Sunday, 30 December 2007

Manteigas to Serpa

We started the day in Manteigas, and decided that in order to cover ground we'd skip riding today.

The road south from Manteigas is a beautiful alpine road up a valley that says "cycling heaven". There's a traffic circle at the top, and we went right to the ski area of Torre. Steep mountain road cut into the cliffs, great views. The ski area has one quad, one t-bar, and thin natural snow, plus snowmaking. There's 4 buildings at the top, two are telescope observatory domes and two are related to the hill. I didn't see anyone with tickets on their jackets, but we did try to find a ticket office. Either we're blind or it doesn't work that way. I wanted to rent a snowboard for a run, but all we could find was dozens of shops selling ham and cheese.

We made our way down towards Covilha. Descending the road, we came across a giant abandoned hotel. We crawled around there for an hour, it took some gymnastics to make it up to the third floor. I think the place would have over a hundred rooms. It may have been build in the forties judging by one stone sidewalk number. It's all smashed (tiles) and burned (only wood is the staircase), good fixer upper as it's structurally sound. A team of 4 people with shop vacs would be busy for the first week just getting the mess under control.

We did a lap through Covilha then started making our way south towards Portalegre and Estremoz. We stopped at Castelo de Tejo before Portalegre, it was a sleepy town and the castelo was closed for lunch. We hike around a little, then went down to the river which was marked by the standard hiking trail marks painted on rocks and trees. The river was deep and slow, looked good for swimming. The road down to it was a little slice of cyling paradise. We coninued south, passing through Portalegre.

The road south was wide and not busy, the ranches had shade trees spaced out over green grass. I'd imagine the grass has a hard time staying so green in the heat of summer. We stopped at a moorish caslte perched high on the hill at Evoramonte, it was rounded instead of square, and built of a cement type process rather than rocks with mortar. We also found a solar system to scale model - pluto was at Evoramonte and the rest of (most) of it was in the center of Evora, with a few planets between.

After that we got passed by a yellow Lamborghini that wasn't following the speed limit postings very closely, my 140kph felt like we were standing still. We turned off to the village of Guadaloupe to visit some cromeleques, which are stone henge type rocks in the middle of a cork farm. At one spot there's 1 bigger one, and at the second spot there's 92, but there was a 100 at one point. They're not that big, but there's no rocks nearby. Just as we were leaving a travelling circus bus came in to try to score free camping for the night.

Evora came about an hour beofre sunset, and parked near a giant aquaduct that looked cool in the setting sun. It's more of a town, more busy with more hustle. It's landmarks are preserved and didn't suffer the fate of wars. We walked around for 2 hours through the maze of streets, checked out the churches and the Universidad de Evora. After finding our way through the labyrinth, we stopped at a mini mercado for some snacks and drove toward Beja in the pitch black.

Right out of town we were on a two way road that was narrow and tree lined. Dude in front of me was going about 80, which didn't seem to be a speed I could settle into. Three cars pulled up behind me, so I started looking for a spot to pass. I'll point out that Tori isn't a huge fan of night passes in two way traffic. About 30 seconds after my pass, and commentary on my pass, the three cars that were behind me passed the two front cars. They were each about 6 feet away from each other, and the middle of the three was simultaneously passing the front one as they were all passing us, which made for a 3 car wide drag race on a two lane road essentially. I think Tori's comment was "holy shit". The Audi that took off in the lead had better headlights, so I'm sure 150kph felt just fine for him on a windy night road...

We pulled into Serpa, which I think is "sheep", and made our way along the castle wall before finding a one-way heading in. Our chosen hotel was immediately on the right. Tori found the door and knocked - the full door was large, but the actual people entrance door was about 4" cut into the larger door. Looked a little sketchy from the outside. When the guy anwered the door and let us in, you enter a new world. There's a tunnel like hallway, painted white, with. Couple lights and old knick knacks. It's maybe 20" long, and you exit into a courtyard of orange and lemon trees, with the outside castle wall and it's magestic arches framing one side. Princess Tori was giddy with delight.

We dined at a second floor restaurant in the town square, and watched a little TV for the first time. Pretty entertaining. It's hard to follow everything, but the national news has enough captions and onscreen graphics that you get the issues of concern at least. We were getting enough that it engaged our attention at least. Dinner was great and cheap, with... olives, cheese and bread as the appetizer brought over as soon as you sit down (every sit down dinner we've had features this about half a minute after you enter), the I had a lamb stew and Tori had a fish dish. We had a port baked apple for dessert.

Side note - I learned that tempura, usually associated with a side dish to Japanese sushi, was actually a Portugese "invention" shown to the Japanese in early trading.

Side not two - Similar to the above, vindaloo is of Portugese origin and shown to the Indians.

