Spain was right there. We could have pedaled along the busy highway on the Algarve coast and crossed the bridge. But it didn’t feel right. It was so rare for us on our 2 ½ month journey in Portugal to be in heavy traffic. Portugal in our minds was small barely two-lane roads, winding through the countryside. This would have been a sour last note in a otherwise delightful cycling sonata.
So we pointed our bikes north and soon found ourselves pedaling along one of those quintessential back roads. The road wound up and down through farm country.
We camped that evening on top of a hill next to a large semi-trailer that had been converted for camping. The couple (she was from England, he from France) invited us in for some wine and snacks, followed by a scrumptious plate of vegetarian shepherd’s pie. Full of food and conversation, we bid them and their three dogs goodnight and crawled into our tent as a cold wind blew and rain threatened.
In the morning the road turned east and then continued north along the Rio Guadiana. The thin cloud cover provided muted light, revealing the riverside and orchards filled with oranges, pomegranates, and persimmons appear as a pastel painting. The road lazily wound it’s way and then climbed up before descended on the quaint little fishing village of Alcoutim.
This was how and where our trip should end. We booked a room near the center square and drank coffee while gazing across the river at Sanlucar de Guadiana, another quaint, village on the Spanish side of the river.
The two towns, with their white-washed buildings and cobbled streets, were mirror images of one another. But on the hour, the church in Alcotim chimed six, while the church bells in Sanlucar chimed seven times. The two towns were two hundred meters and one hour apart.
In the morning we wandered down to the dock and waited for twenty minutes or so, until a man steered a boat over from the Spanish side and we boarded with our bikes. We paid him 4 Euro and two minutes later we were in Spain.
Sanlucar was barely waking up. Most shop doors were closed, with only a few folks out for a morning walk and a man selling sweets out of the back of his van.
We turned around and took our final look at Portugal—a country that had charmed and embraced us. The church bell in Alcutim rang nine times and a minute later the church bell in Sanlucar echoed with nine … plus one.
We pedaled into a small Portuguese village late in the evening. There was the typical group of old men hanging out at the edge of town–all wearing jackets and caps, all sporting canes. We asked them if there was a campground.
No campground or hotel we were assured. The sun was low in the sky. No time to pedal to the next town.
I widened the search. “Is there a garden space? Some small flat place to pitch a tent?”
This garnered many responses and all the men began to talk at once. One gentlemen came up close and gave me explicit directions, all in Portuguese, on how to get to “somewhere.”
Another man spoke up, and I can only estimate what he said, because of my poor Portuguese.
“Hey, these travelers don’t speak our language, they’ll never find the place you are describing. I’ll take them there.”
He hobbled over and mounted a sporty little battery-assisted scooter and the little group of old men waved goodbye as we headed off down through town.
This scooter topped out at about 4 mph, so we barely could keep our bikes balanced as we followed behind him. We wound our way through the village and came to a small little park at the other end of town.
He showed us where we could pitch our tent. Assured us that the water from the fountain was potable. And then pointed out that he lived across from the park and if we had any trouble to knock on his door.
In the morning we knocked on the door to say thank you, but there was no answer. Our hero was probably sleeping in.
Today is Thanksgiving and we think of friends and family sitting around their large tables and sharing a feast of tradition. I can’t help but also think of another long table laden with traditional foods that we were fortunate to enjoy.
It started with a look at a gathering of women dressed in long skirts and headscarves. Men were in black vests and white shirts butchering a large animal outside a Casa do Povo (community center). I was dressed in traditional black cycling tights, while Willie wore his classic baggy shorts. Even still, we didn’t hesitate when we saw a friendly smile and subtle wave to come join them.
A few words are shared, cryptic explanations of our journey, our interest in what they were doing. Suddenly a young woman speaking English appears and our day is transformed. We learn that this is a kind of traditional culture club special event. Berta, our interpreter and spontaneous host for the day informs us that the event started with the killing of the pig (we missed that part thankfully) and now the butchering in the traditional way.
We are offered a taste of cookies and homemade liquor just before a bus arrives and we are whisked away with the group to visit a riverside village and see their “culture house”. We board the bus with a kind of joyful bewilderment that comes from being plucked out of our environment and land in a different time and place. The ladies behind us chatter away with expressive voices. We can’t understand a word, but when Berta’s daughter, Filipa starts to sing, we can hum along to the simple folk tune as the bus erupts in song.
