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Spain and Portugal - 1996*
Hi, and thanks for dropping by. I've only recently started this web page, and as you'll see as you get towards the bottom, it's only about 2/3rds done. I've been travelling for about 10 years now, on and off, and in the months ahead I hope to gather several journals and slide shows together in this web format. I'm also really interested in linking to other peoples stories, so please, if you have something like this on the web yourself, contact via email. My account is mdavison and that's at acm.org. Thank-you for visiting. Your criticisms and complements are both welcome.
During the summer of 1996, my partner Sara and I took two months off to go travelling in England, Spain and Portugal. Sara was much in need of a break, having just completed her B.A. in psychology at Simon Fraser University. We were living in limbo, with me in Montréal starting a new job , and her in Vancouver completing her studies. We had been seperated for seven months with only a couple of weekend visits. The plan was to meet at Gatwick airport with Sara and her parents, Shirley and Bob, who were also in Europe for two months. Amazingly enough, the plan worked!
Now I know you're asking yourself, "How did he get two months off from a new job, a new job at Microsoft none the less?" Well, that's another story, and believe me, a whole lot of people around here are asking themseleves that same question. Let's just say that Sara's persistence had a great deal to do with it.
So, I arrive at Gatwick on one of those cheapo flights from hell. ( "Can I get you anything sir?", "Yes, how about a shoe horn for my knees?" ) Sara and her parents are there to pick me up in the rental car. We had a wonderful time fitting the four of us, our two bikes ( you see, Sara and I are going cycle touring ), camping gear and everyone's luggage into a tiny little compact European rental car. It was pretty peppy though, even loaded to the gunnels like that! ( Mind you, my frame of reference is a 1969 Volvo station wagon. )
Off we trundle across the countryside. Now those of you who've read about the Cotswolds already know how much we like England. It was instant heaven. Pubs. Need I say more? We hit one for lunch of course, even though we were trying to keep expenses down, I mean really, how could we have skipped it? Our waitress as it turned out, was from Australia, and she was dying to get back to Canada. I'm not sure she understood just what it was that we were so drawn to. I guess she doesn't drink much beer. Anyhow, this pub was picture perfect, as so many of them are, with dogs and darts and more kinds of pudding than you can shake a walking stick at. Out in front there was a real oddity. It was a fancifully painted horse drawn wagon, the sort used by some of the travelling theatre shows that still ply their way around parts of England. This one was for sale. Bob was rather taken with it, but there was no way we'd be able to get it back through customs, and so we left without inquiring.
We drove off towards Cornwall and Devon on the M roads ( that's a freeway to Americans ) but quickly tired of that and so we took off across country headed for the south coast. Sara's parents have this fantastic atlas of teeny tiny English roads. That would be most of them. And so, we went touring. "Nice hedgerow." "Look dear, another nice hedgerow." Double decker busses suddenly made sense.
Well, at least there aren't hedge rows along the ocean, and the views are often dramatic. We wound and curved our way to the town of Beer in Devon. The name seemed promising enough, and it was a cute little seaside town, clustered together for warmth around a small beach. It's not really a harbour, but like many smaller towns on this coast fishing boats are pulled up onto the beach using a winch. We stayed in a busy little Bed and Breakfast on the wall just above the beach, and ate dinner in a funky little home run restaurant. Their dog was very friendly there at first, but later it tried to eat me.
|The Town of Beer:|
From Beer we headed further
West to Salcombe, looking for the Overbecks youth hostel. And looking,
and looking... The road there was a little longer, twistier and narrower
than we had expected. Few things are quite as entertaining as watch a
bunch of North Americans trying to negotiate a road like that. Barely a
lane wide, with steep, tight switchbacks, I'm sure Sara's parents took
a couple days off their lives with worry going up that one. It was
worht is however. The Overbecks Museum and Garden was the one time home
of Otto Overbeck (and family I assume), who took advantage of the near Mediteranean climate (as
they like to tell you over and over again) to grow palm trees in England,
if only to say he could. The house is almost beautiful, except for the
fact that it looks like it's made from concrete, but at least the gardens
are pretty. They look a little like they've grown there by accident,
but apparently that's intentional. Oh yeah, and they have nice cats.
Unless they've changed things since we were last there, I don't know
where they get off on calling this a museum. It's actually mostly a
youth hostel. We got a family room, and we liked the area so much that
we stayed for two nights and visited Salcombe while we were there. We
really liked the Salcombe area, and the people, well the Captain and his
Sara's parents are gardeners (damn good ones too) and they struck up a conversation with this older couple in their garden. The next thing you know, we're in the Captains' house, eating cookies, drinking tea, and talking about cycle touring Europe. It turns out that he was the captain of a mine sweeper during the war, and before that the two of them had done all sorts of cycle touring of France and Spain. Their hospitality was boundless, and it was quite the treat for a group of travellers.
We left the Captains' house, and went for a walk north of Salcombe through fields of lazy sheep. From a point on the path we had a beautiful panoramic view looking back at the town, and sure enough, the Captain and his wife were in their yard, smiling and waving to us in the distance! They were a lively pair! (At least I assume they were smiling...)
Sara and I were only in England for
a week or so before heading off to Spain. We spent almost a full week
of that time in Mevagissey, a small town south of St. Austell in Cornwall.
We took a "self-catering" for the week. That's a holiday rental home.
Between the four of us, it was quite affordable, and it was a really cute
little place. We faced south, looking down with a perfect view over the
harbour, and what a treat it was to have our own kitchen and do our own
cooking! We used the time to get ready for our upcoming cycling as well,
escpecially in the search for clamps for my front rack. This turned into
a wonderful excuse to peruse the hardware stores in the local area. Sara
and I are now intent on building a house in British Columbia using UK
building supplies. Everything just seemed so funky. Anyhow, we got a
parking ticket, but the license plate was wrong, so we threw it in the
garbage, and went home without a clamp. I improvised successfully.
With Mevagissey as a base we hiked both North and South, including a visit to MMM Castle and it's gardens. The gardens are only open to the public a couple of days each year, and Sara's parents were happy to see them. We also toured around a bit by car taking the back roads and visiting odd little towns like MMM with it's little round houses (with no corners for the devil). I guess that's why he like pentagrams.
On our last day in England, Bob and
Shirley drove us to Plymouth, where we were set to depart for
Spain on the ferry. First however we needed to visit all of the Mayflower holy
sites, because, you see, Sara can trace her family line back all the way to
several of the original Mayflower contingent. So we stood around in front
of the plaque, competing with classes of kids for photograph opportunities.
I can't remember who won, but I think it was the kids. That done, we waived
goodbye as we set off on our journey south by bicycle.
