On a Monday in early October, we rolled out of the medieval city of Obidos in the predawn darkness. After some dead ends and backtracking, we located the empty, unmanned station. Watching a brilliant dawn, we waited for the 07:10 train to Aqualva-Caçem. It never appeared. I called the toll-free number on the posted schedule and learned that the train had broken down, and that the 08:10 train would be a bus. The functionary could not say if the bus would take bikes, so we decided to hop on a northbound train into Caldas da Rainha rather than wait three hours for the next southbound train that stopped at Obidos. There were many trains southbound from Caldas, but few stopped at Obidos.
I did not expect Caldas da Rainha to be such an interesting city. I learned that it has boasted a warm-water spring from ancient times, though barbarians destroyed the ancient Roman baths. In the 15th century, Queen Leonor (Rainha Dona Leonor) established a hospital and a church at the therapeutic hot springs. The Hospital Termal Rainha D. Leonor is the oldest purpose-built institution of its kind in the world. In fact, the name of the city means “the Queen’s Hot Springs.” Today, Caldas is also an industrial center, and the transportation hub for the flourishing agriculture in the area. At a cute farmers’ market in the historic city, we bought some warm pastries and found a sunny corner to eat them. The cold weather, made us grateful for the sun coming up over the square.
When it was time for the next train, we rode back to the station. At Aqualva-Caçem, we switched to a modern commuter train to Sintra. I found Sintra to be a quaint place, plenty of cobblestones, hills, and climbing streets accessible only on foot. The tourist office and the main square were packed with tourists of every kind. We figured out where the São Miguel guest house should be, but a Guarda Nacional (roughly equivalent to the Guardia Civil in Spain) blocked our access to the road. We went back to the tourist office. Consulting our maps, we figured a roundabout way to reach the guest house without confronting the policeman. Later, I learned that he was only closing the road because of the danger of falling debris from a construction project. He vacated his post when the work stopped. After that we were free to come and go the whole time we were in Sintra.
Teresa proved to be the most hospitable host we encountered in our entire trip. She was full of excellent advice for dealing with the local scene. She put our bags in the room while we rode to the estates of Quinta da Regaleira and Monserrate. Italian opera-set designer Luigi Manini designed in the former for the Brazilian coffee tycoon, Antònio Carvalho Monteiro (aka Moneybags Monteiro). It features wildly carved fireplaces, marble floors, frescoes, and Venetian glass. The other estate sheltered a series of well-known English celebrities, most notably the 19th century textile millionaire, Sir Frances Cook. He built the whimsical palace with Indian themes. While both palaces were stunning, the gardens were exceptionally beautiful. With six palaces and world-class gardens, the hills of Sintra are a single UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Back at the guest house, Teresa suggested dinner at a place favoured by locals, near the train station. Supper was as world-class as the gardens; we needed the long walk back. Sleep came easily in the very comfortable bed.
We knew that it would not take that long to reach Lisbon on Wednesday, so we took a cab to the National Palace of Pena before leaving the city. Ferdinand of Saxe-Coburg, the artist-consort of Queen Maria II, had the palace built in 1840. Inspired by Moorish palaces, the place boggles the eyes and the mind with its Bavarian-Manueline architecture. Inside Eiffel-designed furniture and an eclectic collection of art and possessions entertain the visitor. Pena has gardens that are so vast, that one can obtain a separate admission ticket to them.
We got a taxi ride back to the guest house, regaled all the way by tales and reminiscences of a veteran hack. He had started as a teenager driving the three wheeled jitneys that still ply their trade in Sintra, and he knew every back alley and the story behind every celebrity home. I wondered if this is what it was like to take the Rodeo Drive tour in Beverly Hills, which I have never done.
Back on our bikes, we rode downhill to the end of the promontory west of Sintra. We passed small Italian-looking towns, vineyards, cattle and wealthy estates. An easy ride took us through the scenic hills. There was a manageable climb over the ridge to reach Cabo Raso where the wind blew hard off the Atlantic. It blew us upstream along the north bank of the Tagus River, on our way to Cascais. We caught the local commuter train at Estoril, famous for its casino. Walking from the Cais do Sodre station, we picked our way through major construction work for 2 km before finding the Baixa Lisboa apartments on a pedestrian street in the shopping quarter. The apartment was very nice, and there was a Pingo Doce supermarket up the hill. My foot was bothering me, so Cheryl made a grocery run. As wonderful as some of the meals had been, it felt good to eat at “home.”
Armed the next day with a public transit pass, we built our own tour of three-star sights in Lisbon: Hieronymite Monastery; Castle of São Jorge; Calouste-Gulbenkian Museum; Santa Maria Maior; the Cathedral of Saint Anthony. And a special treat, the bikeway along the river. We decided to stay another day in Lisbon, because there were so many outstanding things to see. However, the Baixa Lisboa Apartments were previously booked, so we had to find another place to stay.
First thing Friday morning, we moved to the Brown’s Hotel Apartments down the street from Baixa Lisboa. This was also a wonderful place, and closer to the Metro. We visited the rest of the three-star sights in Lisbon and rode on the old-fashioned tram.
We also rode out to the National Tile Museum. Throughout Moorish Spain and Portugal, beautiful tiles were a mainstay of decoration and interior construction. During the Renaissance, Flemish artists were invited from Delft to come to Portugal. They brought their famous blue tile with them. The Portuguese have never lost their fascination with ceramic tiles, and their national museum devoted to the art form celebrates that. It is set in an old convent, which is worth a tour on its own merits. One of the interesting tile works is a mural panorama of Lisbon the year before the great earthquake of 1755. It is the only picture extant showing the city before it was levelled.
