Wednesday in late September: a memorably great day, and the first seriously warm day since we left San Sebastian. We got separated at first, so that we crossed the Douro River on different spans of the Luis I Bridge. Using our phones to effect a rendezvous outside the port wine tasting rooms on the Gaia waterfront, we made our way to the Atlantic on the south bank of the river. We discovered a bike path that ran all the way to great sand dunes of San Jacinto, 70 km south of Porto. Cheryl pulled ahead at one point, but when she stopped to photograph yet another gorgeous coastline, I whizzed by without seeing her. The bike path along the coast road was generally flat, and I found myself riding through tall pine woods or skirting the landward side of large dunes.
On one roundabout, I took a very deep hole in the middle of the road, where the asphalt had been laid in several layers around a manhole cover. The shock damaged my rear tyre, and I would feel its irregularity for the next three weeks. A short time later, I began leapfrogging a touring couple on rented bikes. I would stop to take pictures; they would catch up; I would pass them and so forth. In San Jacinto, the path ended quite suddenly, with no pavement, no signs, and no warning.
While I was contemplating my good fortune in avoiding a dive into the brush-covered ditch, the other touring couple came up at a brisk pace. Waving my arms frantically, I succeeded in alerting the lady to stop, but her husband thought I was just waving. He waved back and sped toward the abyss. I shouted “Stop!” in my best drill sergeant bark, which made him burn rubber at the last minute. Disaster averted, we rode on at our respective paces.
With smooth roads and tailwinds, I reached the ferry landing in San Jacinto well ahead of Cheryl, but did not realize it at first. The other couple took the ferry to Aveiro while I waited. Cheryl and I arrived in Aveiro planning to spend the night, but its ugly environs and bad roads changed our minds. We decided to take the train to Coimbra, where Cheryl chose a nice studio apartment in the historic district. There was a dinner concert with Fado music in the de-consecrated chapel next door, which included dinner. A pleasant conclusion to an exciting day.
The next day, we had to change apartments, but the owner let us leave our panniers in the studio, and moved them while we toured the town. Coimbra is a University town. The fall semester had only recently begun, and flocks of students were everywhere downtown, often moving in noisy crowds as the upperclass pushed first-year students through various rituals that included parading through town singing and shouting. They looked like moving pep rallies. In Portugal, students wear long black cloaks over black suits. I wondered if the University had a Faculty of Magic and Muggle Lore.
After checking with the local tourist office, we caught a local bus to the Roman ruins of Conimbriga. With all the stops it took two hours, climbing hairpin roads to connect the villages in the hills south of Coimbra. Conimbriga was the original settlement, and long a flourishing capital. After the fall of the Roman Empire, various northern tribes invaded the Peninsula. The Swabians threatened the town, so the inhabitants fled to what is now Coimbra. Conimbriga is an active archaeological site, and on a par with Pompeii and Minturno for the quality of its excavations.
We had packed a picnic lunch, which we ate in the parking lot. A Belgian couple coming out of the excavations gave us a lift back to town in their rental Fiat 500. The scenery was not as interesting on the superhighway as it had been on the bus ride, but the return trip took only 45 minutes.
We fixed dinner in the flat after touring the University. A Fado concert in Santa Cruz square below our hill gave us the same ambience as the night before.
On Friday morning, we made our way west of town on National Highway 111. Gently rolling and often flat, it followed the north shore of the Mondego River. We often could see the IP-3 motorway, and it was clear to me that parts of the old national highway had been “freewayed”, as Cheryl liked to put it. This was one of the many differences that we noted between roads in Portugal and Spain. The Spanish (and the French, Cheryl observed) tended to leave the old highways in good condition when they built freeways; other countries tended to disenfranchise non-motorized road users by turning existing highways into limited access motorways. As the status of our road slipped from national to provincial and back, I reflected on how Italian roads near the autostrade seemed to be left out of the maintenance budget.
We passed the castle of Montemor, a stunning expanse of fortifications, which totally dominated the landscape. I later learned that it played an interesting role in Portuguese history. I recommend a quick read at http://www.visitcentrodeportugal.com.pt/montemor-o-velho-castle/.
At one point, we may have been riding over an old railway bed, as we crossed a vast wetland on a raised roadbed. After a steep climb over the ridge near the coast, we sped down into Figuera da Foz, our destination for the day.
The air cooled noticeably after we dropped into town. The ride had been so quick that we had time to ride the bike path along the waterfront to the town of Buarcos. The beach is amazing, so wide that in some places it takes five minutes to walk to the water from the road. In Buarcos, we stopped for a totally decadent sundae at a homemade gelateria, and bought groceries at the local supermarket. We checked into the hotel early enough to find a laundromat and to find out that there was no ferry service across the Mondego River. We decided to take a break from traditional Portuguese cuisine and chose a Chinese restaurant for supper. It was a disappointment, but at least it was different. Back in the hotel, we broke out the paper maps and Google Maps®, and laid out our bike rides for the next two days.