At the fishing village, the changeable weather has turned nasty and woman wrap themselves in waist-length wool capes that no doubt keep the cold, damp out much better than my nylon jacket. We squeeze together into the three room house and while they hear the details of life living on the river, we take in the faces, the intricate stitchery on each woman’s cape, the tufting of their shirt colors to make each one special. Sidelong glances from those near us and I’m sure they wonder who the heck we are. Berta continues by our side though, always giving some interpretation of what’s going on.
Back at the Casa do Povo in Gloria do Ribatejo, long white tables are set for dinner, the pork is roasted, potatoes cooked, bread sliced, wine poured and desserts dished – the best rice pudding I have ever tasted, topped with a light sprinkling of cinnamon. There appeared to be enough for everyone three times over.
Stuffed and thinking more of a nap than dancing, an accordionist took the stage followed by a harmonica player and couple of percussionists. Girls to grandmothers joined in a circle dance on stage. Couples then twirl in fast footwork that would make square dancers smile. Berta tells us she has been doing these dances since she was six years old. Now her daughter about that age is doing the same. It’s clear the culture club is doing more than recreating history, they are keeping traditions alive.
It’s a full day of sight seeing and history lessons, beautiful hand-crafts and traditional folk dancing. We are honored to be included at their table and amazed at the open hand of friendship. About the time I begin to wonder where we will be sleeping that night, Berta takes us to see a bedroom used by the volunteer fireman that will be ours for the night. As is the Portuguese tradition, she gives us each kisses on the cheek good bye. As is my American tradition, I give Berta a hug goodnight. Hoping some day to see her around our table.
Experiencing Portugal’s wild coast comes at a cost, and that toll can’t be paid to fancy resorts or humble campismos. To truly experience the wild coast is to feel the winds in your face, stand on the dramatic cliffs dropping dangerously to a boiling sea, and expose yourself the elements. The land is hardened and rough covered in a tapestry of leathery plants when covered at all. The wild coast is solitude Crumbling buildings leave a tale of those who tried to stay and tame the western edge.
Up and down the coast, and across the country for that matter, are campgrounds. They are good for a hot shower, but mostly we find them soulless repositories of lost dreams. This time of year there are few campers, maybe one or two or a handful each evening, but the majority of business is in the heat of the summer supplemented by year-round camper “cabins” (now empty), but well entrenched into their 40 feet of space. We imagine the family gatherings, the escape from the city, the place to get away from it all, except it is right next to the person trying to do the same thing. These aren’t places we really want to remember, but places we often sleep none the less.
After such a campground in Porto Covo, where we pay our 13 euro to pitch our tent on a scrappy piece of ground, and for the countless time, the toilets have no seats, the camp sites have no tables, the staff has no humor, we decide we need to work at NOT being too near a campismo as night falls. The alternative, of course, is to hide away, or do as German camper vans do and park anywhere they like for the night.
The next night we approached the porta das barcas (boat launch), noted on our hand drawn map, through the nearly empty vacation villa wasteland thinking once again we would need to head to the campismo with no other option in sight. We had all but given up on finding open land for our tent when a high bluff with a few rough trails and land tracks to the edge of the cliff appeared. We pedaled off the asphalt following the dirt tracks until a perfect bare patch of ground opened up on the very edge overlooking the tiny fishing port below. This patch of land on the edge of the world became our home for the night. We watched the sunset over the sea so close we could touch it, and while there would be no hot shower, there would be the crashing sound of the surf unbuffered by fences or buildings – no walls to fence us in or the elements out. We had broken free.
The next evening we once again found ourselves leaving a small village and easy campismo in time to search for our own secluded hide-away. Something of a dirt track lead into the woods and then into the sand dunes beyond. It held promise and Willie went to explore while I stayed with our bicycles. On his return he tells me that he found a place in the dunes, but it’s a hike … through the sand. We push and pull and eventually carry our bags and bikes up the last pitch to the top of the dunes, before settling into a tent-size landing nestled between two protective mounds. It’s more effort this half kilometer into the dunes than the entire ride for the day.
The view is stunning. The Cabo Sardao lighthouse is far in the distance and we can admire the coast line we traveled that day – the most spectacular four and a half kilometers of wilderness we have every traveled, anywhere. The white washed village of Zambujeira do Mar before us like an oasis in the desert. Perfect calm as we pitched the tent and enjoyed the sun setting over the ocean.