Friday, 28 December 2007

Sortelha to Manteigas

A delicious breakfast of buns, cheese, ham, butter, jam, tang, and very potent coffee awaited us downstairs this morning. Same breakfast every day and it's great, not because of the menu so much, but because it's tasty fresh buns, excellent cheese, tasty ham, fresh salted butter, handmade jam, uhh... just tang, and consistently badass coffee. After eating and packing we drove up to the castle for some exploration. It was brilliant in the morning sun. Lots to explore, fun to climb up to the keep, walk the walls, etc. It's amazing that people still live in these little villages... like actually in the old walled castles.

We took a bunch of pictures then made our way to Sabugal. The minute you crest the hill into Sabugal, the notable landmark is another giant castle. This one is just a tower, doesn't have a town inside. It's been nicely restored into an outdoor concert area. The walls are probably 50 feet high, with the main tower probably being 120 feet. I'm guessing here, but it's really tall. I didn't step out onto the balconies cause the tiny little railings didn't do it for me. I think photos are at

After that we drove south to Malcata which is by a nature reserve (kind of like a future Bragg Creek cause "reserve" doesn't mean they keep forestry from chopping down trees, so lots of it is row planted pines. We bought some groceries at the mini mercado, which is always fun. The lady had big cheese wheels, but said she didn't want to slice it into smaller portions because it would be crumbly and not make nice slices. So she handed me a knife and let me take a chunk out of the block. Cheese is good when bought 50m from the local artisan cheese producer house. Our other sandwich ingredients were a fresh tomato, some sardines in a spicy oil, and a round loaf of dense bread with a thick crust. Tori did wine duty. Across the street from her store was a flowing potable water fountain with a big pool, so we filled up our bottles with fresh cold water.

We were in the park for about 3 hours, two of which was riding, and the rest was a little bike pushing, photo stops and rest stops. I forgot my bike shoes at the place we stayed at last night, so I had the pleasure of riding in Adidas. It was fine until the very end when the cumulative effect of lack of support kicked in. We rode forestry roads mostly, it was nice rolling hills. Weather and scenery were great, from the good vantage points you could see a half a dozen towns in the area. Only half the wind turbines were even moving today, not much of a breeze at all.

We drove back to Sortelha to get my shoes, the lady knew right away, I didn't even have to try to motion that my zapatas de bicycletta were lost. She had washed them, and my socks, and had them in a little plastic bag. To say I was impressed is a complete understatement.

We drove to Belmonte to check it out, but didn't want to pony up for the pousada, and the other place we could find was a rather gaudy looking hotel (we haven't been in a place yet with a flourescent light sign out front, and wouldn't mind keeping it that way). We decided to drive to Manteigas, a mountain town that was 25km away on an exquisitly twisty mountain road. Tori honed in on an 18th century building of some sort now doing hotel duty called Casa das Obras.

Ok, be forewarned that this is a driving story, and it's basically the funnest one yet. I love driving, as long as it's fun (ie challenging/active, not just "dumb" commuting).

Supposedly, you follow the signs at each corner and it's easy to find the hotel. After the interstate type road ended, we were down to town cobbles. Followed the road along the base of the town hill, then turned an abrupt right once we spotted the sign up a steep hill. Half way up, it was clear the grade wasn't going to allow second gear to happen, our eyes were big with how steep the road was. Another right had us traversing the hill again, until we saw a left arrow up what looked like a driveway... it was even steeper than the prior hill, and instead of 20 feet wide it was 12. I hook left and start climbing, then we do another 30 degrees left so we're going straight up the hill. At this point, Tori is white knuckling the door handles, and I'm just hoping for the best. We see a yield sign, which means this is a two way street. It's maybe 14 feet wide, but has 3 story buildings on either side which diminish the feeling of width. More importantly, it's got a row of cars parked on the right hand side. It's SO STEEP that in first gear the engine is grumbling badly - I've got two choices - either pin it to keep a good RPM and not stall, or feather the clutch and navigate the squeeze more slowly. On that kind of an incline, #2 wasn't my split second choice, stalling here would be misery. Getting moving again, even with some cheating by using the hand brake to prevent rollback, would be super hard. There was a pedestrian 30 feet up the road, but when they hear cars they jump into building doorways or between cars. Did I mention it's dark with no streetlights, only light coming out of building windows? There's a Toyota truck with a flatbed on the right, with it's square metal bed at exactly the height of my mirror. On the left is a wall of a building, that's covered in paint and knicks from cars. Half way along the wall is an eaves trough drain that robs another 3". I was holding about 15km/h, and the space on both sides to play with totalled 6". Frankly I can't believe we made it. I catch my breath for a second, turn the temperature control on my side down to "frio", then make a left to traverse across the hill. The traverse pleasingly ends in a wide open cobble area, and as I look up the hill there's an arched stone bridge. To the right of the arch, there's a sign that says 2m clearance, and the road goes straight up behind it. The hole is tall, so I realize it's 2m wide. There's paint scrapes on both sides. And the hill behind is the steepest yet. There's only one way out, and I figure the little Peugeot isn't the widest car in town, and as per a friend of mine checking, it's 173cm wide. Let's just round and say I've got 15cm per side to work with... I'm sure that's fine for a dark, off camber, steep as can be street. I cheat with the hand brake to start, and rip through the gap with what feels like no space to spare on either side. As we climb the grade, I can feel the tires skipping/spinning on the cobbles. I look ahead and see a sharp right, covered in paint. The right juts out into the lane, making it nearly impossible to swing wide, all I can think of is wrapping the passenger side rear door on the wall. Clearly, others have swung too wide, as the left wall is full of dents and paint right where my bumper is headed. I concentrate on keeping my bumper safe and hoping that the rest of the car will follow. The second we make it around that corner the road starts narrowing again, and the houses on the left have steps jutting onto the cobbles. It keeps narrowing, Tori is panicing, then it suddenly meets a wide, paved street. I can't even believe that road exists for traffic, it's a must do!

