Monday, June 2, 2014

Biking in Portugal

Overlook of the town of Castelo de Vide
On Sunday May 18 I arrived at the Lisbon airport with my sister and two girlfriends.  Our guide Luiz met us with a large van.  On its roof were the four bicycles we planned to ride through the Alentejo region of Portugal.  We had arranged a 6-day biking holiday with Portugal Bike.  The plan was simple: arrive in Lisbon; drive with Luiz north and east into the heart of the Alentejo region with its beautiful white hill towns – many dating from the 13th century.  Portugal Bike promised to provide us with carbon road bikes, six nights of accommodations in historic inns, GPS maps and the opportunity to experience the charm of rural Portugal from the vantage of a bicycle seat. 

We drove into the walled village of Marvão – our starting point – in late afternoon sunshine.  We were high up looking down onto a wild rocky plain near the Spanish border.  We checked into our first pousada – the Portuguese name for an inn.  The converted convent was set into the walls of the ancient town.  After a short break, we met with Luiz for our orientation.  We were on a self-guided bike ride.  Luiz planned to leave us after the orientation and pick us up more than 200 miles away in a few days.  While we biked, our suitcases would be transported from village to village by taxicab. 

Luiz ushered us into a small sitting room in the pousada.  He pulled a bottle of ten-year-old Port and five small glasses from his duffle bag.  Laughing at our surprise, he filled the glasses and explained that no introduction to Portugal would be complete without sharing a glass of port!  We raised our glasses!  Saudé!  To your health!  It was delicious.  We sat in rapt attention.  We needed to understand our route and our equipment since soon we would be on our own.

Luiz was a font of information.  He brought out bike bags filled with inner tubes, Allen wrenches, pumps, locks and GPS systems.  He gave each of us a booklet that explained the details of each day from the length of the route, the best places to have lunch, the location of public toilets, the best sight seeing options along the way and endless other useful information.  His smiling relaxed manner put us at ease – or maybe that was the port?  No matter.  After the main information was shared, Luiz presented each of us with a Portugal Bike biking jersey and my favorite gift – a pair of green and yellow arm warmers.  At the end of the briefing he told us to take a short break and meet him on the street in front of the pousada to check out our bicycles. 

The street was very narrow, barely wide enough for a single compact vehicle to pass through.  It was paved with cobblestones that looked as if they had been placed there several hundred years previously.  We returned to our rooms and pulled out our bike shoes and helmets.  We were appropriately nervous – worried that the gear systems, pedals and bike sizes would be right.  Luiz allayed our concerns immediately.  One by one along the tiny bumpy street, Luiz adjusted pedals, seat posts and gear levers until we all felt comfortable.  We stored the bikes away in a safe place provided by the pousada, bade Luiz goodbye and agreed to meet back at the dining room at 7:30 pm.  We were tired having flown from London and New York respectively many hours before.

My sister and I decided to explore tiny Marvão.  The town was laid out in an intricate system of concentric streets that rose towards a medieval castle built on the pinnacle of the hilltop.  The sun was setting and the light was bright and clear.  We walked along old stonewalls and paths that hung on the edge of the cliff, moving up towards the castle.  Suddenly we stumbled on a formal box hedge garden, full of roses and topiary.  The formal garden was the first hint of all the gardens we would see during our trip.  The people of the Alentejo are serious gardeners.  Over the next few days we biked by hundreds of flower and vegetable gardens, filled with colorful rose bushes, bright red geraniums and delightful flowering shrubbery, endless fields of wild flowers, cork trees and olive groves, vineyards and dry golden grasses.

The days flew by as we biked from hill top town to hill top town.  Each day was punctuated by small villages set in rocky terrain and rolling countryside.  The Alentejo is famous as the marble and cork production capital of Portugal.  We cycled by large and small cork trees often in various stages of harvest – cork comes from the bark of the cork tree – skilled cork harvesters cut the bark and peel it off the tree completely.  Cork trees can be harvested about every ten years and can live more than 200 years.  Once removed from the tree, the cork is soaked in water to make it more pliable and eventually corks and strips of the soft material to be used in shoes and mats and bulletin boards are cut from the soft material.  Every little cork that you remove carefully from your wine bottle started life as the bark of a cork tree – likely a tree growing in the Alentejo! 

