Over the River and Up and Up Hills

The final stage of our seven-day tour began with some noodling around the waterfront boulevards of Setúbal, seeking a way out of town.

“That way!”

A few false leads, a few 180’s, some confused staring at Google’s blue dot, and after a little bit of whining on David’s part we found N-10, a busy thoroughfare with no shoulders at first, as it crossed the city and climbed out of it, but then better shoulders and widening views across low hills and wooded countryside. The many cars and trucks were, as usual, careful and polite. No one squeezed us out of our lane. And soon the faint stencils indicating a bike lane appeared.

The days have gotten gradually hotter, and this last day was definitely the hottest, on the wrong side of 90 more or less start to finish. The winds, at least, were much less bothersome than the previous couple of days. It wasn’t long before we paused at a McDonald’s (that’s right) for a water resupply, and what the heck, milkshakes and French fries. We were aiming for a gas station, but it turned out to be petrol and only petrol, and the McDonald’s next door was so inviting…. though it proved to be a “no English” environment where David resorted to charades to describe a milkshake to the person behind the counter.

We had to work our way across a peninsula to the mouth of the Tagus river, where several different ferries make the crossing to Lisbon.

We were aiming for the westernmost ferry, which would shorten our route through that very big and busy city. It looked like there were a number of possible secondary roads, but Google accepted only a request for walking directions, which often tried to send us up staircases or along unpaved roads; the only alternative being an auto route, which — in this case, bless her heart — instructed us to enter a four-lane toll road, the A-3. Emboldened by our previous success at violating the “No Bikes” sign, we gamely rolled along the shoulder of the access ramp, only to be honked and shouted at by numerous drivers (“you can’t go there,” yelled one maternal-sounding older woman, “it’s a highway”).

So we retreated, noodled around some more, and finally found a parallel highway with no such restrictions, along which we rode for some time, stopping for more water as necessary. Still, this smaller road turned into a much bigger road all of a sudden, a four-lane divided highway like the A-3 but with no apparent ban on bicycles. In fact, it seemed as if we could be pulled over for speeding. Suddenly we saw looming ahead the golden towers of the Ponte 25 de Abril, the big suspension bridge that crosses the Tagus to Lisbon.

Now the drivers once again began to honk at us, some perhaps warning about some problem for bicycles ahead, others definitely cheering us on. At the last possible minute before the bridge Google directed us to an exit ramp joining a slightly smaller divided road, and to an exit off that just a few kilometers further. A long hard hot climb up that exit ramp, and we were back on the secondary roads, headed northwest.

About 5 miles before the ferry, Ashley started asking–at the edge of hangry–what the lunch plan was. We decided to make it to Lisbon, so we climbed and climbed through Almada, the urban sprawl on the south side of the Tagus, opposite Lisbon. We were scorched, thirsty, hungry, and climbing slowly, but at a magical moment, the map directed us to take a hard right, and then it was a long, glorious downhill through the tiny working-class town of Porto Brandão, a downhill that bottomed out at the ferry terminal. We bought ferry tickets and fizzy water from the cafe next door, and waited half an hour on our ride across the river.

It was a 20-minute crossing to Belém, one of Lisbon’s western neighborhoods, and we settled on a lovely little cafe right on the banks of the Tagus.

We ordered lots of fizzy water, some fresh orange juice to flavor it–just for something different–and octopus salad, gazpacho, and a local-cheese-and-jamon platter, all of which perfectly hit the spot.

We didn’t rush lunch, and when we finally pedaled off we were refreshed and relaxed, ready for the last push to Sintra–not so many miles ahead, but, we feared, mostly uphill.

After a bathroom break near the Belém tower, we wiggled our way toward the route to Sintra. Google had us climbing out of western Lisbon, and we were gearing down for grinding up steepening city streets. We were stopped, checking the map, when we were hailed by a middle-aged man in a polo shirt, earbuds hanging across his shoulders. “Do you speak English?” he asked. In passable, Portuguese-accented English, he asked whither we were bound. Sintra? This is not the best way to Sintra! “I save you,” he said. The route we were taking, he warned us, would lead us up and down numerous and useless times. It would be easier on the legs, he explained, to continue westward along the coast as far as Estoril, a virtually flat and most beautiful way, and only then start what would then be a much shorter and more direct climb to Sintra. It would require logging a few more kilometers, but we would have an altogether prettier and gentler and nicer ride. He gave us careful details of the various bike paths and highway options, at one point pulling out a ballpoint pen to draw a diagram on his hand. What a splendid, altruistic, and hospitable Lisboeta! He even got into his car, in busy urban side-street traffic, to follow us and point us back towards the route we would take past a train station and through a pedestrian underpass to the coastal path.

He called out one last set of directions at a stoplight, apologized for his English, and was gone. We spent the rest of the ride thankful–like Tennessee Williams’s Blanche–for the kindness of strangers.

