Culture, history, nature, people: the journey continues

Entering Parque Nacional do Peneda-Geres
Parque Nacional do Peneda-Geres

João V. Verde

We left Gerês with a moderate rise and a whole lot of downhill ahead of us. Two thousand feet of climbing or more has become a daily affair and we no longer give it much thought, other than during intermittent moments of grunting or pushing. So, with an easy day ahead, we took our time cruising out of the Parque Nacional Peneda-Gerês, stopped to take one more photo of the “swan boats” floating in the reservoir, and then began our climb through the hills. After passing a group of perhaps 100 teenagers and chaperones walking along the road, we settled into a steady pace, enjoying the quiet of the morning, the not-yet-hot sun over our shoulders and a soft floral fragrance on the breeze. Stopping to eat the juiciest, sweetest navel oranges ever, we discussed how we should pass the day, as our current pace would have us arriving at Funileiro much too early to check in. “We don’t really need more coffee,” I said to John, thinking about the ever present option of stopping at a cafe. “No,” he replied, “but you never know what cultural gems await us if we do.”

Enjoying some PB&J in the shade of tilia trees

An hour later, we pulled into the tiny hamlet of Santa Maria de Bouro and parked our bikes under some massive tilia trees flanking a small cobblestone plaza. Across the lane sat several men enjoying their Saturday afternoon Sagres at Cafe Mocambique. The leader of the compatriots came right over and chatted us up about my triciclo, investigating every component, and was thrilled when I invited him to have a seat. That broke the ice, and amidst much teasing and laughter, we sat down to our cha preto (black tea) and galao.

After awhile a tall, lean, middle aged man drove up on his tractor, swung into a parking place and sat himself down beside my trike to study this odd contraption before him. Observing him, we agreed that he obviously had the mind of an engineer, could probably build or fix anything, and that perhaps I should ask him for a tune up. After getting a beer, he came over and sat down beside John and they started talking. It turns out that João lived in Australia for three years as a young man, working as a carpenter, speaks some English, and loves to meet people from different cultures. He’s now a wine maker and asked us if we’d like to try some of his vinho verde. Usually, we would never drink and then get back on the bikes, but with only a few miles to go, we said “Sure!” João drove his tractor home and returned a short while later with a bottle of Solacos do Bouro (Bouro Terraces) vinho verde, produced on his family farm. He went into the cafe and came out with three wine glasses and we all sat on the park bench and enjoyed the absolute best vinho verde we’ve ever had. By the time we wrapped it up so he could go home for lunch, João insisted that we call him from time to time in order to keep the friendship going and that we would stay with his family on their farm the next time we come to Portugal. That is a promise we intend to keep.

Joao e Joao
New day, new friend

Museo de Triciclo

Two days after Pascoa we arrived in Mesao Frio, a quiet little town high on a ridge above the Rio Douro, where we stayed at a beautifully restored country house called Casa Carrapetelos, House of Ticks. To our total surprise, on the edge of this unassuming, modest working village, Mesao Frio is home to the inimitable Museo do Triciclo, the one and perhaps only Tricycle Museum! The owner is a man who has always been fascinated by the history of cycles, especially tricycles. The small building was filled with historic bikes and trikes from all over the world and numerous placards filled our minds with trike trivia. For example:

1) The first trike was possibly built in the mid 17th century for a German watchmaker with limited mobility.

Perhaps an early adaptive bicycle?

2) The first automobile was a motorized tricycle built by Karl Benz in 1886.

Looks quite comfortable!

3) Ian Fleming’s James Bond character may have been inspired by a Serbian spy named Dusan Popov, who worked for the British MI6 under the code name “Tricycle.” The British installed Tricycle in Lisbon, where he was often seen accompanied by beautiful young women, driving fancy sports cars and betting huge sums of money in the Casino Estoril in Cascais, where John used to live. We had a great time at the Museu de Triciclo and the woman there took several photos of my trike to add to their collection.

I might be able to get all of my gear in there!

