for the rain to stop. The second day in Melides I sheltered under a large canopy, shared by three old men with plenty of time on their hands to drive home their corresponding points with neverending intensity to each each other. Under the large canopy was also a German detained on the way to his car. "Now you really got a bum deal ... I could give you a ride ... I got a big car" (Ja du hasst ja ganz schlechte Karten ...Ich koennte Dich ne Strecke mitnehmen. Habn grosses Auto") - "Thanks, but I want to ride a continuous path". The next day I was actually wondering if my answer had been just a little too hasty. Rain accumulated about 3/4 of an inch on the road, and these were well constructed roads, roads with drainage in mind. It felt like somebody poured from a large coffee pot, right onto my head.
If I had taken the map out
to see where I was going it would have dissolved, and the soggy mess
blown away. So I just rode one of the spurs down to the ocean, hoping
some dry cheap quarto would be waiting for me there. Instead it was an
entry point to a wild Atlantic seashore. This would have been a
beautiful and impressive spot in sunny weather. Under these conditions
it was still impressive. The waves beat onto the coast in white walls of
foam and mist, the Atlantic in uproar. Gigantic grown over sanddunes
competed with the waves for size. It was an impressive sight. I enjoyed
it - just long enough to turn the bike around and head back. Still it
was an impressive 15 seconds. It was pretty early in the trip to spend
the evening drying my clothes over an electric heater. But in Sines I
did just that. My new map was going through its second soak dry cycle in
as many days.
When bicycling over a pass the object is usually to get to the top. When bicycling on the coast the object is to bike on it, or as near as possible to it. My 1:400 000 Michelin map of Southern Portugal lead me to several stretches of biking with waves. The 1:600 000 "GAP mapa de Portugal" that was given to me on the other hand features an uninterrupted line signifying a road right along the coast. One thing's for certain. It's faster to follow the main road inland. It's practical to choose the detours to the ocean selectively. A ride following the coast as closely as possible on mountain bike stretches would be a great venture for a bicycle club intimately familiar with the local conditions.
Approaching Sagres the terrain becomes bare and windswept. This used to be the end of the world in 400 BC. Trying to see the landscape through ancient eyes you can imagine why. The coast here is like the broken edge of a giant oatmeal cookie. The craggy limestone ends in an abrupt cliff to the see. A wild spongy carpet of wildflowers draws moisture out of the otherwise bare limestone. Hundreds of years later the narrowest part of the Mediterranean had turned out to be a cultural wall. Iberians were now embroiled in conflicts with the Moors (Moslems) across in Africa, stories of the lands south of here told of dragons, unicorns and cyclopses. To the west there was only water. But a small number of men suspected otherwise. They were like a secret society, spread over many cities and islands in Europe, Genoa, Barcelona, Venice, the Canaries and Majorca. Henry the Navigator brought these navigators and seafarers together, and built a fort and maritime school in this spot. His declared aims were to explore the world. But the original personal impulse was a response to the fact his younger brother was held hostage by the moslem Moors on the Moroccan coast. The result of this maritime school in the end was the Portuguese age of exploration. Diaz sailed around the cape of good hope. De Gama accomplished where Columbus had failed, finding a sea route to India. When he finally called the inhabitants of a continent Indians, it didn't have to be prefixed with the word "American", a hundred years later. After Henry the Navigator's maritime school at what is now Sagres, Portuguese maps were the best in the world. Now there were drawings of elephants, rhinoceroses and negros, instead of dragons, unicorns and cyclopses.
Bicycling into Sagres from the North you are greeted by two gigantic white concrete lips, between you and the sea. These are the remnants of Henry the Navigators Maritime school. You can wander around the inside and look at the remnants of a gigantic sun dial, or wonder just what the purpose of this newly built cafeteria in the middle of the old fort may be. My conclusion was that its purpose was to extract money from a few stray tourists. My favorite view of the gigantic white lips of maritime exploration was from the seat of my bicycle, from a few miles distance. The occasion was an evening ride to a point where the craggy oatmeal cookie crust jutted out into the ocean the furthest, the very South Western end of Europe. This wasn't exactly a wilderness ride. Campingmobiles lined the road. "Last sausage stand before Africa" announced one mobile grilling stand in German, housed in a camper. But this was still a historic maritime crossroads, Cabo de Sao Vicente. This is where Columbus, de Gama and Diaz waited for good weather before heading out into the unknown Atlantic or South around Africa.