We followed the bike path as far as we could, occasionally losing it only to find it again, past beaches, bars, and parking lots, finally having to take a lane in a crowded four-lane coastal road.

But those Portuguese drivers! We almost always felt safe, as we hurtled along with what was, at long last, a tailwind. At some point, half a dozen miles from where we’d leave the coastal road and ride inward toward Sintra, we found ourselves stopped on a beach path wondering whether to continue threading our way among clusters of pedestrians or return to the main road. Ashley spotted some open-air showers where swimmers were rinsing off the sand and saltwater, and said, without hesitation, we should soak ourselves right now. It was so hot, and we had far enough to go still. David hesitated for a moment, calculating the danger of rinsing off sunblock versus the chances of dying of heatstroke, but when he saw Ashley dancing gleefully–in bike clothes and shoes–under the cold waterfall, he agreed that a cool-down would be wise. And, fun.

Much refreshed, we rejoined the automobile traffic — less dicey, as is almost always the case, than dodging foot traffic — and rolled on toward Estoril. Just shy of that town, we stopped at a gas station for one last water bottle refill–though we also treated ourselves to tiny cups of chocolate Haagen-Daz, enjoyed on a shady sidewalk. After that, we had just a couple of miles before Estoril, where, all of a sudden, we were climbing up and up through traffic-lined (rush hour?) residential streets. We were about 9 miles from Sintra. Those last nine miles were essentially uphill, mostly a pretty gentle grade, but blazing hot with no shade and not even enough headwind to cool us down. As we approached the city limits, tour bus traffic picked up, and after we snapped an obligatory “Sintra” sign upon our official arrival, it was one more big grind of a climb. (Ashley expletive deleted.)

We were only 52 miles in or some such, but it felt like much farther on our seventh consecutive day of hot cycling, and our second biggest climb (almost 3400′) and even when we stopped to study the map together we were silent — baked. Around 6pm, after a couple of pleasant, if trafficky, down-hills on narrow centuries-old roads into city center, and a little bit more noodling with the blue dot, we finally arrived at our hotel.

We were greeted by Marta, who briskly checked us in, inquired incredulously about our ride from Tavira (“How long have you been doing this thing, I mean, in your life?”), and walked us the ten feet to where we dropped off the bikes at one end of the lobby, to be picked up tomorrow by the rental company, and another five feet more or less to the door of our room.

If you’ve been reading this blog, you know the drill from here on — a couple of giant beers at the nearest sidewalk cafe, and then dinner at a tiny TripAdvisor- recommended restaurant, Sabores do Mercado (according to some lists, the best of Sintra eateries, despite the relatively cheap ticket). Really, really good! A sardine starter (first time Ashley has liked them), then the two most popular mains: a codfish cake with a cornmeal base, topped with shredded codfish …

and the Iberian black pork cheeks, the latter as tender as we’ve had pork.

For dessert, we got the chocolate mousse and the super-local “travesseiro” (pastry-like strips with apple jam and cinnamon and sugar).

Our waiter Artur tried to talk us into moving to Sintra, giving us the names of several affordable nearby towns and writing down the phone number of his friend João, a ReMax realtor. (We’re thinking seriously about relocating to Portugal in the future, and when we told him that we had our sights set on Setúbal, he was moved to convert us: it’s cheaper there, sure, but in Sintra we have the mountains as well as the sea…..)

From there, we walked into the old town, where we found a bar the guidebook hails as a Sintra mainstay. Comfortable couches, the walls lined with drawings of major American and British musicians, and at that hour totally deserted.

We watched the end of a UK football match over wine and water, and only as we left (10pm?) did any other patrons start to wander in, just getting ready to party as we went back to our blissful hotel to sleep, for the first time in seven days knowing we wouldn’t have climb back in the saddle the next morning. We looked forward to a day of sightseeing in Sintra, which Lord Byron once described as “a glorious Eden.”

Our final day totaled 54 miles, with 3,382 feet of climbing.

Nossa Cidade Portuguesa Favorita Até Agora

“Hello, Marshall!”, called a cyclist riding in the opposite direction from us—or at least that’s what it sounded like. Ashley’s been posting photos on her Instagram account, on the theme of both #cycling and #Portugal, and we wondered…. More likely than not, “Marshall” is what some Portuguese cyclists’ greeting sounds like…..

Leaving Sines this morning, after another underwhelming hotel breakfast, the cobblestone streets of the old town quickly gave way to a rural road heading north through rolling hayfields and small villages, each with its café/restaurant as a sort of local civic center and, for us, lifesaving station when we need a cold sparking water, and bag of potato chips. Our maps didn’t show much definite civilization ahead, and by 10am we were wondering if lunch was going to be a possibility. The road dipped and curved, its surface deteriorating rapidly, until just as it practically became gravel, we came upon an entrance ramp to a high-speed divided highway.

Despite the “No Bikes” sign (Ashley pointed out that technically it implied “No Unattended Bikes”) we rolled down the ramp and along well-maintained shoulders on a not-very-busy major artery.