Barbearía Queiros

That same day, we had a massive ascent out of the final foothills of the Douro Valley and into the next range. After a steady three hour climb we stopped for lunch in the shelter of a bus stop, somewhat protected from a chilly wind, then bundled up in all of our cold weather gear and blew down the mountain toward Amarante, doing seven miles and losing 3,000 feet in 15 minutes. We were both buzzing with adrenaline by the time we landed in the outskirts of town, hyper focused on the twisting mountain road, potential obstacles and crazy European drivers. As we so often do after such rides, we immediately stopped at a cafe and drank an entire pot of cha de fruta.

Rehydrated and nerves calmed, we headed into the old part of Amarante, where I spotted Barbearía Queiros and suggested to John that it might be time for a shave and a haircut. Thus we passed the next hour in a classic barbershop, with white coated Queiros grooming, trimming, cutting, snipping, buzzing, shaving and plucking every errant hair on John’s head, neck and face until his artist within was truly and completely satisfied. All of this took place while he chatted nonstop with the other customers in the shop while waving his magic straight edge in the air. Feeling quite pleased with his work and thrilled to have been chosen to clean up an estrangeiro, Queiros then suggested that we all step outside and take photos with the curious triciclo parked outside his shop.

Looking good!
Queiros and his masterpiece

Eu sei a vossa historia!

Leaving Amarante a couple of days later, we were looking for the start of the 24 mile paved Ecopista da Linha do Tâmega, the Tâmega Line bike path. As in the U.S., there is a movement in Portugal to construct bike paths along abandoned rail lines and we had been looking forward to riding this one. As we stood beside a busy intersection looking for the path, a woman drove up alongside us, double parked, jumped out of her car and ran toward us, exclaiming, “Eu sei a voce historia!” I know your story! Elsa spoke not one word of English and she was so excited that it took awhile to understand that she had read about us online, possibly a Portuguese translation of my blog. She was so inspired by my story, the trike and John’s support that she showered us with Catholic prayer beads that she makes and sells in Fatima (I really hope she didn’t read my little blurb about Fatima!). By the end of the exchange she and I were hugging and both welled up with tears. I honestly don’t know if she actually read my blog or another woman’s account, as she talked about seeing photos of a woman and man riding a tandem Hase Pino type bike, which has a recumbent in the front and an upright in the rear. Regardless, we were deeply moved by the encounter, as she was so sincere in her appreciation for what we are doing. Neither of us knew what to do with those prayer beads, so with a “When in Rome” attitude we stuck them in a pocket of our panniers, thinking perhaps they might provide some protection as we navigate these daunting mountain roads.

The Ecopista itself gave us a much welcomed break from road riding, quiet and beautiful, situated among high forested hills overlooking the Rio Tâmega. Each whistle stop along the old rail line either has been or is in the process of being beautifully restored to its original artistry, complete with colorful azulejos and rose bushes in full bloom. The culmination of this splendid day was discovering that, along with the typical complementary bottled water and a few coffee pods, were three bottles of vinho verde in our room, courtesy of the Quinta on which we were staying. We poured the wine into our extra collapsible water bags and drank it over the coming days. It was good, although not as good as João V. Verde’s.

Overlooking the Rio Tamega along the Ecopista
One of the restored train stops along the Ecopista do Linha Tamega
Azulejos: hand painted stone tiles
Peaceful riding
Happy man!

Guimaraes

We knew there was an upcoming national holiday, 25 April, and we decided it would be fun to spend it in the groovy, historic university town of Guimaraes, so we booked a small apartment downtown in the old city. On our ride to Guimaraes, slowly pedaling up and over the mountains separating the Rio Tâmega from the next valley, we heard what sounded like a drum line playing in the distance. My mind immediately went to my six years of high school marching band, but I couldn’t quite fathom the same musical phenomenon in Portugal. Then, in the distance, we saw a community drum ensemble with one lone accordion player marching through the villages. They stopped and played for us and we exchanged a few words with one of their members before they went tromping down the road toward the next set of willing ears.

The accordion player didn’t stand a chance!

Later, the sky opened up and literally poured on us as we descended down the other side of the mountain. In the driving rain it was nearly impossible to see, and our feet and hands were painfully numb. I yelled to John, “Cafe!,” and we were soon relieved to find a churrasqueira (grill) with open doors. We parked our bikes and went inside, dripping and shivering, and were welcomed by the nicest woman, who served us cups of steaming hot fruit tea. Eventually, the rain stopped and a posse of older men came in, curious about our bikes and wet gear strewn everywhere. We eventually brought out our fruit and PB&J and ate it in the cafe while the men drank their bicas and played dominos.