Funny thing is, we can't pick up any more hotel signs, so we've lost it. We find our way back down a similar road, but there's a turn that physically can't be made in a car, unless you a) decide to back down instead of drive forward, or b) have a car that steers like a forklift with the rear wheels. We make it down the bobsleigh run, complete with hairpin turns, and start at the very bottom again with sign #1. As it turns out, the part with the cars parked on the right is where the hotel was. It was on the left and is easily identified by a 15cm square plaque on the wall in the dark. This time, now that I'm all practiced up, life turned it up a notch and a van was coming down. Backing down the slope in the dark, then part way around a corner, and sliding over such that he could pass is probably one of the harder driving feats I've had. I was constantly looking over to see what the panel of figure skating judges was going to award for technical difficulty and style.

Funny thing was, the place was full. We decided to work the phone and call around to find a vacancy before engaging in another driving exam. I make my way back up the road of no return, then down the bobsleigh track, and hit the main road. 5 unexciting minutes later and we're checked in and ready for a shower.

We're having a great time exploring castles, taking photos, biking, shopping for food, and driving/navigating. I dwell on the driving a bit, but it's because it's almost a sport in this context, it's not just hours of boredem behind the wheel, like my Colorado trip this summer. The biking we're doing is a few hours per day, and it's the first time in years, maybe 3 or 4, that I've ridden this amny days in a row without pushing to exhaustion of either speed or endurance. It's decent exercise, but it's not racing. It's nice for this time of year.

Vino Verde

Sometimes little things come up that change the shape of your understanding of the world. Yin and yang are a stable duo, as are red and white wine. Everything's in balance... until Vino Verde comes on the radar (green wine).


We woke to a bright sun coming into our room shining off the inlet from the Atlantic. We made a plan to head east towards the Spanish border, to the Beiras area, which is apparently a "lesser developed" area of Portugal.

We navigated through a few small towns and were pleased to see dozens of road cyclists out in pelotons. They were dressed head to toe, but not with face masks... they know how to ride in 8C weather along the ocean.

We stopped for gas and a map, and I bought a large coffee out of a fancy coin operated machine. It was seriously potent, despite being 1/6th the size of a small at home. We also got some breakfast sandwiches at the gas station restaurant. It seems truck stop sandwiches are held to a higher standard than at home.

We drove east up into the mountains on beautiful roads. The German cars were out in force again, but generally the roads were empty. Sports cars actually make sense here, driving a twisty highway at 150km/h in a little Porsche Boxter is getting your money's worth. Driving it in stop and go traffic at home, or on a highway with low speed rules, doesn't seem to be fair.

We passed Gouarda, a large town on a mountain, and turned south towards Belmonte. From there it was tricky to see the downtown corner for Sortelha. The road to Sortelha was tertiary, rather rough pavement (in fairness, other than cobbles, it's the first time we've come across anything but glass smooth pavement thus far). It was lined with trees and little farms. We made an abrubpt left and started a windy forest climb to town.

The town of Sortelha itself might have 150 houses. There's a giant castle on the hill, with the town sprawled out below. It's probably not far off the stories of rural Slovakia that I've heard from my mom. We did one pass through and found the place we had hoped to stay at. The doors were open, we walked around, but nobody was there. A lady across the street, who's a viscountess of the town, saw us and spoke a little english. She said the people were away, but phoned some lady to come and help us. She said we could stay, and for her efforts I bought a little local history book from her store. Somehow all this took about an hour.

The place is indeed empty, but the lady who came to help us let us look at all the rooms and choose one. First, they always let you look at rooms before committing. We've got a key to the house and a key to the room. It's a pretty cool old granite building, the window sills have granite seats carved into them so you can look out... a lot of work for an old school feature. The door to ours is only 12" wide. I'd guess it's 3,500 square feet overall, with 2 rooms on ground floor, plus kitchen and living room (with a fully stoked fire tonight), and 4 rooms upstairs. Apparently someone will drop by to make breakfast.