Modern Sagres also lives from the ocean. But it has no historic connection to the ancient maritime fort. Sagres is famous with surfers during the mid summer months. Cyclists can often take advantage of the infrastructure created for other cultural groups, during their off season. This is the case here. It was still much too cold for surfing. But the same number of private and hotel rooms were available as during surfing season. Paradoxically it took me longer to find a room though, because now I just had to find the nicest, most perfectly located yet cheapest room, of the hundreds of possibilities available. But that's my problem. In a way, windswept modern Sagres has more things in common with American towns than with a historic Iberian town. The highest building towering over the town is a watertower, not a church steeple. The building on the highest hill is a hotel, not a cathedral or moorish castle. On further inspection you are put back where you are quickly. Children kick soccer balls. Old men play an old ball game in the park. The objective is to toss a big marble as close as possible to the first marble. The park is windy and the benches have a neglected appearance under the palms in all that sand.
The ride from Lisbon along the coast to the the most southwestern corner of Europe took four days, covered about 250 miles and included just about every bicycling condition. It included a ferry ride to an unspoiled spit of forest on the ocean (South of Setubal), sand dunes creeping onto the empty hard top. Further South the picture included flemish cow field pastoral scenes with an Atlantic beyond (North of Zambujero do Mar). It also included unavoidable busy narrow potholed roads, with more than their share of nontheless pleasantly considerate delivery vans. Another leg consisted of circumnavigating oil terminals and consequently ending up lost on an unplanned detour via a large autobahn type highway (South of Sines). As compensation a few dirt tracks on the beach were also on the menu. In hindsight walking sometimes seems more appropriate than riding a bike there. But then again there were also spacious modern roads with wide shoulders, surrounded by forests of modern wind mills whirling their life away (between Aljezur and Sagres).
This variety of conditions is reflected in the variety I feel about them. There are roads I'm glad I took. There are roads I'm not glad I took. That is to say, I didn't like them. There are roads I'm not glad I didn't take, meaning I think I missed something. In this category belong a coastal stretch through the "Serra de Arrabida" near Setubal, and also another there and back detour to the coast from Aljezur to Monte Clerigo. Even from a distance these two places looked very interesting. The only element missing in this two by two matrix is the combination "roads I'm glad I didn't take". It would be ignorant to damn a road one doesn't know first wheel on a bicycle. Maybe George Will was right when he said "I never met a road I didn't like".
I already mentioned the variety of weather. The ride included ample rain, but also some sunshine. Even though I was heading South, the number of palm trees was consistently decreasing with increasing Southerliness. Finally there was a last forlorn looking yucca soaking in the rain surrounded by verdant agricultural fields. It's surprising but true. The Atlantic coast North of Lisbon is actually warmer and drier than this southern stretch of Atlantic coast, before it turns eastwards near Sagres. As usual it's due to the ocean current.
I was ready for total cultural emersion into the Portuguese Algarve coast. My route turned off the main road towards little coastal hamlets in search of the real Portugal, and dove into the Algarve experience, in a manner of speaking. Okay, I'm exaggerating a little. All right, I'm exaggerating a lot. For now the Portuguese Algarve was more appropriately the English Algarve. Near Salema a bar advertised "Tonight live, Manchester United against Liverpool". The T shirt on a man read "Eric Bourdon in concert". Another shirt featured the philosophical outburst "I have fallen. I can't reach my beer". When I asked somebody "speak English?" he answered matter of factly "I am English". That should answer that question ! It also made it easier to get my own question answered. The next question pertained to the whereabouts of the smallest road along the coast. Now that the sun had come out to stay, my route hugged the coast like a bear hug. But it was a short welcome hug. The road swept in wide curves across the rocky 100 foot high cliffs. A particularly beautiful point was a lone castle ruin on a dirt road right before Burgau. Since I can't find any mention of it in any of the travel guides, I can't tell you much about the history. Also consequently, it will probably remain in its peaceful state at the end of a dirt road a while longer. It was the last unspoiled viewpoint overlooking the cookie crust coast for quite a while. Then the condo maze began. New white cookie cutter real estate covered far reaching vistas as far as the eye could see.
