After leaving Tel Aviv on a 1:00 am flight bound for Portugal with a 5-hour connection in Brussels, we arrived in Porto on a sunny afternoon to begin a long awaited bicycle tour, delayed two years due to Covid.
Our first full day in Porto we spent at Biclas y Triclas, a local bike rental/tour company, with our new friends, Sara and Jose Luis, to whom we will be forever grateful for the immense help they gave us in preparing for this trip. John reached out to them some months ago to inquire about using their company as a receiving address for the shipment of our bikes. Sara immediately responded with a hearty “Nao problema!” and we had remained in touch with them regularly since then. Our bikes were to be shipped by DHL directly from our house to Biclas y Triclas and were supposed to have pre-clearance through Portuguese customs, but they ended up being detained in customs for six days as Sara and John jumped through various hoops in order to prove that the bikes were not new and that Biclas y Triclas was simply receiving them rather than purchasing them. The Portuguese authorities were demanding payment of import taxes and wanted proof of purchase, which we did not think to carry with us. In the end, John was able to email his passport number to Portuguese customs and the bikes were delivered to Biclas y Triclas on March 3, one day before they were going to be put back on a plane bound for Denver and one day before we arrived in Porto. Two weeks later, we are still trying to sort things out with Portuguese customs so as to avoid any of the parties involved being charged $3,000 in import taxes. Late one night recently we were able to receive and then forward to customs invoices from the purchase of our respective bikes, so hopefully that will put an end to this matter.
The same thing happened to John in 1983 when he purchased a new boom box for his music classes at the Escola Americana do Lisboa and had it shipped overseas. The boom box also got stuck in customs and never arrived. Our bikes, fortunately, did arrive, but the massive box that housed my trike was completely destroyed and literally fell apart when it was unloaded from the pallet. Luckily, I had padded it with a veritable mountain of bubble wrap, heavy brown paper, leftover holiday wrapping paper, padded mailing envelopes and a worn out foam roller and all parts, pieces and miscellanea survived the trip. Needless to say, I will not be using that box for the return trip but will, instead, attempt to fly with my trike as a “mobility device.”
After three full days in Porto, we set out for an 11-week tour on a drizzly day, with rain predicted for the next two weeks. We pushed our bikes over the Rio Douro on a narrow pedestrian bridge undergoing reconstruction and barely wide enough for my trike and then we were off! A pretty ride along paved, coastal bike paths took us to Espinho and the Green Coast Surf House, a groovy guesthouse in a historic building that we shared with two middle aged German tourists and a young Dutch shoe designer. We ended up running into those same German men about a week later in Figuera da Foz, which is not so uncommon on trips such as these.
The next days had us peddling on a combination of potholed roads through small, industrial towns; smooth bike paths along scenic lagoons; forest roads through vast, fragrant eucalyptus groves; quiet back roads through mostly empty beach towns that undoubtedly are completely overrun with tourists in the summer; and a 5-mile stretch of a rutted, loose gravel and dirt road through the dunes that was much better suited for the dirt bikes, motorcycle and mountain bike that passed us than my road bike with “tres rodas” (three wheels). We even found ourselves pushing my trike over and around some very frightening puddles on a muddy farm road in order to avoid one of the “A” super highways that line the west coast of Portugal. All of that happened in the first six days.
Although the first week was through larger towns and on busier roads than we would prefer, we also enjoyed some really sweet moments of natural beauty including graceful, white egrets feeding in calm lagoons and huge, somewhat comical storks nesting on the top of every electrical pole and tree in sight; and feeling very small beside massive waves off the coast of Praia Poco da Cruz with not a single human being in sight for miles in either direction along a perfectly undeveloped beach. We’ve also had some marvelous cultural experiences, like purchasing fresh fruit and vegetables from an older man and woman at their roadside farm stand and having to call the owner of our guesthouse at 9:00 pm to come break into our room as the lock had failed and we could not get the door open.
As we’ve made our way south, we are mostly staying in guesthouses, small, comfortable, lodges that lend themselves to conversation among guests as people hang out in the kitchen or lounge areas, drinking tea and preparing food. In our Aveiro guesthouse we had one especially intimate conversation with Alexis, a young Argentinian man on a work assignment in Aveiro. In a combination of Spanish and Portuguese, we talked about the state of affairs in Argentina and the US, the corruption, violence, drugs and guns. Alexis’ pain and sadness over his country’s economic recession under the rule of Alberto Fernandez was striking and I was moved by how real perfect strangers can be with each other when we come together with open hearts and minds.
John continues to amaze me with his adeptness in Portuguese and I now understand the source of much of his unique “Portugnol” grammar, pronunciation and verbiage. I am working on my Portuguese and it’s getting better but I find myself repeatedly sliding into Spanish and speaking in my own form of “Portugnol.” For the most part I am able to make myself understood and I speak enough to get by. Learning a foreign language entirely by reading signs and menus, listening and memorizing phrases is a vastly different experience from having five years of formal Spanish instruction under my belt when I began traveling as a young woman.
In Aveiro, while testing the gears on his bike after a grimy day of riding, John’s chain somehow wrapped back on itself and there was no way we could release it. We happened to be just a few blocks from a bike shop and so, at 6:00 pm, we wheeled John’s Salsa into the store where we met Paolo, the bike mechanic/shop owner who worked on the Salsa while we went around the corner and drank 1/2 garafe do vinho tinto da casa in a quiet, corner cafe. Ten euros later the chain was released and John was back in business.
My ICE Adventure workhorse @icetrikes is doing great, although the low-lying chain, derailleurs and parking brake are fairly susceptible to grit and old Rosie is in need of a good bath. One morning, with three “mais o menos” clear days ahead, we gave Rosie’s chain a heavy oiling and finally eliminated the awful grating, squeaking sound that had been persisting despite my best efforts.
Riding south along the Estrada Atlántica coastal bike path, we had unbroken views of the ocean with miles of empty beach in either direction and large, rolling swells and breaking waves on the rocks far below us. At times we rode through vast dunes covered with desert bushes abloom in yellow, with mounds of recently cut burned pine trees from the devastating 2017 fires stacked along the road. We knew a big wind was coming the next day but what we did not know was that Portugal would also experience a Saharan “clay rain” event, in which red sand from the Saharan desert blows up into the Iberian peninsula and then swirls around in a fierce northern wind. The next day the sky turned orange and we could feel the sand in our throats and on our skin. With that wind there developed massive offshore waves of 5-6 meters in height, with rogue waves up to 10 meters. We walked out onto the sea wall separating the beach from the Rio Lis and watched the waves crashing on either side of the wall, sending plumes of spray meters high, with the wind so powerful it was hard to remain upright. The power of the elements and the ocean were awe inspiring and humbling and I dared not walk out to the end of the wall so as not to be blown into the water.
By morning the wind had died down quite a bit but there was still enough to enjoy a gentle push on our backs for the first time and the miles into Nazaré passed easily. Ten days into our bike tour, it feels like we are finishing the first, introductory leg as we leave the coast and move inland tomorrow. The riding is going to get more difficult now as we head into the hills of the northern Alentejo and Baixa Beira and, ultimately, the mountains of the Serra da Estrela. We won’t see the ocean again until the last weeks of the trip. These first days of riding have been a good warm-up and I am excited to move into what, for me, constitutes the “real Portugal:” small villages, castles, ruins, farms and a quiet pedal.