We saddled up to ride quickly. I started up a the steep sidestreet we were on. Somehow this led us to the local soccer field, then behind to a gravel road (gravel is more like ash tray sand here, it's all granite and quartz, but pea sized). We descended the gravel for a while, then went off on some forest path. It was awesome. After a little out and back, climbing a hill put the next mountain's wind turbines in perspective so the looked like they were at the end of our path. Naturally, my mind was set, we were going to the top.

We crossed our gravel road and started climbing the mountain. It was kind of like Moose Mountain but with different paths. They were either sand/gravel and smooth, or lumpy granite and more like a trials course. We rode several kilometers, then leaned the bikes against a rock and hiked. The entire mountain has rocks arranged on it to allow more surface for grass and/or for cows to walk around more easily. I can't imagine how much work went into it, but certainly equates to numerous lifetimes of labour. We hiked up a valley toward an old house that was probably just a day (or few day) outpost when the cows were up high. It was probably half way up. Once it got steep I decided to go as fast as I could, sometimes hopping on rocks is easier than long/slow lunge type movements. It was about 90 minutes we figure.

At the top were two huge wind turbines, and the wind picked up just as we were leaving so we could hear it "shift" internally and the blades really started moving. It's so hard to have any useful perspective when looking up to blue sky beyond, but I'd guess that each blade was at least 10m, maybe 15, for total size of 20-30m. They made a cool sound. About 15 turbines could be seen on the hills in a 10km radius of where we were. It gave us a great view of three surrounding valleys, and we could see 6 little towns.

We hiked down pretty quick, and rode back to the gravel road. We continued along it to a paved road, through Quarta Fiera and rode up the valley then up the mountain we were on, but from another side, to the town of Aguas Belas. This is prime cycling land - beauty roads, no traffic, and huge climbs that are steep. I loved this hill and this valley, sure there's probably lots like it, but it just epitomized why euro-cycling is so fantastic. Looking at maps, a local should be able to connect probably 6 towns like this in a day, and since there's a dozen or more in cycling range, the combinations would be fantastic. Aguas Belas didn't have any agua to speak of, so I don't know what the name refers to. We wound through the streets (yes, both of them) and had some local dogs all riled up with our presence.

It was starting to cool as we headed back, and the sun was getting ready to set. After the blazing descent, we climbed back up the gravel road to Sortelha, just arriving at the top in time for the sun set. We rode to the castle in dusk, and explored around for 45 minutes. We'll go back in the morning for some photos, but it's hard to describe how neat this stuff is. We live in a society where things a couple years old aren't worth keeping around, and in places like this, history and current life are totally intertwined.

We rode back down to town, and by chance passed the lady who came over to the house earlier. She knew were out biking, and although she didn't see us leave, it only took a few seconds to put two and two together. Tori showered, and I had a bath. Mental note that the "c" handle is for "calor" or "caliente" and the "f", which in cursive writing can be mistaken for an "h" at a glance stands for "frio". While I was relaxing in the bath, Tori went to the car. She locked herself out of the house, so when I opened the bedroom window 20 minutes later, I saw an eager face jumping up and down in the driveway. Knocking or yelling made her feel like she was waking up the town, plus there's something about 18" thick granite walls that tells you that's a bit futile. Before leaving for dinner, we found the laundry machine to do some clothes. It's newer and more advanced than the fancy Kenmore ones I bought two years ago. It's a Daewoo two in one (ie washer and dryer), fully digital, with a countless number of options on the was and dry cycles. It's also about as easy to use as an ipod, which is helpful given the menus didn't have words we understood. Put in clothes, leave, 2 hours later they're ready. I tried so hard to find one for home like this, I want to look again. At the time they were either tiny, or only condensing dryers.

We walked up to a restaurant in the castle for dinner. To say it was excellent is a total understatement. We had soup and salad appetizers. It's somewhat apparent here that food relies on cooking talent moreso than exotic ingredients. Sort of like my mom's upbringing. The items that are served are what comes out of the ground nearby. Almost every house has gardens, meaning a garden that's purpose is food rather than flowers. Plus anyone with an acre or two has a mini farm. We ordered some dish for two that we had no idea what it was. Fish goulash with potatoes in a reddish sauce is as close as I can get, big bowl brought to table that we spoon to our plates. The wine came from a town 4km away. There were 4 dessert choices, but the menu was verbal. Creme brulee and flan were the two we understood. We opted for the two that we didn't understand. One was a rice pudding with cinnamon approximation. The other was like a cross between whipped cream and goat's cheese, with marmalade. This was a high end, beautiful place in a castle on a hill with 5 little tables, and it was$20/person all in. Sweet!

This is another trip where I've relearned what I've learned on past trips. Big cities are cool, but the countryside is what really makes it memorable for me. I'm only part way through, but I think Portugal has really earned a place in my heart, alongside all the other spots I love - Colombia, Bolivia, Chile, Argentina, Costa Rica, the Alps region, Colorado, New York all come to mind right away.

