Friday, April 29, 2011

Day 6 - The Short Cut

We woke up in Batalha to the sound of church bells outside our window. The little abbey next door made quite a racket. Tom and I decided it had "little church syndrome" and who wouldn't with The Cathedral across the way.

We were the first in The Cathedral that morning, pleasantly surprised to have it nearly to ourselves and with free entry since it was Revolution Day. I do not have words that can describe our experience adequately. Awe inspiring grand spaces. Stone ceilings so high they seemed impossible. Does gravity not have the same effect in these places? Brilliant stained glass casting bright butterflies and stripes of light on the walls and the floor. Stone carvings so delicate, how did the stone not fracture? All of this done with technology that is more than 500 years old!

Try to imagine what life would be like to live as a worker during the construction. You'd be born into your job and die before it's completion.

We left Batalha to head to the mountains. On the way, stopping at a Roman ruins site. Awe inspiring in a different way. Walking on stones, worn deep by people who walked there as many as 2000 years ago. Coming from North America, it's hard to grasp.

We decided to stick to larger roads to get to our fancy hotel in the mountains sooner rather than later. This is not really in keeping with our road trip style, we usually much prefer to get off the beaten path. As we got closer to the mountains, l asked Tom if he'd like to take a "short cut". He looked at me skeptically and asked if I was sure I could navigate us through it, especially given our somewhat serpentine route the day previous. I was confident, so off the beaten path we went.

Now, before I go further I feel a need to defend my decision. Everyone told me that there are no real mountains in Portugal and the roads on the map looked pretty straight. Well, l am here to say that there are serious mountains in Portugal, they may not be tall but they are really steep and the roads look straight on the map because they wind so tightly it would be impossible to map it. Instead they just draw a line in the right general direction. Add this to the fact that there are a million little towns to get turned around in, built in impossible ravines with seriously inadequate signage and you have a recipe for disaster.

I will save you the gory details but in summary:
An extra 2.5 hours traveling time
Roads with grades up to 16%
25% of these roads single lane
Traveling speeds often as low as 25km/hr
1 goat herder complete with herd in the road
Sheer drop offs with no guard rail
The most beautiful villages I have ever seen

We arrived at the fancy H2otel later than planned but much richer for the journey.


The magical day

Some days when left unplanned can lead to beautiful coincidences and elegant discovery. This was day 5 in Portugal.

Tom and I had loosely planned to head to two towns that had very old architecture but we left it all open for interpretation and changes on the fly. We started out properly by sleeping in for 2 extra hours to recover from the ride the previous day. In Portugal that means you miss breakfast. So off we went weaving our way out of Lisbon. Cafes are plenty and we found pastries and coffee without trouble.

Our first stop was Tomar, to see a 500 plus year old monastery. Unfortunately, we couldn't go in as it was Easter Sunday. But we had a great look around the outside and snacked on lunch while sitting on an ancient cobblestone road. By road I mean something akin to a sidewalk just wide enough for a horse and carriage.

With some time to absorb the atmosphere, we headed into the town square where we watched children feed and chase the pigeons. It was a perfect afternoon, warm, interesting light created by the high cumulus clouds and happy portuguese taking advantage of their holiday time. Just as we were readying to leave, we heard music. Bagpipes? Really? Yes, bagpipes, drums and a sax, played by men in striped costumes, with face paint. One of them on stilts. It was great. My cheeks hurt I was smiling so broadly.

We left Tomar to head for Batalha to see what promised to be an amazing gothic cathedral. Excited to be on our way, we left Tomar without ensuring that we were on the right road, both of us trusting that we were headed in the right general direction. Wrong, we ended up too far north, had to triangulate our way back to the right road, getting caught again in small towns with narrow one way "you can't get there from here" evil alleys. Finally back on track (our mistake only cost us an hour really) we headed into town.

