It’s hot here in Portugal. Early morning is not too bad, the temperature is about 15 deg. But by early afternoon, this has risen to 35+ deg and on one or two days it has climbed into the forties. As we travelled further east, towards the Spanish border, and the temperature rose, we started getting up earlier. Watching the sunrise over the ranks of distant hazy hills each morning became a new delight. As we get up the horizon is a deep blue with a yellow glow washing along the tops of the hills. By the time we have breakfasted and packed up an orange hue has crept up the backs of the hills and already the air temperature is rising. We start cycling, gently spinning the pedals to get the legs moving. The roads are quiet and the dogs mostly still asleep. It’s a beautiful time of day. 10 to 15 minutes later the sun peeps over the horizon and the temperature starts its steady climb for another day. We then have about four to five hours of riding before it is too hot. In the afternoon, the road temperature rises and we are baked from above and below. Our metal cleats radiate heat to our feet and the waterbottles heat up so that we end up drinking water warmer than our body temperature. It’s supposed to be better for you than ice cold water but there have been a few days when the latter would have been very welcome.
The Douro valley is famous for its Port wines but long before its slopes were terraced and the vines planted humans have chosen to make this place their home. Near Vila Nova Foz Cõa they left the marks of their passing on the rocks of the valley sides. It is thought that the earliest rock carvings here date back to the last ice age when early stone age man hunted these lands. 10,000 years later their carved images of horses and aurochs (large wild cattle) are still visible on the rocks, saved from flooding by a last minute reprieve from a huge dam project. Now they are guarded day and night by security guards and only viewable through a guided tour. We splashed out and bought a double ticket for the museum of this World Heritage and the guided tour with an archaeologist. I am intrigued by rock art. Why did someone make it, how long did it take to create it with flints used to peck away at the rock? Here, the archaeologists are yet to undertake any experimental archaeology to see how long a carving took to complete, but I reckon the artists had a lot of patience to keep pecking away at the grey schist rock exposed on the banks of the River Cõa.
Some of the carvings are very difficult to pick out, though the bright afternoon sunshine was not helping us. The earliest ones are easier to spot, they have been more deeply carved and larger, may be 20 to 30 centimetres across. The fine scratches of the later carvings, were almost impossible to pick out. Only with the aid of our guide and some line sketches could we start to pick out the lines that represent a human or an animal. Even then a lot of imagination was required and none of them showed up in my photographs.
Heading south from Vila Nova, we climbed up on to hot plateau lands within about 10-15 kilometres of the Spanish border. The landscape changed from vines to almond and olive groves, and then to dry scrub. Late frosts and heavy rain in the spring damaged both the almond and olive blossom and the farmers are expecting a poor harvest this year. Certainly we saw very few almonds on the trees in fields close to the road.
Our next stop was Guarda, the highest town in Portugal, and a day off the bikes, our first since leaving Porto a week previously. To earn this day off we needed to cycle 100km (60 miles). We had managed 63km by lunchtime, and stopped in the small hilltop town of Pinhel. From the middle ages, following the separation of Portugal from Spain, a fort was built here as part of a defensive network all along the new country’s eastern border. All that remains now are two of the towers. They offer expansive views across the rolling, arid, plateau lands to Spain. As we wandered around we spotted that each construction stone had a mason mark clearly carved on the side. These were used by the stonemasons to show how much work each one had completed and thereby to calculate their payment for the work. The guy with the curly ‘J’ seemed to have completed more blocks than any other mason.
Taking our siesta in the town square we debated what time to leave to complete the remaining 37 kilometres to Guarda. If we left later, around 7.30pm, the air would be cooler and the shadows longer, but we would only just arrive before nightfall if we were lucky. If we left earlier, say around 4.30pm, the air temperature would have peaked, but only just, and the roads would be at their hottest, radiating hot air upwards. We did discuss various inbetween times but eventually settled on 4.30pm. We were MAD! The road was generally trending uphill and we had about 350m of ascent to complete. There was very little shade, our cold spring water obtained in Pinhel reached 40+ deg within minutes, the heat rising from the roads radiated through our metal cleats making burns on the soles of our feet a real possibility. We preservered, stopping every 20 mins or so in any shade we could find to drink our hot water and get a slight cool down. The kilometres passed and eventually, around 6pm, we started to notice that we weren’t overheating quite as much. Around 7pm we hit the outskirts of Guarda and started a long climb up steep roads to the town centre that is situated 1056m above sea level. This is higher than most of the Scottish Munros! About a hour later, having sweated our way up the city’s steep hill roads at only 6kmph, we finally arrived at the municipal campsite. Tent up, shower, cheese rolls and we were ready for a well deserved rest.
Our day off included a walking tour of the medieval parts of Guarda, buying Jerry some lightweight shorts for workaways, and eating a whole tub of ice cream. The latter served the dual purpose of cooling us down and calorie loading, as well as being exceptionally tasty. In the evening we joined around one hundred locals and tourists at a couple of adjacent open air bars in the city square to watch the final of the football Euro 2016. I am not a great fan of football, in fact I feel bored most of the times I do watch it, but as Portugal was one of the competing teams I thought I wouldn’t miss the opportunity to share the atmosphere and emotions of the spectators. Some French holiday makers came along to cheer their team on with tricolour flags painted on their cheeks.
