Monday, October 23, 2006

Wednesday 18th October - A strange day


Our last day of planned cycling in a country usually goes slightly awry, either because we can't find accomodation where we were hoping to (France, Netherlands, Germany, Spain) or because we got horribly lost (Belgium) or just because we have to cross 2 miles of London. This time it was raining and we had a hill to get over, but other than having to get off and push because a cobbled street was too slippery for our tyres nothing too strange happened and we made it back to Valpacos in reasonable time.

Comming in to town we headed straight for the cafe we had stopped at last time, we were both wet and it was raining too hard to eat lunch outside and we knew we could get some sandwiches there. The trike attracted some attention as ever and when we sat down one of the locals tried a bit French with us. Upon learning that we were English he tapped his friend on the shoulder who turned round and said hello with a definite cockney accent - he was Portuguese but had moved to London more than 35 years ago.

We got chatting and when I told him that we were looking for somewhere to rent over the winter he asked the barman and before we knew it we were being shown around an apartment just a few doors down. It was large, with two bedrooms a kitchen and a dinning room, but the bathroom was horrible and we hoped that we could do better for 200 euros a month. So we all went back to the cafe and then things got really weird. Tony (at least I think that is his name) was going to drive us to see somewhere else, but then we ended up just walking around the corner and talking to a few people, and then walked back to a house on the square and knocking on someone's door. There we met Maria who had already been told we were looking for somewhere to stay and she said this was her father's house and they had a spare room and they didn't want any rent but if we could help out with the bills we could stay with them for a few months.

The families here seem to be very large (or at least people know a lot more of their family) and I think Maria is related to the owner of the cafe who Tony was talking to so maybe that is how it happened, but it was all rather strange and rapid none the less. So now we have somewhere to stay that is obviously within our budget, and fully furnished too. We are learning Portuguese from Maria (who has recently returned after spending 6 years in Ireland, and I thought the cockney-portuguese accent was strange) and living very close to the centre of town and being introduced to more and more people daily.

Hopefully we should be getting broadband installed over the next few days and then we should be all set for the winter in this strange and wonderful place.

Sunday 15th October - Dogs

The dog thing is ridiculous here. This morning in Pinhao we were awoken at quarter past six by somebody driving around with a trailer full of yippy little creatures making noises that belonged not to dogs, but to tortured budgies. Tonight in Alijo we are staying next door to a concrete enclosure of yet more impossibly high-pitched animals and the sleep prospects are not good. As much as we wanted a decent meal in Spain, we want a decent night's sleep in Portugal. We made the mistake of opening the windows in our room and were quickly inundated with swarms of flies. A quick trip into town stocked us up with plenty of fly paper and now we are having some fun collecting tiny corpses on a bit of sticky paper. It's like watching the footy, only much better.

We stopped considering Poland as a potential place to live - it's not that we particularly disliked anything about it, we just didn't particularly like anything about it either (well there were the cherries, and the nice cake shop, but that's not really enough) - it didn't really grab us as somewhere we wanted to live. Portugal is different - it grabs us in lots of ways. The food is fantastic (we really do applaud the quality of the baking in particular), people are friendly, and there are some lovely houses here. However, we have found there to be certain things lacking from what we would consider to be quality of life for us - the concept of peace and quiet seems completely foreign to most people. The idea of making any effort to ward off swarms of flies is also foreign to most cafe owners - (but that's also true in Spain). We are probably experiencing the noise problem a lot because we are staying in residencials which are almost invariably on busy main streets of towns, and put you in close confinement with other people. I can see the problem being greatly reduced by enough double glazing and / or distance from busy areas, in fact that would be essential to our being able to live here - but if the real problem is that we're just incompatible with Portugal, it would likely catch up with us eventually. I suppose we are doing what we came here to do, which is find out what life is like in Portugal.