I like boats, and, even though this one was a little bit like a cruise ship, I still enjoyed it. The trip from Plymouth to Santander takes about 24 hours and we were in (surprise, surprise) the cheap seats. That means a reclining seat in a large room full of reclining seats. Food on the ferry was, of course, ridiculously over-priced. We kept to the soup and stale buns menu, with perhaps a side of fries (Sara's weakness, I just eat unfathomable quantities of stale bread), suplemented by the leftover croisants I found on trays outside the first class cabins in the morning. Did I mention that we're deathly cheap? We arrived in Santander tired from our night on the floor, which was infinitely more comfortable than a night in those silly chairs, to find the port fogged in with drizzle. Harrassment from the authorties was kept to a minimum as they picked on the poorer looking cyclists, although they were careful to stress that we only had two weeks in Spain without a visa. We continued on in search of a plan.
Santander looked dirty and grey in the rain. It's a holiday destination for the British apparently, but really, that's not much of a recommendation, and most people are just passing through to points further south. We weren't at all inclined to stay, and so we went straight to the train station and tried to book a train to somewhere else. "Where do you want to go?" "Uhm...Where DO you go?" Sara bumbled through, slowly recovering her Central American Spanish, and we settled upon Cáceres, to the West of Madrid, and only a couple of days ride from the Portugese border. We would have to change trains in Madrid at 24h00 and then get off the train in Cáceres at 03h00. Oh yeah, and no bikes. No bikes?!? Oh shit... but the guidebook says... Damn guidebook. But, we're told, we can ship our bikes, however, the train leaves in 10 minutes, so you'd better hurry.
Hurry we did! Sara's Spanish improved greatly under the stress, as we ran over to the railway shipping building to organise our bicycles. They would follow us on a truck to Cáceres, arriving sometime the next day. Yes, before noon. No, no extra weight on the bikes. We were only slightly terrified as we stumbled away under the wieght of all our gear to catch the train with at least a minute to spare, and we were off, heading into the Spanish night, and onto the plain of Spain where it was definately raining.
Now if there's one thing I like
almost as much as a ship, it's a train. My ability to enjoy this trip
was being hampered however by our obvious lack of food. The unfortuante
timing of the train meant that we had been unable to provision, and, of
course, we were far too cheap to buy the expensive train food being
offered to us here. We soldiered on eating the last of the bread from the
ferry, and it really wasn't too long before we found ourselves in the
modern surroundings of the Madrid station. Good food however was again
hard to come by. Sara managed to find a deli, and in her frugal way, she
bought some awful bread (which was about all they had) and some cheese.
Processed cheese. Now don't get me wrong, I really enjoyed most of the
food we ate in Spain (except later in Santander, but you'll have to wait),
but this was really awful. Sara thought it was regular cheese when she
bought it, but this stuff had never seen the inside of a cow. The joys
of petroleum food products. It was better than nothing though, and onward
we continued on the midnight train to Lisboa. (Lisbon in Portugese is
pronounced "Lizshboa" and spelled Lisboa.)
The time spent on this train was far more enjoyable, partly because we had eaten something (I'm not sure what, but something), but also because we sat across from a talkative gentleman who lived in Spain, had lived in England and the US, and was currently travelling to Portugal on buisness. He was well educated and multilingual. His manner was at the same time, warm and indifferent, inviting yet aloof. He sat with his legs crossed, leaning back in his chair, and off onto one elbow, as he lectured us on change in Europe, and the ignorant working class. His speach was slow, at times seeming carefully measured, but that may have been translation, and he was definately charming, though perhaps not in the way he may have hoped. We learned much from him about the changes on the peninsula in the age of the European Union, as seen through the eyes of a successful entrepeneur. Perhaps just as importantly, he new which station was Cáceres, and he seemed more than happy to stay awake.
|Cáceres:||The platform in Cáceres was surprisingly busy for three in the morning, but within minutes of the trains arrival the place was empty as relatives (who else would come at three in the morning) disappeared with their loads. We were left bikeless at the station with little idea of where to go or what to do. With a lonely, hungry kitten for company I sat by our gear while Sara washed off the journey. I bought some milk from a vending machine for the cat, and we went outside with the idea of finding a place to sleep until morning. As luck would have it, there was a small fairly secluded garden out in front of the tiny station. It's air of neglect suggested privacy, and the hedges gave us some cover, with a trellis of vines above to keep the rain off. We pulled out some minimal sleeping gear with the idea of a quick exit in mind, and curled up for a couple of hours. The misty rain and noisy roads near by kept sleep from us for much of the night, and so we were extremely glad to see a truck come in with cargo at 7h00. Luck was with us this time, and we were soon on our way into ancient Cáceres.|
The walls of the city date back to
Roman times. It's squares ( none of which are ) are connected by magical medieval
roads and stairways. Beatiful stone is everywhere. It is a city with style,
soul and grace. Little travelled, much ignored. We wandered the streets
within the walls of the mostly residential old town, and then out through
the main gates into a large and more modern (circa 1750) square of simple
buildings filled with character and characters. This is where the bars
and the bakeries were to be found. We ate well. Finally.
In the centre of the square (and at least this one was a rectangle) there was a rather large, modern and extremely temporary looking stage. As we rode up the first time, they were hanging letters on the back wall; W, O, M, A... "Hey, what do you think this is?" D. D? WOMAD? No shit! We simply could not believe our luck! We had heard on the ferry that somewhere in spain there was some sort of music festival going on. WOMAD, in Cáceres, and starting on the very night we got there. I had reached heaven considerably before my time. "Where's Peter Gabriel?" we asked. No Peter, well perhaps it wasn't heaven, but they did have English schedules, and in fact, half the crowd seemed to be from England. All through the streets of the old city, shop had been erected filled with tie-die and faux-medeival clothing. Belts and drums, beads and hash pipes. I'm sure this all did nothing to improve the Spanish oppinion of the Brits, as most of it came from there, but it added life to the stone streets, making the city more beautiful than before. We searched through the list o performers and didn't know anyone, so we did our usual trick. Pick everything African or Latin and give it a whirl.