Just because a town is fringed with cookie cutter condos, doesn't imply automatically that it has no heart or history. Take this night's stop for instance, Lagos. I had almost given up hope of ever penetrating the layers of hotels and condos that surround this city like an onion. Finally I rolled through the old white cored center, along the wide tiled beach promenade. Here families parade in peaceful coexistence with backpackers and package holiday makers. All get the same view of the narrow yacht harbor. On the other side of the river like inlet yet another type of tourist congregates around the harbour, RVers. All around the harbour, life is one big parade, with all types of tourists scrutinizing all other types. People watching is an obligatory experience. You can't look around them. As a matter of fact, the streets are crammed with people like cans with sardines. Consequently pictures of old colonial house are best taken early on a Sunday morning to minimize the ice cream licking tourists on the picture, and impart that peaceful holiday feeling during the viewing experience.
But unlike many other
Algarve resorts this isn't exclusively package tourism country. There's
a large backpacker contingent present, and there are also rooms catering
to their needs. This is a town where an old gentle Portuguese woman can
turn into a clever bargaining business shark, just because she wants to
rent out a room in her house. I was about to set foot into the a narrow
dusty hotel entrance in the old historic centre. That was when she asked
me if I was in need of a "quarto" (room). As we walked the
endless six blocks to the room, I paid close attention on how to get
back to the hotel, should it become necessary. Finally she triumphantly
pushed open double doors on a small but clean windowless cubicle. A
naked light bulb hung from its electric cord in the middle of the room
like a fly catcher. 20 Euro she demanded screaming like an auctioneer.
So far prices had held to an unwritten standard. I was able to get a
simple room for 15 E almost everywhere I had stayed (except Setubal), a
room that included much more than a light bulb in the adornment
department. Luckily I could still find my six blocks back to the hotel.
But then I got a second offer. This time it was the windowed version of
the room in the same house. And the price was 2 nights for 35 Euro.
Viewing the family pictures in the balcony was included in the price. So
there you have it. Lagos does have a heart, even if it is a bit crusty
in places. But does it have history ? It does. A long time before the
yacht harbor was built, this was Henry the Navigator's favorite
residence. He made the town a base for the new African trade and
Europe's first slave market was established.
After only one day of battling traffic and fighting the condo maze I was ready for a vacation. After only one day of full force tourism, I was looking for a day tour without tourism. A ride up to Monchique and the classic 900 meter high biking summit of Foia was there to help. Away from the coastal main road, I was in a different Portugal all together. Now there were wide spacious roads without cars, lined by bushes producing oversized white flowers by the millions. Against the light you could mistake these flowers for millions of pieces of toilet paper stuck in the bushes. But this is not Mexico or South America. It's Europe. There were definitely some kind of large white buds. New fragrances tempted heavily breathing nostrils, lemon trees, figs, citrus smells. The traffic noises were gone too, and revealed the rural sounds of the land, the muted distant barking of dogs, lots of dogs, small but well maintained dogs, not the scruffy close-to-death latin American scoundrel variety. Then the route entered a dense forest of eucalyptus, chestnut and cork trees. The trees started to act more like bushes, growing sidewards and downwards and all around, as if their objective was to take up all the empty space around them with their with curving limbs.
