Portugal – pain and passion

I lie still, hardly daring to breathe. Nothing seems to hurt too badly. Opening my eyes, I see the tyre and grubby side of a white car. My bike is missing a front panier. I hear Jerry asking if I am alright and leap to my feet. Well, I must be alright if I can do that. My left knee is stinging and I look down to see small beads of dark red blood starting to appear through grazes in the skin. Really I am more concerned about my bike and start to check it over. I gather up the lost panier from the cobbles behind me and find, much to my surprise, that the fittings are undamaged and I can easily reattach it to my front carrier. A Portuguese man, collecting his daughter from school, rushes over and says something in Portuguese. I guess he is asking if I am okay and respond ‘Si, Si’ (Yes, Yes). Quickly realising I am not Portuguese, he swaps into English and continues to show his concern. I am shaken from my fall, but so is Jerry who watched my accident unfold in front of him whilst being unable to do anything except brake to avoid riding over me.

Grazed and bruised but still riding

We had been cycling into Lisbon on a pot hole encrusted street alongside bicycle tyre trapping tramlines. I had successfully negotiated many previous potholes in the 75cm between the tramlines and the kerb by riding around one side or the other. This pothole was wider and had a rut across the middle in line with my direction of travel. I saw that there was space to pass on the nearside alongside cars parked in a lay by. What I didn’t see from my saddle was the tiny height of the kerb edging the parking area. 4mm of granite set was low enough for my front wheel to ride up and high enough for my more heavily loaded back wheel to continue onwards along its edge. It took moments for my bike to swing sideways underneath me as the two wheels went in different directions and for me to find myself scraping across the hard black tarmac.

The assistance offered by the Portuguese man is typical of our experience here, and his ability to swap into English. Though many older natives will swap more readily into French. We have been helped out with directions, and strangers have offered us cool water from their own taps to keep us hydrated on the very hot days. In general, the people here seem a friendly bunch.

After a few minutes standing on the pavement, cleaning my wound, checking wheels and cranks, straightening my brake levers and generally calming down, we were ready to climb back onto our bikes and cycle the remaining eight kilometres to the campsite.

Lisboa campsite swimming pool

Lisbon proved to be an interesting place to explore and we did so by foot and public transport. Back in the 15th and 16th centuries, Portugal was at the forefront of European exploration of the rest of the world. Vasco da Gama was the first to sail to India, the Portuguese having previously become the first Europeans to sail around the bottom end of Africa. They also reached the Malaysian peninsular and travelled down the Indonesian islands. Heading west they found the Cape Verde Islands, the Azores and, perhaps most advantageously, Brazil. It is true to say that they laid claim to these lands overriding the natives already living there, this being not unusual amongst European powers at the time. Trade in spice, gold and other commodities brought great wealth to Portugal and it was one of the richest nations in the 16th century. That seems hard to believe today as the country works hard to get a grip on their debts. Much of the money was used to satisfy the Portuguese love affair with the tile. They use them internally and externally to decorate walls and floors of every type of building: houses, churches, railway stations, palaces and toilets. Not only do the tiles hark back to the geometric patterns of the Moors who ruled here for 300 years in the middle ages, but they are also used to paint huge paintings, often just using cobalt blue. We had seen so many examples of this decorative element on our journey through Portugal and so were keen to find out more about their history and manufacture. The Azulejo(tile) Museum is housed in a convent on the east side of Lisbon. The convent was decorated in 18th century tiles painted with religious themes and motifs and these have been added to with displays of tiles taken from buildings facing demolition. In the early days of tile making, they were all made painstakingly by hand, pressing the red clay into a mold and then leaving it to air dry. Various methods were used to decorate the tiles. One involved outlining the design on to the earthenware body with a mixture of linseed oil and manganese oxide. These slightly raised black lines prevented the different colour glazes from mingling before the tiles were fired in the kiln but evaporated at the high firing temperatures leaving only dark traces between the colours.