|David Broza:||By mid afternoon we were pretty much tired out. We found ourseleves on an odd little balcony overlooking what was probably our favourite square. Our view on one side looked off across the Extremadura countryside of dry cork and olive fields, while on the other side the busy square, dominated by a stately church, bustled with the buisness of readying for tonights WOMAD show. We were tipsy on Sangria and exhaustion, and napping in the shade only to be awoken by a sound check. "That roadey's pretty good," I said to Sara as this dark character tested the microhpones and played snippets of music on a clasical guitar. It didn't take long to figure out that this wasn't the roadey. Especially when he began to sing. This man could play. This man had soul. We lay their in the warm Spanish air, drinking (cheap) sangria from a box, listening to the best sound check I have ever enjoyed. I went down to talk to this brooding stranger, and asked him his name, "David Broza." "Can I get your albums in Canada?" "Yup." he said. And no more than six months later we saw him at Cafe Campus, here in Montréal. Sara, unfortunately, was too tired to stay up for his show which only began at 21h00. We headed out to a campsite, a few k's from town and I had to come in alone to watch the show that night. Needless to say, it was brilliant. David can really play, and he loves being a showman. In fact, I would say he was better there than in Montreal. The crowd there was more mature and he didn't wiggle his hips nearly as much, or maybe it was the magic of that ancient square.|
The rest of the festival couldn't
quite live up to David's show. One interesting act was Fun Da Mental from
the UK. A DJ with a turntable, a bass player, a guy on digereedoo ( How do
you spell that? ) and a guy on drum. They did this sort of rap noise thing,
and part of their schtick was to get audience members up on stage. They got
a Spanish rapper, a young kid on the drum, and some other guy on the
didgereedoo. Well, the drummer couldn't keep time, but the rapper was
way better than them, and, well, I couldn't really tell about the
We left Cáceres and the campground full of English hippies for points west on our way through the olive, goats and cork to the Portugese border. The bicycle ride was beautiful. Lunch in the olive groves, eating fresh bread, camping wherever we could hide along the way. Pulling into the bars and asking "Agua por favor?"... or something like that. This is hard dry country with huge vistas. The plains turn to hills and then suddenly, even on a bike it seemed sudden, the hills turn to jagged teeth.
The mountains of the border are not very high, at least not compared to the plain we were on. We climbed, yes, but the mountains looked taller. Maybe this is because we come from the Canadian West coast, where the alpine starts quite high up, but here we were looking at these jagged peaks that were barely above us, and on the top of one off in the distance, we could see a fortess town. The peaks looked as if they should be covered with snow year round. We wound up the backside of one of these teeth, and found the border. "EU Nationals" in one lane, us in another, probably slower one.
It looked a little quiet as we peddled up to the frontier. Something didn't seem quite right. We parked our bikes and climbed the steps to the glass doors of the office. Cobwebs. The place was filled with cobwebs. It looked a little like a 60's sci-fi flick where all of the people on the planet were dead, but us. This officious government building filled with cobwebs. So, do we get arrested if we cross the border? I mean, we're not EU nationals. Where do we go? I want my passport stamped! Where's the comforting red tape? Those Spanish guys are gonna' give us a pretty hard time if we don't get a stamp... "No officer, I haven't been loafing around your country for two months without a visa..." A young woman stepped out from a corner store that probably used to get buisness from the line of people waiting here on a busy day, and from the workers in the office above. She speaks with Sara in Spanish, "She says we need to go to the government tourist office in Portalegre." Well that's two or three days from here by bike with the touring we want to do. They'll just have to wait. They will won't they? We peddalled on to the first Portuguese city,Marvao.
Did I mention that Marvao is
on top of a mountain? It's not a big mountain, but you try
riding up a steep road like that in the heat of the Portugese summer
with your panniers full. We didn't. We hid our paniers in the bushes
while we rode up. This was when we met what would come to be one of our
favourite Portugese traditions... the public fountain. Beautiful stone
fountains in shaded squares. This one had (what else) cork trees providing
the shade. We washed off the last couple of roadside campsites before
completing the climb.
I don't think much has changed in Marvao in the last couple of centuries, in that curious way that countries freeze themselves at the height of their grandeur. (That's why America is stuck in the 50's and England in the Colonial era mixed with a little bit of the second world war.) Portugal was last a great power around 1750, and it's splendour is stuck there, Marvao's buildings and foundation date back much further yet to the 10th century. I am thankful for this. It sits, as it always has, on the Spanish border, with an everwatchful eye on the lands below. And what a view there is! Nothing could approach from the East here without notice, as long as someone were looking, that is. The entrance is a series of switch back turns through gates, each guarded by several towers and guns. We wandered along the tops of the walls, took a siesta in their shade in a beautiful public garden (complete with fountain) and toured the old fortress that once guarded this view. Herds of goats played bell music for us from below the walls, defying gravity as they scampered about. And of course, the ride back down was a scream.
This is horse country, and
Sara is horse woman. We rode for a couple of days past fields and
pastures, many with these beautiful choclate brown horses they breed
in the region. She had many conversations with them. The snobby ones
ignored her, the friendly ones trotted over for a head scratch.
Our route was sometimes steep, but always beautiful.
No one route around here is scenic, they should just paint the whole
map that way. Only modernity mars the beauty, and here there isn't much,
not even in Portalegre.
Arriving there involved a bit of culture shock. It was our first big Portugese town, and our first experience with the drivers. (Except for one idiot who passed us on two wheels going around a switch back.) Portalegre was a bit big, but it wasn't a bad town except for the fact that the campsite was on the other side of it, and up near the top of a very long hill. Sara was having a tough day, the heat seemed to be really getting to her, and this ride was not a good thing. In the end, I left her (Can you guess?) at a fountain, Lover's Fountain, none the less, while I rode ahead, booked the site dropped my paniers and returned for her and hers. Even so, she barely made it, and that night we realised why. True love is emptying the bowl for your partner after she's finished wretching in it, cleaning it (well), and then eating breakfast from the same bowl later. Sara and something she ate or drank did not get along. She also didn't get along with the guy who ran the place. He laughed at the fact that I went back for her bags. He himself however could not have done one tenth of what she had.
Well the passport stamp
was a simple matter as it turned out, although the office was
at the top of another hill. The people there were really
friendly and somewhat curious. We came to suspect that not
many people bicycle tour through this part of the country,
and few yet cross that border and show up at that office.
The fellow who stamped our passports came outside with a smile
and a wave to watch us ride off!
For the next few days, we rode south on byways of various sizes towards Evora. This countryside changed gradually from the steeper green hillsides of Portalegre, to the slowly rolling plains further south. This is the Alentejo, the bread basket of Portugal, and the Portugese make good bread. Wheat fields now joined the cork and olives as we road South into the rain. The weather here is usually dry and hot over the summer, but not this week.
As we approached Evora, in fact we were in sight of the hill it's built upon, the sky opened and the rain poured forth. A head wind had been blowing all day, making life pretty miserable, and we pushed hard. Too hard. Sara's achillies tendon began to do what she called "squeaking". She could feel it stressing and tearing. We limped through Evora and into a wet campsite just outside the city. They were obviously not set up for rain, and we shared the laundry room with a couple of nordic car campers as we made dinner that night.
Evora is billed as one of
Portugal's most beautiful cities, and rightly so. A mad ring road
encircles the old city walls, but within them, pedestrians reign.
Narrow little car-
defying streets, and graceful homes cluster together within the crumbling
walls. The oldest building in town has no roof. The Temple of Diana
was built by the Romans when they were in Iberia, and it stands again,
at least partially, in front of Evora's most expensive hotel. There's
a university in town with a beautiful campus, and this draws youth,
vigour and sophistication to the city.
There are many fine galleries, shops and restaurants, but we spent
most of our time just wandering about watching.
