Riding out of Lisbon, like any large city, is an industrial affair. It begins nice enough with a short ride to the ferry terminals from our rented apartment in Alfama. The ferry takes us across the Tagus River to Almada where it seems we are on a tour of used car lots. One after another. But eventually we get into the countryside.
There are unfamiliar smells of flowers and herbs, but also a familiar one of pine trees. Small lizards constantly dart away into the roadside foliage and large black and white storks tend to their already large offspring on impossibly perched nests atop power poles, unused stone structures or anything else that is high off the ground, although I only saw one nest in a tree.
It doesn’t take us long to find our rhythm. The muscle memory does most of it for us without thinking. The kilometres tick by easily and the coastal June temperature is perfect, although we have constant headwind.
Tourist season has not yet begun and we struggle to find campsites that are open, and even when we do, many of their facilities are still not operational. Basic stuff like soap, toilet paper and even toilet seats are missing. Pools are not open despite temperatures in the mid-twenties.
After another ferry from Setúbal to a long, sandy spit we decide to just camp in the dunes. We picked up some food at a small store, filled our water bladder and found a gorgeous, private spot 75 metres off the road among the pines with a view of the water. Bikepacking Nirvana.
I’ve thought a lot about an old friend while cycling south along the Portuguese coast. Hugh, only a couple of years older than me, died earlier this year. I knew he was ill but after he told me of his diagnosis, all contact ceased. I found out from his younger sister a few months later that he had died.
We met more than 30 years ago working at a small daily newspaper in southern Alberta. There was a good group of us young reporters and photographers, all cutting our chops in the news business. Friendships were forged on the job and over long, drawn-out dinners. Like all friendships, some had more staying power than others. People moved to new, better jobs as they gained experience and we all kind of drifted to different parts of the country but stayed in touch. Strangely enough, many of us ended up on the west coast in metro Vancouver, Victoria and Vancouver Island.
Hugh struggled with his mental health. It was hard for him. It was hard for the people he loved, and who loved him. I remember a desperate call late one night. He was not doing well. We talked for a long time. He promised not to do anything rash. He checked himself into hospital the next day and received the help he needed.
Contact was sporadic over the following years but never entirely ceased. Hugh continued to struggle with his illness and how to manage it. He loathed the drugs they prescribed him. He tried them but he told me they were turning his brain into Swiss cheese. He was an extremely bright, intellectual guy with diverse interests and the dulling of his mind by the drugs were something he just could not accept.
Hugh was a cyclist. He loved to ride his bike and that’s the Hugh I’ve been thinking about these last few days, riding along beside me through the Portuguese countryside. Saying goodbye.
Jan and I picked our way down the west coast, sometimes on the Eurovelo Cycling Route and sometimes on the Fisherman’s Trail, a walking route from Porto Covo to Lagos. After five days, we arrived at El Punto del Mundo, just west of Sagres. It was a long day but we found a nice room in a lovely B&B run by Ema. We were tired and we only booked one night, a mistake we quickly rectified. We needed the day off and to do laundry.
The Laundry Lounge in Sagres is the nicest one we’ve ever been to. I love the concept: is it a laundry, a café, a restaurant? It’s all of those things. Five euros lets you do a wash and the clothes lines off the back patio in the court yard dry your clothes in an hour because of the constant wind coming off the Atlantic. Meanwhile, we enjoyed a beautiful breakfast and coffee while doing our laundry. The rest of the day we wandered through this laidback town and checked out our dining options.
Heading east from Sagres along the Algarve is a bit of shocker. The lovely countryside quickly gives way to mile after mile of beach resorts and golf courses. It’s tourism gone awry. The cycling is still lovely most of the time, though, and we find some nice campsites, except for the one in Lagos which looked a bit like a prison camp with high concrete walls topped with razor wire. A weird place.
There are still gems to be found: small, deserted beaches, quiet cafés and small fishing villages not yet discovered by throngs of tourists. Even Faro and Albufeira still offer some charm, despite the hordes of tourists.
On our 10th day out of Lisbon, we cross the Rio Guadiana by ferry and enter Andalusia, Spain. It’s hot! But more about that next time.
You can see our track from Lisbon here.