You know that I close each post in this blog wishing you “smooth roads and tailwinds.” Sometimes wishes come true, and this one of those times. Our initial trepidation about crossing the suspension bridge over the Mondego River was unfounded. The N109 to Carriço was straight and smooth. We had the wind at our backs all day and an incredible bicycle path from Carriço for 62 kilometers down the coast.
In the 15th century, Dom Dinis, a foresighted Portuguese monarch, planted a vast pine forest as a national resource. Over the next 300 years, the forest supplied lumber to build the Portuguese Navy and merchant fleet, which sustained the country’s vast colonial empire. For much of the day we found ourselves riding through his royal pinalha. We covered 90 kilometers in five hours, including having lunch on the beach.
We found our apartment in Nazaré charming and well equipped. We also arrived early enough to enjoy sunset from the ocean promenade. We took the cable car to the top of town and admired the lights. Nazaré is a major tourist town, and even on 1 October it was in full swing. However, autumn was on us: with the darkness came the chill, and it felt good to get back into the warmth of the apartment.
While packing to check out on Sunday, we decided to take a taxi to Alcobaça, a monastery that enjoyed a special connection to the Portuguese royal family through history. Portugal has two interesting tours that are worth taking: one of castles, and the other of monasteries. During the centuries that the Moors ruled much of the Iberian Peninsula, the Portuguese erected 13 castles along the border, to secure their frontier first against the Moors (often converting conquered Moorish forts), then against the Spanish. At the same time, various religious orders were invited to establish monasteries both to provide religious backing for the monarchy and to keep Christianity well entrenched in the countryside. These castles and monasteries are either National Monuments or UNESCO World Heritage Sites today.
The taxi waited while we toured the massive structure. We were there and back in an hour and a half. The grocer across the street from our apartment had watched our bicycles, locked outside her store.
The road to Obidos was full of surprises. There was no more beautiful bicycle lane, in fact not even a shoulder between Nazaré and São Martinho do Porto. We took what looked like a quiet road out of Nazaré, which turned into a cardiac crunch to the top of the promontory. The pavement was in such bad condition that we went back to the edge of Nazaré and continued on the national highway.
We enjoyed stunning cliffs and beautiful beaches along the coast from São Martinho do Porto to Foz do Arelho. Then we turned inland along the north bank of the Arelho River, around the southern suburbs of the industrial town of Calda da Rainha and south to Obidos. We arrived at the quaint, small medieval city at 1715, separately. Cheryl chose to take the road around to the main gate, while I walked 400 meters to the hotel, leaving my bicycle locked outside a side gate. That was a trick I learned from her own stories.
Throngs of tourists were blocking the main street where our hotel was located. Cheryl arrived as I was checking in. Our room overlooked the main shopping street, making me wonder how much noise there would be that night. However, the tourists disappeared just before sundown.
This was the last day of a week-long international Book Festival. Many locations had been turned into venues for scholarly presentations, book signings, and exhibitions. On a walk down the now quiet main street, we came to a fancy party in a sort of art gallery-cum-gourmet kitchen. We had been given tickets to the “Cooking the Books” event, so we went upstairs, where unique tapas and champagne were being served on large sofas (made from bed mattresses). Down in the street a young percussion band marched to the Castle, sounding like a classical stomp band, if you can imagine that.
Obidos boasts a well-preserved medieval Castle in addition to its authentic historic center and its complete wall. We enjoyed our first excellent meal in Portugal at the castle, specifically, the Pousada do Castelo, one of 35 historic pousadas in the country. The pousadas are roughly comparable to the paradores of Spain, in both purpose and luxury. The restaurant was five-star, and dinner was fantastic.
On Monday, we awoke to find a heavy mist over the city. It burned off by 1100. We walked to the castle and the park, then walked the top of the walls all the way around town. The wall can provide a scary experience in certain places, because it has no safety features of any kind. Obidos is nothing if not quaint and very photogenic. We then walked to a Pingo Doce supermarket outside town, noticing the large number of large tour buses in the parking lot outside the walls. There were more tourists today, even though it was Monday. As we sat on a bench overlooking the fertile valley to eat our lunch, we figured that thousands of tourists must be coming by the busload from cruise ships in Peniche and Lisbon.
As on Sunday, the tourists began disappearing as the shadows lengthened. We ate a light dinner in our room, to get ready for the next day. Portugal was longer than either of us had planned on, and we were falling behind. We decided to take a train from Obidos to Sintra, and later from Lisbon to the Algarve to catch up. It seemed a shame to give up riding the rest of the Atlantic Coast on our bicycles, but there was no train service along the Algarve, so we knew we could not make up time there. Cheryl had some special things for us to see in Spain before we arrived in Barcelona.
Next week, another sea story (or maybe a short story) on my author website.
smooth roads and tailwinds,