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  • Jamie Shannon

Country number six. Portugal. Mountains, dogs and reckless drivers.

It was the hottest part of the day thus I thought I could use the old border house to sit under the shade, relax, eat something and, hopefully have another go at fixing the other tube that had refused my earlier attempts.

Imagine my delight when, having pulled it back out of my bag and inflated it, it remained in form straight away! I couldn’t believe my luck. My last attempt at fixing it had worked, or perhaps it just needed a little extra time for the glue to settle. It didn’t matter, all that mattered was that I had a bike that was working properly and I was very happy with that.

There wasn’t much in the way of room on the side of the road, and this being Portugal, the drivers were being pretty erratic to say the very least; they don’t give you much room, seem to pay no attention to the speed limits and have a tendency to overtake on blind corners. I cycled carefully, past fields of wheat and olive groves and noticed that a good proportion of the land was neither fenced off or given away to cultivation, being completely left untamed. This was good news for me I thought.

A short while later, whilst giving my back tyre some much needed air, an old woman trotted along to where I was standing. She was carrying two large paint buckets full of rubbish and wore such a haggered look upon her face that I felt as if I was on another continent. Her skin was tanned and rubbery and her oddly mis-matched clothes bore a mixture of holes and rips that I couldn’t help but wonder what kind of life she had led. I helped her with the rubbish, and looking back in my mirror after I had cycled off, saw her wandering back down the side of the highway again.

Then it rained. Well there was thunder and lightning and then it rained big bullets of the stuff. It was the first rain I had had in about two weeks and, it being uncomfortably hot, I welcomed it with open arms. I never ever thought I would do that. I cycled on through the drizzle until I found a picnic bench by the side of the road where I could make my dinner.

The previous night had been spent tossing and turning in my tent because of the humidity. I just sweated profusely and couldn’t seem to get to sleep and I hoped this night wouldn’t be the same. It turned out to be, if not worse, then just as bad. It became so intolerable that, in the midst of the thunder, lightning and rain, I actually got out of my tent, stark naked and just stood there whilst the rain showered me with deliciously cold water. It was all I could think about and worked a treat, cooling me down long enough for me to be able to drift off.

I rode the remaining 20 km’s to Castelo Branco the next morning and, having entered the suburbs, immediately saw a sign directing me towards a Decathlon. I badly needed some inner tubes and so this was my only thought. Obviously the Decathlon was located on the other side of the city which was about 7 km’s away and so I made my way there under the blazing sun. I also stopped at a gas station to buy some tobacco whereupon a beautiful lady, noticing I wasn’t speaking Portuguese, asked if I needed some help. She spoke excellent English and I would have kissed her if I hadn’t have been so dirty.

I followed the sun as was my usual trick in order to exit a city, but the entire place was just surrounded by large motorways and with only one other road going south, I knew it would turn out to be a major headache trying to locate it.

I ended up in the suburbs where dogs seemed to roam freely and liked nothing more than to bark at me before getting a little too close. I then chose to cycle back into town in order to locate some signs for the next town that lay on my route. This turned out to be a fruitless exercise and so I followed some white signs for Lisbon (the blue one’s being for the motorway). Having cycled another 6 or 7 km’s back around the outside of the city, I came abruptly to the entrance to the motorway. I was now becoming quite angry with the lack of directions, and with the heat touching 40 degrees became increasingly frustrated. I decided it was time to ask someone.

I pulled over at the kind of large faceless supermarket you always get on the edge of town’s and asked a man if he knew in which direction the town was. I indicated I wanted to head to a town called “Sarnadas de Rodao” and so they (an old lady came over too) gave me directions which I followed only to begin cycling in a north westerly direction. Sarnadas de Rodao was south west thus something was clearly wrong. Upon reviewing my map, I found they had given me directions to Sarzedas instead. I was not amused.

I didn’t want to go back into the city having been lost there for the best part of the afternoon and so thought I would continue on my way and hope at least that all my effort might reward me with some nice scenery.

It was excruciatingly hard work passing up and over the various hills/mountains but I can safely say it was worth the effort. It was stunning. Even the large trucks that sometimes came by were straining at times.

My only gripe has to be the ever menacing presence of dogs in just about every village I passed through. I began to dread them so much that I almost didn’t want to reach the next village as I knew what would be waiting for me. Sometimes they barked ferociously at me but were restrained with chains but at other times, and upon hearing me approach, they would jump out from the garden or pounce from the open front yard of a house and go absolutely crazy. They didn’t seem to mind if a car was approaching. It seemed that all they cared about was the sound of my bicycle wheels approaching. They were forever hounding me.

Later in the day, in one particular village, a large dog started running down the hill towards me and so I thought “fuck”. I backed off a little but it was coming at me far too fast and so I got off my bike and placed it in between us. After hearing the barking, a woman had come out of her house and started shouting at it from atop a hill before slowly making her way down. I swear she could not have walked slower if she had tried. After finally reaching the bottom, she hit it with a stick and it wandered meekly away leaving me in peace.