Then, eight or nine miles later, it was as if the Portugal Department of Transportation ran out of money. The major road abruptly turned into a minor two-lane road, and so we continued north along another quiet country byway again. There was very little traffic on this two-lane rolling road, often so straight we could see two or three gentle up-and-downs ahead.

Potato chips and waters at Vila Nova de Santo Andre, and same again (later in the day) in Carvalhal, with a Coke and pastel de nata for David, where we also had to fend off an aggressive hawker, a young man peddling leggings for the señorita. Tenemos todo que necesitamos, said David to him, pointing towards our bulging panniers. It wasn’t Portuguese, but it seemed to work.

The roads were gentle and quiet, the headwind not too bad, and we quickly covered the 36 miles or so to lunch in the relatively big town of Comporta, just as we entered a peninsula bookended by the Rio Sado to the east and the mighty Atlantic to the west.

We took a hard right off the main avenue to find the town center and an attractive café. The first one we saw looked perfect, half a dozen small tables spread across a lawn, mostly with, by this point, much-appreciated shade. We were escorted inside by a no-nonsense, no-English waitress, who tapped on a poster on the door bearing images of three meal options, and then gestured toward the pastry case. We asked for two of the first image, something like steak-and-eggs. That turned out to be a very tender cut of meat with a perfectly fried egg over medium on top, accompanied by yet more potato chips (our third dose of the day) and a salad of lettuce and tomatoes. This plus two fizzy waters apiece left us ready for the last stretch.

By the way, in case you were wondering, the bikes are holding out well for the most part. Ashley ‘s seems to have self-tuned by day 3 or so,` but David’s isn’t shifting quite as smoothly, and both sets of brakes — well, the brakes have never been great. In fact, when we brake on anything resembling a hill, we have to do a “Flinstone stop”:

From Comporta, it was only another eight miles to the ferry at the top of the peninsula (near Troia), but those were eight beautiful miles, with river and salt marsh views on one side and the ocean—beyond rolling hills of sand—on the other.

David was reminded of the New Jersey Pinelands — the scrubby pine forest, sandy soil, and views of an inlet to the right, and out to the blue Atlantic on the left. We were riding along steadily when all of a sudden it felt like someone had turned the climate control from nice and breezy and somewhat cool headwind to hot and dry headwind; it abruptly got dramatically warmer, and stayed that way. We pressed on, ever hotter and sweatier but enjoying riding along the flats in a relatively high gear, murdering the miles (as much as possible on relatively heavy bikes). The ferry landing was announced by a cluster of hotels, and we paused at the kiosk to buy our passage, then waited 45 minutes in a very basic shelter (vending machine, no beer or restrooms, only a few uncomfortable plastic chairs) for the next ferry to Setúbal.

We liked Setúbal (SHTEW-ball, we learned at check-in) right away, a bustling small (~125,000) port city which reminded us immediately of Bilbao and San Sebastián with its wide tree-lined boulevards fronted by Belle Époque apartment buildings, obvious signs of musical and artistic culture, and beautiful beaches.

Check-in at the Hotel Rio Art couldn’t have been friendlier or more convenient, and when the desk clerk helped us stash the bikes in a storage locker and showed us to our spacious room, where wine and dessert was already laid out, she informed us, “no charge,” and gave us suggestions for nearby bars and restaurants to try. And even then, proved she wasn’t done with the Uber-hospitality by pouring us a taste of the local Muscatel (MOOSH-kah-tell) de Setúbal, a kind of sweet but not-too-sweet rosé. Clearly in the family of port, but not quite as heavy or sweet. If we weren’t on bikes, we’d buy a bottle for a future toast, when we’re back home and this whole experience seems a distant dream.

Turns out the local food specialty is something called “choco frito,” or deep-fried cuttlefish, and after a cold light beer at Rockalot beachside bar (the post-ride cool-down after a long walk away from city center) and a white port & tonic at Rooftop 61, with its panoramic sixth-floor views of Porto do Setúbal, we repaired to Casa Santiago, which bills itself “The King of Choco Frito.” (TripAdvisor reviews agree.) Kind of fast-foody in some ways, but crowded, efficient, and, thankfully, very good. The best kind of no-frills dining: a pile of said local speciality, plus a plate of really tasty fries, plus a plate of lettuce and salty tomatoes.

From there, we strolled the old town, settling on a small café in a square of several cafés—populated by locals, it seems, including young boys playing “football”—where we could sit and finish the blog and write more postcards.

We’re very taken with Setúbal, which has some of the best features of Portugal (amazing cheap seafood and wine, narrow cobblestone streets, artful graffiti, old colorful buildings) and is the perfect size, not as overwhelming as Lisbon and nowhere near as sleepy as the Algarve towns we know a little better now.