Wednesday, 26 December 2007

Driving Experience

Tori seems somewhat appreciative that I'm driving so far. It's actually pretty fun, it uses the type of aggression we usually use bike riding. If you weren't into cars it might seem a bit much; it's pretty aggressive by our standards. And I'm appreciative to have a navigatress.

The toll highways are 2 or three lanes wide. The speed difference between lanes is probably 30kph on average. Trucks and crap cars (Ford Ka, 1980's Citroens, etc.) will go 90-100, normal French/Italian cars 120-130, and anything from Germany (or the odd Alpha Romeo) is 160 or more. That sounds kind of stupid to say, but that's basically just straight observation of what we've seen so far.

Some places have road markings for following distances, because even at 150, people only seem to leave a car length between. There's chevron style arrows that point up the road, and the signs basically tell you that if you can't see one in front of you, AND one behind the car in front of you, you're too close. For the record, they're probably 2 car lengths apart. We've made sure as newbies to include at least 1-2 hours of driving in rush hour each night after the sun sets, just for shits and giggles. We're probably safe for being a certified long term couple since this hasn't really caused any disagreement. There's nothing quite like doing 150 in the fast lane, then being told you need to exit off the ramp on the right across 3 lanes of traffic (spaced at least a car length apart) in 200m.

Our first tank of gas (not empty) was €67 or about $100. Pretty heft for a little 4 cylinder mini wagon.

I like to continuous motion traffic circles offer. They felt a bit odd the first 7 minutes out of the airport, especially when people want to pass in the motion of the circle. I think we've come decently far though as tonight there was a triple stage circle (cut one circle out of an Audi symbol), with construction blocking off part, and the middle one running under a bridge so you couldn't see ahead, yet we managed to get through on try one of our compound manouevre. I'm somewhat happy.

The contrasts faced driving here are much greater than at home. Cities don't really have a grid system due to the layout inherited from pre-auto days. Not too hard on it's own, but combine that with downtown streets being one-ways mostly since they're so narrow, and it's hard to double back to where you should be based on logic alone since the grid your mind could in theory rely on isn't there.

From 150km/h roads to cities so tight you need to concentrate hard just to make corners around buildings, cars, etc. with your paint in tact, it's pretty entertaining. I especially like super narrow roads downtown, 2 way traffic, where it's apparently totally acceptable to leave your car in one lane, turn the hazard lights on, and go do some errands. Picture Steven Avenue, but 2 way, with an expextation of 30-40kph. Then one lane is gone, so the people behind the stopped car get to do daredevil passes into oncoming. I would have sat behind until the guy came back, but the lady in front of me was probably 70, and she had the balls to get it done, so I pretty much had to follow suit. You know the roads are narrow when we've used the "auto-down" feature on both front windows more than once to quicly reach out and fold in the mirrors.

As for navigation, here's props to the Navigatress herself. "Go left, er I mean right". Yes we still have all the paint on our bumpers. My other favourite one needs a little setup. Picture a road with a Y, but of course the "intersection" is really a traffic circle. We're approaching from the bottom of the Y. "Just go straight". Sure thing pumpkin, straight as an arrow. The third best, while applying supreme concentration to the "list of nice places to stay" book (which is finding us the historic B&B things), goes like this:
Erik: we just passed N231, so we're basically at the intersection of A26 and N231 heading south.
Tori: ok. We want to turn right on N237.
Erik: (picture squealing tires here as N237 comes up fairly quick at Eurospeed).
Tori: picture the hairdo a little ruffled and eyes wide as she raises her eyes from the book.

Passing: Tori's book from the library says that reckless passing is the norm. Maybe it's just confusion with the signs. There's a sign with 2 cars side by side in a circle that I keep seeing. In my brain this says "passing ok here". But then you find yourself in a blind corner, and when you exit, there's the same sign but with a diagonal line through it. In my brain that would mean "no passing here". But why have a passing sign going into a sharp, blind corner that allows passing? Tori and have figured out that two cars side by side in a circle means "no passing", and when the circle is crossed out, it means "not no-passing". Right-o. Just like how room 123 was on the second floor that was really the third floor.

It's funny, I just read that per capita, Portugal's crash rate is the highest in the EU. It also has quotes that mean so much more now after a few days on the road "posted speed limits are viewed by drivers as minimum requirements" and "speed bumps are always dealt with by shifting to the other side of the road rather than slowing down".

It does at least say that there's very little road rage, very little horn usage, and that mistakes you make are likely to blend into general traffic mayhem. So true! I think they fly jr. high kids to the Deerfoot during rush hour for warmup.

German Cars, Parque National da Peneda-Geres, Pousada da Ria

We drove up to the Parque National da Peneda-Geres after breakfast, nice morning drive, not much traffic. Temperature n the dash working its way up to 14C, sunny day, not a cloud in sight. Cruising along on the highway at 120-140km/h seemed to be the thing to do. We were at pace with Peugeots, Renaults, Fiats, etc.