Today we cycled north again from the Douro. The gradients stopped being completely insane - still mostly an uphill day, and still pretty average by mountain standards, but it was nice to feel the effects of having built up a lot more strength over the past few days, and be able to climb a little more easily (although I don't think Dgym's legs were really up for anything more than holding up his laptop today)


Well we did say we would educate our readers on the topic of Portuguese patisserie and we're not the kind of people to break those kind of promises, so reluctantly we dragged ourselves down the local pastelaria (there was a good one at Tabuaco and we gave ourselves another day off just to check that it really was rather good).

Clockwise, from top left:

1. Nutty goodness (chestnut, we think) in a flaky pastry case.
2. Moist chocolatey loveliness with chocolate icing, this one really was fantastic
3. Coconut cake (apologies for the bite marks, dgym was out of control)
4. Mostly like an eclair, I think the orangey stuff was some form of orange-based confection.

And, for anybody who thinks we may not have truly earned these cakes, this is what the terrain is like around here:

Somebody forgot to iron Portugal.

Friday 13th October - Legs of steel

There are things we like about Portugal. The weather is lovely (although much easier to deal with the sunshine when you're not sweating your way up a hill). There are some beautiful houses here with stunning views. The prices are low - we can usually both get a good meal for 15 euro, and rooms are typically 25-35euro. The food is of excellent quality, and the Portuguese are clearly quite serious about their cakes.

However, there are also things we don't like. There is quite a lot of litter in the countryside, particularly in laybys, lookout points and other roadside stops. There are a lot of noisy dogs, especially in the towns, many of them bark all night. There are quite a lot of flies around. There are also a lot of those insanely loud little scooters around. And the standard of driving leaves a lot to be desired. It wasn't too bad, at least not by English standards, until Wednesday when we reached the port-producing region of the Douro river and its wine tourists driving from one wine-producing town to the next, um, obviously staying completely and utterly sober the entire time. In and around Peso da Regua, which is where they make the port (it is then shipped up the river and matured in Porto), we had a fair few experiences of drivers who were either too drunk or too stupid not to do things like, say, accelerate to overtake a truck whilst completely oblivious to an oncoming cyclist on the other side of a narrow road, or try and overtake a cyclist who is signalling left. We weren't going to stop at Regua but the road we had chosen out of the city proved so dangerous, we ended up turning around, cutting the day short, getting ourselves a room for the night and rethinking things.

Yes we did have a little bit of port wine and yes it was very nice. Regua is set in really beautiful surroundings, the river and mountains are stunning - but it's way too trafficky and noisy.

On Thursday we headed out of town on a different road, which had a bit of motorway-bound traffic but was less narrow and the drivers behaved themselves. However, the gradients south of the river are much tougher. Unlike some mountain roads, which are fairly gentle and just mean putting in a little bit of effort for quite a long time - these are a little closer to the unforgiving English gradients, only much longer, and require some serious effort. We climbed up to Armamar and decided we deserved some cake. After the cake, we decided the town seemed quite nice and we were quite tired, so perhaps we should try and stay there. Unfortunately, the tourist office knew of nowhere to stay there. So we continued towards Tabuaco, along tiny little roads that weren't even marked on our country-wide maps, only on the local map we had recently acquired. This leg of the journey started with a long steep descent which was not very well surfaced and therefore required almost continuous braking. We had to stop half way down to let our braking systems cool down and our hands recover. We were then faced with an equally harsh ascent, during which we had to stop many times to let our legs recover.

Tabuaco had somewhere to stay and, being kind of knackered, we got two nights. Being kind of knackered, we felt we also deserved more cake and spent some time in the local pastelaria with hot chocolate, iced tea and a fine selection of local pastry, and ended up talking to the nice young man who served us. He had been to London, and said it rained on him most of the time. He was very surprised to hear that we had cycled all the way from Bilbao.