The sun sets early these days, and with it drains all warmth. Most nights we dive into the tent and wrap ourselves in down sleeping bags – we affectionately call pleasure pods – even before making dinner. It was a brisk night like may others, but for being completely alone and completely surrounded by sand and dunes. The nearly full moon was on the rise.
Some time in the night the wind whipped up and sand pelted the thin nylon membrane that protected us from the harsher elements. Rain and wind wrestled our little tent for hours. There is no sleeping when the rains and wind come. The sound is disturbing, loud, sometimes fearsome. The sides of the tent heave and bellow and threaten to sail into the wind leaving us exposed and vulnerable. Naked. We’ve spent many such nights on this trip. We can feel fortunate that rains have come mostly at night, but that also means we mostly don’t sleep and merely wait out the storm.
Times like these feel more like payment for getting to experience the great splendor of mother nature. It’s both sides of the coin.
The storm on the dunes turns into a frenzied wind that eventually whips the tent fly stake from the ground. Willie and I had been sitting and watching both sides of the tent heave and strain for the last half hour or so, when he sensed his side giving way and grabbed it at the last minute. He held on tight on hands and knees for an interminable time waiting for a pause long enough to reestablish the stake in the sand. Praying the tent doesn’t rip.
Exposed, vulnerable, cold. All we can do is wait for a sunrise we hope will calm the angry winds and give us some relief.
We had seen the most spectacular, raw coastline of anywhere on the planet the day before. We had snuggled together behind a small rise to enjoy a lunch thinking this is the last, most beautiful place on earth. Was this now the price we pay for such a privilege? It’s a worthy price. A sleepless night appreciating how insignificant we truly are. The wind, the waves, the rock, the sand, the cliffs have stood the test of time. We can at least hold vigil through the night.
We pedal our bicycles, heavily laden with gear, out of the town of Covilhã, Portugal. The road is so steep we wish the engineers had put in some more switchbacks, instead of heading straight up into the mountains.
The air is cold and scented with pine.
We summit, breathing, no wheezing heavily … our hearts thumping in your chests.
The view is extraordinary. We look down at the perfectly formed U-shaped glacial valley along the Zêzere River. Geology teachers would be giddy here.
We push off and never once pedal for the next 15 kilometers. On our left, far below is the Zêzere River. Small cottages and flocks of sheep dot the countryside. On our right is a wall of rocks, held in place by a gigantic steel curtain of fencing.
Our faces are numb from the cold of the decent.
Toward the bottom of the hill we see a shepherd and his flock. He is moving close to 300 sheep down the narrow road with only help of a incredibly mellow sheep dog. He doesn’t just yell and call out. He whistles. He creates all sorts of sounds that mimic the sheep or a hawk. Sounds we’re sure he learned from his father and his grandfather.
He moves back and forth, from one side of the small road to the other – up one embankment and down the other, coaxing his flock forward. The sheep reluctantly move on, their bells tingling like a thousand distant ice cream trucks.
The tapestry of sounds will live in our memories, as vivid as the blue sky above the Zêzere Valley.
You’ve won over our hearts. You, of all the cities we’ve visited, have vaulted to the top of the list. The place we’ll dream of returning.
You had plenty of competition–Porto, Coimbra, Lisbon.
Maybe it was the sight of your white-washed buildings against a blue sky, your parks of sculpted shrubbery, your ancient winding cobbled streets, your kindly barber, your fortress with views to forever.
Perhaps it was your cuisine–succulent roasted goat, heavenly pizza, and a custard pastry that dreams are made of.
Or maybe it was simply the weather–a crisp, clear day that managed to be both deliciously warm and cool at the same time.
Due to recent heavy rains, Kat and I spent a couple of days camped out under a grove of Stone Pine trees a day’s pedal away from Lisbon.
Stone Pines (Pinus pinea) are majestic trees. They look like giant umbrellas and give any campsite a magical ambiance (even when dripping with rain). They are native to Portugal and man has been enjoying the pine nuts they produce since prehistoric times.
Between the waves of heavy showers and winds, we’d get out and walk beneath the canopy of these giants.
Each night, right at sunset, we heard birds calling high up in the pines. I assume they were owls. But I don’t know. I did record one call though.