That’s how it is these days: uphill and into the wind. We’ve been climbing steadily daily since leaving the coast two weeks ago. Some days entail a gentle 1,200 foot climb over many miles; others, like today, require a climb of 2,000 feet over a much shorter distance. We’ve had to push our bikes up several short but extremely steep (maybe 13-14% gradient) stretches and there have been times when I’ve been pedaling my trike so slowly that my speedometer doesn’t even register and the only way I know that I’m actually making any progress is that the sweet little red poppies by the side of the road are getting ever-so-slowly closer. Or maybe those poppies are just having some kind of energetic effect on me and I’m only dreaming that I am about to reach the apex of this interminable hill. Soon enough, though, and just “um pouco mais alto,” I have arrived and quickly shift into a high gear, sit back in my Barcolounger, lean into the curves and feel the coolness of the wind blowing through my sweaty layers as we, within minutes, lose every bit of altitude that took hours to gain.
Speaking of wind…I’ve always wondered why it is that when you are on an extended adventure, whether it be sea kayaking, river running or cycling, in which wind can be a true “behind the back” friend, this “wind of friendship” so consistently misinterprets my desires and chooses, instead, to blow directly in my face? Can anyone explain that to me? We have definitely had a predominant headwind on this trip but it honestly hasn’t been that bad. The low profile of my Adventure makes me a little more inured to the wind, although I am still susceptible to a strong “side suck” when being passed by a double trailer “veiculo longo” stacked six feet high with freshly cut eucalyptus trees.
Our daily spin has brought us to some pretty spectacular places these past 13 days, including the beautifully preserved medieval walled city of Óbidos and the massive monasteries of Alcobaça and Batalha.
Alcobaça was built in the 12th century and has a famous Portuguese love story associated with it, namely the love affair between King Pedro and Inês de Castro, one of Pedro’s wife Constance’s ladies-in-waiting. Pedro’s father, King Alfonso IV, disapproved of the relationship and thus ordered Inês killed by beheading. In retribution after his father’s death, Pedro then had all of Alfonso’s murderous minions killed. Now that’s what I call a real love story, bathed in blood, “a cor do amor,” the color of love. We didn’t actually go in Alcobaça this time, but we had a perfect view of the monasterio from our hostel window and the weather was temperate enough to dine al fresco on the plaza.
At Batalha we enjoyed a respite from the rain while drinking galoes (like a latte; we get it with leite de soja) and indulging in gluten free, dairy free almond bolachas at an outdoor pastelería overlooking the iconic spires. After touring the limited parts of Batalha open to the public (on half price retirado tickets) we, along with many Portuguese families, had Sunday “dinner” mid afternoon. Highly recommended: the grilled lulas (squid) kebabs.
I won’t say much about Fatima because it did absolutely nothing for me. Over the hundred years since the 1917 vision of the Virgin Mary by three shepherd children, Fatima has grown into a major tourist and pilgrimage site, attracting millions of people per year. As we walked across an utterly gargantuan concrete field, all I could think of was Joni Mitchell’s lyric from Big Yellow Taxi, “They paved paradise and put up a parking lot.” I much would have preferred seeing those sheep grazing peacefully in a pasture. Our most memorable moments in Fatima were the impromptu Portuguese lesson we had with an enthusiastic young waitress and listening to a lengthy conversation that John had with another, older Portuguese waiter about the joys of bicycling.
On our way out of the foothills, with a steady descent toward the Rio Tejo, we stopped at Pegados de Dinossauros in the Serra da Aire e Candeeiros Natural Park, site of some of the world’s longest sauropod tracks, approximately 175 million years old. A pleasant trail took us deep into an excavated quarry where we could get up close to the tracks and really grock just how huge these animals were.