It’s also about a 40-minute drive to the Lisbon airport, so should we ever actually decide to relocate abroad—our long-term plan—this would be a reasonable choice for those who want easy access to international connections….. Plus, we’d be able to bicycle back to Sines for our friend José’s black pork and perfectly grilled sirloin, probably the most mouth-watering and memorable meal of the trip, and that’s awfully tempting.

Today might have been the most pleasant riding day so far, despite a little criminal highway time…. All told, 45.67 miles with a gentle 1,314’ of climbing. Tomorrow is the last riding day, but we’re consoling ourselves by planning future tours: from Poland to Croatia? From Trondheim to Santiago de Compostela? From Cairo to Cape Town? With every touring day, we’ve become more and more sure that the best way to see the world is from the saddle of a sturdy bike, 12-14 miles per hour….

A 22-mile Rest Day

A short day — 22.4 miles — but a lovely one, riding on the most rural road yet past farms, fields, and ranches. The headwind blew constantly, however, and in terms of energy exertion it felt like a longer ride.

The green door led to last night’s lodging — any wonder we rode by it without noticing?

In Vila Nova de Milfontes we had walked to a pastelaria for a late continental breakfast (including a duck empanada, yum), so the winds had risen and all the more reason we were both mighty hungry and thirsty on arrival in Sines. Our destination is a port city and so we encountered more and more truck traffic, especially as we got closer to the coast and rejoined the national road for a few of the final miles. But the drivers remained very courteous, one oncoming driver even pulling over to the shoulder to allow other cars to pass us. At least the route today was almost completely flat, our reward for yesterday’s grinding up one hill after another, and we could better appreciate idyllic, pastoral Portugal with the Atlantic Ocean in the distance and windmills scattered across rolling green hills.

One thing we noticed today: along the shoulders, more orange peels than beer cans.

The most interesting part of the ride itself was coming into Sines (pronounced, we learned at lunch, SEE-nesh), where we joined a wide bike path that ran along the water and then took a sudden right turn, straight up to the town center overlooking the ocean. The road turned immediately to cobblestone, and we took several quick turns through a peaceful residential neighborhood, everything—as is the case in most of Europe—very close together, narrow streets, laundry hanging overhead across them, locals hanging out on stoops talking.

Our room was ready, so we dropped our bikes and bags, but we skipped showers and changing in favor of an already late lunch.

The cheerful bloke at the front desk pointed us in the direction of Restaurante O Castelo, in the shadow of the town’s harborside castle, one of the eateries not closed on Mondays. We snagged one of three picnic benches outside, where we were immediately greeted by José, a very vivacious waiter.

Skinny young Lisbon native with a suede vest, handlebar mustache, British accent (he lived in London for a time) and a Reno connection: he had passed through on his way to Burning Man. He pointed us toward the seafood and (mostly) meat counter, where again we were instructed to pick our pleasure, which would be grilled on the spot to our liking. He recommended the black pork (thin, fatty slices of Iberian pig) and sirloin, which is exactly what we ordered.

The dishes appeared in record time, cooked to perfection, some of the best meat we’ve ever had, savory beyond our powers of expression. They were served with a platter of hot fries as good as we’ve had anywhere, and a small salad.

It was so tasty, our waiter so lively, and the atmosphere so perfect that we’re tempted to return for dinner. But we’re committed to diversity in all things, so we’ll probably try a mom-and-pop seafood joint, super local, right down the street from our hotel.

After lunch, we went back to the hotel for overdue showers and an unplanned nap, then back out to find a café for postcard-writing and blog-drafting. Along the way we took in the town’s main historical claim to fame: it’s the birthplace of famed Portuguese explorer Vasco de Gama, who navigated the first European voyage to India in the 15 00’s and, for a time at least, made Portugal into a global power.

We walked around. We looked for street art. We petted other people’s cats. It’s what’s we do.

Then dinner at little O Galo, where they spoke almost no English but sure knew how to cook seafood, and showed us pictures of their dishes on a tablet, and while we ate grilled rodado and tuna steak with onion and pepper sauce, and drank a couple half-liters of incredibly inexpensive and excellent house wine, treated us to the all-Madonna channel on their video streaming service.

Today’s stats: 22.38 miles, 716 feet gained (by our standards, pretty much flat).

O tempo é curto!

Sagres is a sleepy town, probably our least favorite stop so far, and the comparatively underwhelming hotel breakfast—fairly or not—will no doubt reinforce that impression in our future minds. Whole wheat croissants, indeed, sniffs a disappointed Ashley. The milk was warm, the cheese minimal, the bananas un-ripe, the cold cuts a touch slimy. So this morning we set off unusually under-fueled.

Far more satisfying to both of us was last night’s dinner at Armazem, where you pick your whole fish and cuts of meat from the display case and then these two guys grill it up on the spot. Afterwards. a nightcap on the patio of a beachfront bar near our hotel, the evening cool and breezy enough to appreciate one of their complimentary fleece blankets.