While every day had its charm, our first day was perhaps my personal favorite.  We set out in the morning after a substantial Portuguese breakfast of fresh fruit and cheese and scrambled eggs; café com leite and lovely flakey croissants and crusty rolls.  Just getting out of the walled town was a challenge – the streets were incredibly narrow and bumpy – each one appeared to lead into another steep narrow path.  When I stopped to ask a village woman how to get to the main road she laughed and told me in Portuguese to just go down hill!  Soon we passed under the city gate and pedalled onto smooth asphalt.  The first few kilometers were an incredibly steep downhill run – I was more concerned with whether my brakes worked than if my gears shifted smoothly.  As we descended, we biked around hairpin turns and past tiny goat farms set into the rocky hillside.  The air was fresh and clean, the roadside was filled with wildflowers – pink, purple, yellow, white, red; wild clover, vetch, scabiosa, daisies, poppies, wild roses and flowers I did not recognize – all vying for space and light.  Straw colored grass filled the fields, interspersed with large spreading cork trees and occasional white oaks.

The Flor da Rosa Pousada
Groin Vault Ceilings
That night we rode into a small town, Flor de Rosa and stayed in a 14th century monastery that was recently converted into a luxiorious pousada.  The fortified monastery was set at the edge of a small village.   Its stark white spaces and high groin vaulted ceilings reminded us of its past as a place of contemplative worship.

We stopped in small towns along the way to eat ham and cheese sandwiches and to warm ourselves with hot coffee and milk.  The weather in May is not warm and we appreciated the opportunity to warm our fingers around the small china cups.  On the second day, just as our sandwiches were prepared and we had made ourselves comfortable on the terrace, the first of several rain storms hit.  The accomodating gentleman who owned the café came to the door and cranked the canopy over the open terrace.  Regardless, we locked up our bikes and went inside to enjoy our meal in the cozy café.  That afternoon and the next day it rained continuously.  We were freezing as we cycled through windy fields and cold driving rain.  We stopped in a small sports store the morning of the third day to buy a warm vest for one of us.  My friend was so cold as we left the pousada in a hail and rain storm, we knew she needed more clothing.  Both the second and third days we arrived at spendid medieval pousadas soaked to the bone, tired and hungry.  The inn keepers welcomed us and helped stow our bikes.  We peeled off our wet shorts and shirts and brought feeling back into our frozen feet with lovely warm showers.  My best advice for biking in Portugal in May is to bring extra warm waterproof bike clothes.  While the landscape is beautiful, the weather can be unsettled and wild.

The Temple of Diana in Évora
Each of the pousadas we stayed in had its own appeal – the pink and black marble floors and the Roman Temple in Évora, the brick groin vaulted ceilings in Flor da Rosa, the inner courtyards with fountains and orange trees, wide open stair cases decorated with old tapestries in Estremoz, old frescoes and 15th and 16th century paintings covering the walls of long hallways in each inn, the ancient farm implements and large olive jars in Arraiolos.  We drank wonderful regional wine and enjoyed the traditional Alentejo cuisine – Caldo de Peixe; black pork cooked in fragrant bread; coriander and tomato soup with poached eggs; sardine paste;  red peppers and salty nuts – everything was delicious.  We saw exquisite blue and white picture tiles on the walls of building and particularly at the Vila Viçosa train station – these traditional tiles are called azulejos.  At the old closed train station the azulejos explained the history and economy of the region.  We rode down narrow streets so small we wondered if our bikes would fit.  We held our breath as we cycled up slippery steep cobblestones.  We crossed languid rivers and climbed up hilly plains.  We rode alone, we rode together, we composed haikus to bolster our spirits when the rain blew sideways. 

On the last evening we pulled out our strappy summer dresses and wore them to dinner.  We toasted a wonderful trip.  We loved the ride.  We loved the friendly people, the old churches, the cobblestone streets, the cork trees and the wildflowers.  We especially loved the historic pousadas.  Portugal has reason to be proud of its architecture and its history.  We never once got lost.  And amazingly, we didn’t have a single flat tire which was just as well since none of us had any confidence in our ability to successfully manage the tiny little pumps!  We think we might go back to Portugal and bike again next year.  It is lovely.

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