Each of the bars had a TV set up outside and from our position we could just about see both. Our bar’s TV had accurate colour representation but unfortunately was on a different channel to next door’s TV that showed the action 4 seconds earlier in lurid technicolour. We heard the groans and shouted glee before we saw the action that prompted it. The game went to full time with no score, though much disappointment from the Portuguese fans when their star player and Captain, Cristiano Ronaldo, went off injured in the first ten minutes. French hopes were high and their team made much of the running and created a lot of scoring opportunities but to no avail. Extra time was played. Our TV started posting messages about switching off in a few minutes if a button on the remote was not pressed. We all ignored these. Portugal came to life and started to keep the ball in their attacking end looking for opportunities to score. The fans were shouting encouragement, cheering on their players. Ping! The screen, as warned, turned off. The punters in our bar all leaned leftwards to try and catch the action on the other screen, many standing up in the process. A huge cheer erupted as Jerry, also craning his neck to catch a view, said ‘I think they’ve scored!’ Then, there was no seeing either TV as the Portuguese fans jumped up and down and kissed the cheeks of anyone they could get their hands on, including Jerry and me. A few more minutes of tension to see if the French would equalise and then the game was over with Portugal the champions. The city was filled the cacophany of tooting car horns and revving engines, as its inhabitants drove round its streets waving Portuguese red and green flags and shouting out in celebration to anyone they recognised.
Jerry and I love mountains and have walked and climbed to the top of quite a few in various countries. How exciting then to discover that we could cycle to the top of one thereby reaching the highest point in continental Portugal. The Serra da Estrella is a granitic mountain range in central Portugal that was one of the few places on the Iberian peninsula that had glaciers in the last Ice Age. Consequently, it has quite a different landscape to the other hilly districts in Portugal. It is filled with glacial geographic features such as corries, hanging valleys, and moraine. My old school geography teacher, Miss Harris, would have loved it. These features looked so like the examples she used in her slides to bring this topic alive.
We reckoned, that with the heat and climbing, we should take two days for the ascent so that we didn’t pass out with heat exhaustion. Up in the mountains there would be very little shade and we had about 1750m of ascent at gradients between 5% (1in 20) and 12% (1 in 8). The first day we dropped down from Guarda, and cycled through the damp cloud of a temperature inversion across heather and pine moorlands, very reminiscent of Scotland. On reaching the River Zézere, an the traditional village of Belmonte with its granite stone houses clinging to the hillside, we began the long climb. Our first port of call was Manteigas, the main village on this northeastern side of the mountains. There are a few suggestions on how it got its name. The one we liked the best comes from one of the products of this region. Having a cooler, wetter, mountain climate, there is more pasture for goats and sheep. The milk from these domesticated animals was used to make butter and the Portuguese word for butter is Manteiga. So when people wanted butter they would say they were off for Manteigas.
Manteigas has also been a place of refuge for persecuted Jewish families since the time of the Spanish inquisitions in the 15th century. However, even here, they were not able to be open about their faith until the late 1970s, after the Salazar dictatorship came to an end. To let other Jewish families know their faith they developed a unique cryptosystem known only within the faith. For instance, the door lintel would be stop chamfered along its bottom outside edge. Something that looked just like a bit of innocent architectural styling to most people but could be recognised by those in the know.
From Mantaigas we crossed the Rio Zézere and, after a series of steep switch backs entered a deep U shaped valley. Pine trees clung to its steep sides, whilst in the valley bottom, the stones had been cleared to create drystane dykes and small fields. A few shepherds’ huts remain, and we stopped to watch a man, far below us, rhythmically scything a field of grass to make hay.
Each time a pine tree gave some shade across the road, we stopped for ‘agua’ (water) and a cool down. The slight breeze was blowing us uphill which was great, but did mean our faces and arms became very sweaty as it wasn’t wicking off. By turning round at the stops, we could dry off and enjoy the ever expanding view.
At around 1400m, we passed a natural spring spouting forth cold water that had percolated down through the mountain rocks above. At 6 degrees, it didn’t take long for the back of my scalp to ache with cold when I stuck my head under the flow. Jerry resisted the cold water treatment and contented himself with filling our water bottles. A Danish couple pulled into the nearby layby in their car and came over for a chat. The woman came over to see our bikes and to check out what type of electric motor I was using to help me up the hill. She was very much surprised to discover I didn’t have one and had climbed all the way just using my own power. Wishing up ‘bon courage’, they continued their ascent by diesel power.
Soon after we stopped for lunch in a small, birch wooded corrie on a sharp bend in the road. It was marked on my map as a campsite, and had seen better days and a good deal of investment. There were twenty or more picnic benches spread over the wide flat bottom of the corrie, along with four fire pits. On one side, a couple of flushing toilet blocks had been constructed. They no longer flushed and with accumulating piles of shit, it was obvious they had not received much tender loving care recently. The place has no on site manager and was very neglected. We decided to do our usual burying of poos and picked a spot for our tent, in the shade and well away from the toilets. We watched Jays hopping around the trees, and, in the evening, got as badly midged as we do in Scotland.
The next morning we were up at 5.30am and on the road an hour later catching some cool before the sun rose above the peaks. We had the road to ourselves as we rode ever upward. The road is an amazing feat of engineering, maintaining an almost steady gradient of around 8-10%. It switchbacks its way to and fro up the granite ledges, sometimes hanging out high above our campsite corrie, then taking a short tunnel to cutting across a steep slope to find another piece of flatter land to execute another tight turn.
Two and a half hours of climbing later we pulled into a very sunny and windy summit car park. Nearby is Portugal’s only ski slope complete with tows and chairlifts. Yes, they get enough snow here in the winter to ski every year. The summit is 1993m above sea level and has 360 degree views across a huge swathe of central Portugal. We stopped long enough to take in the view and take a few photos, then, starting to feel cold (a novel feeling for us so far in Portugal), we hit the steep descent. 23 kilometres of downhill! Whoopee……