Europe 2015: Cycling From Porto, Portugal, to Salamanca, Spain
Well, Porto's been about all I'd hoped it to be, a fine combination of culture and epicurean delights. While not necessarily itching to leave it, I'm nevertheless looking forward to what comes ahead. So it's back to the bike... and also back to that great unknown: where my head will lie tonight. Before that's to be on the agenda, though, I decide on giving Porto one last curling survey before exiting. I thus first roll west instead of east, making a beeline toward the Atlantic along the broad avenue Boa Vista - one of the arterial ciclovias in town, it's primarily so (I imagine) because it heads straight to the main beach area (after starting at the grand plaza where the signature Casa de Música's cube sits). In no time this shockingly level boulevard ushers me to the big waters, where I pause to take in yet another seemingly impregnable fortress. Yes, I imagine there's got to be a difference between the typical old Spanish fort and its Portuguese counterpart, but if there is I'm not seeing it. Still, it's something to admire ins stately, if forbidding, way, or so I think as I'm soon sweeping my way now south along the long beach drive. It's got its own ciclovia to roam over, even as this one shortly force-turns itself at the mouth of the River Douro ("Dohrooh"). Time to head east. Inland.
So that's officially it for my Atlantic run to the north. I'm now to only be all about heading east, following this grand river of portly domain practically to its source - I think. All I truly know is that it's in or near Spain somewhere beyond on the horizon, but that's good enough. To the present, meanwhile, my bike is back to bumping over a sea of cobblestone. Such a thing naturally comes, of course, with reengaging the lower, older district of Porto's port, where tourists pile up in heaps, splatter-spraying themselves willynilly among all the outdoor cafes and port tasting rooms. I'm having none of that now, however, forthrightly passing by the low, antique bridge I came in on. I next chug through some mixed construction on a ciclovia/road that'll likely rejuvenate an area of tumbledown dwellings that are skewered onto the cliffs of the river's north side. I'm guessing that as soon the construction ends the gentrification will begin in earnest, no doubt, but right now this area's the very picture of a seedy port - if one with loads of colorful character. In other words, the locals will likely be saying goodbye to their ramshackle homes very, very soon.
As I soon increase the rate of my zipping along, moving on and out of town, I spy a couple of cycle tourists who seem to be arriving, but none of us seem to be in the mood for making the typical stop for conversation. Certainly it's not worth it with all the mayhem of traffic, tourism, and construction, but perhaps mainly we're sticking to the rule that such things aren't done in the city. Just... not... done. Instead I opt to focus on what's already feeling to be the makings of a miracle at my back: a tailwind! Unbelievable! So, now encouraged by this gentle push to give me heart and hope of what's to come, I next keep my eyes posted for any signs indicating the main route I'll be following. That'd be N108, I remind myself, as I roll past one stately home after another found alongside the water. Of course I'm not the only person with such riverside longings, and that's made abundantly clear as I repeatedly take in the large touring riverboats also going up or down the river. Each is stocked with hordes of folks, seemingly to a one sticking their cameras over the side to record - no doubt - this heroic cyclist heading inland. Or possibly the cliffs with the ornate homes by said intrepid being. Nah, just the cyclist!
Then again, maybe it's the other cyclists. Within the first 20-30km of Porto, I'm passing or am passed by no shortage of locals out for their daily, weekly, or annual ride. Seeing my whale on wheels, a number give a thumbs up and blurt out "Fuerza!" as I smile back, happy for the company which I'm aware will all too shortly disappear. And they do, although I'm nevertheless gleeful in leaving then behind when I spot a certain late lunch special, one being conspicuously prepared in a cooker outside of a roadside restaurant: leitáo! I'm immediately thinking "So much for the ride!", naturally, finally able to place a belated (and thus emphatic) check in the leitáo checkbox for my grand tour. That it's one hell of a pork meal within a sea of flavored rice is a bonus, all the more certain to see me lazily waddling back out to my bike an hour later. Yes, I suppose I should recommence the task at hand, albeit now fortified in spirit and ballast in equal measure. B-urp.
Perhaps on the subject of ballast, if not spirit, one thing I'm quickly learning is that this river route isn't exactly flat. While there was plenty of that aspect for my Atlantic run, often into headwinds, granted, here it's only increasingly hill and dale terrain. And, since I'm heading inland, it's overall notably uphill. Luckily I don't really mind, though, now that my body's reasonably conditioned. Plus, as I plug away on each rise, I can remind myself that there's always a downhill to come afterward - even if not necessarily quite as long as the uphill on average.
I don't worry about the few police speedtraps I pass, either, waving to some (what I assume to be bored) cops as they wave back and look for more plausible victims. Nope, they're not a concern, but what definitely is, and more than anything else, is the heat. Dry, hot-hotty heat. My mouth parches repeatedly, ignoring the water I'm consuming. Again I remind myself that I really need to attend to this dehydration thang much more seriously, like starting now, and not just by upping my water intake. That's only serving to flush out my last precious bits of salt, a copious amount of which invariably sweat-dribbles to the corners of my mouth to notify me in a more-than-tacit fashion of what's going down. So, with an eye to this - and after a huge and scenic drop to approach a river crossing, at Port Manso, I attend to just the thing with yet another stop...