The cathedral was not hard to find. It's spiked pinnacles visable from all over town. We found a quaint Residecial close by, dropped off our things and scurried over to the cathedral to catch it in the quickly fading afternoon light. Not only where the light angles perfect, a double rainbow appeared. Right over the cathedral. We have the photo to prove it.

Had we not gotten turned around on our way to Batalha, we would have missed it I'm sure. Our photos would have looked like every other tourists and we wouldn't have believed it if we hadn't seen the rainbow ourselves.

We ate at a nearby restaurant and when we left, the square was dark but the cathedral was gently lit up making it loom eerily in the late twilight.

It was a day full of serendipity and joy.


Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Riding near Lisbon

Time to get caught up on my blog while I sip on a fabulous port in a hotel that we really shouldn't be in. Luxury doesn't quite
describe it. But more about that later. I am trying to keep this chronological.

So let's go back 3 days to our last adventures near Lisbon. I briefly mentioned a ride Tom and I did with friends José and Rui. My description did not do the ride justice. We started out in a small, typical Portuguese village south of Lisbon. We found our friends by following the GPS coordinates José gave us. After two attempts to head south on a bridge from the city (which looks an awful lot like the Golden Gate bridge by they way) we finally managed the task only to get trapped in small cobblestone alleys in the village of our destination. Many villages, well cities too really, have a bad case of "you can't get there from here". We arrived at the appointed meeting area slightly late but ready to ride.

The rest of the day was full of fantastic double track dirt roads, single track through mud and a little pavement to get us to the next village and cafe. We started out in fall weather, drizzle and mist that turned into a full on downpour, at which time we took shelter in a village cafe. We sampled pastries of the area and sipped coffee while trying not to get mud on the white marble tile.

When the rain slowed we continued on our way. Eventually the sun came out and we were treated to beautiful views of the ocean, followed by riding through wine growing areas and cork trees. Mixed in was another fantastic degree stop. The pastries here are amazing!

All tolled, we rode close to 60 km (36 or so miles), 5 hours plus including our time in the cafes. A great prep day for Tom, I was trashed. Big thanks to Rui for loaning me a hard tail, titanium mountain bike (light!!) that was great for this ride. And huge thanks to José Carlos, who led the way, directed us to a room for the night and led us to a fanastic restaurant to help us replenish.

A great day by any standards.


Saturday, April 23, 2011

The first few days in Portugal

We arrived in Portugal late afternoon on Wednesday. I have to say that flying business class over the Atlantic is the way to go. Champagne before you even sit down, good food and our "pods" allowed us to stretch out completely and sleep for at least 5 hours. Great, except for my "Black Swan" dreams!

Our first night was spent on the coast at a hotel we chose in large part for it's oceanside 100m plus pool. Unfortunately, it was closed for repairs. But I did swim and play in the ocean waves. There is nothing like ocean water to cleanse you soul.

The next day was spent exploring areas around Lisbon. We explored food and art, including amazing works related to maps. Then we got tangled in the craziest traffic ever in Lisbon, trying to park and meet a friend for dinner. We finally found under ground parking, waited in a central square where it rained profusely, watched an insane running race begin from the square and head off into the insane traffic, (I was sure they would all die, but amazingly all the cars made way for the runners). This was just the beginnings of an amazing evening of real Portuguese culture.

The rest of the evening was spent with Patricia, a good we met at Trans Portugal the last time we were here. She and here boyfriend took us to a very authentic restaurant where the waiters were surly, the customers smoking but the good fresh and fantastic. It was a great, fun evening. Then we wandered through historical Lisbon at night over small, wet, square cobblestones. I have no idea how Portuguese women do it in heels.

Yesterday we got up, surfed then walked, through lush forest to fantasy palace in the mist.

Today was another ideal day. Mountain biking south of Lisbon with plenty of stops for coffee, rain storms, wild roses and sunshine. All thanks to Jose Carlos and Rui.

Tonight it was a meal of grilled pork for Tom and cod for me. Time for sleep.