Above the town of Monchique the fog became denser. I decided to ride up to the summit of Foia anyway, even if it promised to look like any other mountain in the fog. Finally the fog was indistinguishable from clouds. Faint outlines of trees next to the road started to disappear completely. I guessed I was on an alpine road. I must have been above treeline. But it was also possible that the trees were just further than 5 feet from the road. I couldn't see any further than that. Alpine switchbacks coaxed me further up the mountain. Bodies of water lined the road. They could have been alpine lakes. But considering how far I could see, they could also be very large puddles of runoff from the last storm. Finally I got to a top. I realized it was the top because the road ended in a large empty parking lot. I got off the bike and could make out two huge blinking lights. What were these two red eyes that pierced the clouds ? Was this a light signal to warn planes maybe ? Or some kind of transmission tower ? No, I took one step towards them and discovered they belonged to a bus five feet in front of me. They only seemed that far away in these clouds. The engine was shut off but its rear lights were blinking. As I carefully navigated around the bus, careful not to loose sight of it, I discovered much to my surprise that it was parked next to a building. It was a spacious touristic summit station. Inside there was no fog. Curious about what I was missing here, I looked for postcards of the view from here in good weather. Needless to say, I found some. I saw these postcards as my prize for riding up here. Yes, there was a purpose to it. After all, these post cards could only be obtained here. Further down in Monchique they sold postcards of Monchique. But only up here on the magic peak of Foia did they sell postcards featuring the peak - well rounded mountain would be a better term - now that I saw for the first time what I was standing on. The climb was worth it, and it was necessary to obtain this particular post card.
Maybe you still think that
this is a pretty shaky reason for the 900 meter climb in the fog up
here. But thanks to this post card I can now tell you what you can
expect in good weather. Yes, Foia is indeed above treeline. A sweeping
view stretches across hills bubbling up like green pillows below. The
top of the peak is strewn with ton sized boulders on a carpet of tundra
like grass. As for the alpine lakes, I can't find any trace of them. So
what I saw must have been very large puddles. Two people sit on top of a
boulder in short shirt sleeves and contemplate the perfect atmospheric
conditions between them and a faint coastal haze on the horizon.
Back to reality. It looked different. I wore all the clothes I had with me on top of one another. With the post card wrapped in water tight plastic, and safely tucked into my panniers I shivered my way back down to Monchique.
Next to post card viewing, the most visually satisfying experience of the ride was the town of Monchique itself. The 17th century Francisican monastery of Monchique, or what's left of it, was a scene reminiscent of Latin America. A screaming transistor radio was parked in front of the ruin. The walls looked condemned and ready to collapse. They were protected by two hissing geese and a few cats, and a dog. Refrigerators and Garbage lined the old rooms. In the middle of this illustrious assemblage a staircase lead to a home where people live.
Another attraction on this route lies further down the mountain. It makes a good pause from all the coasting one does. It's a row of houses that have been a thermal bath since Roman times, caldas de Monchique. This inland ride was the best bicycling surprise that Portugal had in store for me.
The Iberian peninsula has a long and illustrious history. But there is one period that confronts the bicycle tourer on a daily basis. Every day I had rolled through at least one town, crowned by a moorish castle. Invariably, directly adjacent to it stood a catholic church. This juxtaposition from radically different cultures symbolizes the most unique part of the Iberian peninsula's history and culture.
Moors is a term used collectively for moslems of arab and north african decent. After Mohammed's death in Mecca in 622, Islam spread quickly into North Africa. Spain had a more attractive climate than North Africa, and it was politically unstable. For those reasons, an invasion was as tempting as it was probably inevitable. Only briefly were the conquering muslims under the control of the ancient islamic capital, Baghdad. The "el Andalus" moslems quickly achieved virtual independence from Baghdad, proclaiming themselves as a "western islamic empire". The islamic culture of the time was far more advanced in terms of architecture, philosophy and craftsmanship than the feudal kingdoms of Iberia. Moslems stayed in Spain and Portugal for a period of 700 years. Then they were completely expelled. That is a period that is longer than has passed since Columbus had discovered America. During a fraction of that time two world wars have been fought. During a fraction of that time, alliances between European countries have been destroyed and new ones forged. The country called the "United States" has existed for less than a third of that length of time. And still, after 700 years of rule by the moslems, these two cultures did not merge.