Next day, as we headed north out of Sagres, a completely different country opened up to us. No more busy national road. Instead, farms, fields, patches of forest, and the enormous nature preserve Parque Natural do Sudoeste Alentejano e Costa Vicentina.

And so very little traffic. Surfing seems to be the main attraction, with 75% of the passing cars and vans carrying a rack of boards. Even the smallest cafe (and there aren’t a lot of them along this rural stretch) offers menu information in English.

We rode one little valley after another, the generally rolling road surrounded by low hills, opening up occasionally to distant views of the Atlantic.

The morning ride mostly consisted of shady flats and exposed climbs; after lunch, it felt like climbing all the way, and the big descent we are sure we earned never came. Every summit seemed to be followed by a long flat, maybe a 1% declining grade, then a few rolling hills and another sunlit, exposed climb. Today the struggle was staying hydrated—and fighting the headwind.

There’s one good thing, and only one, about a headwind. When the mercury hits 80F, and you’re pushing 50lbs of bike and bags up a hill in the sun, you like a nice refrigerant breeze. Otherwise, it means you’re pedaling downhill as well as up, and having the dispiriting experience of pushing hard and downshifting on the flats. Our sage friend Old Biker Dude offers two pieces of wisdom about that: (1) headwinds sleep in, so start early; and (2) a headwind is someone else’s tailwind. Come to think of it, six of the eight other bike tourists we encountered were riding north to south, as if they’d read somewhere that the prevailing springtime winds here are northerly, which they are.

Old Biker Dude also advises being here now, and even in the worst of winds you could console yourself with the fragrance of camphorated thyme, which grows here in SW Portugal and nowhere else, perfuming our way. Yarrow, poppies the color of blood oranges, and the endless eucalyptus trees made our surroundings look as well as smell like coastal California.

The White Storks of the Algarve build their nests on any high and protected promontory.

We stopped for a banana and fizzy water 15 miles in, at a kiosk in Carrapateira, which turned out to be absolutely essential as we climbed and climbed toward lunch.

A monument honoring the Portuguese musical tradition of fado.

Lunch was in a small cafe right off the main drag of Aljezur—a cod dish for David (which took 25 minutes + to prepare, plenty of time for the headwinds to wake up) and for Ashley, tuna steak so fresh she kept having to spit out the scales (!). After lunch, we climbed and climbed, stopping at a super-local Basque-style cafe (Becha/Bexa) for on-the-spot fizzy water and a bottle of still to go. Inside, the pretty much all-male, salt-of-the-earth clientele were drinking pony bottles of Sagres and engaging in loud and animated conversations. “You are American,” the friendly bartender said to David, tugging on his ear. “I can hear your accent.” So much for speaking Spanish in Portugal.

The last 20 miles to Vila Nova de Milfontes seemed to last forever, one hill-not-followed-by-a-descent after another, all under blazing sunshine and against that stiff and now fully awake headwind.

Even David’s ebullient and sometimes annoying good spirits were dimmed, and Ashley was heard to utter an expletive at the sight of yet another completely gratuitous hill looming in the distance.

All day long there was only one really satisfying descent, a long winding road that recalled for us Highway 1 between Fort Bragg and Bodega Bay, with kiss-your-butt curves that carried us into a new region: out of the Algarve, into Alentejo.

When we finally made it into town, at happy hour, the apartment turned out to be elusive. We rode in circles for a while until, sweating and wiped out, we called the owners, who sent energetic young João to guide us to the unmarked green door of our lodgings. We unpacked and showered—but found no shampoo, only hand soap—before venturing out for ice cold Sagres and a hearty dinner of Alentejo-style steak and pork-and-clams at Tasca do Celso.

We did NOT try the snails on offer, in part because we saw them sliming up every fencepost.

To Sagres for a Sagres (or two)

Last night we walked the surprisingly windy and cold old-town pedestrian streets of Lagos, stopping at what felt like a very local wine bar before settling on Casa do Prego for dinner, a delightfully crowded little tapas joint. Dessert — a lime-mint cheesecake mousse in a jar — was so good we ordered another. And then they brought us the usual Portuguese treat, a free after-dinner shot of something in this case a fine tawny port. Rather than do the usual bar-hopping for our traditional nightcaps we stopped in a small shop for a bottle of characteristically inexpensive (six euros) tinto from the Douro region up north, which we took to the room and drained in short order while watching the first of three made-for-TV adaptations of Michael Dibdin’s excellent police procedurals, set in Rome, a city we hope to know better in coming years. (If you’re a fan of Man in a High Castle you’ll enjoy Rufus Sewell’s portrayal of Zen, a far more appealing role than his Obergrüppenfuhrer Smith.)

Today’s ride from Lagos to Sagres was a short day but a beautiful one, made even more so by avoiding N125 for about half the 20+ miles, riding a quieter route closer to the sea. An occasional tailwind didn’t hurt, either.

