IF Portugal’s core temperature ran at about 15 degrees warmer, our last stint in the tiny nation would have been nothing short of pristine tropical paradise.
The south coast of is a fun blend of upscale British-esque resorts and poor but charming fishing villages where tiny cafes serve the seafood dishes of the day and sun kissed men perch lazily on the verandah with a super bock beer.
Like most European destinations even the smallest of Portuguese villages boast an almost intact “old town” where narrow cobbled streets make walking a joy but cycling a pain in the proverbial ass and it’s here you’ll find even the most rustic of shop owners putting on the “charm” for tourists.
We’d been reluctant to leave Lagos and its sunny palm-lined streets but truth be told the entire south coast was a hot bed of cheap meals, easy smiles and off season relaxation. It made us push the peddles slower and stop longer at each village and by time we made it to Tavira, just 20km shy of the Spanish border, we were ready to take a siesta for the rest of winter.
It had all gone down hill at Faro, thirty kilometres west, where we’d pulled in for a night at a cheap hostel only to dawdle so lazily over our morning coffee we bit the bullet and stayed another night. We then spent the next couple of hours chatting to fellow Aussie Ros (who works for Contiki Tours but was spending her downtime as a hostel volunteer for a free bed and meals) before negotiating the slippery cobbles of the old town and stopping off at a cheap pizzeria for a meal we nevertheless couldn’t afford.
We were the only customers and were as a consequence, treated like long lost family at a five year reunion. The short and cheerful owner talked food, seafood (his greatest passion) and the decline of the traditional Portuguese fisherman while his adorable waitress, a Brazilian student studying a masters, compared life in her hot and colourful home town to Europe.
The following morning, when the bags were finally back on the bike, the hostel owner ran out to take our photo and heartily embrace us while telling us “how very brave you are”.
It was corny but heart warming and I guess that was how we were beginning to feel about Portugal.
Unfortunately Portugal, like everywhere, looks a hell of a lot better when the sun is shining so when the golden globe buggered off behind steel grey storm clouds the road began to look like something out of a Cormac McCarthy novel.
Just five kilometres out of Faro the road disintegrated, along with the scenery, as coastal vistas disappeared in lieu of slum style suburbia featuring buildings that needed a reno fifty years ago and mangy cats. We even spied a couple of 10 year old kids sitting in crumbling old wagons attached to horses that looked as though they’d been knocking on death’s door for five years.
The plan was to stop at Tavira for lunch as it was a mere 40km down the road but somewhere between lunch on the river of this old moorish town and a visit from the sun changed our plans as rapidly as the weather.
We’d entered Tavira thinking it was just another slightly crumbling fishing town but within an hour had changed our minds.
The Lonely Planet guide had informed us of a well priced youth hostel lay in the city centre and was “a picture of Moorish charm” and after deciding “what the hell” we dawdled over to discover that for once the book was right.
Hostels are by and large the backpackers’ equivalent to rolling the dice. We’d encountered extortionately priced hovels with grime running down the walls (Dublin) and 12 bed rooms containing 10 beds of creeps (Wales) but every now and then you stumbled across a gem that made you want to quit your travels and become one of those eccentric fifty year olds with eyes that looked in different directions and a permanent address at the hostel.
The Tariva hostel was just such a place – and it even had a few of the above characters.
The receptionist gave us a double room for less than the price of two beds in an eight bed dorm in Spain and we spent the next hour checking out the courtyards filled with Moorish day beds and the cosy living rooms before retreating for a siesta.
We stayed for just two nights and in that time we met an English teacher who (and I’m not kidding) looked like a mirror image of the crazy cat lady from the Simpsons but turned out to have taught English all over the world including Burma, Mozambique and the Arab Emirates.
We ventured over to the island (Ille de Tavira) and spent the afternoon collecting shells and sipping on iced tea at the only open cafe before chowing down on a bargain lunch of chicken, rice, pork and shellfish from an eatery endearingly called “grandma’s kitchen”.
Seville was the next stop but the morning we were due to leave gale force winds had turned the streets into gusty ghosty tornados and we unashamedly loaded the bikes onto a train rather than battling some of the worst headwinds we’d seen in months.