But a lot of cars would go flying by much faster. And for some strange reason they were consistenly VWs, BMWs, and Mercedes. Finally a "slower" BMW 535 went by, and I wanted to guess how fast he was going. My first guess was 160. So I pulled out and sped up. It was a slight downhill section. By the time the Peugot topped out at 195, the gap to the BMW was still growing rather than shrinking.

It seems there's some inter-European politiking going on on Europe's highways. No respectable German car wanted to be overtaken, even if that meant doing 150km/h in bumper to bumper traffic at night.

I tried to stay with a Mercedes 200 CDI (300 series body style, but the diesel version) out of a toll stop just for fun, as he came into the lane next to me after I had stopped. With my head start, and 4 shifts at nearly 6,000rpm, I was probaly 50 meters behind once we were at highway speed. It's like road bike racing - sometimes you can get dropped cause there's no way you can put out that kind of power.

We toured through Ponte da Barca for a bit, then drove up to Britelo. In Britelo we stopped for a 6 ml coffee in a dainty little cup that had the potency of a half litre of home coffee. We suited up for riding then spent a few minutes working on Tori's gears. The roads are beautiful, we rode to Lindoso which is a stone's throw from the Spanish border. At Lindoso I saw a sign for a trailhead, so we turned right (south) off the road. This took us through the town of Lindoso, which is cobble sidewalks 6-8 feet wide with houses on both sides. The paths are STEEP. Vehicles in the neighbourhood included a Landrover Defender and a Yamaha quad. I'm glad we brought mountain bikes. The houses are stone, but they've had electricity and water brought to them in tidy fashion, each with a junction box built flush into the stone wall of the house. We proceeded along the path until a gate, which after a minute of figuring I managed to open (I'm proud to say I'm smarter than the Portugese livestock it was designed to hold back).

There's stone structures that look like big coffins on stilts, but they're for grain drying and storage, and to make it harder for rats to get in. Cool. Gotta see the pics.

We snacked at a fieldhouse, the rode along the fairytale style trail. It was stone/cobbled, with a green mossy wall, and latice work overhead for vines to grow on. We passed a bunch of cows, which worried Tori. Portugal seems to be a country of pretty docile mentality other than football, and I didn't really see any reason for the domesticated mountain cows with bells on their necks to be any different. They did have big horns though. They were nice and let me touch their noses. We got up to an alpine meadow and took a while to find the trail, and when we did it led us to the shady side of a mountain. It was slow going at this point, and with the chill in the shade we thought it'd be best to head back before the sun set.

On the way back down the hill we saw a road cyclist climbing the hill. Full pants, full gloves, full jacket, and a bandana across the face. Our car said 17C when we turned it on, and that high up the hill it couldn't have been less than 13-14C. I wore arm warmers, wind vest and shorts. Vest and armwarmers were cause I didn't know what they day would bring in terms of mountain weather changes. Too funny.

Lots of smoke from forest fires on the way back. Fires are a huge issue for Portugal, it's amazing how many hillsides are black. The volunteer firefighters (Bombieros Voluntarios) are the largest component to managing the problem, every town has prominent monuments and stations. There's apparently 20,000 of them, they're inadequately equipped, are often the first and only ones on the scene, and they've got a great track record of saving people's houses from fires. Portugal's forestry industry replants with eucalyptus and pine, which both burn easy. The bombieros voluntarios aslo die pretty frequently. They've earned a status of heroism.

Tonight we're staying Pousada da Rea, the first of the historic sites we're staying at. I don't think they're government operated, but whatever spawned them they sure found a way to access some pretty cool old sites. We're 4km south of Torreira, which is south of Ovar, on a thin peninsula of land that forms the coast of the Atlantic. It's a cool building in good shape, and is a little on the pricey side. Although it's not easily accessible by road, Aveiro probably shows up as the nearest town of larger substance. Aveiro must be quite a shippoing hub as it shows 4 rail lines running out of it.

We had seafood for dinner, a tasty appetizer of spicy shrimp, squid and octopus, then for main I had a shrimp the size of a lobster, and Tori had a big octopus, all with a Douro valley white to wash it down. We had 10 desserts... or really it was just a buffet that we could try things. I recognized cheese and soaked pear, rest were new. All were natural - cheese, honey, egg, sugar, baked, nuts, etc. Cool stuff.

We'll try to ride to the castle tomorrow that was our first choice of accomodations (right next to it), but the place was closed.

Portugese Language

Portugese is both easy any difficult for the newcomer. By "easy" I mean 1/3 of the written words I see are "the same" as English with one or two letters different. It seems like another 1/3 are "the same" as Spanish, also being just a letter or two different. Seeing foods, magazines, stores, etc. leaves one feeling in fairly familiar surroundings rather than totally dumbfounded. Numbers are pretty darn close too. However, there's another 1/3 that is totally incomprehensible. A lot of that seems to be with the letter x being used in combinations of letters that, with English sound associations of those letters programmed in my brain, are just plain confusing.