We stayed for two days there, waiting for Sara's ankle to heal and the weather to blow over. The weather blew over. I think Sara knew her cycling would now be limited, but it took me a little longer to accept this. Eventually, we booked a train south to Tavira, on the extreme East end of the Algarve. We're not usually beach puppies, well, I'm not, but Sara's ankle needed some rest before we could continue so...
The Algarve is the most southern portion of Portugal, spanning the width of the country. In recent years it has become infested with the French, the Brits, the Germans, you name it. Cheap hotels in the days of poor Portugal, and plenty of sunny beaches. These were the draw. The result? Well, just what you'd expect really. Shabily built condos for mile upon mile. Thousands of rental cars. Sunburnt people. This is Portugal's Costa Del Sol, home of the deadliest road in the nation, and Portugal already has the highest accident rate in all of Western Europe. Most of the accidents down south involve alcohol, and, rumour has it, drunken Brits pulling their rental cars out onto the wrong side of the road. After having seen how the Portugese drivers pass each other however, I don't understand why they would be bothered by a Brit hurtling along on the left.
Ours was a strategy of avoidance. There's no doubt that much of this coast, and the original towns along it, are worthy of a visit. The trick would be to avoid the crowds. We decided therefore to head there early in our trip, and then to keep to the fringes in the form of Tavira and Lagos. In between we would take the train, thereby keeping off that highway, and giving Sara's ankle more time to heal. The train south to Tavira was a relief after Spain. They were far cheaper, and they happily tossed our bikes on and off the train for us, handling each transfer. This was wonderful, once we let go of the fear of not keeping them with us all the time. I think the railway staff were probably just about the most delightful and friendly people we met all trip.
|The town of Tavira, a small city really, has not been too badly ruined by all the tourism, or at least in May it didn't seem so. It has a wonderful and lively market for fish and vegetables down on the sea shore, and a true Mediterranean feel. There's one set of ruins on a hill in the town that we ate lunch in. They've been turned into a garden, and from up on the walls you can see into several back yards. These people don't have green thumbs, their entire arms must be green. The garden looked, well, delicious. Really! I mean, everything just looked so ripe and edible! One of the great joys of exploring these ruins in Portugal is the complete and utter disregard for safety and legal liability. It's just way more fun when there isn't a railing! Most of the buildings are whitewashed, with splashes of vibrant colour, yellows and blues mostly, thrown in to liven things up. Next to these fabulous ruins was a whitewashed church. A service was running, and so we didn't enter, but we did get a picture of it's domed tower. It was the perfect postcard, or would have been if someone else had taken it. Many of the fishboats in town are shoal boats; when the tide goes out they're left high and dry on the sand in the river mouth. These boats work the inshore fisheries with small nets and shellfish rakes, and you can watch them at work off of Ilha de Tavira. Crossing the river mouth on the main bridge takes you to what seemed like a less touristed area on the east side of the city. We wandered about there for the better part of a day, checking out the local shops and a huge open market where everything from kitchenware to underware was for sale. This was clearly a locals thing, and Sara had a great time bargain hunting. I enjoyed the fresh fried dough sprinkled with sugar.|
We camped on Ilha Tavira at a huge
campsite there. This is where we got introduced to two things which would
haunt us most of the way to England. The European Cup, and giant tent.
Most of you will know the European Cup, we're talking football here. Soccer.
The world's most most popular sport to live through vicariously.
Portugal was winding up. The matches hadn't started yet, but the
excitement had. The day we arrived, two of the country's biggest
teams were pitched against each other, and do you think we could get any
service? Not a chance. Even in the campsite, people had these portable
TVs, and they were clustered around the tube, sucking their life out of it.
TVs in the campsite? Yup, and we're not talkin' RV camping here folks. Ilha Tavira is the reason Tavira is still nice. It's kinda' like Australia used to be to England, you see, there's this boat that takes you over to the island where you can camp. Everything you could need (booze, food and booze) is available in English, French, German, Spanish, even Portugese, and getting into town to bug the locals means walking 300 meters across the island, catching the ferry and then walking into town or catching a cab. They don't bother - at least, not the ones that you don't want anyway, and so Tavera itself is left that much more alone. Gladly, the place was so empty when we were there that we had our choice of 12 restaurants with no-one in them. Sara lay on the beach, and I explored the island. Most of it is a nature reserve. The dichotomy is amusing.
|Tavira:||Remember I said something about giant tents back there? This was something about Portugese culture that we simply did not understand. Giant tents, 3 to 6 meters on a side, packed together like a shanty town. Some of them have smaller storage tents and other out buildings, along with large outdoor eating areas. Imagine hundreds of these packed together like rats in a cage, their paper thin walls seperating each family. The noise in and from these communities is considerable. And many people seem to love them. Sites are rented by the season, and people set themselves up once a year. It's the summer home. They're lively places with children and dogs, and I'd assume they feel pretty safe for a family too. It was quite sad watching the women though, relegated to keeping the sand off of the linoleum in the outdoor dining room. It's pretty clear who does the work in these camps. I never once saw a man doing anything, and I got joked about by one man for doing our laundry. That was sad.|
Well, after a couple of
days, we were getting pretty jumpy. Sara's ankle was healing
slowly, and we knew now that trains were going to have to be
a large part of our journey. We booked onto the train for Lagos
from Tavira, and spent the day journeying West. The train line
gave an interesting perspective on the Algarve. Trains go
through the poorest neighbourhoods, where local living conditions
show through. This particular train also spent a lot of time
running on dykes above the salt flats. Strange little towns dotted
the route. They were set back from the sea shore a great distance
by these salt fields, and they looked as though they'd washed up
against the tracks in a storm. In the distance,
on islands off shore, massive white holiday condominiums gleamed
in the sun. Those would be the package vacations I had read about
in the newspapers at home.
We were surprised to like Lagos as much as we did. Again, the lack of crowds may have had something to do with it. Lagos is much bigger than Tavira, a medium sized city, and there were far, far more tourists here, but the height of the season hadn't hit yet. Our campsite was cheap, really cheap, and right in town. It was also near some beautiful secluded beaches and grottos - the scenery is magnificent. We enjoyed wandering around the city as well. The market in town supplied us with good food, and there are dozens of restaurants and funky shops. It's a tourist town all right. With all those great restaurants, you think we could have eaten well, but somehow we ended up at this pasta place run by an expat Brit. She's knows her clientele all right: Feed 'em lots and get 'em drunk. I guess it was a good deal price-wise, but I wouldn't say it was gourmet. The beer was slightly better than the wine.