The train spat as back out at the Portuguese/Spanish border and we crossed a ferry (which struggled to sail into those still gale force winds) into white washed Ayamonte. It felt good to be back in Spain where the locals talk a little louder and laugh a little harder. The train ride had inspired us to leave the winds behind for good and we jumped on a bus to Seville, passing unexciting farm roads and embarked at 6pm into Spanish paradise.
Over the past few weeks locals and tourists alike had sang the Andalusian city’s praises and within minutes of leaving the bus station and peddling down our very own immaculate cycle road we were in love. Parks laced the city’s river, old architecture melded with first class facilities and the weather was glorious.
Our hostel was of the cheaper variety (nestled between old Spanish townhouses down a narrow cobbled street) and it was hard not to feel as though you’d stepped into a humble utopia thanks to hand painted tiles and white washed walls.
Even a sleep on a hard and lumpy mattress couldn’t dampen our spirits and the following day we hugged the river paths to the city’s magnificent Plaza De Espana. Trip Advisor calls this Seville’s top site and it’s for good reason. The Plaza is engulfed in an enormous green parks where doves glide between the trees and murals peek out of lush vegetation. It’s a tourist hot spot without being a trap (there’s no hawkers, drug sellers and shoddy stall owners) and the plaza itself is a marvel in architecture. A small canal runs around the building with quaint bridges crossing from one side to the other and it’s peaceful enough to warrant bringing a picnic and soaking up the majesty.
We spent an hour doing just that and then weaved our way through colourful streets to the trendy suburb of Santa Cruz where independent coffee shops and hipster cafes sat next to new age bike shops and second hand clothing stores.
Seville’s the kind of place you could plan a two day stay and find yourself still immersed in the charm weeks later but while we would have loved nothing more than to kick back for the long haul in what had fast become our favourite Spanish city, Morocco was calling.
I was sad to say goodbye to Portugal and Spain but I felt as though Arabian nights had stolen my dreams while fantasies of the desert had me ready to take the next ferry south.
But while I was excited I was terrified.
Our cycling efforts had been nothing short of dismal in the past few weeks thanks to my prolonged illness and a bike free stint from Madrid to Lisbon.
Yes we still had those chunky muscles developed painfully over the past six months but the last week had proved our lung capacity was down, our tolerance for hills depleted and our energy levels sapped.
We were facing tough weeks ahead including the mountains leading to the Sahara and I was operating blindly on “future Sarah’s problem” mentality.
I felt woefully underprepared for what would be our biggest challenge yet and while I had downloaded an Arabic phrase book and spent hours trawling maps and travel websites I knew Morocco’s manic medinas, freezing mountains and unforgiving deserts would test us.
We had another element of this leg to consider too.
It wasn’t Europe.
For the past seven months we’d been lulled into a false sense of comfort thanks to the relatively superb infrastructure and safety of Europe. In this part of the world a price is a price (it doesn’t change depending on your accent) and water is always safe to drink.
According to Australia’s smart traveller website Morocco was pretty much the opposite. Water is deemed ok in major cities but a “no go” anywhere else and the country’s Western Sahara region (a hotly contested parcel of land) is labelled with a dramatic “do not travel” stamp. It’s said to be full of landmines and conflict requiring a special visa just to enter.
So not only were a water filter and a new mentality on our “to get” list but more organisation. You can travel through Europe flying by the seat of your pants but in Morocco cyclists warned of roads disappearing into nothing, main highways being little more than dirty goat tracks in the mountains and even bands of angry children hurling rocks at foreigners from their impoverished villages.
Suddenly the biggest challenge wouldn’t be the cycling, but the raft of culture shocks.
From Sevilla we head to Tarifa and take a ferry (just half an hour) to Tangier – a hot bed of chaos with a bustling medina and surprisingly expensive prices.
We’re nervous, anxious, excited and mostly epically curious about this relatively safe African nation and with the great unknown lying ahead there’s nothing for it but to say “adios” to fabulous Spain and “ahlan” to Morocco.