LISBON IS a picture of summer elegance the morning we peddle out for good down its bone shattering cobble stones. But despite the sunshine it’s bitterly cold thanks to an icy wind hurtling across the city that seems to sting more than usual thanks to almost two weeks holed up in a hostel.
While the long sick break allowed us to meet a host of cool and quirky characters (an Irish female church minister and her husband, two middle aged Canadian men doing the solo thing, an Italian fruit farmer and the very chic Lisbonite Tania) we felt a little stir crazy (especially Scott who was stuck on pharmacy runs for his snotty girlfriend).
And while we like to joke about our love hate relationship with the bikes (you love them when you’re not cycling and wish they were a caravan when you are) the truth is they’d almost become appendages – painful appendages.
Mere minutes from the hostel we took a small ferry from Lisbon’s city centre port to Barreiro in a bid to avoid the main highway and an hour later we pushed out of the station and hit the pavement. The traffic was light but we felt suffocated – keen to leave the urban centres behind and see the real Portugal.
And an hour later that’s just what we got.
The minor roads south wind through green woodlands and past tiny villages where old farmers chug along in tiny, spluttering rickshaws and dusty cafes sporting plastic chairs and colourful “Streets” ice-cream signs. It’s a rustic setting that feels a world away from Lisbon and even motorists channeled the easy going spirit, keeping to a slow pace and diligently giving us plenty of room.
We’d been warned that Portugal’s drivers featured among Europe’s worst and other bike travellers had spoken of an underlying negativity born from the country’s deep economic plunge. But just two hours out of Lisbon we saw endless evidence to the contrary. Motorists gave friendly beeps of their horn while passing, laid back pedestrians gave huge smiles and thumbs up at our efforts and baring a few exceptions, we were treated exceptionally well on the roads.
Despite the smiles and sunshine it took hours to peddle just 40km – party thanks to my lingering illness and partly because it’s been three weeks since we last cycled. Our legs felt stiff, I was huffing and puffing far more than the inclines warranted and despite the tranquil landscapes I was nothing short of shagged.
At 4pm we reached the ocean and spent half an hour mending a puncture on Scott’s front wheel before hugging the coast to Setubal.
Rough shanty-esque buildings are littered across this unassuming coast and when we reached the town the trend continued.
Setubal’s a scruffy port town with just a few redeeming features – a scenic port filled with colourful dinghies and some classic architecture in the crumbling old quarters. The plan was initially to wild camp but we had overestimated how built up the entire region was and after a quick trip to the tourism office revealed the closure of the only campsite we tackled the next best option – the town’s only hostel.
It was a whopping 16 euros each for a bed in an eight bed dorm (in off peak season) and after checking in and discovering it was 80 per cent under renovation we felt a little sour and mightily ripped off.
There were just two toilets for the entire hostel and the bunk beds shook violently with every move but we grudgingly scoffed down our pasta and braved the pint sized shower before sinking into a restless sleep.
Mist covered the entire town the following morning and we made our way down to the port in the hopes of snagging a ferry to Troia – a small town perched on a narrow peninsula just south of Setubal.
We arrived half and hour early and settled in for a cold wait as wealthy tourists in shiny sedans trickled in to the queue. With their arrival came a team of boisterous salesmen, arms laden with cheap sunglasses, who walk from car to car hawking their wares. For some reason they didn’t bother with us.
The ferry delivered us right onto paradise’s doorsteps with golden sand and palm trees glistening in the sun as we cycled up from the port to strike an almost deserted road south.
There’s something ultimately relaxing about cycling between sand dunes and we soaked up that summer sensation on the narrow stretch of land which ends with the town of Comporta.
This quirky little village is in fact Portugal’s rice growing hub and it has rather over enthusiastically based its tourism around, well, rice. You can visit the rice museum and eat at one of the many restaurants that feature, you guessed it, many forms of rice.
Another feature on the menus in this region is a dish called “choco frito” and ever since seeing it scrawled on a blackboard in Setubal Scott and I had fantasised about what it entailed. In my mind it was a delicious chocolate desert with some kind of fritter but according to a local, who laughed loudly at my suggestion, it is in fact fried cuttlefish.
We’d cycled just 10km when Comporta’s slightly underwhelming rice fields came into view but we were starving and so pulled into a tiny cafe for a cheap lunch.
You can bag a coffee for about 75 cents outside of Lisbon and this cafe was offering burgers for a few euros and soups (a much loved Portugese staple) for about two. We ordered both from the cheerful owner and sat back in sun soaked chairs to lap up our little break.
Within minutes some local dogs sniffed out the new humans and one in particular kept sucking up for belly rubs before nosing into my open bar bag. In the blink of an eye it dove in and pulled out a used tissue but I quickly grab it back and relaxed into my chair, confident I’d saved the situation.
But like the best thieves this was merely a distraction.
The dog took off at full speed and Scott said: “Sarah, it has something in its mouth!”
The tiny pooch had nicked a velcro pant leg strap out of my bag and was fleeing the scene of the crime.
I considered letting it go for two seconds but I really needed that strap of velcro so I took off in hot pursuit.
Two blocks later I admitted defeat and shuffled back to the cafe.
The road from Comporta dips inland with unremarkable scenery and 50km later we called it a night. The aim was to make 80km but I was knackered and we began the hunt for a camp spot just after 5pm. An official camp ground came into view first and we forked out the 10 euros for a pitch near a lake and soaked up the fantastic hot shower before eating dinner in front of a spectacular sunset.
Rain clouds hovered ominously the following morning and it wasn’t until mid morning that we peddled south towards Lagos in the hopes of reaching Odeceixe by night fall.
Just before lunch we struck onto a bumpy coastal road and briefly checked out an impromptu surfing competition before reaching the cute as a button town of Porto Covo. It’s almost entirely made up of white washed houses with blue trims and it screams quintessential Portugal.
Mere minutes after leaving the coastal village the heavens opened and rain beat down steadily for hours as we hauled ourselves along the undulating bitumen. I was feeling incredibly crap and it wasn’t just exhaustion, but the kind of cold that makes your teeth chatter. We were both wet through, there was a strong wind blowing and night was falling fast. Only one thing was keeping me going and that was Scott. Stronger than an ox and incredibly considerate, he insisted on tackling the wind head on and letting me draft the entire day, maintaing a “sarah friendly” pace while offering endless encouragement.
At 6pm we’ve only just reached Odemira, more than 20km north of Odeseixe, and after a particularly gruelling climb we both felt close to our wits end.
The GPS delivers accommodation information and since camping in that deluge would have been heroic bordering on insane we followed its innocuous listing and cycled a further 5km to a nondescript village where an even more nondescript cafe sat among resident housing.
Scott ran inside to get the verdict and came out five minutes later with a thumbs up.
He’d managed to land us a room for 20 euros (an impressive feat considering none of the staff spoke English) and while it was small and humble it felt like the Hilton.
Just 70km lay between us and Lagos and we’d planned a day off in the southern beach village which offered serious incentive to get on the bike and move as fast as we could the following morning.
Unfortunately our shagged legs had other ideas and the road ran ruthlessly uphill for more than half the day.
Several climbs later we’d finally made it. And “it” was nothing short of tropical paradise.
Immaculate palm tree lined boulevards gave way to ambling streets filled with gorgeous old Greek seaside villas and framing it all were the town’s stunning beaches.
We’d booked a room (thank god) for a ridiculously cheap price and and while it was small and outdated the complex looked as though it was lifted from a Santorini tourism guide. With scarcely a discussion we booked another night and lapped up the pristine and empty beaches and a long afternoon siesta.