Portuguese History and Dia do Liberdade

Guimaraes is the city in which Portugal’s first king, Dom Alfonso Henriques, was born in 1110. It was also the capital of Portugal until 1143 and the city’s proud motto is “Aquí Nasceu Portugal” (Portugal was born here). The old city is a twisting maze of narrow, cobblestone streets flanked on either side by historic stone buildings, many refurbished to house cafes, pubs and restaurants, boutique hotels, museums and shops. There are also numerous small shady plazas ringed by cafes and pastelerías/padarías (pastry/bread shops) in which people come and go until the wee hours, drinking coffee, wine or beer and eating baked goods to their hearts’ delight. We stayed in a small apartment overlooking Largo da Oliveira, Olive Tree Square, which recalls the story of the Visigothic King Wamba who is supposed to have planted an olive wood spear on the ground in the plaza directly below our balcony and vowed not to “take up his crown” until the spear sprouted. After reading this tale numerous times, I still don’t understand the significance of it, but the spot is marked with a now stone spear under a stone gazebo type of structure and every tourist in town stops to take a photo of the monument.

King Wamba’s spear in Largo do Oliveira, Guimarães

The night before what we believed to be Independence Day, there was a lively party in Largo da Oliveira, and every cafe in the square was filled with partiers long after we had stuffed in our ear plugs, closed the windows and doors and cocooned in our back room for the night. It wasn’t until the next morning, talking with the building manager, that we learned that Dia do Liberdade is actually the celebration of Portugal’s successful coup against the authoritarian regime of António de Oliveira Salazar, who ruled from 1932 to 1968, only stepping down after suffering a brain hemorrhage. He was replaced by Marcelo Caetano, who continued the dictatorship until being overthrown in what is known as the “Carnation Revolution” on April 25, 1974. The signal for the revolutionary troops to begin their action was the airing on the radio of a particular song, Grândola Vila Morena, by a banned political singer songwriter. After the success of the coup, the Portuguese people handed out red carnations to the troops, and the wearing of red carnations and singing of Grândola Vila Morena continue to be practiced today as a symbol of anti-fascism and celebration of the revolution. As a devoted socialist (in the true sense of the word) since first reading Marx in high school, I was quite inspired by Dia do Liberdade, thinking that perhaps the U.S. could learn a thing or two from Portugal’s history.

Guimarães

Interestingly, a few days after Dia do Liberdade, we stayed a night on a Quinta called Maria da Fonte, referring to yet another socialist revolution in Portugal that took place in 1846. The uprising began in the small Minho village of Lanhoso/Calvos, where the Quinta is located, and was led by a woman who later came to be known as Maria da Fonte. That revolution led to several months of civil war as various Portuguese political factions tussled back and forth.

After listening to a local chorale singing Grândola Vila Morena under the stone arcade of Largo da Oliveira, I decided to do a little trinket shopping. I bought a few items in a plaza shop, chatted with the congenial proprietor, stepped outside and immediately realized I had effectively locked myself out of our apartment. The building required a code to open the front door, and I had left my phone, which had the code stored on it, in the apartment. That same note on my phone also had the number of the building manager and John’s Portuguese phone number. So, I had no way of communicating with John to come downstairs and open the door, nor could I call the manager, nor could I remember the building code. I paced back and forth under our 2nd floor windows for awhile, hoping John would step onto the balcony, and I thought about trying to throw pebbles against the window, but I knew my arm wasn’t strong enough to do that. Eventually I started pounding on the front door, hoping someone would hear me and come outside. The trinket shop proprietor heard the ruckus and stepped into the plaza to see what was going on. After I explained the situation to him, he immediately picked up a bunch of pebbles and began hurling them against the windows until John came to investigate. I was so grateful for the man’s kind assistance and we all shared a good laugh.

We took the Teleferico (gondola) above Guimarães to a miradouro and walked back down to the city.