...where I run into one of those uncomfortable situations that could or could not be promising. This comes in the form of the only one other patron at the cafebar I've chosen, primarily on account of its appealing overlook of the river and the white bridge that spans it to head onward to Resende. Said co-patron really, REALLY wants to engage in conversation with me - and this is to be held, apparently, in almost indecipherable English and Spanish. The problem is that he's also tanked, and it makes for some tough dodging on my part to avoid his many offers of hosting me at his place further along the way. No thanks.
Why don't I want to drink anything more substantial than juice after juice, he wonders? Uh... cuz I don't want to be drunk in the early afternoon as I ride, perhaps? And so begins a litany of questions, the first one already long after I've already logically decided to not inform him of the stern vows taken when I started the ride: namely, to never become a Portuguese version of the gimp from Pulp Fiction. So I'm only too happy to eventually escape further communication when the bar owner recognizes my plight, using this noonday drunk to help move her disabled adult child to another spot in the cafe. I slide out in this interim, slinking back to the road to cross the bridge and hang an immediate left - to head down the opposite road I've told him I thought I might take. Aren't I slick? Then, when he passes me less than an hour later in his truck, I don't feel particularly so smart after all. Thankfully, a potentially thrilling re-meeting of minds doesn't come to pass, however, so I'm left with hoping that this slobbering fool behind the wheel doesn't take out a child or a squirrel as he makes his way home to his dungeon. I mean house.
Some twenty-ish kilometers later, meanwhile, I realize that the day is getting late, after I do a large climb, drop, and climb toward Resende while unilaterally discovering that none of the tiny stores along the way I've been hoping to snag a chorizo (or any other grub, for that matter) from is open or even actually exists. The locals I stop to question each time guess that - maybe - up ahead there's one open, but that doesn't transpire. So I resign myself from those dreams and instead my thoughts turn to commando camping. Where, oh where, I think as I scan all the possibilities of driveways and paths to each side of me, unknown potential campsites each. Eventually it's a bucolic cherry orchard that wins the prize of my special stink, although whether that is or isn't on account of the semi-decrepit processing plant adjacent to it I have no clue. Certainly my chosen sleep venue at least in part explains the buttloads of cherries I've been seeing in the road (if not the oranges), but I'm mostly hoping that there're no cousins to the half dozen snakes I've seen live or dead on the road as well.
More importantly, I've got a spot nicely out of sight of the road, albeit one I find is rather uncomfortably slanted for my tent to sit on. But I'm not going to complain about that, and I'm definitely not going to do so after things get so beautifully quiet that my stunning view of the river and more orchards across the way is nothing less than sublime. There's even an irrigation spigot on this property, I notice, instantly excited with the discovery to jump to the business of lathering up my head a bit with soap in keen desire to de-slime at least SOMEthing. I scrub away, humming a tune inwardly if not for all the neighboring country to hear. However, at about the time when I've fully lathered... and this glorious water supply is now dribbling away to nothing... this newfound and unbridled joy has a way of disappearing. Which, in its way, substantially proves that it's a good thing I've been diligently refilling my bottles. That remedy happily effected, there'll nevertheless be nothing to offset the sweat I break into overnight when the heat refuses to relent much even in the absence of sun. Then again, it's not like I wasn't told to expect heat and then more heat on this route, and, well whattayaknow? Everyone was right.
It's to even more stifling heat that I awake, then, quickly packing up my gear to next push my resistant bike up through the orchard's dastardly deep and loose dirt. Regaining the road already with a mild sweat to start the morning, I can at least take solace in realizing that I'm now on the slightly shadier south side of the road after having crossed the river at Manso. Then again, I'll soon find that, even so, the shadows are still hard to come by for most of the day with the sun so high. Sigh.
In any event, cherry trees now begin to turn to grapevines, so I decide to grab some cherries while the getting's still good and stop to get some from one of the women who've set up ad hoc sales stands at the side of the road. Only asking for a fistful, for once belying my usual "throw it onboard!" style, my chosen vendor smiles - and promptly ignores me, loading my bag with more and more. "No, no!" I exclaim, "El peso!", I explain, practically breaking into a cry as she gives not a thought to stopping her rhythm of hand to bag. But she's pretty insistent and it's already too late, it seems, as she hands the bag over and puts her hands on her hips to smile broadly. Then, just as stubbornly, she next refuses to take my money, or so her vigorous head shakes assure me, so... all I can do is thank her - and realize that it looks like I'll be eatin' some cherries for a while, and how.
Up ahead, at a small cherry processing operation at the side of the road, I'm once again begging for some water from the locals - when an Australian pair cycling in the other direction pulls up. They've just bought some cherries!, they happily tell me, as I nonetheless wonder if they'll escape my benefactor of pitted deep red bounty just down the road. We take the dual tasks at hand, of course, chomping on cherries to spit pits while exchanging stories as we must. I learn that these two have been doing a weird loop of Northern Spain, now Northern Portugal, and will be heading on to Porto before curling back to Galicia. Not a bad idea, I admit. Stay where the getting's good! From their specific route I don't get much useful information for my own, no, but we have a good gab as I reminisce about my time in their region of Australia, Victoria. Then, we eventually say after this long and relaxed conversation, it looks like we've all got some riding - and cherry eating - to do, so off we go.