|Our best night there, if I don't so say myself, was the night I made chocolate fondue on the beach, and we sat there watching the fading orange light set the grotto on fire. The grottos are magical. Small beaches seperated by rocky headlands of 12 meter cliffs. We worked our way along the shore after dessert that night in the moonlight, passing through tunnels in the rock that connected a series of three beaches. The rising tide was daring us to go further. At the last tunnel, we couldn't drop down to the beach because the waves were crashing in, swamping the beach right up to the back wall, and then retreating with a powerful backwash. No more than 20 meters away was a winding stairacse taking us back up to the city above. It had to be done. The waves were crashing into the stairs and erupting 4 meters into the sky with every large cycle. We waited and watched, pretending to debate whether or not we should time it and run for it. "I'll just go partway and look and then run back..." I said. Yeah. right. The oppourtunity had to be seized, and I ran up the stairs with a wave right behind me. Sara cheered, until she realised that it was her turn. Two wave chains later and we were standing together, yelling our excitement above the sound of the sea, and we stood there for half an hour drinking it in.|
From Lagos we began cycling
again, heading South-West for Sagres, the location of Prince Henry the
Navigator's school of navigation. This is where the early explorers
who put Portugal on the map, who made the maps to put it on for that
matter, this is where they came to study and to innovate. Vasco de Gama
came here, and he went on to make Portugal a great world power by
sailing around the Cape of Good Hope to India and the Far East, breaking
Venice's hold on spices and silk in Europe. Well actually, much of the
story of Prince Henry is thought to be myth, but don't try and tell
that to anyone here!
Sagres is a windy place indeed. The old Moorish fortress which Henry adapted to his purposes is set out on a long thin peninsula of high cliffs. Only one relatively short wall was needed to defend a large section of land, but it's not the most inviting of places.
We rode our bikes around the perimeter of the peninsula. It's a popular spot with fishermen. They use extrememly long poles and lines to fish in the surf at the base of the cliffs. On our way around we stumbled upon two great holes in the ground, which lead at an angle down to the base of the cliffs. We were never sure if these were natural or constructed.
There's not much left from Henry's day. A small church on the site is attributed to him, there's also a large circle of small stones laid out on the ground. It's thought to be a navigation tool of some sort. Unfortunately the museum on the site was closed the day we were there, so we couldn't find out any more.
Sagres is a strange town.
It's the geography that does it. It seems more like a prarie or
than a coastal one in some ways. Most of it, at least the
parts that we saw, don't even really look out to the ocean. They
sit up on top of the plateau, and try and keep out of the wind,
which never stopped blowing while we were there. The market is set
far back from the sea, and the main square esentially ignores it.
Odd as it was, we kind of liked Sagres for it's isolated feeling.
It feels a world apart from the rest of Europe. Maybe that's what
Henry was after.
Our trip out to Sagres was in some ways a test trip for Sara's ankle. Could we cycle again? The headwinds were hard, very hard, but she managed it, and so the plan was to do some small distance touring, and cover the larger distances by train. We returned to Lagos with a tremendous push from what was now a tail wind, and from here we headed staight for Lisboa on the next train. This meant skipping a few places we had hoped to see, but with our new pace, we had no choice. So Northward we went.
Lisboa and the
Lisboa was, for us, a pleasant suprise. We didn't know anything about it until we got there; it's not widely represented in English literature, and it's been out of the limelight for at least two hundred years. Our first impression of the place was from the sea. It looks like a modern busy harbour as you approach on the commuter ferry from the south shore. We arrived at EstaÁ„o do Sul e Sueste - ostensibly a train station, but there's not a train to be seen anywhere. There's no train bridge across the Tagus in Lisboa, and so passengers arriving from the South disembark in Cacilhas for the passage across. Unfortunately the ferry does not accept bicyles, but the ever helpful and ingenious CP employees sent our bikes further inland, bringing them into Lisboa at Santa Apůlonia station, right in town. This meant our bikes would arive a day later than us, but we had come to trust the trains.
The city we stepped out into seemed magical. It didn't occur to us immediately, but much of the magic comes from the lack of tall buildings. No skyscrapers. This is a city built on a human scale. Much of its ancient glamour was destroyed in a tragic earthquake in 1755 (during High Mass none the less), an so the city now has a certain consistency of design throughout. That's mostly attributable to the Marquis de Pombal, an autocratic soul who led the redesign and rebuilding of the city. His best ideas were the huge avenues and squares that make up the public space.
Nothing in the city is much
taller than six or seven stories, and so the roll of the land is
apparent in the roll of the rooftops. Church towers and mountain
top castles still dominate the skyline. There's a strong sense of
conservation - old building facades recycled for new interiors -
and a strong sense of neighbourhood. Cafťs, bakeries and butchers
dot the narrow streets, which twist once you escape out of the
We loved alot of the shops we found in Lisboa, but one of our favourites (well mine anyhow) was this grocery store built behind all the storefronts on a large city block. The entrance looked like any other store on the street, but it was more like a cave leeding back to a cellar. The store was deceivingly large, and it was filled with nooks and crannies, presumably fitting the shape of the many other stores surrounding it, and facing out onto the streets. The cellar like ambience created by the lack of windows was reinforced with the old post and beam construction, the red brick walls and the shear density of the food piled high in the narrow ailes.
Our hotel was a funny little
place with perhaps twenty rooms in it, on Rua de São José, a popular
restaurant row. While we were there, they were installing an
elevator - probably to entice a more selective clientele than
ourseleves. This made for an awful lot of noise for much of
the day, and we often awoke to the din of sledgehammers. The
room itself was fine though. It was once a beautiful place with
ten foot ceilings and thick moulding, although now it had uglly
carpets. The furniture was what I'd call "well used antique"
We had double doors opening into the hallway, and double glass
doors opening onto a small deck over the street. From there we
could watch the busy crowds milling about on the warm summer nights.
Not bad for $20US a night.
We came for three days, and we stayed for a week. The romance of the place worked its way into our bones. The twisting alleyways of the moorish Alfama, the stately gardens within Castelo São Jorge, coffee and desert on top of the Elevador de Santa Justa - a Victorian oddity inspired by Eifel, and designed by Raul Mesnier de Ponsard as a means of public transport from the base of a five story bluff to the streets of the Chiado district above. I think that desert cost us as much as a night in our hotel. Thinking back on it now there were plenty of highlights and very few lows. One notable exception was being kicked out of a restaurant for being vegetarien - we couldn't order any of their main dishes and had ordered several side dishes instead. We weren't welcome. For the most part however, we really enjoyed Lisboa.
We also visited a couple of
wonderful museums while we were there, the Gulbenkian and the Museu de
Marinha, both highly recomendable for the museum inclined. The Gulbenkian
is quite the story. Calouste Gulbenkian was an Armenian oil merchant known
as Mr 5%
because of his share in the oil profits of Iraq.
When he decided to retire he esentially
auctioned himself off to the highest bidder. Portugal beat out
several countires with a Royal title and estate along with who knows
what else. So Gulb set down his final roots here creating a large
cultural and philanthropic empire in the North of the city. A
portion of his considerable art collection is now on display at the
Museu Gulbenkian. There's also an impressive research library
maintained in the basement, but I didn't have a reservation. His
collection is smaller than that of a national museum, but undeniably
impressive, especially considering that he was not a nation.
The man had taste.