These were not 700 years of war between Christians and Moslems. Largely they were 700 years of relatively peaceful coexistence. After 7 centuries of living together it is no surprise that Moorish influence is prevalent in Spanish culture. But it is amazing that, after this enormous amount of time, these cultures were not fused into one. Instead gaping cultural differences still resulted in a war of dominance of one over the other. The result was reconquest by the Christians. The catholic church fought back exhibiting far less tolerance than the Moslems had practiced on the Christians. The Catholics became synonymous with burnings on the cross and the inquisition. They were religious bigots that killed and expelled Moors along with Jews. 7 centuries of coexistence was not enough to build a lasting peace between these two cultural groups, the followers of the Koran, and the those that like to quote at least the new part of the bible. The mosques were destroyed and their place taken over by churches that had to be at least equally impressive. And that's how the church got next to the moorish castle. Every day you cycle past more castles and churches that follow the same outline of history, and every day you can learn a new variation of the same plot.
7 centuries really is a
long time. Compared to the seven centuries, after which Islam and
Christianity failed to continue to coexist on the Iberian Peninsula, the
Israelis and the Palestinians have only just begun. In the few decades
they haven't even made it to the point of peaceful coexistence
yet. Lately there's a new conflict between part of the western
world and the old land of cultural Islam, Bush's invasion of Iraq. Did
the socalled intellectual architects of this invasion really think they
would be welcomed with open arms ? Maybe they thought they would be
greeted with signs like "Americans, Take our oil, please
!!" It's hard to believe that Mr Wolfowitz and Donald Duck, I
mean Rumsfeld, however ethnocentric they may be, really believed this.
As for Dubeyah Bush himself, well yes, he does give the impression he
truly believed this. But the impressions of a moron can be deceiving.
Just take that story about atomic weapons in Iraq. He had half the world
believing him. That just proves that a moron can be very dangerous, in
spite of his demented mind. But how convenient that Mr Cheney's old
company, Haliburton, can reap such a large profit from reconstructing
the oil supply. How convenient for the industry that is responsible for
Dubeyah's fortune, the oil industry. Reconstruction means more work and
profit for Bush Favorite Inc. It's financed with money mostly loaned to
Iraq, partially from yet other countries. How can you loose ? It also
means a stimulated US economy under Bush's watch. Maybe someday a US
friendly Iraq will even deliver more oil onto a "world"
market. Definition of "world" will be provided by an Iraq
administration, subject to Bush approval. Someday it may even still
happen. Oil may flow out of Iraq in boundless quantities, even if that
didn't happen quite as fast as originally envisioned by the old men in
the white house. Everybody will be happy, right ? Or maybe not. That's
how it looks from November 2003. It would be interesting to know how the
story will be told in 7 centuries. Maybe then Bush will be regarded as a
great scholar with great forsight an immesurable interest in the
cultures of the world. Right !
As I was saying, it seems like every moorish castle on this bike trip just has to have a catholic church standing next to it. The next example of this stood high on a hill in Silves. The Moors were driven relatively early from Silves, about 200 years earlier than from their last stronghold in Granada. Silves was close enough to the coast to be considered on the crusaders route. So on the way to plundering the holy land, it was economically feasible to evict moslems from towns close to the route. In 1189 the king of Portugal enlisted the help of two new bands of crusaders. They stormed the nearby town of Alvor and killed its 6000 inhabitants and briefly conquered Silves. After the crusaders had left, Silves remained under Moorish rule another 50 years. The next king of Portugal, Alfonso III, enlisted 3500 English, Flemish and German crusaders. The quick initial success was followed by a long bitter siege. But by 1249, Silves was declared to be free of arab Moors. In another 20 years the Algarve was declared a Portuguese province.