Up ahead I'm soon rolling into port country proper, with various houses of port displaying their names boldly on warehouses or roofs across the valley. Evidently all the mountains in this region are being wholly turned over to grape production and I know by now that, if it's a Portuguese port, it's grown and made right here - and only here. The few dams I spy on the river, meanwhile, give all the proof necessary that this liquid product no longer can make its way down to Porto on those classic boats seen idling back in that city's riverine core. Still, I'm guessing that probably not too much else has changed in the art of making fortified wine, and soon enough I've neared the heart of it all, approaching Peso da Regua's three bridges while harboring anticipation of a great lunch. In so doing, I *also* hope to fix my bike's recent and annoying problem of not allowing access to the smallest of the three rings up front. Not having a granny gear on some of the recent hills has made for oversized chunks of stand-up pumping, fortunately within reason, but I'd just as soon not have the requirement.
As for Peso da Regua, there's not a whole lot to this center of port production, or there anyways isn't much beyond the main drag found along the waterfront, a host of flashy restaurants for visitors. Not appealing. I soon discover an older, more historically authentic street a few blocks back, however, obviously the main drag until the industry grew up to encourage tourism. It's about the only area I see with mildly interesting architecture, and perhaps it's for that alone that I head there for a meal, soon finding a busy spot with what appears to be locals inside. Just about every table is full, and as I enter more than a few eyes take me in given my (perhaps ridiculous-seeming) cycling garb. But no tomatoes or empty port bottles are thrown my way, so I can attend to the vastly more important reality of reveling in the A/C that is here beyond glorious, a more than proper retreat from the heat blast outside. The stuffed veal and veggie platter the owner recommends, and I heartily accept as sage advice, more than completes the trick, too, as I stay for desert and coffee and the place completely vacates by the time I through taking this proper repast. I end up talking for a while with the owner in English about what to expect ahead, plus where I might possibly find a bike shop, before finally taking my leave to brave the heat wave beyond the restaurant's door again.
Outside and rolling through town again, I unfortunately can't find any bike shop where I've been told to go - plus it seems that no one else is able to direct me to one, either. So... sigh. Well, time to make some lemonade, as they say. Thus, in lieu of such repairs, I do the most sensible thing: I further load up on port, adding to my growing pile of small bottles - although now belatedly vowing to up my intake, if only for bike balance in place of bike ballast. Priorities.
A bit heavier for the stop all around, then, I cross back to the south side of the river Douro. Hanging an immediate left, I now set out on a straight 10km stretch of glorious flatness toward Pinhão... to shortly again decide on a break from the heat, after only a few kilometers into it (and in spite of a phenomenal tailwind). Maybe it's the sign suggesting a wine shop in a lonely village that does it, or the promise of more A/C and water? Actually, it's all of the above, and I'm especially content to do the requisite short port tasting to come while gulping some cold water and then adding yet another bottle to the trove. The bored saleswoman is happy to talk with someone in her vacant shop, and in the bargain she affords me a rather precise lay of the land and the roads which I'll be following next. So off I go again, now with just a little more info in the noggin - perhaps for a first time.
But this new educated bliss doesn't last long, either. As I approach the lone turnoff, to continue along or head toward points away from the river, I decide to make a couple of sudden - hardly rash, I don't think - decisions. 1: To hell with Pinhão ahead on the river, which the wine saleswoman has informed me is something of a minor tourist trap. 2: Am I, or am I not, right in front of the vineyards of the most famous of the port houses of all, Sandeman's? And isn't that a tasting room way up there above me? Indeed I am, and indeed it is, although I'll next pay a dear price to access said Valhalla in suffering through the mere couple of kilometers it takes to access it. All this is due to an unrelenting winding and cobblestone road, one with not one iota of shade in blistering heat. The port gods spit upon me, surely.
Moreover, by the time I get to the top, approaching a visitor's entrance where there's not a remaining visiting car to be had, I worry that all is for naught. No! No? No. Thankfully my oasis mirage is actually reality, which means that I both get a brilliant port tasting with an amazing view... while downing buckets of water to replace the river of the same I've just shed on the way up the hill. Chatting well past closing time, I eventually finish up with the liquor portion of my liquid gobbling to be offered a job, this offhandedly offered mainly since I can speak German and the girl on staff trying to learn it has a long way to go. Given the circumstances, I actually consider this seriously - or with the proper amount of delusion that dehydration affords. Well, it's good to have a backup plan, I'm thinking, but I also realize that they have yet to see the wet mess I've made in the restroom in trying to freshen up with cold wet paper towel after cold wet paper towel. That ought to rescind any offer on slob points alone (and I tried, I did!)
Meanwhile it's still about 110F/40C out there, with not even the concept of a cloud in the sky, as I realize that day's made its way to 5 or 6 p.m.! Time to go, in other words, and I again find myself back in the day's remnant furnace. Taking the turnoff after all, I now climb and climb into an increasingly unpopulated area - which is saying something, since this comes after starting from a rating of "sparse". The vineyards I've enjoyed of a day begin to turn into a thing of the past, now by and large leaving the agricultural area as I gain altitude to, with glacial speed, begin to put the town of São João de Pesquiera (SJdP) in my sights. Well, not physically: After a mere 5-7 km of climbing I'm already practically hallucinating under the heat, so once again I'm suddenly deciding that I've had it.