That's just referring to printed words so far... in terms of spoken language, it's another world. They've got a pretty unique sound. To me it sounds like my mom speaking Slovak with some Spanish words thrown into the mix... at least numbers are pretty close!

Tuesday, 25 December 2007

Sintra to Porto

I walked around the property for a half hour before breakfast, had a tasty orange off the tree. It's a neat place, they sure know how to work with vertical relief around here.

Breakfast in bed started at 8:30 with marmalade, cheese, ham, and toast, with hot milk, coffee and OJ. We got ready for riding and went to the historic town center. There was a group of riders meeting, and they all rode mountain bikes which was a good sign on our choice - lots of rough cobbles and steep roads around. I got some oil on my rear brake disc which means that it's not stopping so great, even after I cleaned it. The other problem, my single missing part, was apparent on the first hill. A little spring, about 6mm long by 2mm wide was in the bottom of my bike box (the first item I found a home for was a cotter pin smaller than that which belonged to the front brake). Without the spring, I had only the harder half of my gears.

We rode up to the castle at Sintra, which was a ridiculously beautiful road, and steep. My gear was a single speed style gear, and a little overgeared at that. King Fernando II tried to make the whole place some super archicturual forest/landscape with all sorts of non-native plants. It looks like something out of fairytales that couldn't be real. The climbing was tough, and unlike South America where dogs are everywhere, it seems to be cats hanging out everywhere here. They're friendly.

We returned to hotel at 11 and showered, then I got to fixing my bike. There's only 2 holes where that spring could possibly go, so I tried one of them in the light of the parking lot where I could see it wasn't just going to drop in and get ground up in the gears. A test ride in the parking lot seems to indicate I picked right as I could shift all the gears, but time will tell. The noisy people last night taked to us in the parking lot, they were from Colorado. After pocketing a few oranges from the tree, we hit the road.

We started driving north on secondary roads, which was fun. Not much traffic, a lot of traffic cirles, and a lot of twisty roads. It's no mistake little euro cars are know for good handling, it actually gets used. I don't think the road was straight for more than 100m until we eventually got onto the main toll road.

We stopped in Obidos, which is an old town and castle built on a hill within a wall that's been around since 1282. There's still people living in the town, and there's restaurants and tourist shops. Pretty neat overall, lots of gardens and plants, a nativity scene that looked half authentic in its context in the town square, each little street was a exercise in micro architecture. We walked along the ramparts and checked out the local restored hotel, Casa d' Obidos. Apparently the ocean used to come near where it's now just fields, seems hard to believe now. There's little zoo type thing of animals around with some local mini deer. We stopped and had a toast and cheese and ham sandwich and a mini coffee in a chic bar type place with ultramodern interior despite the old exterior, while listening to remixes, notably a non-Oasis version of Wonderwall that was good. The place didn't have a name or an address above the door, although all the other doors on the street did. All in all it's touristy, but it sure earned being touristy by just being as neat as can be. I imagine that it's unpleasantly crowded in the summer, the streets are so narrow (sidewalks really). At Christmas it was cold and nice. I think a web site of the place might be which I imagine would have some cool pics before I get home and can post the beautiful shots I tried to take that'll look poor and devoid of talent because it was just regular unartistic me with a pocket digicam. A sunny day there with the wide angle would be sweet.

It downpoured just as we were leaving, but we made time to get some chestnuts roasting on an open fire for the drive north. I've never had them before, so now I feel like it's an authentic Christmas (more on Christmas dinner below).

We drove to Porto in the rain, roads vary between 90 and 140km/h. Tori booked us a hotel over the phone while we were driving that's apparently historic. It's about 8 blocks from the historic town center, and was difficult to get to... Navigating in the dark, in the rain, with Portugese street signs was rather funny. Yes, we did even manage to go the wrong way down a one way street briefly... too funny.

We finally found a gate in a wall covered by grafitti that hid a few acre sprawl of a castle on a hill right in the midst of downtown buildings crammed right next to each other. Totally cool. Our room is 123, which is confusing because it's on the second floor, which is actually the third floor if you tend to count floors the way a North American would (1-2-3). I thought it might just be our first place where the door opened into the hall, but this one does too. A friendly hotel cat followed us from the car into our room and jumped up onto the bidet. I tried turning it on, and sure enough it sat and drank for 2 minutes.