Standing in steady rain later that afternoon on a rickety dock beside the Rio Tejo while waiting for a small ferry to take us to Almourol Castle, I pulled out my phone to check my messages. To my “f*!# yeah!” delight, I had received an offer of a guiding position with Adventures in Good Company, an all-women’s adventure travel company. I first learned about AGC from friends Laura Tyson and Brenda Porter and had been following the company online for a couple of years before taking the plunge and submitting an application four months ago. John and I danced around the wet dock, careful not to slide into the cold water, yee-hawed a few times, peered out into the mist for that elusive ferry and finally got back on our bikes for the last few miles into Constancia, where we celebrated with a dinner of bacalhau lagareiro e vinho da casa at a riverside cafe.
The villages of the Serra da Estrela foothills are resplendent with stone houses, whitewashed walls and red clay tiled roofs, with sheep grazing in green fields and olive, cork, pine and eucalyptus trees dotting the landscape. Almost every property has a beautifully laid out garden, flowers in full bloom and vegetables ready to pick.
Passing through these villages, we’ve stayed in some quintessentially Portuguese lodgings, including Casa de Burra, a former animal house at Casal do Surdo, a small farm in Mouriscas; Quinta Belo Ver, a stone farm house built in 1907, situated below the 12th century Belver Castle; and Solar dos Caldeira e Bourbon, a huge 19th century stone manor house in Zebras, which we had entirely to ourselves. Our cuarto at the Solar overlooked a simple historic church and we were lulled to sleep by the gentle sounds of chiming church bells.
In Perais, a tiny village nestled among rolling hills just south of Castelo Branco, we visited Cat Hunt and Vince Pompey for three days. Cat and Vince are longtime acquaintances from Nederland who moved to Portugal about 18 months ago. We enjoyed sharing meals, walking the dogs Cosmo and Duffy, sipping Alentejo wines, visiting the hilltop medieval town of Monsanto, meeting their English expat friends Fran and Terry, and the opportunity to catch up with necessary business matters. Cat and Vince are consummate gardeners and they generously shared some of the fruits of their labor, including the absolute best olives I have ever tasted, brined and spiced by Cat, delicious sweet peas and gorgeous heads of alface (lettuce). They also have gallons of olive oil pressed by their neighbor from olives produced by their own trees and some unique local castanha (chestnut) honey that is dark and savory rather than sweet.
After two years Covid-free, we have both finally succumbed to this insidious virus and are now holed up in a hotel in Fundão for a few days so that we can be close to amenities should we need anything. So far it hasn’t been too bad and, in fact, thinking we were simply fighting chest colds, we rode 55 miles and climbed almost 4,000 feet the last two days. Finally, this morning, with low grade temperatures and a dry cough, we walked to a local farmacia and purchased rapid Covid tests for €2 each. Thank you, Portugal health services! That’s a far cry from the “Two for $25 deal” in the US! Before we left home over a month ago, several people had recommended that we try to get a second booster shot. At that point second boosters had not yet been approved in the US and, even though we knew people who had worked the system in order to get one, we didn’t feel comfortable doing that. Now they’ve been approved in the US for people over 50 and I kind of wish that we had finagled a second booster. Oh, well! Assuming this doesn’t get any worse, we should have some degree of boosted immunity once we get over this. Hopefully by next week we’ll be ready to get back on the road and move north toward the Rio Douro.
One moment in time some days back sticks out in my mind as an especially poignant snippet of our day to day life on the bikes. We were pedaling along, John in front, me some distance behind, and we passed a sheep sticking her head through a 4”x4” square in the pasture fence. She bleated as we went past and looked at us rather pathetically. John asked me, “Do you think she’s stuck?,” so we parked our bikes and walked over to see if we could be of assistance. As we approached the poor in fuzzy, messy girl, she wriggled and bleated in fear and tried desperately, to no avail, to free herself. We stood still a few feet away and talked softly, then John slowly approached her and was able to pet her head while trying to widen the space in the fencing. Eventually I retrieved our multi-tool and John made one cut in the fence, enabling the frightened sheep to pull her head out. She immediately turned and ran as fast as her little legs would carry her and a few moments later, as we continued on our way, we passed the rest of her herd grazing under the pine trees, seemingly oblivious to the ordeal their friend had just endured.