Cuerda seca tile technique

Later another approach was developed that supported the development of the huge murals that are seen on churches and public buildings. One side of the earthenware tile is covered with a layer of powdered glass mixed with tin oxide that prevents the glazes from intermixing. The design is copied onto tracing paper and, the other side of the paper is pricked with a sharp instrument and placed on the tile’s surface. The outlined design is transferred to the tile by brushing it with powdered charcoal, a process known as pouncing. A rabbit’s tail acts as a rubber to erase a mistake in the drawing or to remove any excess charcoal from the glaze. The painting is completed with high temperature colours using suitable brushes and then the tile is fired in a kiln at a temperature of 980 degrees celsius to fuse the glaze. The resulting tile is then ready to apply to the wall.

Majolica technique

Styles of tile have changed over the centuries as different designs have come and gone from fashion. The museum’s collection covers some 500 years of designs and I’ve put together a couple of collages of my favourite ones from here and other places in Portugal.

Other delights in Lisbon included riding on the old trams; elevating ourselves above the city by a hundred year old lift; visiting the Jeronimo Monastery, another World Heritage site and swimming in the campsite pool having bought ourselves some cheap goggles.

Riding on an old tram

Santa Justa Lift

Jeronimo Monastery

On our way south to Lisbon from Peniche, we had cycled along the world’s second surfing reserve at Ericeira. The coast here is made up of rocky outcrops with little bays and sandy beaches. The diversity of the waves and their various degrees of difficulty offer surfing to everyone from beginners to professionals. We stopped at various places to watch the surfers at play. Paddling hard to get out through the surf, as each wave broke they would dive down underneath the white frothing water. Then out beyond the breaking waves they lay in wait for the ‘perfect’ wave to catch, paddle hard towards the shore as it rose behind them and then leap to their feet to surf along its breaking edge for as long as possible.

Watching surfers surf

Everyone we asked about where we should visit in Portugal mentioned Sintra, so we went to find out what all the fuss was about. From early medieval times it has been the summer residence of the Portuguese royal family. Phillipa of Lancaster (yes, an English princess, daughter of John of Gaunt) married D. Joao I of Portugal in 1373 and set up an anglo/portuguese alliance that would last for centuries. Why is this relevent? Well, this is where she spent her summers in a palace down near the centre of town. We were spoilt for choice for places to visit and, if it weren’t for the cost, we could easily have amused ourselves here for three or four days. We choose not to visit Phillipa’s palace but instead to head up the steep wood covered hill beneath the Moors castle to the 19th century palace created by Prince Consort Ferdinand, a cousin of Queen Victoria and Prince Albert that stands high and colourful above all the surrounding territory. Ferdinand bought a disused monastery and converted it into a cosy, family home before adding a bigger extension to be used for Royal events. The original monastery building is painted red and the extension is yellow. Artisan craftsmen got plenty of opportunity to show off their skills with stone carving, colourful tiling and interior decoration. Terraces were built on to the side of the hill to provide views across the estate and countryside to Lisbon and the north.

Palácio de Pena, Sintra

We have now cycled about 8500 miles(13500km) since we left Scotland in May 2015. Last summer we visited the most northerly point in Mainland Europe so it only seemed right and proper whilst in Portugal to take in the most westerly point. The rocky headland and lighthouse of Cabo da Roca lies just north of Lisbon and is one of the highlights listed on day coach tours out from the city to visit the palace filled town of Sintra. We approached the coast through the World Heritage landscape that surrounds Sintra and got our first glimpse of the solidly built lighthouse from high on the main coastal road when we were still a good half an hour away. Jerry has sailed past this lighthouse a few times on journeys south to the Mediterranean but like me, had never seen it from the land. We whooshed down the hill from the main road passing through a village with angular white houses. Our speed concerned me a little as this would mean a steep climb up on the way back, but our elation on reaching another ‘corner’ of the European continent was enough to allay fears of the hard work and heat to come. Arriving at the lighthouse, we discovered that we had it to ourselves, the hundred plus other tourists heading straight for the monolithic marker stone further down the coast. We both like lighthouses, they have helped us navigate at sea, kept us out of danger and some, particularly on the west coast of Scotland, have become like old friends, a delight to see each time we pass by. This lighthouse, one of the oldest in Portugal, started operating in 1772.