The good news is that I make my epic choice when I believe I've more or less topped out the climbing, this enhanced greatly by spying what looks to be an abandoned house under another vineyard. I take a quick peekabout for any cars - there have been almost none since taking the turnoff - before walking the bike up into the grove, immediately setting up my camp just above the road and out of sight. By now my skin's sticking to everything I'm wearing, per the usual biking standard, so I find myself praising the heavens when I spy a few full water barrels located just outside the house. There'll be no spigot to abandon me mid-lather this time!, I crow, next in a flash peeling off my plastic wrapper to strip naked and splash-bathe myself in joyous abandon (or a facsimile thereof - just roll with it, I had a moment!). Indeed, so ecstatic am I to be in something resembling cleanliness, moreover here in an arid clime to allow for speed-drying by simply being au naturel, I decide against any more stinkin' (literally, figuratively) clothes until morning. Yeah, THIS time I'm properly anticipating another hot, if cloudless, night, all alone with nature high up in the hills, caveman-style. Life's good. Yer goddam right it is.
It's so good, in fact, that when I get up at 6 a.m. I actually don't just roll over as I usually would. Instead, I'm up and at 'em with rare morning oomph. In the early morning's lesser heat I blast out the rest of my climb to SJdP, arriving in what for the moment is still a rather dead town waiting for the day to begin. I eventually find some life, however, in a bustling flea market I walk through alongside my bike on one end of town, but mundane housewares in lieu of artisanal stuff is hardly the kind of stuff to get excited about. So I retreat for a lonely coffee in a deserted church plaza, only eventually emerging from this pedestrian zone to reencounter the town's now suddenly-crowded main drag. Which brings me to consider: Is today Sunday? Funny how the days of the week disappear on vacations, which I might as well sit down for another coffee to consider for a moment... especially when I locate a positively bustling cafe, where I consume the best bacalão I've had in all of Portugal. It's sure tempting to hang out here and people-watch all morning...
But I sure as hell better not, not when rumors are of an even-worse heatball of 45C (115F?) to come on the day's time horizon. A saving grace is that the riding is finally easier for a good while now, as I virtually fly toward Vila Nova de Foz Coa (VNdFC). And "flying" is the proper operative word, too, since flies quickly gather about me any time I slow down and the wind cuts out. Meanwhile, even with this lightest of traffic to bear, I still here in the boonies note that Portuguese drivers are positively awful, with those in official capacities (like ambulances, of all things) the worst. Fortunately, out here there's plenty of space to careen around me whese solitary vehicles approach me like a bats fleeing their personal hells. So I remain generally more concerned with the steady climb ahead, plus the ridiculous amounts of sweat rolling down my face and sides so freely.
Some kilometers outside of SJdP, I finally near what appears to be the area's local topping-out of sorts, a short flat stretch in some truly abandoned and now-blistering country. Here, oddly enough, is where I'm surprised to find a couple of men crushing the few small trees found living here with their harsh machinery - I suppose another vineyard is on the way - as I otherwise marvel at an old, vacant house of slate rock that's logically - if belatedly - crumbling away in response to such harsh land. Well, that explains that, I guess, the land now ultimately being laid to similar waste to properly accompany the ghost villa. I leave this bleak and destructive scene behind, then, next ready to begin taking on what turns out to be an absolutely monstrous downhill. Even so, it all too suddenly ends, a victim of the speed it necessarily allows, while nevertheless getting me to the halfway point between SJdP and VNdFC. The road bottoms out at a river, just below the quaint town of Vale de something, and it's only here that I clearly can recall the guy at Sandeman's saying that the road between SJdP and VNdFC should be relatively flat. Which reminds me: Never trust a non-cyclist for topographic info! But shouldn't I have already known that?
At Vale de Mysteryville, meanwhile, I bump into the cycle touring Kiwi couple of Baden and Shelley, here stopping in the opposite direction than I'm on while on one of several consecutive bike tours they're making. They're en route for an eventual return home, after spending a couple of years in Jolly Old England, and doing so in style (in my book, anyway). We stand gabbing outside a lonely roadhouse, as the wind whips us with its heat (we can merely wait for the apocalyptical succession of tumbleweeds to blow by), each of us alternately going inside the building to refill the water we're emptying our mouths of by jabbering away in this forsaken valley's heatblast. We exchange useful news (for once), doing each others' routes in reverse, and from these two I learn that warmshowers.org will be a lot more helpful in more northern European countries. Apparently, where beds cost more, and such tender mercies of free lodging are appreciated thus the more as well, supply meets demand. Makes sense, I guess.
As for the topography to come, well, Baden doesn't describe it any more accurately than the guy at Sandeman's: His description of "flat, with a bit of down, I think" is actually another good climb to come, naturally followed by such a harrowing descent that I wonder if my brakes'll give out - which they evidently don't, since here I am typing instead of looking like drying cans of spilt crushed tomatoes somewhere on a road in NE Portugal. As for the spare handful of anti-dehydration tablets they give me to add to my water? Priceless. I'll take all the help I can get in this stoked furnace. And so ends our fruitful exchange, as we each somewhat hesitantly decide it's time to retake our roads less traveled again. Cheers!
