Monday, October 23, 2006

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.

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