Martime history is very important to Portugal, and it is well represented at the Museu de Marinha. Like England and Spain, all of it's glory came from the days when it ruled the high seas. It's arguable whether or not they really did, however, I wouldn't raise the point while visiting. All of their sea faring history is well covered in an amazing colletion of large scale models. This is a priceless and thorough collection, although they gloss over the fact that Portugal essentially invented the African slave trade with some of these ships. Next door to the Museum you'll find the Mosterio Dos Jerónimos (a monastery). Its gate and cloisters are beautiful examples of what's called the Manueline style - an architectural tip of the hat to Portugal's nautical heritage.
Speaking of architecture, it's
amazing that I've goten this far without mentioning Azulejos.
Portugese artists have a tradition of painting on tiles, and we've
seen hundreds of beautiful examples. The most common variety would
be the monochrome blue ones. Train stations throughout the country
are free museums of this art. The scenes they depict are usually of
local customs and icons - famous buildings and people. They make a
fun checklist of a place as you leave to see if you missed anything.
Some of the tiles make use of colour too, but these are mostly the
geometric variety, showing the influence of the muslim world in their
patterned beauty. We have a soft spot for tiles much like we do for
hardware, only our budget and our limited baggage space prevented us
from purchasing a kitchen full of them while we were there.
It took a while for us to leave, but eventually we did, heading West from Lisboa on the smallest road we could find. Leaving was awful, not only because of the fact that we were leaving, but because like any major city, Lisboa sprawls, and the sprawl, being built in modern times, is relatively tasteless and shabby. The beauty of sprawl in the old world however is that it often only fills the spaces between the older, more hospitable spaces that predate it. And so we ventured, through waves of old and new on the road towards Sintra.
|Architecture and Azulejos:
Sintra remains bittersweet in our memories; sweet for itís palaces and ruins, itís hillsides and forests; bitter for the theft of my bicycle wheels and Saraís seat. Anyone who has ever lost a bicycle, and Iíve lost two, knows the feeling. The shock, the cold sweat, the sickened stomach. Itís bad enough at home, but overseas it can be overwhelming. Besides, where do you get a pair of replacement wheels for a mountain bike in Sintra? Itís not exactly Palo-Alto. And worse yet, how much are you going to pay? More about that later, but first, the sweet.
Sintra was another gem of a place. Once upon a time it was the summer home of the Royal Family, and the Palace is open for tours. It looks more like a factory than a palace though, with its two giant conical kitchen chimneys dominating the roof. The tour is worth doing, but donít expect 18th century opulence, this palace comes from a more austere time. The azulejos are worth a look though. The real draw of Sintra comes more from the surroundings and the many grand homes built by the rich in an attempt to gain access to the Royal Family. Walking around town and exploring the estates can be a lot of fun. While we were poking our noses around, we eventually found ourselves in a park on the slopes below the picturesque ruins of a Moorish castle. The path turned to a track, which changed into a disused stairway, which gave way to a scramble. We topped out on a large rock ledge to find three climbers. We were a little surprised to find them there, and even more so when it turned out that they spoke English! We hung at with them for a little while, talking climbing, and they told us we could continue up the path all the way to the ruins above. Iím glad we did.
Muslim forces swept north from Africa
in the year 711, to dominate much of
the Iberian Peninsula. Contrary to most modern depictions of these events, this
was not a case of the barbarians pushing civilisation back, but instead I think it
would be closer to the truth to label the westerners as the barbarians. For the
next seven centuries Moorish design soaked into the countryside. The beautiful
remains in Sintra are a testament to their engineering skill. They were built in
the 8th or 9th century, and theyíve stood the test of time. An amazingly
complete wall snakes along the hillside, climbing to several beautiful vistas. On
the day we were there, the wind was threatening to rip us off of the ramparts.
Saraís baseball cap (which has seen many journeys) decided to take flight from
one of the towers, landing high in a tree below the walls. Retrieving it required a
mixture of foolhardiness and climbing skills, combined with a well-versed
childhood of tree climbing. Iím sure those walls have seen worse. We found the
easy way down the mountain; a series of switchbacks through the beautiful
forest, ending on a cobblestone road which took us back to town. Everything
seemed so picturesque; doors, windows, gardens and walls; it seemed like a
dream world wandering those streets as the sun set on Sintra.
On our second day in Sintra we went for a long walk out to Parque de Monserrate. This small modern palace was built by Sir Francis Cook in the 19th century. Itís a truly beautiful building in our opinions - completely underrated by the travel literature. I imagine itís overlooked because itís been "let go". Hopefully, someone well step in and right this wrong. The interior spaces and the garden views that surround the house are exquisite. The garden itself would apparently be interesting to botanists - which weíre not - but it was still an enjoyable walk. The house, and the classical interior, are what really drew us. That and the rather proud peacock we conversed with for a while. We poked our noses through all the windows we could reach, and we kept imagining dinners and breakfasts in the sunlight of the garden.
|It happened the next day. I donít really want to write much more than to say that my wheels were stolen, and Saraís seat disappear with them. Bastards. We limped out of Sintra with my new wheels. It took a while to get them round, let alone true. We were heading for the sea to the north, but we took one last venture inland first, to Mafra to see the great library there. The library in Mafra is part of the huge monastery and palace built in the early 18th century. It is simply huge. This was not a cosy home. These days itís populated by a few priests operating in the massive cathedral, dozens of tourists who are herded through the refurnished royal chambers, part of the old monastery and the library of 14th-18th century books, but mostly by soldiers. A large part of the building is devoted to military offices and barracks. Several times on my tour we were treated to the almost comical antics of the soldiers as the museum curator used their muscle to deliver a huge dining table up three tall flights of stairs, and then to redecorate the hall, moving heavy oak furniture this way and that. She yelled a lot. I was tagging along with a Portuguese tour group for a fairly thorough look at the place (Sara wasnít feeling too well so she took a rest in the shade outside). The refurnishing is slowly taking place, and so now thereís a mix of original pieces from the palace, and period pieces purchased to recreate the missing ambience. Nothing could make rooms that cavernous approach comfort for me though, with one exception, the Library. The library approached a spiritual experience for me. The powerful mix of the perfume of ancient tomes, the light and balance of the space, and the sound of all those books awed me. In my minds eye now, the room appears more like a painting than reality; the gentle light filtering down from the windows up above to illuminate immaculate shelves of leather bindings. The sterility of a CD-ROM seems like a slight to this beauty.|
From Mafra we coasted to the coast.
It was downhill almost the entire way to
Ericeira, where we caught a beautiful ocean sunset. This was our first visit to the
west coast of Portugal. The beaches here are long, but the water is cold. A lot of
the towns on this stretch of coast are holiday resorts. Itís kind of a budget
Algarve. The cycle north was beautiful, as we followed the smallest roads we
could find. At one point, this meant following as the road disappeared onto a
beach, to reappear a kilometre later. We spent the day twisting and turning,
meeting helpful souls when we stopped for water, and generally enjoying
ourselves, at least until we arrived in Peniche.