Television seems quite an important part of life here. Every cafe, bar and restaurant has the TV on. If you come into an empty restaurant and the TV is off, they will switch it on for you. In some restaurants, the tables are laid so that everybody is facing the television. We rarely bother with TV these days, we don't have one in the UK and don't usually watch it while travelling - but in Portugal we have been culturing ourselves by watching the soap opera Floribella - which is truly a televisual work of art. The Australians have a lot to learn. Not only does Floribella have terrible acting, it has sound and visual effects to try and make up for it (e.g. adding computerized blushes to somebody's cheeks when they're embarrassed), and everybody dances in the end credits. We don't understand a word of it, so can only guess at what might be going on - but it is compelling viewing anyway. There are occasionally English wildlife documentaries with Portuguese subtitles, which helps us pick up a few words - and the evening news leaves its captions on long enough that we can flick through the dictionary and figure out what's going on.

Thursday 12th October - slowest day yet


Today we did a nice little 500m climb for a warm up, then went down 400m very slowly (it was very steep and the road surface was a bit bumpy), and then went up another 400m in the afternoon. I think that is proof enough that trikes can do hills. Because we were on very small roads the gradients were far harsher than we have seen so far - we only covered 23 miles. Going down into the valley my brakes got literally boiling hot (I'm glad I tested them with a little water rather than my fingers) and then it was my legs' turn to suffer on the other side. It was a great day's cycling, but we are staying two nights at the hotel to recover and I hope that is enough.

Wednesday, October 11, 2006

Monday 9th October: uphill some more

We had breakfast at about ten - bread, jam, ham, cheese, fig and walnut cake, coffee... all of which was delicious, and then we said our goodbyes and continued sweating our way up the long, long hill. The sun was no kinder to us today and we went another thirteen miles before reaching the top of the hill.

Lunch was in a bus shelter, and unusually fly-free. We had sausage with fresh brown bread rolls (not so dense this time), a leftover fig from yesterday and an orange. The oranges are most excellent here. The afternoon was much kinder to us, with a lovely foresty descent into the valley town of Villa Pouca. Villa Pouca is quite nice, but would be slightly nicer if they weren't digging up the roads left, right and centre (it's like a little slice of Poland fell into Portugal) and if they weren't building an enormous motorway bridge right across the valley.

However, it does have a fantastic cake shop. Damnit, after 27 miles of uphill, we deserve cake! We agree most strongly with Portuguese cakes and pastries, they are definitely the way forward for this world. In the absence of Eiscafes, perhaps we need to start taking pictures...

Sunday 8th October: uphill all the way.

Our day started at 7:40am inside a cloud. Everything was damp and misty and quiet, and we found a long, long line of very busy ants transporting eggs across the road. It was about 10-12m of ant - quite impressive, apart from the fact that there was a little puddle in the middle of a manhole cover which was messing things up for them big time. A few would just fall in and drown - but more than half of them would get confused, turn around and go back the way they came - apparently ants have no sense of direction. The rest went around it, so at least some progress was being made.

The cloud lifted, the sun came out, we packed up and, careful not to interrupt the line of ants, left the campsite. We climbed up to Valpacos, seeing some very nice houses along the way in Possacos, and Valpacos itself turned out to be quite lovely too. We looked out for a padaria (bakery) but they were all shut, as were all the other shops - then we remembered it was Sunday. So we stopped at a cafe and had some nice pastries, lemonade and ham and cheese sandwiches.

We continued with a climb up out of Valpacos, to Vassal, followed by a climb to Algeriz (are you detecting a theme here?) then we found a nice lookout point to sit down for a while. There was also a sign to a rural tourism centre about 1km away - so, despite having only been fourteen miles today, it had been a ridiculously tough 14 miles - nearly all uphill and in baking heat.