Said downhill, which follows the ensuing climb just mentioned, ends almost abruptly, and exactly at a roundabout located a couple of kilometers outside of Vila Nova de Foz Coa. Here my decision-making process is forced a bit de facto going forward, precisely right after I spy yet again a sign saying "NO BIKES" (or carts, horses, tractors) for the road I've been thinking should be mine for taking. Nope. Worse, here in the sticks of the sticks there are few if any choices for detours. So it looks like I'll be taking a back way to Spain after all - but not after first stopping to rest at VNdFC. When things go wrong, holing up isn't a bad option.
Thus with a slightly down heart - which'd be unquestionably shriveled to a nut if exposed to this ghastly amount of baking sun - I leave the roundabout behind. I climb the 2km necessary into town, eventually finding the hostel B&S have recommended on the other end of it although, by the time I arrive at the front desk, I'm past the mere point of heavily dripping sweat. It's actually necessary to hold on to the counter for dear life to not keel over, I'm starting to feel so dizzy. TYes, this is the face of dehydration, I'm thinking, what with the room starting to spin and my emergency response coming in the form of scanning the hard floor surface about me for where my skull might shortly be doing some bouncing - or cracking. The man working the desk is a champ, however, quickly finding me cold water and pointing the way to the showers. In my current state, I view the latter as just another place where I can open my mouth and water will hopefully fall inside. The upshot of all this is that I might need to stay here for more than just the night, if sheerly only for my massive need to rehydrate.
It's in this brief respite in VNdFC, meanwhile, that I decide a bit more formally on what this trip will be taking the form of. For starters, I'll be terminating this segment of joyriding in Salamanca. No crossing the heated plains of Spain for me, thank you very much. As for this cultural landmark and major university city to come, Salamanca, quite fortunately I've long wanted to go there and here it's not so far away. CHECK! Furthermore, a quick scan of the 'net apprises me of the fact that from Salamanca I'll be able to put my bike on the train with me to Madrid. In the capital city I'll have a friend I can bother to further figure things out, with the doubly convenient fact that it's also a good hub for flights. From there I'll determine what needs be brought to the discussion in dealing with my Schengen visa situation. Whew! Well, it IS definitely comforting to sort of have a plan.
For the present, though, I've got a day off in slightly weird VNdFC, a town truly in the middle of nowhere and currently mostly notable for being ground zero in the halting of some local dam construction. This unexpected change of plans occurred when some of the most remarkable and extensive petroglyphs in the world were found to be located in the upcoming dam's soon-to-be-flooded reservoir-to-be area, neither of which would be allowed to pass after such a monumental discovery. Other than that, though, I'll otherwise rather briefly learn that it hosts not much more than a small historic area (not devoid of charm, not loaded with it, either), a surprisingly decent info center and, importantly for me, a decent bike shop - where I immediately go, but only after first dispatching with some local grub with wine. At the shop I make a very new best friend, Texheira, a prince among the undammed who's more than a little helpful but mostly kind, adjusting my bike's cables for free. He's also knowledgeable about the few bike routes in the area, the many various Camino routes up north, and is generally more than a bit glad to help out a cyclist in need not from the area. Bravo, Texheira! And hello, granny gear! I've missed ya!
With good news now accumulating, I decide to go ahead and do a most unusual activity for me of late: I'm gonna check out the local main attraction. That'd be the museum related to the aforementioned caveman stuff, easily the most notable thing about this town even if the subject is not one typically of much interest to me. I wander toward it on my out of town, thus, soon getting a ride from a postman making his rounds at roughly 200kph on the backroads. I don't exactly tuck-and-roll when I exit his vehicle a short while later, no, but I do find myself walking rather dizzily into the monolith that is the museum. As for the contents of this surprisingly modern behemoth of stone, well, it's actually quite well done for what it is, jamming oodles of prehistoric history along with comparisons to other such finds in the world and all that, but... but what I'm most happy about is bumping into the now-enlarged group of eco students I met back in my Porto hostel. These goofballs I spot loafing around outside, via one of the only (slit) windows in the museum. They're photographing bugs of all things, eventually waving and clowning around for me when they notice me from the outside a ways above them. We next waste a good chunk of time in the museum's cafeteria yapping, doing so until they have to go back to their remote location for forestry study and I of course have to have yet another cup of coffee. Or is it wine-o-clock yet?
Well, this day-plus proves certainly more than enough for VNdFC, yet to show for its brief spell I DO have clean clothes for once, this thanks to some handy buckets at the hostel and the fastest drying rack this side of the Mojave Desert called the sun in its cups of heat. I say goodbye, then, to the desk staff which has saved me with their handy supply of water, then bid adieu the two elderly Aussie cycle tourers who showed up late in the night (albeit after obviously questioning between them whether to accept contact with me or not, a dreaded American). I also wave to the small horde of Camino walkers that have mysteriously accumulated, also leaving in this early morning hour, all in their matching dayglow outfits. Sure, I pity their walking under the pitiless heat to come for the day, but it's not like I don't have my own 100+ kilometers (I think!) to churn away myself.