The legendary beaches of Lagos

In the morning, before checking out of the Marina Rio hotel in Lagos, we took a cab ride to Ponta da Piedade, one of the Algarve’s scenic highlights. We walked down the hundred + stairs to water’s edge, more or less, to catch the towering golden-yellow rock formations, and the shimmering more green-than-blue water, from the right perspective. Looking down at kayakers and paddle boarders among the cliffs and grottos, we felt envious, but not for long.

Soon we were in the saddle and sailing along quiet tertiary roads to the nearly imperceptible towns of Luz and Bergau, little once-traditional villages overshadowed by luxury gated developments, golf courses and tennis clubs. Along the way, as always in Portugal, we were fascinated by the ubiquitous roadside art.

Even on these narrower, more rural roads, drivers seem not only conscious of cyclists but almost unfailingly respectful, and we rolled along happily, glad to be away from the heavy highway traffic. Mostly rolling hills before and after we joined N125 — a quieter stretch of that major artery than we’ve experienced east of here–and what climbing we had to do was very gentle.

We arrived in Sagres, hot, hungry and thirsty, around 1:30. The hotel is right on the spit overlooking the ocean, and, luckily for us, attached to a pleasant and well-rated Italian cafe. We ordered two bottles of Sagres–perhaps better known to the world than the town that must be its namesake–to quench our thirst, and two pizzas that turned out to be larger than expected (though we ate all but scraps).

The pies fueled us on a short ride, 8-miles round trip, to the southernmost corner of Europe, the lighthouse at Cabo de São Vicente. 250-foot high wave-pounded cliffs, their tops covered with flowering ice plants, 500-year-old fortresses with gun ports and three-foot-thick walls, and in the distance, all around us, the meeting of the Mediterranean Sea and the Atlantic Ocean.

“So fine was the morning except for a streak of wind here and there that the sea and sky looked all one fabric, as if sails were stuck high up in the sky, or the clouds had dropped down into the sea.” (Virginia Woolf, To the Lighthouse)

Back to the hotel, we locked up the bikes in yet another basement storage room, showered & changed, washed some increasingly smelly riding clothes in the tub and hung them on our sunny balcony to dry, & went out on the town.

Two-thousand-year-old Sagres, once the haunt of Phoenicians, Carthaginians, Romans, and Moors, today feels sleepy, its almost uniformly whitewashed walls and red-tile roofs clustered around a modest and, for a Saturday late afternoon in later spring, unbelievably quiet downtown. “Downtown” here consists of alternating surf shops and tiny cafes. Today’s the first day in Portugal where it feels hot enough for ice cream; all we could find were chocolate/vanilla popsicles, not inspiring but certainly refreshing. Ashley made friends with a few stray cats as we walked the residential streets in search of a cervejaria which turned out to be closed, as in permanently shuttered. Back to town through the winding lanes of homes and gardens, to a passable sports bar for a couple of cold Imperial pints of Sagres.

Ashley’s view every day includes this bracelet, which bears a favorite quote from her cousin, Greg Bowyer: “People climb Everest.” Greg passed away unexpectedly in December, and his wife (Dawn) and sons (Todd and Luke) have shared this quote widely in order to carry on one of his many positive missions: to inspire those around him to do the things that scare them, to try what seems hard, to live fearlessly and fully. Greg rides along with Ashley now, and so with both of us, and we’ve resolved to keep adventuring, even more fearlessly and fully, and that every adventure will be part of Greg’s legacy.

Today, our adventuring carried us roughly 25 miles (plus another 8 to the lighthouse and back), with about 1500′ of climbing all told, and into yet another place we never dreamed we’d be.

Autoestrada para o céu

Our evening in Faro began, as we had hoped, with the cataplana, in this case Cataplana à Algarvia, a hot mess of clams, shrimp of various sizes, bacon, pork, onions, tomatoes, and garlic, cooked and served in a stainless steel clamshell like a deep-dish sloppy paella, minus the rice.

We got so tight with our waiter at tiny À Do Pinto that he came to the table at the end of our meal with a bottle of brandy and poured us two snifters on the house, plus a shot glass for himself and one for the chef, a middle-aged woman in a hair net who came out to join us, with smiles and cross-cultural congratulations all around.

Exhilarated by this, we sat in our hotel’s rooftop bar for a couple more copos, watching the lights and the action along the waterfront below. Despite last night’s revelry, we were up at 7:30 this morning, raring to begin our second riding day. There was the inevitable tending to work email over another elaborate hotel breakfast spread, after which we felt well fueled for a longer head-windy day to the beach town of Lagos.

One thing we’ve noticed this trip is that the Portuguese really don’t want to speak Spanish. French, sure, English, all right, German, definitely, Italian, quite so. But nothing is translated into Spanish. There’s no love lost between these two countries, shared border or no, and no wonder: Spain has a long history of not doing right by Portugal, including unleashing the inquisition upon its much smaller western neighbor. Small wonder menus and road signs conspicuously eschew Español….