Back at the hotel that night, we had some panic over our inability to book seats on the train to Lagos. The only answer seemed to confront a ticket agent personally, so I hopped on a subway to the Oriente station for tickets. I got back two hours later with news that the train was not equipped for bicycles, although I bought the tickets anyway. After much research, we worked up some backup plans involving metro rail and riding through the suburbs to Setubal. We went to bed ready to be refused access to the train in the morning.
We were up early on Saturday morning. Brown’s Hotel Apartments provided a hearty breakfast at their restaurant next door. Using the Metro and our bicycles, we got to the Sete Rios train station and boarded the back of the train. We lashed our bikes to the back door with bungee cords, where we knew they would not be in anyone’s way. We stashed our panniers in the only free luggage rack, in the next car forward, then walked even farther forward to find two free seats. The conductor was clearly concerned about the bikes. However, we were wearing our street clothes, and our panniers were in another car, so he could not figure out who the bikers were on the train. We made it all the way to Tunes, where we debarked and caught the regional train to Lagos.
Cheryl had booked us into the Salty Lodge in Lagos for two nights. After shopping at the Pingo Doce supermarket on the way in from the train station, we rode across town to our lodgings. There we found a nice apartment with one of the best kitchens ever.
The Algarve is a Michelin three-star coast. Lagos itself is a pretty town, fine-tuned for tourists, especially from the UK. It has a two-star cliff (Ponta da Piedade) at the end of a live Via Crucis (Way of the Cross). We rode out there, and resolved to visit it and the sheltered beaches with the morning sun, which would give us better light for pictures. That night, we enjoyed grilled salmon and salad, and the best bed of any place so far.
On Sunday, we rode out to the Ponta da Piedade for some great photographs of it and the beach at O Camilo. We raced back to the Salty Lodge to dump the cameras and get our swimsuits. After buying beach mats at the Dona Ana beach, we rode back to the O Camilo beach. There, we enjoyed our first swim of the trip.
Cheryl’s first stop when arriving in a new town is always the tourist information office. On this trip, I finally learned to do that, which not only would allow me to anticipate where she might be when we became separated, but theoretically would equip me with the same incredible information that she always seemed to have. Portugal provided an exception to this rule. Not only did the counter personnel in the tourist information offices range from surly to pleasant, but they were singularly ill-equipped to handle our needs. Even in cities with marvelous bicycle infrastructure, not a single tourist information office employee seemed to be aware of local bicycle facilities. We encountered no maps of bicycle facilities for any city in Spain or Portugal at the tourist offices. Answers to simple questions like “can I ride there on my bicycle?” almost always received an enthusiastic affirmative, even if the ride involved a 14% climb with cobblestones and potholes.
Our work-around this unsatisfactory situation became a catchphrase, “follow the biker.” When in doubt about which way to go, our best results came from going whichever way the local bicycle club seemed to be headed.
On Monday, we rode the N 125 from Lagos to Faro. We had meant to take some beach roads, but we missed the only two turnoffs available. The highway was boring, hot, and busy with traffic avoiding the tolls on the nearby motorway. We got separated just as we approached Faro, with Cheryl dodging rush hour traffic on a divided highway, while I took a detour through endless beat-up back roads wandering through junkyards, small fields, run-down buildings and auto repair shops. We met at the train station in Faro.
Ninety kilometres after leaving Lagos, we settled into our hostel near the old walled city. The hostel staff was offering a traditional Portuguese cod and cream supper with wine and salad, so we made a reservation. After a short walk through the pedestrian area downtown, we enjoyed a home-cooked meal with the other guests.
Tuesday, we checked out after breakfast at the hostel, and left our bags and bicycles with the receptionist. We took a quick walk through the old city, and visited the Cathedral. I climbed the tower on the Cathedral alone, and enjoyed a view of the Rio Fomentosa National Park, which is a vast marshy wetland off the coast.
We walked quickly to the post office so that Cheryl could send a book home, and I could cast my absentee ballot. It was close to the lunch shift, and most of the personnel manning the counters were carefully avoiding taking new customers lest they not be able to leave for lunch on time. The result was an overload on the one woman who was doing all the work, with growing numbers of customers standing around. It took an hour and a half to mail our two modest packages, which cost us a trip to the National Park of Rio Fomentosa and the famous beach of Tavira. We finally rolled out of town about 15:30. Despite our best racing form, we arrived at the Princesa do Gilao guest house in Tavira with barely enough time for Cheryl to run to the old city to take some pictures in the waning afternoon light. Unable to walk at that pace, I stayed behind to admire the pretty town across the limpid river in the sunset.
That night, it rained. The cobblestones were still slippery when we set out for Spain. Cheryl left while I was still loading my bicycle. I thought that I was way behind her, so I raced to catch up. She actually followed me most of the way, but in my haste I never thought to check my rear-view mirror for a bicycle.
Vila San Real Antonio is the last town in the Algarve. It sits on the Guadiana River across from Ayamonte in Spain. It is a pleasant place, with a massive Wednesday market, which attracts vendors and farmers from both countries. The signs to the ferry pointed into the market, but I took a quick right turn to work my way around the blocked quarter. That is when Cheryl lost me. I crossed to Spain by myself, and waited for her on the other side.
Next week, enjoy an exciting about war games at night on my author blog. Then come back here for our adventures in Andalusia.
Smooth roads and tailwinds,