When I left Santiago de Compostela heading south for Portugal, my mood matched the weather - grey and overcast. My friend Graham had returned to Scotland the day before and it was difficult to readjust to being alone. I suppose it was the sudden contrast between having and not having company and experiencing the benefits of a buddy - the shared memories, the laughs and somebody to watch your bike when you nip into a shop for groceries!
However a few days back on the road cycling through the pleasant, rural scenery of Galicia soon had me back to my old self. In these last few days in Spain, I stayed at one of the nicest campsites at Carballino. It was perched above the pretty gorge of the Rio Arenteiro and shared its spot with a few pallozas (if you were paying attention in the last blog, you'll know this is the vernacular architecture of the area). There were riverside and woodland walks and a machine dispensing Fanta Lemon. All this perfection for only 4 euros. The only downside was a little restuarant below that sent up smells of sizzling steak and rich sauces, the chink of cutlery on good china and the laughter of happy diners. All this as I sat alone at my picnic table eating rice, tuna and tomato which I think is called paella in these parts!
My route out of Spain climbed high into the Sierra de Xures and took me into Portugal over the 750m Portela de Homim. I wasn't sorry at this point to leave Spain as I'd had quite enough of this noisy country - the rockets, the fireworks, the all-night fiestas, the loud music and everybody shouting. At the border I turned back to face Spain and shouted like John Thaw in "The Sweeney" - SHUT IT! Then descended swiftly into Portugal.
The route into Portugal in the Geres National Park was stunningly beautiful. The little road descended through a forest of tall, aromatic pines and far below sapphire lakes sparkled blue in the sun. A long series of tight hairpin bends had no modern crash barrier for protection, just a few old-fashioned concrete bollards. As I swooped down this road at speed in contintental sunshine, I felt like Grace Kelly and Cary Grant in those driving scenes of "To Catch a Thief".
I must admit that I thought the journey through Portugal would be a simple run down to my sister's home in the Algarve. How wrong I was! The mountains of northern Portugal are providing me with the most difficult cycling that I've ever done. Ranges of high sierras separated by deep ravines make every day a series of hot, hard climbs. Added to this, the road signage in Portugal is appalling and this has already caused me several unnecessary detours through difficult, steep terrain. On one occasion poor signage took me onto a road that, as it turned out, prohibits bicycles. After I'd cycled for a few miles in blissful ignorance, a police car slowed beside me, I was pulled over and informed of my error. But I then had a personal police escort for a good few miles further until the next exit. And that put a smile on my face! On another occasion, after failing to find the right road, I found myself by mistake in a beautiful valley near the isolated village of Foncelas. Here the mountains opened up to form a natural bowl with the hillsides cut into cascades of narrow terraces supporting vines and maize. Dotted along the terraces were little stone huts with terracotta roof tiles and in the middle of all this, standing on a promontory, was a beautiful white-washed church. I sat here a while in the afternoon sun and a local lady arrived with flowers for the weekend service. Amazingly she had studied English in Edinburgh! She couldn't figure out how I'd cycled all the way from Scotland and ended up in her remote, little village. Looking at the map, neither could I!
Inadequate road signs mean that I am constantly checking directions with locals and of course I don't speak Portuguese. However, Spanish is widely understood and a lot of Portuguese people speak French. So I find myself communicating in an odd mix of French and Spanish - I call it Franish! As well as the people I stop to speak with, there are many more that I just exchange smiles with as I cycle by - the teenage girl waiting for the school bus with a pile of books, her olive skin and long chestnut curls reminded me of my neice; the old man in overalls giving his dog's kennel a fresh lick of paint before the winter; the young woman wrapped in a pink shawl in the back of an open pickup truck on the way to work in the vineyards, a smile and the early morning sun lighting up her face.
These pleasant occurences aside, northern Portugal has been really, really tough. But we all know the saying - when the going gets tough, the tough get going! So I must steady the quiver in my lower lip and get tough. Even though my knees ache and my body feels old and tired at this point. Or, to quote a favourite Monty Python line -my knees are blind, my eyes are grey, my hair is old and bent!
Photos on my Flickr site.
Coming soon - the bicycle diaries prize-winning competition.