This time - FOR ONCE! - I just plan on doing most of it under cooler skies. Thus it is by 7 a.m. already that I've zipped down and out of town, quickly achieving the initial several kilometers necessary to reach the river Coa. Here I'm near the main petroglyphs, which I can't see nor really care to, all out there lying somewhere just under the museum I spy wa-a-a-ay up there on the hill, but I've got other things on my mind. I pause to intake my first gulps of water for the day, then the climbing begins in earnest for some 6-8 kilometers. For once, however, I enjoy the caveat of being hydrated - so who cares about a stupid hill?
All I really care about is the fact that this uphill is significantly easier and shorter than the Aussies (who had come in this way) predicted it would be. So I'm surprised to suddenly find myself loping along a mesa with not a care in the world, exuberantly waving hi to the loneliest shepherd to also inhabit this brave new world of cooler temperatures, who waves back with a smile. And it's on top of this awesome world that I can admire almost anything, starting with the ancient, circular granary buildings I spy in this absolute nowheresville. They soon sprout up in number, as spartan and wild terrain eventually gives way to almond groves (or it does when not otherwise offering up profuse scatterings of goat or sheep turds - but no smell, no foul, I say!).
Granted, the heat again steadily and unavoidably builds for the day, as morning advances toward noon and I roll past the castelo (castle) Melhor's earthenworks and enter the startlingly quaint town of Almendra (which means "almond", not surprisingly). Talk about quiet. And old, too, by the look of some surprisingly impressive buildings in such a humble (and I would assume generally forgotten) town. It's in these moments when you truly have a place to yourself that cycle touring really comes into its own in offering grand perspectives, history abounding in the silences.
I nevertheless stay with my mission at hand, continuing an onslaught of kilometers that takes me next into Figuiera de Castelo Rodrigo, where I have to cross through some hundreds of goats at a roundabout to enable my grand entry. The shepherdess in charge of this wayward flock violently barks orders to her misbehaving troops a number of times, then suddenly turns to me with the sweetest of smiles in returning my "Good day!" in passing. A starker context switch can't be had, believe me.
Again I slow things down to properly admire this town's offerings that come in the form of a number of ancient buildings in its historic center. Each are worth an eyeball, to be sure, but they lack the more important detail of a handy cafe lying in the their midst. So I next find myself having to succumb to the demands of joe withdrawal by finding such an establishment in the all-too-shiny-and-new main square beyond. There I endure a rambling conversation with a man who suffers an enormous stutter, but it's actually the banalities of his chitchat that far more annoy me in not being able to read my book. One never wants to be a grump, so I do my reasonable best to humor the man, but it's nevertheless a fact that there's an undeniable downside to travel found in the repetition of questions and answers to origin and purpose. It's unfortunately an almost necessary ritual, granted, but what makes it especially burdensome is that it's only in a smallest minority of cases that it is realized into a friendship or an interesting experience.
Such, fortunately, is less the case when I next stop in Almeida, a walled fortress town of Napoleonic fame which admittedly I've never heard mention of until I run right into it. (Its main claim is due to its border location near/on a main road between Portugal and Spain.) Sure, it's kind of weird to here see mannequins in French uniform here of all places, but hey, cycle touring can be educational beyond finding new ways to stuff a belly. Because of the massive fortress here and the towns brushes with history of a few hundred years (if not thousand, as the Romans and Moors had their moments in the area, too), here I again see mild scatterings of tourist activity. These grow over the early afternoon as my stop becomes more pronounced.
All this activity I get to notice because, handsome breastworks of stone defenses aside, I find an awfully pleasant cafe to drain some wine away and pick my way through bacalão, ceviche-style. This succeeds my walking the bike through the town's narrow, older area, highlighted when I self-arrest my stroll to admire an artistic display of umbrellas hanging in a long passageway. Evidently I've fortuitously stumbled onto a local festival day, the Festa de Chapeú. Seriously: lucky me! (This, by the way, also helpfully explains the sudden arrival of some tour buses, each only bearing elderly passengers.)
Indeed I *am* in for a spell of good luck, and this starts by first hanging out for a good while at this cafe called Talmeyda with cafe owner Nuno, a transplant from Porto making a go of it here. We cover politics & history, I play some trumpet, and then some of his pals come by to round out our numbers a bit in evincing some pride in all things Portuguese. I'm sold already, of course, and that's not just the wine talking. But it *might* later be some homemade liquors that chat a bit, a few of which I try when passing through the festival area after finally getting up from holding court so long at the cafe. And what's not to talk about? Live music, local artisanal foods, what good luck indeed!
Still, the my thinking hasn't wavered on my big push for the day; it's just been delayed for unforeseeable circumstances of the right kind. But sometimes you just have the ride in you, long pitstops notwithstanding, and the itch is there to continue. So, now back to riding - albeit with a slight buzz for a short spell - I blast forward under some first gathering clouds in a good number days. Before long, I arrive at Vilar Formoso - and the border with Spain. Yeah! (Am I still buzzed?) What I am, unquestionably, is a bit elated at this august moment, reveling a bit from that feeling of accomplishment that comes unheeded when crossing a national border, I guess. That these border towns are absolutely nothing to speak of whatsoever, certainly not after my previous passings-through of Almendra, Figuiera, and Almeida, is no matter.