Martins Sarmento and Citania Briteiros

Guimaraes is home to the Martins Sarmento Museum, which houses the extensive collections of one of Portugal’s first archaeologists, Francisco Martins Sarmento. The museum is housed in the 14th century Convent of Santo Domingos, so the museum building itself is an impressive museum. The collections are extraordinary, consisting primarily of artifacts collected during Sarmento’s late 1800s excavations of Citania Briteiro, a 3,000 year old Castreja Cultura (Castro Culture) site, which is a Celtic culture, post Bronze Age, that predated Roman dominance in northern Portugal, occupying the area approximately 900-100 B.C.E. The Castreja materials comprise an extensive collection of lithics, ceramics and bronze tools and the Roman collection includes a number of beautiful whole ceramic pots, oil burning lamps and various military equipment and ornaments. Outside in the convent cloister we walked among 2,000 year old carved Roman stone sculptures, tombs, columns, cornerstones and archways. The entire complex is owned and run by the Francisco Martins Sarmento Society and I thought the exhibit was brilliantly presented, although I have to admit some dismay at those Roman sculptures being fully exposed to the elements.

The museum/cloister. Roman stone sculptures can be seen through the archways.
These guys clearly lost their heads in battle

The day after our museum visit, we rode up to Citania Briteiros and toured the excavation site itself. It’s believed that as many as 2,500 people occupied this site in its heyday, making it one of the biggest sites of pre-Roman urban concentration on the Iberian Peninsula. Just within the excavated portion of the site, there are literally hundreds of small, round house foundations situated within stone walls, indicating individual family compounds. Of course, the largest compounds, where the wealthiest people were most likely to live, were on top of the hill, overlooking the river far below. There was also one large round council house, with a stone bench lining the wall of the building, where community leaders would have met to discuss the affairs of the day. We walked among the compounds, following ancient cobblestone roads, overgrown in places but still clearly delineated. I was reminded of Angor Wat in its gorgeous decaying splendor, replete with lush vegetation and a sense of peace and tranquility throughout.

Citania Briteiros

Portugal Norte

We are now in the far north of Portugal, having pedaled up and over four mountain ranges in the last two weeks to get to Parque Nacional da Peneda-Gerês. This is the only designated national park (there are other “natural” parks) in Portugal and it really is beautiful. The village of Gerês is situated at the top of a long, narrow valley ringed by high, heavily forested mountains on three sides. Judging by the vast number of pensoes and other tourist amenities, the town must be overwhelmed with visitors in the summer, but in late April it was comfortably calm, and we were grateful to be there at this time rather than even one month from now. On our “rest day” from the bikes, we hiked a steep trail to a miradouro overlooking the mountains and reservoir to the south. That was the first real hike we’ve done in Portugal and although it was tough on the knees, we were happy to be working different muscles as we moved though the hills and trees.

14th century Roman Ponte over the Rio Lima

We are currently settled into a modest guesthouse in Ponte da Barca for a few days in order to do some day rides up and down the Rio Lima. Fernão de Magalhães, known in English as Ferdinand Magellan, was born in Ponte de Barca, and our guesthouse, Os Poetas, pays tribute to two Portuguese poet-monks who were also born here. The Rio Lima is the fourth of the five major rivers of the north. The other three, from south to north, include the Rios Tejo, Douro and Tâmega, all of which we have visited on this trip. Tomorrow we will arrive at the Rio Minho, which forms the northern fronteira with Spain, and we will follow the river west to the ocean, possibly going into Galicia for a few days before turning south down the coast, headed back to Porto. We have less than three weeks remaining on this great bicycle journey before returning to Porto to prepare our bikes for the flights to Denver. We are already feeling nostalgic, trying to remain present while also beginning to engage with matters at home. This is the reality of a long journey: the initial disturbance and uncertainty; eventually settling into a rhythm; the up and down, day in, day out experience; adapting, growing and then turning slowly away from the adventure and back to the foundation of home.

7 thoughts on “Culture, history, nature, people: the journey continues

  1. This trip sounds so magical Andre. I am imagining images in my mind that go with this post. Looking forward to seeing in my imaginings match the real thing. Thanks for your wonderful storytelling.

  2. Absolutely magnificent! Love seeing the huge smiles on your faces. Thanks for sharing your adventure and your thoughts. Enjoy every minute of the remainder of your journey! XOXOX

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