I knew it, I should have stayed inland in the "high Algarve". But the search for an ideal vantage point of Silves, draped over a hill, made me ride towards the coast. From this vantage point, you could appreciate the thick sand box like walls of the castle, on top of the hill. Those thick dead walls are all that's left of the moors, in this and all the other hill towns. The reconquest of Iberia was a religious war. The rich minarets were replaced with churches and chapels. These were deliberately designed not be any less attention catching than the minarets they replaced.
It was a great vantage point. But it lead me back to the overbuilt coast. Silves was the last town with a human feel to it for a while. Before me was the package vacation resorts of Albuffeira and its various assorted praias. But I can report great things even about that ride. The quality of the shoulder next to my N-123 was first rate. It was a fitting space from which to observe the insanity of overdevelopment and massive package beach tourism, even if it was a bit noisy. The concrete coast reached its zenith near Albuffeira. White poured concrete came in several shapes and sizes. Each shape was replicated hundreds of times, 2 story shapes one after the other, sometimes alternating with its mirror image, then back to the original, boxed together into one large concrete dessert. The high income territory along the marina of Albuffeira was another example of a few architectural forms replicated ad nauseum, Here it was a collection of 5 story polygonal shapes. They were starshaped buildings and looked like housing projects in Manhattan painted white. Another difference were a few added circular windows. I suppose they were meant to impart that exotic holiday feel. Precariously oversized vents on top represented another adventure in architecture. Another monument to package vacations was a skyscraper in Albuffeira. Well, it started out as a skyscraper of hotel or condo rooms. Apparently still more rooms for sunseekers were needed, because plastered on its sides were more polygonal habitats, so that the whole thing looked like a beehive that was getting too high. It was a tower of Babel to holiday makers.
By the time the route
reached Faro the weather had changed again. It was raining - again. But
the surroundings had changed too. The scenery had changed too. The rocky
perches on the coast had been replaced by sandy beaches. The mega scale
tourist developments also were past.
Long travelling requires preparation. You read some books about travel in Europe. You may even check what the TV has to offer, even if it isn't directed specifically at cyclists. So you spend a significant amount of time watching the country's eminent authority on the subject on TV. Many a Sunday evening was devoted to Rick Steves and his "Travel in Europe" series of PBS fame. When Rick speaks of Portugal he spends ample time on the "capella de ossos", a chapel of bones, a small church appendix that is decorated with as many human bones disinterred from the adjacent cemetery as it can hold. Apparently there are two famous examples of this in Portugal, one in Evora and the other here where I was, in the old capital of the Algarve region, Faro. I don't remember which one of the two capellas Rick recommends personally. In any case, I was very close to a tourist attraction, recommended by Rick himself personally. But fate did not want me to enter the Capella de Ossos. The closest way that I would experience the bones, was to remain the comfort of my chair in front of the TV. It was Easter Sunday. Sunday was the only day of the week when the tourist attraction, and occasional place of worship, was closed. But Easter Sunday had other advantages not mentioned by Rick Steves, but greatly appreciated by the cycle tourist. The roads were deserted. The pracas of Faro were wide open spaces. You can lean your bicycle in front of the statue of King Alfonso III and photograph it without people. Back then Alfonso finalized the conquest over the Moors and established the kingdom in its final stage. Today his stone replica held out a crucifix over a touring bicycle as if to bless it for the rest of the ride. I took a picture of it. I'm assuming the rock didn't mind.
The streets were wonderfully empty. But things got even better. Tavira has all the attractions, you by now expect from an Algarve town, a large Moorish castle overlooking colorful slate roofs, an interesting church where the mosque stood for hundreds of years. In Tavira it's just easier to appreciate these things. You don't have to fight for them. You need not negotiate your way through a jungle of sterile hotels and second homes. The castle in Tavira in modern times has been refunctionalized as a huge polygonal sandbox. Stairs lead up to the 20 foot high walls. There you can climb around without being restricted by devices designed to keep you from falling off. From each side a new view of a church or the river below opens up. The inside of the sandbox is now a tropical flower and tree paradise. This emphasizes the feeling of tranquility and peace that permeates this town. At times like these it seems we've come a long way since we used to pour down hot tar at one another from up here. This was the best castle yet, and the first one that was free, which makes it even better. Tavira's street picture is not exclusively formed by narrow angular white washed streets. An even larger part of the street architecture is played by elegant mansions that were built during the wealthy period between the 16th and 18th century. They flow down from the hills to the river Gilao and terminate in a parade of balconies and rusty rod iron towards the river. It's the kind of town centre that makes it impossible to leave before you have rolled down every street on your bicycle.