The traffic on this regional arterial, the free alternative to a parallel toll road, was heavy most of the day, and the shoulder, such as it was, came and went without warning. Leaving Faro, things were particularly dicey, shades of Laguna Beach on the Pacific Coast tour: minimal shoulders, where there were any, and those crowded by vegetation sprawl, and giant trucks blowing by a bit too close for comfort. Most drivers, as usual, were respectful, and unlike in the states few felt compelled to attempt a daring pass on too narrow a way or around a blind corner. The gregarious cab driver who took us to the train in Lisbon must be right: the Portuguese are more patient than most.

We navigated roundabout after roundabout, always signaling our intentions and proceeding with caution punctuated by daring go-for-its when the wall of traffic occasionally subsided for a few seconds. Sometimes, unexpectedly, there would be a stretch of road so quiet that we could hear the hum of our tires. It didn’t last long.

We rode along sprays of roadside flowers and blossoming trees and bushes, many of which would be annuals, at best, in our high dry desert home, but here in the Algarve’s Mediterranean climate they bloom perennially. And the shoulders are besmirched by relatively little litter, at least compared to the roads along the US Pacific coast.

The other roadside attractions fell into a pattern: orange stands were ubiquitous (though per sack prices varied considerably), as were gas stations and car dealers (diesel! automatic!).

The graffiti we’ve come to associate with Portugal is a constant presence, pieces decorating the most random buildings: uninhabited falling-downs artfully painted, pool-cover shops and bus stop shelters transformed into works of public art. We keep seeing the tags “WASP” and “KAMS”; no one seems to know whether these are signatures or messages (white Anglo-Saxon Protestant?).

Although riding well inland, thanks to our inability to efficiently navigate the rat’s nest of discontinuous tertiary roads closer to the coast, we had occasional glimpses of the sea to the south, looking across miles of housing developments and apartment blocks catering to vacationing or expatriated Europeans taking refuge from far colder, wetter climates.

We took lunch in downtown Lagoa, a few dozen yards from the main road, sitting at the shady cafeteria Alma Doce, enjoying pork cutlets (costelledas de cebolada) and bacalhau alma doce (deep-fried cod) with French fries, washed down with many big bottles of ice-cold fizzy water and accompanied by melancholic squeezebox played fitfully by man at folding table selling tattered old paperbacks.

Another 17 or so miles to Lagos, more and more into the 10-15 mph wind, on road much the same as it had been all day. More orange stands, more cars, more petrol stations, more graffiti, more inviting roadside cafes/snack bars/pastelarias that look, each and every one, like the kind of place that creates and holds together a small community. Every now and then another reminder of where we are.

A few miles before we rolled into Lagos the road turned south, the headwind became a blessed tailwind, and this time (“Regardez!”), these sweaty foreigners found their riverside hotel with no difficulty. Showers, clean clothes, and down to the old town to celebrate.

Today was 51.45 miles, with 2103’ of elevation gained. We can feel it.

Primeiro Dia do Nosso Passeio de Bicicleta

Day One: Tavira to Faro, 22 miles

We’d arrived in Lisbon mid-morning after a series of nail-biting connections and in a few hours of walking reacquainted ourselves with a city we’d first visited, on a quest to find Henry Fielding’s gravesite, four and a half years ago. Dinner at Chapitó a Mesa, in the Alfama district, our table overlooking the whitewashed red-tile-roofed colorfully-muraled buildings terraced down to the River Tagus.

We hadn’t recalled the name when we’re made the reservation but we instantly recognized the wonderful eccentricity and killer views: this was the place we’d memorably eaten on the last night of our first visit. (We even bought another pair of earrings in the little gift shop, as we did back then.)

Early to bed, thanks to jet lag, and up fresh as two daisies—almost—in time for our morning train. We left our suitcases with the front desk of the lovely behotel Lisboa, and caught a cab to the Oriente train station with only our four panniers in hand. A quick shot of caffeine and a pastry, and then on the 8:23am bound for Faro.

Estação Oriente, designed by Santiago Calatrava

The landscape between Lisbon and Faro was undramatic but quietly beautiful, rolling green hills topped with olive trees, fig trees, orange trees, and vineyards, a potent reminder of some of the savory delights this country has to offer. The connection in Faro was very tight, but luckily we were only a platform away from the Tavira train, an altogether clankier, louder, hotter carriage. We arrived in Tavira at lunchtime, and carted our panniers to a riverside tapas place called Mar a Montes. Big blessed (light) local beers, tuna steak, and codfish while we watched people walking by and the ferry from the barrier island come and go.

