I have always wondered about Portugal. My mother worked there for a time, and as a child she told me stories of beautiful beaches, friendly people, excellent food and sunny, dry weather that did wonders for her curly hair. A cycling trip along Portugal’s coast seemed a good idea for my first visit to this land of perpetually good hair days.
Arriving in the late afternoon, we embarked on a walking tour of Porto, a city in the north of Portugal tucked into the hills along the Duoro River. We passed the Ponte Maria Pia railroad bridge designed by Gustav Eiffel, architect of the famous Eiffel tower and crossed the river into Vila Nova de Gaia, landing happily in a Port cellar where we spent the rest of our first day quaffing white, ruby and tawny ports. Having eaten only a small breakfast croissant 10 hours earlier, I climbed out of the cellar woozily and tried to navigate the cobblestones without tripping. There was no time to consider the state of my curly hair because I was focusing on reducing the slur in my speech as I conversed with my new (but still unfamiliar) group of cyclists.
While walking, I saw Half Rabbit, an excellent street-art creation by Bordallo II, and so when he appeared on the menu at dinner that evening, it seemed the right choice. Over a grilled half-rabbit, I learned more about my friendly bunch of bikers and I met Vinho Verde a fresh, young Portuguese wine that became my close friend for the rest of the trip. I intend to keep in touch with him when I get home because he doesn’t give me headaches like so many of the others do.
For the first few days we cycled flat, empty bike paths along the coast and around the Aveiro lagoon, which made for peaceful, chatty rides.
The colourful towns along the way were also peaceful, in fact, peaceful to the extreme.
Despite summer-like temperatures, the lovely beach-side town of Furadouro, where we spent the second night, had almost shut down; only one small shop and a beach bar remained open.
The electricity in our hotel went out shortly after our arrival but the hotel staff weren’t concerned and so neither were we, as we headed out to explore the town before a scheduled dinner in the hotel. Quickly finding nothing to explore, we wound up in the only open bar and ordered red wine. “Nada” was the reply. We tried ordering several more times in other languages (thinking that it might somehow make a difference). “Nada”, “Nada”. We pointed at red things and said “vinho”. “NADA” (the reply got louder). Defeated, we ordered white wine and waited. Then the lone Scot with us noticed a bottle of Hendrick’s gin sitting on the bar. Suddenly, overcome by a wave of nostalgia and patriotism, our Scottish companion heavily lobbied everyone to switch their order (which was in mid-preparation) to this gin from Scotland. We agreed. Then, just as the glasses were about to be filled with gin and tonic, one of the women with us noticed a Portuguese customer with a glass of red wine. Feeling cheated, she grabbed a nearby Portuguese man sitting at the bar and directed him to speak to the waitress in Portuguese and switch our order (yet again) back to red wine. The waitress, by this time, would not look at or speak to us. She just gave us a stoney glare as she handed us the wine and silently took our money. We arrived back at the hotel a few hours later hungry and hopeful for dinner.
Unfortunately, there was no food because there was still no electricity. The hotel still seemed unconcerned and staff kept themselves busy by lighting dozens of candles. It took a cyclist to point out to them that this was the only building in town without power and that, perhaps, instead of just waiting, they should call someone. Eventually, the electricity was restored but it was 11:30 pm by the time we finished dinner in the hotel restaurant. It was a taste of dinner wrap-up times to come.
Over the next two days we cycled through the charred forests resulting from the recent wildfires in Portugal. It was sad to see the sterile landscapes, and the smell of smoke still hung in the air.
Then, heading over the hills and back to the coast we passed through Costa Nova on our way to Praia de Mira.
With my head in a bike helmet all day and with the evening meal taking up four or five hours, I wasn’t able to properly assess the impact of Portugal’s climate on my hair. In any case, the length of the meal and the quality of my curls didn’t much matter. There was no night-life to speak of in these coastal towns in late October. Instead, my new friend Vinho Verde kept things interesting and the conversation flowing throughout the evening.
Picnic lunches were a highlight of our trip and took considerably less time to consume than our long evening meals.
At one of these picnics I met Pastéis de Nata, a small and sweet, custardy Portuguese tart. We hit it off instantly and she too became a close friend. Now, with Nata and Vinho Verde to consider, I began decreasing my lunch and dinner intake to accommodate them. I think that between the two, I had covered most of the necessary food groups.
The next morning, we stopped for coffee and to visit Nata in Nazaré, one of Portugal’s most famous fishing and surfing villages.
This was the site of the largest wave ever surfed (30 m) and a bizarre statue that pays tribute to both the surfer dude who rode the big wave and a strange old Portuguese legend that involved deer hunting.
A smouldering forest on our route meant a detour by train the following morning to the university town of Coimbra before continuing on to Figueira da Foz.
From there we had a hilly but beautiful ride inland to the pretty walled village of Óbidos where our evening meal finished at, yes, 11:45 pm.
Looking for some nightlife, a small group of us found ourselves on the sidewalk playing a strange game of penny-up-the-bum under the guidance of two crazy Newcastle girls. I won’t bore you with details of the objective of the game or the rules of play but it did seem to me that the good curls I had managed to achieve that evening were a bit wasted on this sidewalk pastime.
Our last day was in Lisbon, a vibrant and busy city where I mixed sightseeing with mad shopping (I was after leather boots). It was a long day but VV and Nata helped see me through.
Here, the cycling ended and we said our goodbyes over another lengthy evening meal. It had been a good trip providing both a quick snapshot of Portugal and some new friends, two of whom I hope to meet again at my next stop, Praia de Luz in the Algarve. As for my curls, I am not sure there is a magic climate solution. I’ll remember to pack my hair straightener next time.