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Willie Weir : October 28th, 2010

A Transit Nerd’s Dream Day in Lisbon

The goal. To ride on every trolley and funicular line in Lisbon in one day.

Kat and I leave our hotel/hostel (no bunk beds, but a shared kitchen and bathrooms) and walk two minutes to the Metro. We descend the steps, buy tickets and catch the blue line toward downtown.

Some of the folks around us have the look of boredom and drudgery of daily commuters. But we are excited. Giddy even. This will be a day filled with transit in a big beautiful city.  I love riding any kind of transit.  Give me a bus pass and I am one happy camper. But trains and trolleys?–I’m seven-year-old-at-Disneyland-happy.

We get off at the Restauradores station and walk less than a block to our first funicular stop. Funiculars (here in Lisbon they are called “Ascensores”, are vertical trains made to climb up Continue reading A Transit Nerd’s Dream Day in Lisbon

Willie Weir : October 27th, 2010


Willie Weir : October 24th, 2010

Costa da Prata (The Silver Coast)

Willie Weir : October 22nd, 2010

Phases of Friendship

The moon and I have an on again off again relationship. When I’m at home in the city, weeks can go by without us even acknowledging each other. I don’t know where the moon is or what phase it’s in. I catch a glimpse of it every once in a while … when it’s not cloudy or raining.

But on a bicycle trip, we’re buddies.

I can always tell you the phase the moon is in while I’m on the road. The moon is my light source to pitch a tent, or a sliver of beauty against a clear blue ski.

We are cycling in Portugal right now. The moon is a waxing gibbous, which means it will be a lantern for camping for the next week or so. Then it will begin to rise later and later after the sunset. But that will have benefits too. Less ambient light to gaze at the stars.

I won’t go to bed with the moon glow on our tent, but I will say hello to my friend in the morning and throughout the day.

Sadly, our trip will end. I’ll head back to the city and the moon and I will go back to being acquaintances, rather than the best of friends.

Originally posted on the Adventure Cycling Association’s blog.

Willie Weir : October 18th, 2010

Coimbra, Portugal

Kat Marriner : October 16th, 2010

Home Stay

A week of camping, and a night after things went growl in the night, I declared it a night NOT for wild camping. It had been a lonely day on the road less traveled. Parts of it gloriously wild and beautiful along river canyons, other parts were the planalto (high plains) for which the region is named. Friendly smiles from locals, but few towns had any kind of hotels, so that left only “the ask”. That means being bold enough to pedal up to strangers and ask if there is a place we might pitch our tent for the night.

It usually begins with spotting someone outside, even better if there is an obvious patch of ground nearby. We pedaled up to a threesome in their later years, and were politely informed that we might try down by the town water fountain … perhaps pitch our tent on the small hill behind it. Moving along, we wave to a man with a large grassy field between his house and the road. Circling back, again we try our friendliest smiles and ask if we might pitch our tent. Again we were encouraged to check down the road by the water fountain. Reaching the water stop, it was clear that the only place was directly next to the road in the small pull-out drive strewn with debris—not a good, safe or comfortable place to set up our tent. It is times like these, facing the 3rd strike and we are out on the road as dark once again approaches, that my chest grows tight and anxiety creeps in. We are most at the mercy of the kindness of strangers and I am washed by doubt.

Pedaling slowly through the small village of Malta where houses mixed with orchards and barn yards, we spot a small empty field with a low fence and open gate. It was entirely visible for the world to see if we camped there, but no obvious person to ask.

Our hosts

Across the street was a nice home with rose garden and small patch of green grass. It looks nicer than most, but closed up and quiet … and we assume no one is home and are reluctant to even make the trip to the front door. But Willie does – he’s the brave one, you know – and as he walks up the drive a head pops up and we realize the lady of the house is planting in her garden. With a wary look in her eye, she tries to understand our question, doesn’t, so promptly whips out her cell phone and punches in a number. A moment later, she thrusts the phone to Willie and he explains in his warmest, most agreeable voice that we are bicycling Portugal and there are no camp sites in the area. We need only a small place to put our tent for the night – we have food and water and everything we need – just a small, secure place … maybe that field next door? The voice on the phone only says, “OK, I understand” and the phone is back to the lady of the house. By now, her husband had joined us, and we all wait for the cell phone translation.

To watch her face, is to watch enlightenment, even joy. She confirms that we want only one night, then the phone snaps shut and a quick conversation between husband and wife and we are shown our options. The carport! The vegetable garden! The chicken shed area! We select the area next to the vegetable garden and the soil is quickly smoothed with a rake and ready for our tent. Just as we begin to assemble our tent, our hosts call to us and I expect to be encouraged to take the carport in case of rain. Instead, they open a door and show us into a “mother-in-law” apartment of sorts. It’s complete with kitchen, bathroom and shower, long table, keg of house wine, three motorcycles, and plenty or room for our two bikes and sleeping pads. Without a doubt, we are invited to forget the tent and move inside. The shower is pointed out so importantly that I wonder if we smell like our several days pedaling and wild camping.