The "rural tourism centre" turned out to be a lovely little farm in a quiet village, overlooking a fantastic view. A bit expensive at 50euro but well worth it. We went to sit by the pool and take in the view and a bit of sunshine, and the owner brought us out a bowl of delicious home grown grapes. This was followed by a full tour of the fruit trees, and sampling of real live delicious figs. We've never had real figs before, only in fig rolls. We tried to explain the concept of fig rolls but I think the impression we gave was that England has the most fabulous fig cakes. Since there were no restaurants around, they cooked us a fantastic dinner for 5 euros a head - homemade bread and super-strong wine, vegetable soup, then bean and seafood stew, followed by more fruit. They were very friendly and we had an excellent stay.

Saturday 7th October: stony ground

We climbed up out of Vinhais along the N103 to a lookout point which had the most spectacular views but also the most spectacular amount of litter. We continued along the ridge for some distance, during which I got a puncture (front tyre, sharp stone) before leaving the main road at Rebordelo. The smaller road was lined with fields of olive trees, grape vines and other delicious looking stuff. We have also been seeing fields of ripe pumpkins and heavily-laden chestnut trees, mmmm... It would have been a lovely area to stop for lunch, but the flies were terrible, there were literally swarms of them, and they just gravitate towards us when we stop (Perhaps we ought to wash more). We eventually found somewhere to stop and continued to munch on our eternal loaf of dense brown cakey bread, which will probably do us another day still.

Not long after that we reached our campsite on the River Rabacal, which we were pleased to find was open, had a restaurant, and was about half the cost of the Spanish one we stayed at. Unfortunately, it doesn't have red squirrels or woodpeckers but it does have free warm(ish) showers - but the ground is hard as hell, leaving us wishing we'd gone for a free-standing tent. It took us an hour and a half to pitch the tent, during which we were told we were not allowed to pitch on the nice soft grassy ground on the other side of the road (I swear, it was greener). We eventually got the tent up using rocks and the spare old tent peg I didn't know why I'd been carrying until now, to hammer out holes for our nice tent pegs.

For the record, Campsite Rabacal, near Valpacos: nice riverside location, cheap, decent facilities, but the ground is hard and stony.

Friday 6th October: Vinhais

Vinhais is one of those towns where it is very hard to find somewhere that doesn't have a stunning view of the mountains, we completely and utterly failed to find a room that met these criteria, and ended up with a view like this:

We also spotted a lovely house just out of town, overlooking a similar view (minus billboard).

Wouldn't say no to that. Unfortunately, Vinhais is on the N103 which is the only real road between Braganca and Chaves, both of which are quite big - so it has a bit too much traffic to be really pleasant. It's been quite a short day today, but we've been up three or four big climbs. Tomorrow we're turning off the N103 and onto some littler ones.

We are pleased with Portugal so far. We are finding decent rooms for 25euro, and the food has been most excellent (and easy to come by). Today we had quite an early lunch because the bread we bought this morning weighed a ton and Dgym didn't want to carry it any more. It was nice bread - dense and brown and quite cakey. While we were eating, a bloke drove by in his car, beeped and waved enthusiastically at us. We're not quite sure why, perhaps he was a big fan of roadside lunches.

Thursday 5th October: Portugal

The first challenge on Wednesday, after tearing Dgym away from the excellent doughnuts of the hotel's cafe, was to top up on water. As we passed through the town we kept our eyes open for a shop that might sell us a litre or two - no such luck. However, on the outskirts of the town we saw signs to a petrol station 500m away. 500m down the road, there was a turning and a couple of bars, but no petrol station to be seen - until Dgym pointed out to me the large, rusty overgrown petrol-station-like shelter thingy, which had clearly been closed for at least a decade. It is not just our maps that are out of date. Somebody needs to go around Spain with a big black permanent marker, correcting all the dodgy signposts.

We then began our last few miles (about twelve of them) into Portugal, which consisted of a long climb followed by lovely winding mountain passes. The border was unmanned, as many of them are in Europe these days, but you could see where there used to be barriers.