I finally arrived in the village of Sobreira Formosa at around half nine, and after starting to cycle uphill, I had a ten minute stand off with another vicious dog. I eventually managed to creep past it unharmed before mounting my bike again to speed off down the other side. Within five minutes, I had found a nice little spot to camp in a quiet forested area.

I wish I had stayed in the village a little longer and maybe took a drink as it was all very colourful. There was a hive of activity going on in the main square with people of all shapes, sizes and ages drinking on the terraces. It was a beautiful little village too, particularly under the warm evening light.

By 2pm the following day, I had reached the town of Macao where I took a coffee for only 60 cents and charged my electronics too. I also went to the large supermarket but found it closed until 3 pm. Deciding to wait as it was now 14:45, I became frustrated because at at 15:20, it still wasn’t open and so I asked what the reason was. The lady then pointed to the clock on the wall which said it was 14:20 and I realised I had been an hour ahead since arriving in Portugal. I guess I really hadn’t had much use for knowing the time in the previous few days.

I waited until 3 pm anyway and actually overhead two people speaking Dutch next to the tomatoes inside which was pretty unusual. I asked who they were and what they were doing there and they were equally surprised to hear someone else speaking Dutch. It is a tiny country after all.

With my groceries bought, I headed onto Abrantes, hoping the rest of the highway back down to the lowlands wasn’t going to be too mountainous. It was pretty much downhill all the way and the scenery seemed to noticeably change as I was making the descent. Earlier on in the day the high mountain areas were covered in thick lively forest; with the kind of tree’s and plants that receive an abundance of water. Whilst this was also true of the lowlands, there began a series of large fields given over to the growing of maize.

Coming into the city, you could see that it wasn’t just the small villages that were noticeably poorer than Spain; the pavements weren’t properly levelled, the paint on most of the buildings seemed to be chipped off in large chunks and the populace were evidently poorer (economically speaking) simply by the clothes they wore and the cars they drove. I have never been to Cuba, but It kind of reminded me of what it must look like there.

It was raining ever so slightly too. It has rained every day since being in Portugal probably due to the mountainous terrain but it all had a very wet, almost tropical feel to it.

After asking for some directions, I gradually made my way south out of the city, before getting stuck in a traffic jam whilst crossing over the river. I must have been there for ten minutes until I realised I was on a bicycle and this is one of the few times where it proved to be a plus point. Thus I cycled right past all the cars and straight across the bridge leaving all the petrol guzzling machines in my wake. They did pass me however soon afterwards.

I found the most perfect place to camp another ten km’s ahead, not wanting to carry on as it was by now growing darker and the incredible stupidity and carelessness of the Portuguese drivers was making me feel a little uncomfortable. I think that you must receive points on your license in this country if you actually obey the speed limit.

A strange thing happened the next morning. Having arrived in the next town on my map, an old man sitting on a bench was staring at me and so I said “bom dia” (good morning). I received no reply and so I said “hello”. Still nothing. I got quite annoyed with this because if you stare at me and don’t even indicate that you are breathing, I find it quite rude. I then said hello in about five other languages and still received no reply and so just shrugged my shoulders and moved on. All very strange.

The road surface gradually deteriorated, and what with the drivers using the road as their own private race track, I found the whole day to be quite tiresome and irritating. The scenery was also quite dull for long periods and so I just put my head down and tried to cycle as hard as I could whilst at the same time checking my mirror every twenty seconds to see which reckless fuck’s were approaching this time.

I found a place to camp just before Pavia, high up above a river. It was a beautifully secluded spot but I wasn’t enjoying it as much as I should have done as my stomach was feeling a little queasy. I just hoped it wasn’t due to the oranges I had picked from a tree earlier in the day.

I had only another 45km’s t go until I reached Evora, and wanting to get the most value out of my accommodation once there, set off very early with the thought of arriving at noon.

After filling up my water and having another one sided conversation with an elderly chap in Pavia, I headed on my way again, the road being, for the most part flatter than it had been the previous day. The drivers still sped menacingly past me though, giving me no space at all. It was always a little hairy cycling around the bends that veered to the right and at the same time went up hill as the drivers couldn’t see me until they were right behind. Sometimes I decided to walk my bike across to the other side of the road whilst other times I thought “fuck it” I’m entitled to cycle here too. In this case they would beep their horns incessantly whilst they were stuck behind me but I wasn’t moving, no way. Pricks.

Arriving in Evora, I felt a sense of satisfaction and relief. I know I hadn’t really been in the wilderness, a desert if you like, but when you have been only through villages and small towns whilst camping for the last seven days you do have a vague sense of accomplishment having reached some sort of civilisation after so many days. Approaching a city that people say is both beautiful and historic add’s to its mystique and sense of awe too. It’s a great feeling.

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