For us, Peniche was one awful experience after another. The first campsite was on the highway, and had almost no trees for shade. The second was worse. The third worse yet. We rode back. The town itself wasnít much to look at. There were a few nice places, and we did some shopping there, but other than being on the sea, Peniche doesnít have much going for it. Our second mistake (the first one was coming here) was our trip to Ilha Berlenga. It might be worth it if you had money to burn, and you want to se all of the seagull nests, but otherwise, Iíd skip. And I certainly wouldnít bother staying the night. You arrive on the little island after an hour-long ferry ride from the mainland. Youíre given a couple of hours to wander around and have a look at things (all three things) and then you can either return on the ferry to Peniche, camp on the island for the night ( a dozen or so funky little terrace camp sites to choose from ) or stay at the "youth hostel" - which we didnít investigate. So far so good, I mean, there arenít a lot of places to go, but you can watch the thousands of birds paint your tent white. This part was fine. We had foolishly brought far too little wine for these high levels of activity, but the local tavern ( a very small community lives permanently on the island) was happy to fill a 1 litre bottle with some stuff they had in a plastic jug. I assured Sara that theyíd cleaned it first. Nothing could have lived in that wine anyway. The bad part happens the next day when youíre on the only beach you can access without a boat. This is the beach everyone else comes to. When the ferry arrives, this is the beach that all of the people who arenít interested in climbing all the stairs from the harbour up onto the top of the island, park their butts for 3 hours until the boat leaves. You get to walk around the island (again) or sit here with the throng, who of course, have to sit here with you too. Eventually, you are all relieved of this ordeal when youíre taken back to lovely Peniche.
|Caldas da Rainha:
When we left Peniche,
we asked the campground owners if it was all right for
us to leave some stuff there while we spent the night on Ilha Berlenga, since the
campground was mostly empty. When we returned, we found someone had
arrived, decided that the site our stuff was in was a good one, and moved it.
Kind of pushy and obnoxious in an empty campground. We left Peniche with a
bad taste in our mouths. From there we headed inland again, to go around
Lagoa de ”bidos, a deep lagoon that once reached even further inland to the city
of ”bidos. Itís one of my travellers regrets that we didnít explore this city, as it
looked truly beautiful from below the walls, however, Sara wanted to keep
going, and I said I wouldnít regret it, so we did. She would have stayed if I had
asked, but the large number of tour busses parked outside the walls were a bit of
a deterrent. Instead we continued on to Caldas da Rainha.
Caldas da Rainha is a delightful small city. Thereís a nice campsite right in the middle of it, on the edge of the Spa Park, which was first laid out in 1485 by Queen Leonor who was interested in the curative powers of the hot spring waters found here. The park is a beauty all right, and the town has some wonderful twisting streets and inviting squares. It also hosts an excellent public market where we spent an hour or so shopping for fruits, nuts, vegetables and cheeses. We window shopped through town, buying bakery treats, and wondering at the odd ceramic statues they sell.
Unfortunately, we also had a really
bad experience in Caldas da Rainha. From
our campsite, we could hear a man yelling at his wife for at least an hour. There
were several times when we were certain we had heard him hitting her, and she
was crying and screaming in response. Sara phoned the police after arguing
with the manager, who didnít want her to do it. The police said they would
come, but never did. This was only one of many times in Portugal where the
position of women in society was made painfully obvious, but this was the most
painful example we felt. It sealed our decision to leave the country, and the next
day, we took a train north for Spain. I sometimes regret now that we didnít see
more of northern Portugal, but too many negative experiences had piled up, and
so we decided to move on, and to spend more time in Spain. That part I don't
The train to the border was a day train, which I like, because I like to look out the windows. I canít recall any longer how much time it took, but I still remember the vines and the valleys, and I can still picture some of the churches and temples. After living in Quebec and travelling in Portugal, Iíve come to notice that Catholics like putting crosses on top of mountains. It seems to be a recurring theme. We eventually got off the train in the town of ValenÁa, on the Spanish border. We made a quick stop to buy a bottle of port, and rolled across the bridge into Tui, Spain. Within 10 minutes, a person walking on the opposite side of the road yelled out "Hola!" We were shocked! You see, in Portugal, we had grown used to being ignored and looked down upon for riding bikes. The culture is so complete car crazy that itís the first thing they ask in conversation fairly often, "What kind of car do you drive?", not "Where are you from?" or "Are you a student? What do you do?" In Portugal, everyone wants to know what kind of car you drive. Only children and the rural folk smiled and waved. Here was a young guy in a large town yelling "Hi" to a couple of strangers riding bikes. This was more or less the contrast we found when we left Portugal for Spain.
The beauty of Galicia, as this part of Spain
is called, struck us immediately. in
fact, it looked an awful lot like the area around Vancouver. Steep hills and small
mountains climbing out of the ocean, and all covered in green. Thankfully,
thereís a great big freeway running from the Portuguese border, all the way to La
CoruŮa on the northern coast. This keeps the vast body of traffic off of the
slower old highway, which winds through the small towns and villages. Have
you ever seen the little grain drying sheds used in this part of the country? We
knew what they were for, but their decoration of crosses, the fact that theyíre
made of stone, and the ornate lace work, made them look like mortuary
chambers, proudly found in every yard. Itís kind of spooky seeing the kids
playing under them...
On our second day in Spain we arrived in Caldas de ReŪs, another spa town, and another beauty. The RŪo Umia runs through town, and itís very pretty from the main bridge that crosses it. White water shallows ripple past in a long graceful curve. On the east side of the north end of the bridge we stumbled upon an amazing little bar/restaurant called O MuiŮo. We would never have known it was there, except that we were standing on the bridge, and we could see these little tables down by the water, so we decided to investigate. Itís a fantastic little place with tons of character, although we didnít eat there, so we canít vouch for the food. The whole town seemed to have charm to us. Sadly, it was Sunday night, and a weekend fair had just ended in a large park close to the town centre. We would have stayed the night if that had kept going. Instead, we rode on, searching out another freebie off of the side of the road.
Our choice of campsite was less
than optimal this time. We usually "free
camp" between towns, pulling off into out of the way orchards and gravel pits,
and then we pay for campsites when weíre trying to stay in or nearer town. On
this occasion, there were no campsites around, so we pulled off the road and
camped behind an automotive shop. Unfortunately, that evening the police
decided to set up a speed trap on the highway directly in front of us. This meant
there was a cop car whizzing by every ten minutes, and pulling people over
fairly close to where we were. Thank goodness he met his quota before he
spotted us! We snuck out the next morning as the employees started to arrive.