So we carried on into Portugal, through small villages and past lots of heavily-laden chestnut trees, and found a snack bar in a little place called Raban. After some confusion in which we tried to ask for the ementa (menu) and they thought we wanted pimentos (peppers), a mixture of English, French and Spanish got us what we wanted. They didn't seem to have a menu but Dgym asked for chicken, I asked for fish and we had a lovely meal - nice home-made bread with cheese, sausage and delicious fresh olives, followed by our main courses, which were fantastic and actually served with vegetables (not something you usually get in Spain) - all for 15euro.

Raban was only 3km from the campsite we had intended to stay at, which unfortunately was closed. A real shame, because we had a recommendation for it, and it looked nice. For the benefit of anybody who is passing that way and wants a campsite - it's about 6km north of Braganca on the N103. Apparently it was open a few weeks ago but now, in early October, it is closed. About 1km away, in the direction of Braganca, is a restaurant for which we also had a recommendation. It serves wild boar casserole, and has a picture outside of a pig in a pot.

So we continued to Braganca, which is a very hilly city with a most excellent castle. Accommodation turned out to be very cheap and we got ourselves a room (with a decent hot shower for a change) for 25euro. Thursday was another rest day, and we stayed two nights, giving ourselves the chance to get an up-to-date map of the country and acquaint ourselves with the local cake shop. Both nights we ate at the Restaurant Pocas which was fantastic, huge delicious main courses and lovely puddings. We haven't had the chance to speak much Portuguese yet. Nobody has understood any of the Portuguese words we have tried to say, and quite a few people seem to know either English or French.

Tuesday 3rd October: Soggy


We have come a long way over the last two days, 114 miles in total. I was a bit worried that the sun would fry us during the afternoon but luckily we were too busy gettting drenched for that to happen. The strong head wind has also been a problem, but we have made it this far and are now set up for a short trip across the border tomorrow if our clothes dry out in time. Google Earth is a great tool if you can find an internet connection, I was able to get a very good idea of the terrain we were facing from Cervera to Portugal. In fact we would not have attempted the last two days if it hadn't been clear that we were going to be going through a lot of flattish country. We have not seen very many places to stay after leaving the mountains, if we had our days might have been somewhat shorter, and the cycling has been a little dull too, but all that looks set to change just a few miles down the road into a new country and a new set of mountains.

The trip has also been good for getting some code done, which can often be a tricky thing to fit in. I am still optimistic that we might release another game this year, but we will also have to do some straight up earning over the winter so we can afford to visit people and fund a few other crazy ideas over the next year.


Given the wetness of our clothes, the tiringness of Monday, the cheapness of our accommodation and the excellentness of the local Chinese, we were tempted to take another day off and hang around in La Baneza, but the lure of Portugal proved too much and we were on our way again on Tuesday morning.

That may have been a bit of a lousy decision given the horrible weather of Tuesday. Which started out windy, changeable and a bit annoying that it wouldn't make up its mind between baking sun and cold rain (it makes wardrobe management very hard for us) and eventually decided it was going to be thoroughly wet. My socks, which had just dried out from last night, got very soaked again, and we both soon had squelchy puddles in our shoes.

It was another long day between two large-ish places - we were hoping to be able to cut it short and find somewhere to stay and eat along the way, but as we suspected, we went fifty miles before seeing any accommodation whatsoever, which was a hotel/restaurant just before Puebla de Sanabria. We stopped, found it to be reasonably priced, and got a room. All our stuff is soaking wet.

Monday 2nd October: Giant birds nests

Sunday was another short day, intentionally so, and quite rightly so, we were a little tired from Saturday's climbing. We rode from Guardo to Cistierna, only 19 miles and not too tough, but still a little hilly. We found a hostal at Cistierna, discovered all the restaurants in town were either not really restaurants, or just closed "for personal reasons" (the owners wanted to watch the footy). So we ended up eating raciones at the bar belonging to our hostal, they had spanish omelette which was very nice.