There is, however, a dazzlingly-modern welcome center, an outlier to this otherwise drab meeting of nations that I figure I might as well check out as it shuts down. It used to be the customs building, I'm told, this info given by the docent who's happy to stay late and field questions from sweatboy cycleman. I'm warned that it's not quite fully functional yet as a spanking-new interpretive center, but perhaps I'm the first person who's getting the full treatment on the cusp of its "going live". I don't exactly feel the significance, to be fair, but I do enjoy the conversation and accompanying practical information greatly, walking out with a number of brochures for my effort before taking the obligatory picture outside of a sign denoting the change of countries.
Alongside the road, a group of Spaniards standing next to their cars nearby make a point of saying welcome, having drinks and I'm certain sausage and cheese out of the trunk of their car, before letting me know that they actually think I'm a bit nuts to enter Spain on bike. Querying them about the road ahead, meanwhile, no one amongst them can quite agree on exactly how flat the road will be, but the consensus is that it'll be flat for a while and, well, why the hell are you doing this again? Uh, well, whatever, they seem to say to this evidently nutjob americano: "Bienvenido!" I bid them "Gracias!"
Now with only the straightest (and yes, pretty flat) of roads to take me onward, I now am officially moving into and through the other, much larger slice of the Iberian Peninsula, barreling with full throttle. This latter aspect is because I want to get to what'll ultimately have to be my stop for the night, Ciudad Rodrigo (this guy got around, old Rodrigo!), with some daylight. It's only now in retrospect, meanwhile, and naturally with an appreciable amount of regret, that I truly realize over these dull kilometers unto the horizon that I really *should've* been better attempting to learn some Portuguese. Funny, that.
In any event, I at least vow that I'll start doing so immediately after next stepping onto Portuguese or Brazilian soil. I slit my thumb to squirt enough blood to mark my forehead with, solemnly promising this rectification to come. Okay, I don't, but yes, I admit to myself that Spanish got me by all too ably in Portugal, as did English, but that's not really how I like to roll when such a language task is so easily at hand. This is especially true in the case of Portuguese, if only based on my existing Spanish and French knowledge - Portuguese's close sister languages, or maybe brothers, I'm unsure - which should help greatly. Plus there's pride. Okay... noted.
These thoughts arise mainly, however, because I'm realizing especially now upon leaving it exactly how much I've enjoyed Portugal. What a country!, I'm already reminiscing, thinking of this land so steeped in history and character that's also so very fortunately enough off of the main European tourist circuits of France and Italy et al that it's managed to stay manageable and maintain its soul. Then, of course, there's also the port, the wine, the seafood, the haunting music that is fado, and my weakness for latina women to think about. Yep, I'd better get going on this Portuguese Language Project ASAP, especially when I also recall my new friend Ivo all the way back in Lisboa, already seeing some writing on the wall to guess that this might be changing all too soon. I can only hope it doesn't before my return, or the return after that.
(As for a relatively unrelated minus side, in Portugal I *have* only seen few animals outside of mostly dead snakes... although there was this stunning gray bird with a blue tail and wingtips that I should look up later.)
Such is my jumble of thoughts, anyway, as I rumble down this the most straight of roads, the national highway beginning at the border and barreling toward Ciudad Rodrigo while running almost perfectly parallel with the autopista that I've once again been barred from using. At least there's this alternate, however, and it's just as convenient with the beautiful feature of not having to suffer almost any cars whatsoever. Admittedly, that's kind of creepy in its way, but with darkness threatening I'm more than a little chuffed to be able to haul butt toward Ciudad Rodrigo with no competition to squish me into an unfortunate and soon forgotten road rash to be never found on the side of a lonely road. Thus eventually, if only after over 100km on the day, I'm thrilled to make out Ciudad Rodrigo's fortified walls come dusk. I'm positively giddy to roll up to them, ready to try and figure out where the hell I'm going to crash for the night.
The good news is that the lady back at the border tourist center told me where to go, recommending staying roughly just outside the fortress walls and near the market. The bad news is that there's an awful lot of folks walking around in dayglo-color shirts, which can only mean one thing: more Camino walkers! Will there be any cheap spot willing to take a filthy cyclist against such hordes? Such are the serious doubts I contend with as I walk/bike about, hunting for hotels that sport no flash, but it turns out that the first pension I stop at offers me a spot. Huh. That was way too easy. Sure, it's above a busy bar, filled to its rafters with Camino walkers happily quaffing away glasses of beer and wine after their long day - plus it requires me to huff and puff my bike and all my copious gear up a few floors for the pleasure - but 20 Euros for my own room in such a moment seems a godsend.
The other godsend, by the by, is once again speaking Spanish without hesitation. My language peeps! Thusly armed again with my velvet tongue at the ready, I happily take to walking about this walled city that I had no idea existed, completely confident in again being a master (such as I am) of the local language. I enter the fortified walls through an official hole through them that probably once sported a drawbridge, soon walking the ramparts before ambling quiet, narrow streets to settle on a bar. That's where I'll nurse the obligatory glass of wine where I'll catch up on these notes that my readers - all three of them, give or take three - will eventually fervently enjoy. That's you, by the way. Whoever you are, let me here relate that the extensive old town here is lit up nicely come nighttime - unsurprising, since there's a modest amount of tourism here in evidence, plus some quite obviously 5-star hotels - but I'll to have another looksee in the morning under natural light to see what the rest of the story is. For now all I can say is "Nice going, Rodrigo!"