Santiago de Compostela had been on our minds for some time. It is sometimes called the third holiest site in Christendom, following Rome and Jerusalem, and we had heard wonderful things from friends and fellow travellers. In fact, the earliest surviving travel guide we know of was written by a French monk, and described one of the routes here, and the various peoples found along the way. The routes are collectively known as El Camino de Santiago, or the Pilgrim Road. I don't know how far they reach, but at least as far as Germany. Many true pilgrims still ply the route, in the hope that Saint James will halve their time in purgatory for their trouble. We saw several while we were there. The rules are still fairly strict that you must come by foot, horse or (for us moderns) bicycle. Under the power of the living I suppose. I donít know where you have to have started from for your efforts to be legitimate though... I would assume walking across town doesnít cut it.
|Santiago de Compostela:|
We found a cute little room in Santiago,
right behind the cathedral, with
windows looking out onto Praza da Quintana, a huge open square. Our
building, the plaza, the cathedral, everything in Santiago, is carved from the
same grey granite. Some people find this depressing, but we loved it. It gave the
place an earthy feel. Thereís a unity to the textures that make the city look as if it
grew here. The streets in the medieval core allow only very limited access to
cars, and so the place is perfect for strolling. We did a lot of window shopping
there, and, since we were getting close to the end of our trip and were no longer
concerned about volume or weight, we started to actually buy things for a
The cathedral is the largest draw, and yes, we did visit it. I think the most remarkable testament to the pilgrims is the "Tree of Jesse" statue below the figure of Saint James himself of the entrance. By tradition, pilgrims place one had on the stone roots and give thanks at journeyís end. This tradition of centuries has created a deep hand shaped indentation, as smooth as polished marble, in the statue base. The cathedral interior has mostly disappeared from my memory, except for the huge High Altar. Itís, well... tacky. Lots of gold, rosewood and semiprecious jewels, and of course Saint Jamesí remains in the crypt below. I found it all a bit much really, but those who believe a peaceful fisherman from the middle east ended up here in Spain where (it has been claimed) he killed tens of thousands of Moors single handedly, they seemed to be greatly moved.
Other than the Cathedral, Santiago
has much to offer. Itís a university town,
and thereís a great deal of art and culture available. This also means cheep
student restaurants and lots of cafes. The city market is definitely worth a visit.
We bought almost all of our groceries there. Cherries were in season at the time
and all the market stalls were competing to sell them to us. Thereís also a large
park, Carballeira de Santa Susana, just west of the city centre. Itís got wonderful
energy giving shade, which is really welcome in the summer. Just walking
around the city was delightful. We kept spotting apartments we wanted to live
in, and joking about looking at the grad programs at the University. I could
easily have moved there!
After a couple of days in the city centre, we moved a bit East, to some cheaper accommodation on the outskirts of town. We found a campsite with (gasp!) an open swimming pool! After the hot days weíd been experiencing, this was a real treat, and so we stayed an extra day to take a vacation from our vacation. Time was ticking on us now, in fact, we only had three days before we needed to catch the ferry back to England. We had learned from our mistakes though. There was no way we were going to pay for expensive bicycle shipping again on top of our regular train fare. This time we were smart. We rented a car.
It all went so smoothly, we were
just waiting for something to go wrong. We
booked a car through Avis, because they would do a one way one-day rental
from Santiago to Santander. For about 75$US, we got a day of unlimited mileage
in the smallest car they had. They even delivered it to our campsite! We made a
point of walking out to meet them however, because, well, we didnít want them
to see our bikes. We took them almost completely apart in our effort to fit us, our
two bikes, eight panniers, two sleeping bags, tent, tarp and (believe it or not) clay
pots into this tiny little European two-door car. We fit.
Santander is about eight hours from Santiago by car, and itís through some really beautiful country. Much of Northern Spain is mountainous. Our path took us through Lugo and out to the coast. At first we were concerned about how long this was going to take us, we really didnít have much of a feeling for Spanish roads by car, but after a while we relaxed and started to take a look around. We decided to take this route through the mountains for a way because the map had it marked as scenic. I think they knew what they were talking about. The mountains were magnificent. Landscapes that reminded us of the Rockies and the Coast Mountains at home. Deep gorges and steep slopes with picturesque ancient towns tucked into the valleys - theyíre something we donít have at home. What surprised us most however was the roadwork.
When we first came up on the road
crew, we thought "Hey, maybe that sign
meant that the road was closed..." There was this enormous drilling machine
park where our lane used to be, on the outside edge of this turn, high above a
river gorge on this mountain road. It was reaching over the inside lane, and
drilling into the cliff face up above. Dust and small rocks were falling done from
the hole as the bit bored deeper. There was no flag person. There were no signs.
Not even in Spanish. Nothing. These guys up in the air on the drilling platform
looked at us for a moment, and then turned back to their drilling, never stopping.
We looked at each other for a moment, and then thought, "Well, itís a rental."
The guys up above didnít seem to mind at all.
Santander. Remember Santander? Thatís where we started this great big loop. We arrived in the car that evening in time to head out shopping after getting a campsite near the beach just West of town. We took the car into town in a rather long search for a big grocery store to do a big grocery shop. The idea was to buy enough food for the next two days and the ferry trip back to England. The car didnít have to be back until the next morning, so we drove back to camp for the night. The next morning I headed in to drop the car off and found the groceries in the back. I had to head back on foot a third of the way, with all those groceries. At least it wasnít raining this time.
|Driving in Spain:|
|The Ferry Home:||
We hung around Santander for a
couple of days. I donít know why, but we
never could find any bread worth eating, and so now we remember the town for
three things, the dramatic cliffs and coves to the West, the almost tacky Sangria
jug that we bought, and the styrofoam that people kept selling to us, pretending
it was bread. Awful, tasteless and dry, it wasnít worth the bother. After the
fantastic breads of Portugal, this was a little hard to take, but you could have
Our last morning on the continent involved a short ride to the ferry terminal with pottery stack precariously on top of our usual loads. We looked more like trucks than bikes as we pulled into the line-up. This was where we met Lorenzo and Terry, two other intrepid bike travellers. Terry is a meat eating vegetarian (he says hot-dogs donít count because theyíre cheap) from England. Heís been living on the cheap for decades, collecting the dole and drifting about. Heís easily as colourful as his politics, with his thrifty ways and assured manner. He had been cycling around Portugal on even less money than we had spent, and he was looking for a place to buy a cheap house. Lorenzo is an American, originally named Lawrence, who has spent many years running his own restaurants and bakeries in a couple of locations in the States. Six months before we met him he had enrolled in an Italian language course in Italy, and now he was heading home after bicycling through parts of Portugal and Spain. He was coming back in a few months to continue his way around Europe. The man was an inspirational mix of energy, life and self-assurance, not to mention physical fitness well beyond the norm for his years, or mine for that matter.
Terry and Lorenzo shared their stories with us over the 24-hour journey back to Plymouth, and thinking about them now, I kind of miss them. I hope to learn to be as alive as they were that summer.
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© 1997 Mike and Sara Davison - All photographs are by us.