Our hotel was a short walk from there. The Hotel Vila Galé, “galé” meaning “galleon,” its logo a single-masted sailing ship, and we can think of no more suitable symbol for the maiden voyage of what will be the first of many, many European bike tours. Deep in the hotel’s basement parking garage sat our two boxed rental bikes, which we (read: David) wasted no time unpacking and setting up. They are a couple of aluminum-frame Fujis, the drive train somewhat inferior to what we’ve gotten used to…. We love our touring bikes back home, the Treks we rode last summer down the Pacific coast, and feel vaguely unfaithful to them when we mount these new and unfamiliar steeds. We’ve come to appreciate, already on this trip, how our bikes—carefully chosen, handlebars and saddle adjusted just so—feel like extensions of ourselves. These bikes are nothing like that, but we will get to know them as one gets to know passersby in a life. As an ice-breaker, we took these loaner steeds around Tavira, an eight-mile loop to get to know them and to get to know the town. Warm and thirsty, we stopped near the hotel for riverside white port-and-tonics.

White port and tonic, even better (and stronger) than they pour it in Porto

After a swim in the hotel pool we walked to dinner at Come na Gaveta, a sidewalk bistro with the usual fresh and simply prepared seafood, plus “octopus bombs,” octopus tempura … well, you get the idea: when in doubt, order the polvo (octopus).

Starting out with a plate of local cheeses and preserved pork products
Octopus bombs on the left, cuttlefish on the right

And when in doubt, go to a hotel bar called the Alibaba, have a couple (“dohsh,” the locals would say) copos de vinho, and listen to the one-man band belting out altogether too melancholic tunes for a lively Wednesday in the Algarve.

Thursday, May 23. First riding day, a short day, so we were in no hurry to get going, which was good as we had to sleep in a little on our last jet-lagged morning, solve a few mechanical issues, and do justice to the massive hotel breakfast (real bacon, an almighty spread of fresh fruit and delectable soft cheeses, tomatoes au gratin, and every kind of egg imaginable).

In short order we pedaled several dozen yards from the hotel entrance to the local service station, where two old-school paper road maps were going to have to take over from Ethel, our Garmin navigation device, who threw up her digital hands: she couldn’t help us in Portugal.

After a mile and half of tentative guesses and wrong turns, we finally found the main road, N125, which would take us out of town and all the way, one roundabout after another, to Faro. A fair amount of traffic, but our first impressions of Algarve drivers is that they’re surprisingly aware and respectful of bicyclists. We’ve seen a dozen or so Lycra dudes, serious cyclists who seem rashly to trust their impossibly skinny tires on the rough cobblestone ubiquitous in the “old towns” of Europe, and even fewer casual cyclists; we did meet, briefly, a duo of female German bike tourists making their way from Lisbon, into Spain, and back to Tavira. Despite the relative paucity of two-wheeled traffic, the drivers give us lots of room. Only one has honked so far, that after steering his or her red bug of a car halfway into “our” shoulder.

Buying inner tubes in Livramento. If there were bike shops in the Middle Ages, they would have looked like this one.

The best part of day one was not the mostly patient drivers or the well-maintained roads (they aren’t, but we’ve ridden much worse): it’s the big personalities of even the most nondescript small towns in Portugal, a colorful country whose natives like their street art. There are fewer of what those who know call “pieces”—short for masterpieces—here than in the big cities, but even the little roads have a rich graphic life, with cartoons and tags scrawled artfully on roadside walls, bridges, and buildings.

This building bore the name “Far West Style.”

Even once-sacred buildings seem not beyond the artists’ pale, including this (presumably deconsecrated) church in Olhao.

We arrived in Faro around 1:15, but an erratic and untrustworthy Google maps blue dot led us hither and thither, at length, in search of our hotel. We finally sighed a deep sigh and asked two friendly policemen to point us toward the Hotel Faro. The more helpful one, mistaking us for French as so many do, said with a tolerant smile and a flick of his wrist: “Regardez! Regardez!” Look, look, you sweaty foreigners: the hotel is right behind you. We checked in but couldn’t get into the room yet, so found a welcoming little café around the corner — the Café Aliança, third oldest in Portugal — where we had two large Sagres (the local light beer, pronounced Saa-grsh) and one pica-pau, a Portuguese favorite of tender, flavored beef, pickled cauliflower and carrots, pickles, olives and—thanks to an amicable host who had taken a shine to us—a little creamy beer sauce on top.

Bikes locked in yet another hotel basement, us showered and dressed for warm weather, we strolled the sunny cobblestone pedestrian streets of Faro, through narrow lanes lined with shops and cafes, overlooked by wrought-iron balconies, everything slightly dilapidated but still elegant and cheerful, open for business, ready to take on the summer hordes of tourists which we shall just miss. We wandered into the old walled town with its aristocratic palaces repurposed into civic offices and museums, and coming back out to the harborside, settled into a sidewalk table where local craft beer Algarve Rock was on offer.

And so to dinner, after a slight 22 flat miles (734 feet gained), thinking maybe tonight is the night for one of the Algarve’s famous cataplana dishes, some kind of meat-and-seafood mixture (usually featuring clams or cuttlefish) named for the clam-shaped cooking pot in which the food is prepared.