Thus another city visit is exactly what I do in the earlier hours of morning, enduring some friendly forms of "Huzzah!" from patrons of various bars still finishing up the night in the streets near their chosen venues. I'm a bit of comic relief, I'm sure, this sober guy on a loaded bike rolling by slowing when I could instead be ordering another drink. I smile at offers to join in the dwindling fun as I instead make my way for a very slow roll through almost all of the streets of the old city. I'm rewarded with a regal parade of solemn walls and calm silences, languidly curling into any alleyway that hasn't been explored by my likes yet. After an hour of this, it eventually seems like the tour buses have increasingly NOT forgotten about this place after all, so I take some last photos and begin the next chunk of unerringly-straight roads, resuming my Salamanca quest.
After a first chewing of road through truly open countryside - the famous "Plains of Spain", no doubt - I arrive in the festival-recovering burg of Sancti Spiritus. Here I find many flags strewn across its streets on ropes, plus vacated booths of grub and chance now being taken down from the previous evening's festival, so it's no surprise that I essentially run into a similar scene of drunks closing down a bar like I did back in Ciudad Rodrigo. The only difference here is that now we're that much further toward midday. No matter. I'm welcomed into my chosen bar-cafe as a conquering hero of sorts - albeit a nutty one, as far as all are concerned when liquor is so easily at hand to properly form such thoughts - and I'm soon sitting myself down to a grand hunk of tortilla, chorizos, and coffees served by the Spanish beauty tending the bar. She lacks the flower in her hair, I suppose, but her admirers are suitably in number to keep her eyes rolling back while otherwise tending to their thirsty needs. I'm probably a welcome diversion in my table outside, I suppose, an excuse to leave the bar to their partying and running commentary, but then again I might just be comic relief.
Nevertheless, it's Salamanca that's the order of the day, not Sancti Spiritus, so eventually I'm back under the gaze of the watchful and unrelenting sun astride my two-wheeled chariot sans horse. The traffic remains practically negligible on this parallel national highway, and I'm thankful for that, but I'm rather less thankful for the confusing signs that relate the distance to the fabled city ahead. Some go down as others go surprisingly up at times as I close in on the distance, but at least ultimately they're all decreasing the distance. I can only surmise that some power-that-be decided to put up newer, more accurate distance signs - but did so without taking down the old ones. Thus I travel a la-la land on the space continuum, perhaps nonetheless appropriate as the sun makes a rippling haze of the horizon. No doubt Don Quijote himself would've approved.
But I contend here with no windmills to lance for a fair maiden, nor even a proper wind to stir my soul. It's just heat and more heat, dehydration and more dehydration. Somewhere along the way, not too long after Sancti Spiritus, I pass a lonely roadhouse I heard tell of as a possible lodgings in nowheresville, but I pass on this mirage to instead continue my endurance test under these only the lightest of switching winds. To be frank, I'm most concerned about my ass, particularly whether it'll survive this onslaught of 220km or so in two days, but it seems to be holding up. Knowing that a stop might end the magic, I'm determined to not fall anywhere short of my day's goal.
Somewhere out in these final tens of kilometers do the trees begin to give way to true, undulating plains of practically only pastel hues. These are really marvelous landscapes that I can and do relish greatly, even as I spot the odd cigonia stork flying about to simultaneously wonder if there'll be any magpies in a place like this to suddenly divebomb my head as they did in the similar countryside of East Victoria, Australia. But such attacks won't come to pass, although I actually only manage to see one other random person walking along this vacant national highway to tempt them. Eventually there's also exactly only one (quite obviously local) cyclist puttering along as well, but I similarly can't fathom where he might be headed or coming from. This... is... nothingness. Well, not Australia nothingness, no, but still. Signs of civilization are very, very few.
Finally tiring of the monotony, with my butt belatedly making its unhappiness known, I come to an overpass that perhaps once housed the famous discussion between the North-Going and South-Going zax. Definitely by now needing a break on this another 100+km day, I pull out the trumpet to next nearly drain any very last bits of water I have in my system for the modest effort. There's resonance in these overpass walls, so indeed there's hope, I feel, but ultimately I take far more pleasure in watching the reactions of the few shocked car drivers who thunder through at high speed. They crane their necks in a whipping action from the surprise.
My cultural pause such as it is complete, the time comes for my last surge toward Salamanca. I remount to make this last push, almost immediately again achieving the glazed-over daze that's to be found in the recommencement of pastel haze. Finally, though, with seven kilometers to go, do I spy the towering cathedral of the grand city. Sa-la-man-ca! Soon I'm rolling along its peripheral roads, entering its grasp, and finding myself very, very happy indeed to get another well-earned rest from the bike. I'm guessing it's been 940km since Lisbon, give or take, unsure as of yet when I'll see when next my butt meets seat. For now none of that matters. I'm ready for a proper Spanish siesta.
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