Monday was a long day on the flatlands, taking us away from the mountains and along the River Esla, past Leon and into La Baneza. It has been suggested that the majority of the Iberian Peninsula's precipitation ends up on terrain such as this, however our observations indicate otherwise. We got a fair bit of rain in the mountains, however today has been a dry day with sunny intervals and an horrendous headwind.

We noticed a strange phenomenon in the villages we passed through - the church in each one was topped by an enormous birds nest. Dgym thinks they were put there by people to attract birds. I think they were put there by birds so they have somewhere to live.

There were also no shops in any of these villages, and we needed bread for our lunch. Fortunately, after a dramatic action-packed chase scene involving me and a bread van, we got what we wanted, and sat down to a lunch of bread, sausage, nice cake, and cheese which I thought was ok but dgym wasn't too pleased with as it was a bit too goaty for his tastes.

At lunchtime we were about half way to La Baneza and our average speed was just over 14mph, pretty good going. Then the wind really picked up and our average for the day ended up at 11.6, still not bad by our standards. The afternoon was horrible - any cyclist who tells you hills are bad is either a liar or hasn't been on the right hills. Hills are great, they protect you from the wind and give you interesting views and interesting cycling. Headwinds are a far worse enemy, the only hope is that maybe they will change direction or go away altogether. Today reminded me of the Netherlands and not in a good way, fairly boring agricultural scenery, flat open land with strong winds.

We are staying in an unstarred pension tonight, which is actully pretty decent. It cost 20euro and we get the use of a washing machine, our clothes are quite happy about this and excited to be clean again, although in my excited washing frenzy I went and put all my socks in there. And there was no dryer. Doh!

We were surprised to find a Chinese restaurant for dinner this evening, even more surprised to find that it was most excellent (apart from Dgym's chicken salsa picante thing) - my pineapple duck, and the fried vegetables were superb. Do look out for it if you are in La Baneza, restaurants like this need all the encouragement they can get.

Thursday, October 05, 2006

Saturday: Cycling in the clouds

Today started out rainy, and stayed rainy until lunchtime. We started out of Cervera with a long climb into the mountains. It was supposed to be the scenic route but it's a little hard to appreciate the scenery when your eyeballs are busy being pelted with raindrops.

We reached the grand altitude of 1413m at one point today, not so hard to believe as it was preceded by an enormous climb. After that, the road dropped down into the valley of the Carrion river and things got easier. We stopped at midday for some lunch - we didn't really want to stop as we were damp and didn't want to cool down too much, but also very hungry. So we found a sheltered spot during a less rainy interval and got out the brie and baguette. (yes I know, but given the choice between French and Spanish cheese, what would you go for?) I began to change out of my damp stuff into thermal wicking gear, and just as I was pulling on my legwarmers, the sun began to show through the clouds for the first time that day. Of course. We were able to appreciate the scenery a little more after that.

They have the loveliest cows here. They have sweet faces, fluffy ears and there are lots of babies around at the moment. We saw lots today, roaming freely over the mountains and valleys, and heard even more as they all wear bells. You can nearly always hear at least one - sometimes it feels like you're being stalked by cows. We found one cow happily munching leaves off a bush at the side of the road. She heard us, turned her head and gave us the guiltiest look we have ever seen on a cow. I'm not sure what she was doing wrong, but I think we caught her at it.

We reached Guardo at about 2pm. The signs to the tourist office neatly veer you off away from the town centre and towards a nice well-kept modern looking fountainy area. The office was closed, so we followed signs to the town centre which, to put it politely, is a bit of an Aldershot. Lots of cheap nasty looking bars and cafes, run down buildings, closed businesses, and unlike the other towns we've seen here, completely lacking in charm. However, we managed to find a cheap pension, got our menu del dia for lunch (which included bunny rabbits) just in time before everything closed, then some nice pizzas in the evening.