Monday 27 September 2010

Evora, Portugal - mini update

I've left the mountains and I'm zooming across wonderfully flat but very scorchio central Portugal. Yesterday I hit the 2000 miles mark so I'm celebrating today with a day off to explore the World Heritage city of Evora. There are many delights to Evora, not least gluten-free magdalenes (they're little sponge cakes in case you didn't know).

Tuesday 21 September 2010

Arganil, Portugal - The Sweeney, Grace Kelly and Monty Python

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.

Sunday 19 September 2010

Tonda, Portugal

Ten days of hot hard cycling has taken me out of Spain and down through the mountains of northern Portugal.

If you're sponsoring me by country then this is now my 5th country. My Just Giving site is at this link:

Full blog soon.

Wednesday 8 September 2010

Santiago de Compostela, Spain - Buen Camino

I´ve crossed mountain ranges, done battle with sun and wind, picked up my friend Graham along the way and now my journey along the camino is complete, here in Santiago. All along our route people have wished us "buen camino" and looking back on the journey, I can say I have had a "good camino".

The arrival in Santiago may not have been what we wished for with drizzly rain and heavy morning traffic but nonetheless we made our way to the end of the route at the cathedral where a statue of St James himself looks down on the pilgrims gathering in the square. Not being religious I would not have normally gone into the cathedral but a friend back home had asked me to light a candle for her at Santiago. With this little mission in mind, I joined the queue and went inside. Unfortunately the lighting of candles is not allowed in the cathedral to protect the ornate interiors. Therefore I bought a candle from a nearby shop in one of the hundreds of alleyways in the old city and left it outside the cathedral, burning brightly for all my friends and family.

This little ceremony ended an incredible journey and one of great contrasts. The first half of the route through Navarra, La Rioja and across the Meseta took us across an arid and parched landscape. The flatlands of the Meseta in particular were quite surreal. Dilapidated towns and abandonded adobe villages, more like the Third World than Western Europe, contrasted with beautifully restored churches, stunning cathedrals and the smart cities of Burgos and Leon. We beat the heat and winds of the Meseta by getting up at 5.30am and hitting the road at 7am with bike lights on. One morning we cycled out along a deserted back road with a full moon still high in the sky. As the sun rose, the combined light of sun and moon cast a beautiful, soft, peachy light over the landscape as we pedalled silently in the cool, still, dawn air.

The Meseta ended abruptly with a stiff climb into the attractive city of Leon. Leon is an ancient city with a majestic cathedral in its central square. A maze of narrow streets of pastel-painted buildings tease you away from the square with sneaky glimpses of spires and turrets. Beyond Leon we stayed in the Roman town of Astorga but only after tricky navigation through an area where all the towns seemed to have very similar names, something like San Viagra de la Vegan!

In Astorga we stayed in an albergue, the simple hostel-style accommodation provided for pilgrims. This albergue had a little courtyard within its walls and an old fig tree provided fruit and shade. Along the back wall of the courtyard was a pool of salt water and a row of little wooden stools to enable pilgrims to soak aching feet. I thought that if pilgrims walking the camino soaked sore feet in the pool then pilgrims like us cycling the camino, should soak sore buttocks - but I didn´t put this to the test.

The second half of the route changed dramatically as we climbed high up into the Cantabrian Mountains. The landscape was now green, lush and forested and the mornings were misty and cool. It was a lovely change from the heat. We had a beautiful wild camp at a spot called Cruz de Ferro where there is a tall wooden cross that marks the highest section of the camino at 1500 metres. We sat here in the evening in woolly hats and fleece tops hugging mugs of hot coffee as we watched the sun go down. We also stayed high in the mountains in a delightful little hill-top village called O Cebreiro. It had one street which was cobbled, a collection of colourful trinket shops and several thatched buildings unique to the area called pallozas.

As we descended from the high peaks the camino continued through pretty rolling countryside that reminded me of Perthshire and collected more and more pilgrims as we neared Santiago.

Looking back, riding the camino has been a wonderful and unique experience and I have so many great memories - crossing the Pyrennees; the beautiful cathedral in Burgos; shopping at the fruit and veg market in Leon´s central square; camping high in the mountains; the pretty churches that popped up in even the most rundown towns; being allowed to camp for free on the village green in the lovely town of Samos; and the hundreds of pilgrims on foot, bicycle and horseback following a trail of shells to Santiago. But when I´m as old as the camino itself and think back to this trip, there is one place that will stand out in my memories above all others and that is the abandonned village of Manjarin. Manjarin sits on a hill top in the Montes de Leon and is empty except for one ramshackle, crumbly old building that is run as a basic refuge and a teahouse for passing pilgrims. It´s adorned with colourful flags that flap in the mountain breeze and with brightly-painted wooden signs that state the distance from Manjarin to famous cities around the world. There are statues and trinkets and all sorts of colourful junk dotted around the place as well as a collection of mangy animals that doze in the dust. Graham and I spent an afternoon here with cold cans of Coke on a rickety wooden terrace with a fabulous view over the mountains and the pilgrims shuffling by. It was a great spot and one of life´s perfect moments.

Photos from the camino are on my Flickr site.

So now I have to say goodbye to Graham who returns to Scotland, re-adjust to being a solo traveller and turn directly south for Portugal and my sister´s house in the Algarve. I´m really excited about that. I don´t know what internet access will be like through Portugal but I´ll keep you updated as often as possible. Also look out for details coming soon of a prize-winning, free-to-enter competition for followers of "the bicycle diairies".