The gesture of kindness and goodwill is overwhelming and intoxicating. Soon we are in conversation about gardens and fruit, and out comes marmelo marmalade (quince marmalade), apples from their tree, tomatoes from their garden, wine from their keg (yes, just like a beer keg), a stronger drink made with wine and aguardiente, and finally prosunto (prosciutto). We are gifted a feast and I am thankful, more than they will know.

Eventually, we are left to take our showers and settle in for the night, tucked in with extra blankets and pillows too.

Breakfast service

Morning comes and we rise and pack our bags and make a simple egg breakfast with our eggs and their stove. Just as we put away our cooking supplies, a knock on the door and our hostess arrives with tea and milk, toast, sausage, cheese, more sausage, and ham. We feast all over again laughing at our good fortune, thanking our hostess with warm smiles and gratitude.

Our language is hardly enough to express our thanks and appreciation for their generosity, I can only hope that the light in my eyes says more than words ever could.

After filling my pannier with a dozen more apples and a jar of peach jam for the road, we wave good bye. Leaving behind a small picture of Seattle, a word of thanks, and our names and address hoping one day to repay the favor.

Kat Marriner : October 15th, 2010

Something’s Out There

It was a long and splendid day. Up with the sunrise, blissful ride through vineyards, and a train ride to the end of the line. This would be the last we would see of the Douro River, the river we had crossed to enter Portugal, then pedaled down to it’s mouth at Oporto and up river again. We pedaled out of Pocinho, the whistle-stop town at the end of the train line, into the barren hill-country around 5pm. The road climbed out of the river valley and we slowly passed a traveler with a backpack walking up the same dusty road. Beyond the river’s edge, the land was bone dry and barren.

There was no real plan, so when we entered the town of Vila Nova de Foz Coa we had only small hopes of finding a place to stay. No luck with the youth hostel, we wondered through town finding little open and one hotel too expensive for just sleeping. The sun was setting, so we made a quick stop at the supermarket at the edge of town to round out our camp food.

Gone was the bucolic vineyards with white-washed houses flowing mile after mile, the edge of town brought an abrupt end to civilization and the fast descent into barren rock canyon and emptiness of a foreboding landscape. Any hope of finding a family or farm to ask for a place to camp was replaced by the knowledge that we were completely alone. Pedaling now with red lights blazing, we make out a couple of paths leading into ancient olive groves at the bottom of the 4 kms steep downhill. We opt to explore one in fading light and find a small flat ledge by an dry creek where small pools of water remained from a recent rain.

Darkness was coming quickly, but time for a quick “water bottle shower” and then on to making dinner of tortellini and tomato sauce with headlamps blazing. Surrounding us was absolute quiet except the hiss of our stove.

Something unknown, unremembered caught Willie’s ear as he turned off the camp stove and his hand shot out towards me and an intense “Schh!”. Then we both heard it. A step. The distinct, heavy crunch – a sound that carried weight. Two deep breaths came out of the darkness followed by a low, rumbling throaty sound.

Our headlamps couldn’t catch sight of anything. What was out there just beyond our light? We saw no movement as we waited in stillness listening for movement in the crisp-dry olive leaves.

Wild, panicky thoughts cross my mind, and I begin to make noise thinking noise might frighten “it” away. Simultaneously I consider if it’s possible to run to the road. If we did make it to the road, there was no one on the road. Would it follow? Would it charge? Was it gone? We hadn’t heard another sound although our ears strained into the darkness.

Terrified of what we could not see, did not know, I asked Willie to eat his dinner while I kept the light shining out making our circle of visibility 15 feet or so. Came time for me to eat and it was all I could do to choke down the dinner as my eyes constantly scanned the edge of light. Clean up was fast and my light flashed into the darkness again and again not believing that heavy foot could retreat without making a sound.

That night we placed the bicycles as barricades – one at the head and one at the left. To our right just a couple of feet was the 5 foot drop-off to the water shed. At our feet were all our panniers. Still deeply shaken, I entered the tent and laid down leaving all my clothes on – even my shoes – in case I needed to make a hasty exit. By now, Willie had grown confident that “it” was long gone and more afraid of us, but still, he found a large rock and placed it with the steel skillet for making a large racket. Noise would be our only defense.

Willie slept and I strained to hear, but I hadn’t even heard a vehicle pass, let alone a crunch of leaves on the ground. So eventually I too gave way to sleep. Restless sleep with dreams of not being able to wake in the face of danger.

I woke to “There’s something out there.” hissed from Willie. He grabbed the pan and rock banging and shouting, adrenaline pumping. A smaller animal this time, ran from our camp site on padded feet. A bark like a dog, but no domesticated dog, it ran and ran and ran with the staccato bark long in the distance. There was relief in hearing this visitor move far away.

Morning came with a whisper of rain on the tent. No lingering, lazy morning for us, instead we were up with sunrise. A beautiful glowing red morning sky produced a triple rainbow – the first either of us had ever seen. We packed our bikes with little talk. Up the other side of our long night-time decent to the river. The glowing sun was covered now with gray and at the first opportunity a few hours later, we road into a village and stopped at a small cafe for a warming coffee.

