Back in 2013, Cheryl rode the Camino Francesa and the Via de la Plata, the latter stretching from Santiago to Seville. This time, remembering the ugly suburbs and industrial zones south of Santiago and the heavily travelled N-550, she suggested taking the train to Vilagarcia de Arousa. After Vilagarcia, we biked the Michelin three-star roads of the Rias Bajas peninsulas. Striking out west to the ocean, we first visited the isthmus of O Grove and the island of La Toja (Illa da Toxa in Galician). The island is essentially a gated community of pricey homes, a golf course and a yacht marina. It sits off the peninsula that leads through the shallows to the town of O Grove, famous for its seafood (in coastal Spain, that is saying something). We had lunch in O Grove, then rode back to the north shore of the Ria de Pontevedra. We knew that we could not reach Pontevedra in time to find room in the albergue before it filled with pilgrims heading the other way, so we booked a hotel in the historic city. The Rias Bajas Hotel proved to be a bargain on booking.com: modern and comfortable. Pontevedra earned one star from the Michelin guide, with good reason: a clean, well-maintained historic center, good food and shopping. It was easy to find our way around. I liked the purple lights that illumined the steeples of the Sanctuary of the Virgin.
The next day, we woke up early, well-rested in a comfortable bed in a quiet room. The hotel desk clerk stamped our credenciales. By 11:00 we were rolling along the winding coastal roads from Pontevedra to Cangas, on the south side of the peninsula. This territory was new to both of us. We had to climb a ridge over the westernmost promontory but Cangas was easy to find. The ferry across the ria operates like a city bus: frequent and cheap. At 15:30, we crossed from Cangas to Vigo. The ride out of Vigo to the Atlantic town of Baiona took us past a large beach-park and along an easy coastal highway. Baiona was a delightful town, with a charming historical center, a scenic city park spreading out below the Parador that used to be a castle on the point, and a long, wide paseo maritimo, which was filled in the evening with strolling families and youngsters.
The next day was Saturday. First thing, we rode to the Vodaphone store outside Baiona to renew the tourist plans on our phones. We wanted them to be working after we came back to Spain after riding through Portugal.
As forecast, a cloudy sky and stiff headwinds made hard work of the easy rolling road from Baiona to Portugal. However, a stiff southerly wind blew between the rain system at sea and the high hills to our left, pushing the squall line about 300 m off shore, and keeping us dry.
After the ferry ride from A Pasaxe in Spain to Caminha in Portugal, Cheryl took off on the gently rising and falling N-13. I watched her disappear into the wind. With my greater weight and sail area, I could not close the distance. We met in Vaina do Castello and settled into a pilgrim’s refugio at the Carmelite Fathers monastery. We were the only bikers. Almost all the pilgrims had grey hair. By now, the “kids” had gone back to work or school.
Both of us were frustrated with our phones. The clerks at the Vodaphone stores in the big shopping malls did not seem to be able to say anything more than “Vodaphone central has a problem.” I was getting by with the EU-mandated minimum service plan using my Italian SIM card, but not being able to contact Cheryl when we got separated was more than annoying. It took us all afternoon to find each other. She had gone into the historic centre, and I had gone astray in the suburbs southeast of town.
The weather continued to worsen as we settled into the refugio. We were glad that the hosts had us park under the shed where they parked their work vehicles, because it began raining after we came in for the night.
Our frustration with the phones continued. Cheryl got sick from a shrimp empanada (my guess: it’s the only thing that she ate that I did not in Viana), and was not up for riding. We took the train to Guimaraes, which was a beautiful town in every touristy detail. The host of the Apartamentos con Historia in the historic centre was not there. I called him and determined that he was still an hour out of town. We locked our bikes to posts in the square, and raced down the cobblestone-covered, steep roads to a supermarket to buy water and food. My heel was very unhappy about the hurry, but the host was there when we returned to the apartment. Cheryl could not eat, so I fixed a big salad and ate it while she watched. After the long day on trains and walking around, we slept well in the clean, quiet room.
Guimaraes occupies an important place in Portuguese history, being the principal city of the frontier between the Christian kingdom in Asturias and Galicia and the Moorish lands of Lusitania (as the Romans called Portugal and Galicia). It is as pretty a royal city as any medieval town that I have seen, and definitely worth a trip. In the morning, we walked to Saint Michael’s Castle and the Ducal Palace before catching the train to Porto. I tripped on a stone at the castle gate, sending terrible pain up from my right heel. Nevertheless, I very much enjoyed the exhibit in the castle, which traced the history of the area from Roman times to the establishment of the Kingdom of Portugal. It filled in the many blanks in my understanding of the Middle Ages in Iberia, because the timeline included occasional reference points about what was happening elsewhere. For example, I learned that the mother of the “Illustrious Generation” of Portuguese kings and navigators was none other than Phillippa of Lancaster, which explained the long-standing commercial, military and political relationship between England and Portugal since the 15th Century. Phillippa’s biography on Wikipedia is a good read in its own right: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Philippa_of_Lancaster.
By now, we knew our way around Guimaraes, so finding the train station and going to Porto was easy. Cheryl had found us an apartment in a 200-year-old building recently renovated by a young, enterprising partnership. Our place was as charming and scenic as one could hope. I tripped again at the door to the building, setting the recovery of my heel back a week. The city market across the street yielded mussels and black spaghettini, It felt good to be choosing and cooking our own food.
Porto is a big enough town that we finally visited a real Vodaphone store. It turned out that the others had been franchises (one cannot tell the difference without asking), and the woman who waited on us had the problem solved in just a few minutes. Cheryl’s phone came online about 19:00. I was still relying on my Italian SIM card, but I hoped that I was on my last day of charges to Wind.
We rose to fix ourselves a breakfast of nourishing toast, butter, jam, and nectarines in yoghurt. Breakfast is a foreign concept in the Iberian Peninsula, so making our own proved to be one of the great advantages of hostels and apartments.
My new Nexus 5X phone came on about 10:00. I turned off my old Nexus 5 with the Italian SIM card, and left it on the charger to fill up. After a stop at the post office to mail unneeded maps and some post cards, I took a sightseeing bus tour, while Cheryl walked briskly to the historical centre to take pictures. With the pain in my right heel, I could not keep up with her. The bus tour allowed me to see as much as possible without walking.
Porto is big, beautiful and varied. In general, like most Portuguese cities, it is particularly bicycle-unfriendly. Most of that is due to the Portuguese fascination with cobblestones. They think that the medieval road surface is attractive. I watched the locals stumbling on them. The drivers are killing the suspensions of their cars. The rest of the menace to cyclists comes from the driving habits of the operators. Riding in Portugal is more like New Jersey than any country in Europe that I have seen. And yet, Portugal also had some of the most beautiful, smooth roads, and some of the most unspoiled coastline we saw. With the economic problems that it had while the rest of Europe was hurtling into the present “prosperity,” the country has an old-fashioned feel that borders on nostalgic. The Portuguese have an opportunity to make progress intelligently and avoid some of the mistakes that their neighbours made.
That evening, Cheryl and I shared impressions of our respective tours. She had walked across the river to the town of Gaia, climbing steep hills and logging several miles of cobblestones. She had taken advantage of the tasting offers at the wineries, and had investigated the back streets. I had seen more sights than I could have ever walked or biked to.
The smooth bed felt oh-so-good.
Next week, come over to my author’s blog for a sea story.
Smooth roads and tailwinds,