Cabo da Roca, furthest west point on our trip so far

From Lisbon we cycled down the ‘undiscovered’ wild Alentejo coast to the Algarve. We think this title may be a little out of date as we met increasing numbers of camper vans who all seem to know about this rocky, wind blasted landscape. The tourist spots centre around picturesque fishing villages that now cater more for tourists than locals with fish restaurants, souvenir shops and a plethora of seaside paraphernalia such as parasols, buckets and spades and inflatable crocodiles. We made a vain attempt to escape it all by cycling down an out and back road to Cabo Espichel only to discover that it was an old pilgrimage site due to a sighting of the Virgin Mary back in the eighteenth century. The enormous, orange sandy car park, though not full, had a large collection of campervans and cars. Nearby, along the coastal path are the fossilised dinosaur footprints that for many years were mistakenly thought to be the hoof prints of the horse that St Mary was riding. Overnight though, we had the place to ourselves. The orange sunset colours changed softly into shades of deep blue. The mist rolled around the cliff, sometimes covering the distant twinkling lights of Lisbon and there was a cool dampness in the air. The planets and stars started to prick their way through the darkening sky and a half moon gently rose in the east. We ate our evening sandwiches watching in awe the beauty and vastness of the sky.

A loud noise woke me from my sleep. Rain was hammering on the roof of the tent. It was a sound that we hadn’t heard since early June in Galicia, 3 months ago. I started recalling the ground on which we had pitched and whether we were in a hollow. Should I be concerned that we would soon be swimming? I reassured myself that we were on a slope and on sandy soil so drainage should be good. I hoped that the storm would pass before morning as I didn’t fancy cycling in the rain just yet. It took me a long time to fall back asleep with the drumming drops overhead. Thankfully morning dawned dry and after a filling breakfast of bread, croissant and quince jelly we set off into a bright sunrise.

Sunlit cliffs in the Alentejo

I can’t leave the Alentejo region without mentioning cork. Half of the world’s natural cork grows here in Portugal and most of it in the Alentejo region. It is the bark of a tree called the Cork Oak. Unlike in the United Kingdom, almost all the wine here comes with cork stoppers and the population are proud of their cork industry. Often our roads have been lined with avenues of cork oak. The trees are about 25 years old before their cork is first harvested. It is carefully pared in a single piece from the trunk using a small axe. This requires great skill to avoid damaging the trunk of the tree. The tree is able to regenerate the bark and is ready for harvesting in a further 9-11 years. After harvest, each trunk is painted with the current year to enable managers to know when next to take the bark. The trees live for around 200 years so can provide up to 20 sheets of cork in its life time. Initially, after harvest the trunk is a ginger orange colour but it soon darkens to a deep brown. The cork is loaded on to lorries and taken off to factories to be processed.

A cork oak harvested in 2005

Cork bark on its way to the factory

So now we are in the Algarve, a traditional sunny holiday spot of many Europeans including the Brits. Our friends Shanda and Chris invited us to join them at their holiday apartment near to Lagos and they have been looking after us royally. We have a pool 10 metres from the patio and Meia Praia, a large sandy beach is a short drive down the hill. We have been tasting the local cuisine at beach hut restaurants – goat stew, seafood curry, tapas and grilled fish and whiling the evenings away watching swallows, geckos and lizards. A mottled brown grasshopper has just joined me on the concrete step near my toes. Tomorrow we head east again towards Spain and Seville. I think we may be cycling in some more hot temperatures before the year is out.


3 responses to “Portugal – pain and passion

  1. Fabulous writing as always! So sorry about your poor knee, but I loved your account and felt every slow motion moment! Glad to see you were up for whooshing down a hill later! As for that night sky, you make a great case for spending yourlife appreciating this amazing planet.
    Very best for the next bit! Xx


  2. It all sounds fantastic. The way you describe the night sky is great and I agree with Al there is so much to appreciate that is so close to us in distance. You both seem to be having the greatest time and met so many lovely friendly people. It puts your faith back into society. The slow lane is the best lane. xx


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