As we entered the door, Willie’s eye caught a hand-drawn notice taped to the window. It showed a dog chasing a wild boar. We beckoned the owner outside to ask if there were many boar’s in the area. Oh yes, many! He told us that wild boars travel up to 40 kilometers a what night in search of food. They had a hunt a few days earlier. We told him we thought one came to our camp last night and he said with a smile not to worry, if they hear you, their tail goes up and they run away.

Wild boar is the most likely source of the weighty footstep, heavy breathing and low, rumbling noise, and you can bet the next time I hear a noise in the night, I’ll clang a pot and hope to God I only see the tail as it retreats out of sight. I don’t like sleeping with my shoes on.

Kat Marriner : October 9th, 2010

A taste of Portugal wine country

Willie Weir : October 8th, 2010

Wine Connection

A bottle of wine.

We go to the store. We peruse the shelves. Check out the variety, the vintage, the price. We buy it. We open it. We drink it.

Our time in northern Portugal has changed that. There is a connection to the contents of that bottle that will ever change how we experience it.

Late one evening high above the Douro River a voice called out. It was hard to find the person attached to that voice amongst the vast rows of grapes. But a cap and a smile and a wave drew our attention to an old man and a little black dog.

Within minutes he had clipped off bunches of no less than seven varieties of grapes and displayed them for us to try. He was giddy with excitement over sharing his harvest with two cycling strangers. Tiny almost clear grapes. Light green grapes the size of your thumb. Others the color of a rose pedal. They were all sweet and delicious, but one dark blue/purple grape was the single best grape I’ve ever tasted. It was earthy and robust and complex. It didn’t need to be made into wine. It had already achieved greatness.

We camped next to those grape vines and watched the sunrise light up thousands of acres of vineyards in the Douro valley.

Most of the grapes have been harvested in the lower elevations, but higher up, two to three thousand feet, the harvest has been in full swing.

One of our first encounters was west of the city of Braganca.. It was a small field. The owner, we assumed, a young man with frosted hair and clean hands was overseeing the picking. He seemed uninterested in the traveling cyclists. But the moment we asked him about his land he came to life and was delighted to answer our questions.

The workers, a group of twenty men and women, ranging in age from 18 to 50, were hunched over with hand pruners, chatting and laughing as they clipped the grapes. They filled smaller plastic baskets that were dumped into larger baskets, where burly men then hoisted and dumped them into the metal containers on an old tractor trailer.

The owner filled one of our water bottles with last years wine. These grapes wouldn’t make it into a bottle with a label at the market or wine store. This was wine of the people. Stored in huge glass bottles protected by a woven plastic mesh.

Do you want to try? The owner asked. He handed me a pair of clippers.

Why not. For the next fifteen minutes I clipped away. He said I was very good. Very fast. Of course, everyone around me had already been working for seven hours.

They would be paid 14 Euro for a full days work.

The tractor driver, a ruddy-faced, barrel-chested man with a beaming smile, pointed to a crate of grapes and insisted that we take them all. I’m not sure how he expected us to pack 25 pounds of grapes on to our bikes.

We thanked the land owner and the workers for their time and gifts. I reached up to shake the hand of one of the men on top of the large metal containers heaped with grapes. His hands being dirty, he offered me his elbow.

I shook my head and grabbed his hand. It was sticky with the mixture of soil and sweat and grape juice. He laughed and squeezed hard. .

The wine of the people that we drank from our water bottle was not subtle or refined or worthy of a rating.

It was tangy and bit sour.

But it was wine with a story and a handshake.

And we loved it.

Kat Marriner : October 7th, 2010

Lying in Repose

Today is my birthday. Today is spent confined to our small 6 x 4 foot little yellow tent as the rains come in trickles to bursts and winds come in gusts. Fortunately I love our little yellow tent. I love small spaces. I love a lazy day doing nothing more strenuous than reading and adjusting my thermarest chair. So rarely do I get the opportunity in life to do nothing and not feel guilty about it.

The forecast said 90% chance of rain, and I believe they meant that it would actually rain 90% of the day, which it has. So I was warned and even prepared. Fortunately too, we’ve done this routine before. Our first memorable epic wait out the rain in the tent came in Turkey. Willie remembers it as two nights, I think it was 3, but really it was just a long time. We both agree it was long enough to run out of water and collect rain dripping off the tent fly to make tea or soup mix, or both. We endured some epic rain stops in Colombia, where we waited out most of the day in a lean to on the side of the dirt road. I eventually became so cold that Willie made hot chocolate and wrapped me in my down sleeping bag. Not enough room to set up a tent on that hillside.

Today is particularly easy. Our nylon membrane is enough to make me feel secure. I know that we will read, play some cards, nap, make some tea, nap, read, play some cards, tell stories, laugh, make some tea, and wait out the rain. I feel so good swaddled in my silk sheet and lusciously cozy down bag.

I don’t mind that my birthday is spent lying in repose. A time to reflect, to recharge, to celebrate that I still find joy being stuck in a tent with the one I love.

(October 3, from the little yellow tent in the woods)