The day ended early on the
Spanish border in Villa Real do Santo Antonio, due to its relaxing
atmosphere on the Atlantic. The moorish Algarve towns were now all
behind me. Villa Real has a large relaxing rectangular grid, that makes
orientation a systematic process again, not the intuitive guessing game
that has been the rule. The man responsible for this grid pattern is
also responsible for the other square grid pattern so far encountered on
this tour. His name is the Marques de Pombal. The town was destroyed by
a tidal wave in the 17th century. He ordered the town rebuilt with rocks
dragged here all the way from Lisbon, a project which took an incredibly
short five months, and that includes the rebuilding process.
Now that it was flat again, the cycle tourers reappeared. I spotted two English men heading into the Interior, then a north european couple, then a large group with identical panniers. Everybody I talked to was complaining about the traffic. I thought this was peace personified. I didn't have to ask if they came through Albuffeira. For me the traffic was the calm after the storm. At least the storm, I mean the wind, has been consistently from the back.
I said "obrigado" to the last friendly, calm Portuguese woman from whom I rented a private room. She had turtles in her yard. Where I wanted to cross into Spain there was the most impressive castle by the sea yet, Castro Martim. It has been protecting the Southern border of Portugal since the 13th century. Next to it is a modern suspension bridge to Spain. But it does not allow bicycle traffic. Back to San Antonio and its ferrys ! Finally on the ferry, two other bikes made the crossing, both custom built Mercians featuring old Brooks leather seats and top brake cables. The couple that owned them were at least in their 60s. They lived in England, but had been visiting San Antonio for six weeks. They paid 18 euros a day for a room and two meals a day. The time between the two meals they usually spent on a ride along the almost Dutch flat coast, or visiting one of the castles on few hills that are not flat. What a great way to retire, and what better place to do it in !
The ride along the Algarve coast covered four days and about 300 miles, including the day trip to Monchique, and all my various shopping for food miles. During the ferry crossing to Spain it was time to recall the things that I had learned to like about this gentle country. Much of it is reflected in its music. Much of it is influenced to one degree or another by Fado. Fado has similarities with blues. It's a music born from pain. But's that where the similarities end. While American blues is probably the simplest music anybody has thought of - unless somebody found a way to make music using only two cords in the meantime - Fado is harmonically and rhythmically complex. The feeling it gets across is not so much pain, but something more subtle, melancholy. This music stands in contrast to the boisterous Spanish flamenco South of here, just like the gentle Portuguese nature stands in contrast to the louder more forceful Spanish nature. The Portuguese language with its softer sounds also is more appropriate for its music, the fado. I carried a little recording device with me with which I could make recordings from interesting radio programs during the evening, and a within a week Fado influenced music had become one of my favorite musical expressional forms in the world. It's almost never heard outside of Portugal. Brazilian Music in contrast is widely heard throughout the world. This seems very strange since the two are closely related. I once read the Brazilians described as the most musical people in the world, and once you hear Portuguese Fado you can hear where the musicality came from.
First I wanted to call this
section the post card coast, because of all the peaceful scenes
available on post cards here. I am convinced almost all of these images
originated in a previous decade when the coast was not as developed.
Then I wanted to call this section the concrete coast, because of what
much of it has become. But maybe the Algarve Coast is the most
appropriate title, because there are really many beautiful spots along
it, peaceful ones too, like Foia, Tavira or San Antonio.
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