We walked down to the historic part of town in search for Christmas dinner, but really we expected everything to be closed. There was a clear plastic dome set up with skating inside, looked like it'd be a fun stop if it's open tomorrow. Once we got to the main square there were lots of people around, but we couldn't figure out why as nothing was open. A church nearby was our best guess but it didn't look open. There were 6 street vendor cars operating with lots of people around so we got Christmas dinner there. We had sandwiches, which we found out were actuall hot dogs, but at first we just saw the slices of ham going in. They were topped with corn, mushrooms, shredded carrot, lettuce, and stringy style potato chips, with honey mustard, ketchup and mayonnaise. I have no idea who had the munchies when this thing was invented, but it was splendid! For dessert it was a rasperry filled churro and a chocoate filled churro.

We walked home, and turned on all the radiators in our room, it's pretty cool out. We've had two great character places to stay (they're cheap for such historic buildings, must be offseason) and a day of really interesting stuff, so we're looking forward to tomorrow.

We've got a delicious cheese, some dried figs and fresh almonds to go with the second $3ish dollar bottle of wine, so things aren't too bad.

Monday, 24 December 2007


The Lufthansa flight was great, I'm impressed by the quad-lingual staffers on board... and they added it up to have the flight served in 5 languages. We helped clean our trash on the plane as the Portugese airport workers are currently striking.

Now that we're here, and compared to the ground to sky gray of Frankfurt, the afternoon sun makes Lisboa feel peachy. Lots of white apartment buildings, fresh spring feeling air, and people smoking in the airport. All bags arrived too, which always makes me happy!

Our historic place in Sintra is beautiful (Penseo Resedencial Sintra), and we put together our bikes, which seem to be working (comment on that later maybe? I have one extra part. Actually I had two, but found a place for one).

The first few hour take on Portugal - not hard to get by on english, and we're basing that on a little more than just tourist services. Roads are smooth, cars don't look old and beaten up, two indicators of a place being in order economically. I know this isn't the richest country in Europe, but it still is firmly European in terms of modernity. The old buildings are beautiful, people seem placid, friendly, happy, except on the roads or in the parkade where we got the rental car, where it seems everyone is a hobbyist race car driver. We have a Peugeot 307 wagon (5 speed naturally), which by north American standards is a small car (probably smaller than Audi A4 or Jetta), but here it feels like a boat at times - the old roads are tiny with really tight corners. The stone gate driveway to our place needs to be approached within 88-92 degrees of perfect perpendicular, and this leaves 2" on either side mirror and not a millimeter more. At least it feels like that. The rental agency kid had the car stereo tuned to some Euro dance station that had remixes of any top 100 song of the last 30 years in dance form, Pink Floyd to 80's one hit wonders. We made it from airport to hotel without a wrong turn, which I find surprsing, considering Tori's directions were fairly sparse and we don't have a map.

We got groceries at a 400 square foot grocery store, including 3 bottles of Portugese wine, which ranged in price from €2.05-2.65, quite a deal. If I recall the CDN/Euro exchange rate right that puts us at about $3-4. Fruits and nuts are fresh, I don't think I've tasted almonds as good before.

We passed three football stadiums, 3 track and field tracks, plus the normal array of Euro supermarkets and chain stores, as well as US ones. Seems the city is into athletics despite people smoking more prominently than home.

We read an article on the plane that tells national Christmas beliefs of a bunch of countries. Almost all focus on a northern Santa, except apparently for Dutch kids who believe he resides in Spain.

All's well, we're happy, and that's what Christmas is about. Hope everyone else is too!


The Air Canada lineup in Calgary for Frankfurt was dauntingly long, but thanks to travelling with nearly famous Tori we just went to the fancy check in and were done in less than 5 minutes. I can't say much about the 8 hour flight over here other than it was hot and hard to sleep. Franfurt airport seems nice, we got some good sandwiches with apfel flavoured water, although Jagermeister was on the same rack as an option. It's -1C out, but looking out the airport windows it looks like a day I could go for a several hour ride around town to explore. German security at the airports is a little more touchy feely than the US, I guess it might be evidence that history has shaped a slightly different border between state and person. German lesbians seem relatively easy to spot.

Wednesday, 12 December 2007

December 11

December 11 should have had a mountain bike race. After feeling bagged from La Ruta, then piling into fall corporate party season and less riding, my metabolism decided to come back for an encore appearance on the 11th.

Jurassic 5 accompanied my commute home, I don't usually wear ipod on the bike, but there's always exceptions to "the usual". The ride home was a lung searing set of anaerobic intervals. After laying down what I could for power for 30 seconds, 1 minute, 4 minutes, whatever, I'd coast and catch my breath, but my body never wanted to softpedal for more than a minute.

Upon arriving home I started doing squats and one legged squats and lunges and all that good stuff. AC/DC and Kiss encouraged me. After a grand total of 250 left my legs feeling a bit more mellow, there was no way I felt like sleeping.

It's nice when it feels like you're firing on all cylinders!

Sunday, 2 December 2007

La Ruta 2007 photos

2007 La Ruta photos by Gerry McCuaig, who's fame is growing each year. Good photography Gerry!

Day 1
Day 2
Day 3
Day 4
Post Race