Happy Endings

A bike ride of 436 kilometres is a long way to go for a dinner date!

Weeks ago, our daughter Sarah told us she was coming to Barcelona for a short break with some friends. If we could somehow get there by Saturday 20th November, she could meet us for dinner and we could spend Sunday together.

At the time we were vaguely thinking of flying home from Valencia. But this was quite an incentive … it would make for a very happy ending!

So we studied the map, worked out the distance, checked the kilometres per day, looked at the terrain and found that it fitted together perfectly … as long as our legs held up. If we kept pedalling up the Costa Dorada (Golden Coast), we could make it to Barcelona in time.

We did make it … and it was worth it! A lovely weekend together.

The journey itself was was very pleasant. The Costa Dorada is known for its flat golden beaches and calm shallow waters, punctuated by craggy hills that fall down to the sea in a series of steep turquoise bays.

For the cyclist this means being gently lulled into long periods of cruising … only to be rudely awoken by some short, sharp exercise.

Huge numbers of Spanish people have an apartment by the sea. For most of the year they live in busy cities but they all decamp to the beach as soon as the kids break up for their summer holidays, only going back when it’s time to shop for new school shoes.

From June to September the beaches, bars and playgrounds must be alive with the happy laughter of both children and adults. But by November they are ghost towns, in hibernation, all wrapped up for the coming winter.

For mile after mile we were able to ride on the paved promenades that line each beach, the gentle waves of the Mediterranean lapping the shore to our right, the sun on our backs. We could ignore the ‘no cycling’ signs as there were so few pedestrians to disturb.

A few of the more popular towns still had some life about them … Benicàssim, Cambrils, Sitges … all very pleasant for an overnight stay.

We especially enjoyed the tiny peninsula of Peniscola where we celebrated the end of a particularly brutal 15km section of ripio (gravel track) … gazing out to sea in a bar that served relaxing tunes along with the beer and the snacks.

Last bit of ripio on the way to Peniscola
Peniscola

It wasn’t sunny every day … winter was coming and sometimes we had to wrap up warm in almost all the clothes we had. The darker evenings rushed towards us as we rode north, only arriving at our destination as the sun was setting.

All wrapped up

The big highlight of the week came late one afternoon about half way between Valencia and Barcelona, when we peddled slowly across the Delta de l’Ebro (the Ebro river delta).

For centuries the silt flowing down the longest river in Spain has created a wetland that bulges out into the Mediterranean, perfect for growing paella rice and a haven for migrating birds. Over 300 species live or pass through there each year – including grey herons, great egrets and thousands of starlings that were calling out to each other to get ready for the evening murmation.

It was a Sunday which meant that most restaurants were closed for dinner. So we stopped for a Menu del Dia (menu of the day) fish lunch and a complementary bottle of crisp white wine.

When we climbed unsteadily back onto our bikes to ride across the delta, Clare idly mentioned that we were lucky not to have lost anything or had any accidents on this trip. Unfortunately she spoke too soon!

Andy was so taken by the birds, by the open blue sky, by the watery light reflected in the sodden fields, that he unclipped his phone to take a few shots of Clare from his moving bicycle. Something he has managed to do many times before.

However, this time the phone slipped out of his fingers and with just one bounce it plopped into a ditch at the side of the road and sank into the water, leaving a few bubbles to mark the spot.

The last photo before the phone plopped in the ditch (to the left)

Without thinking, he immediately jumped off his bike and lay down on the verge to try and fish it out, his hands stretching further and further out into the muddy silt until his whole arm disappeared. Just as he was about to give up, his fingers wrapped themselves around a familiar smooth and solid shape.

Triumphantly he pulled out his phone, shouting with joy … only to find himself staring into the dark eyes of a very worried Spanish man.

“Mierda … pensé que estabas muerto!”

(Expletive … I thought you were dead!)

Hearing a commotion behind her, Clare had turned around and was amazed to find herself gazing at her husband lying face down in a ditch, the wheel of his abandoned bike slowly spinning beside him. She flagged down the first passing car and seeing her obvious alarm, they immediately leapt out to help.

Several more cars rolled up … it quickly turned into a small rescue party.

Which was just as well as it wasn’t at all easy to get out of that ditch. It was very slippery. Many hands were needed to pull Andy out.

Many apologies were needed to restore what was left of his dignity.

Predictably it was the phone that died. A black screen was soon staring forlornly back at us.

But this is a story with a happy ending.

After several days of tender loving care to dry it out, the phone came back to life … just for a few minutes. The next day it worked for about an hour. But the day after that it pronounced itself fully recovered and has been working perfectly ever since.

So the visit to the waters of the Ebro river delta was worth it after all! Together with Clare’s cycling tops and Andy’s cycling shorts, this phone is an old friend … they have all been on every one of our bicycle tours.

But we have made a few changes to our bikes this trip:

1. Bike stands: Incredibly useful for quick stops, picnic lunches and in crowded garages, they are well worth the extra half kilo in weight. We wish we’d attached them years ago.

2. New tyres: Continental Grand Prix 4 Season have replaced our trusty Schwable Marathon Plus. They’re more comfortable on smooth surfaces, not quite as grippy on gravel.

3. Mirrors: Kept on from Vietnam, they’re great for keeping track of each other and for spotting big trucks rumbling up behind.

As for mechanicals, we’ve only had two punctures … both to Andy’s back wheel, which is not surprising as it takes the heaviest weight (him, not the panniers!)

More seriously the shifter for Clare’s front derailleur broke back in Lisbon. When she shifted into a lower (easier) gear, the chain leapt over the middle chainring and landed on the smallest ‘granny gear’ … a dramatic change in power. Fortunately, she could get it back into the middle ring by shifting up again.

We checked it out with two bike shops in Portugal. Both rubbed their chins, declared it broken, told us the parts were impossible to get in these strange times and shrugged apologetically.

This means she’s been ‘double de-clutching’ (as she calls it) for over 2000 kilometres.

This journey around Portugal and Spain has easily been our longest bicycle tour so far:

2915 km pedalled

22,880m climbed (2.6 Everests)

193 hours in the saddle

It’s also been our favourite.

Which has been something of a surprise … as it was only a late substitute for the ride we’d originally planned down America’s east coast.

A tough life in Sitges

Delightful late summer and autumn weather have certainly helped …. we’ve enjoyed endless blue skies, warmth and no rain since the 4th day of cycling! When the wind did blow, it was even-handed, dividing itself equally into headwinds and tailwinds.

Apart from a couple of small ferry river crossings, we’ve completed the whole journey on our bikes, pedalling for miles on well-maintained cycle paths and quiet backroads, with relatively small sections of busy main road or the dreaded ripio. Passing cars and trucks have been very courteous, especially in Spain.

Valencia

We visited eight magnificent cities … Porto, Coimbra, Lisbon, Seville, Cordoba, Granada, Valencia, Barcelona … all rich in history and culture.

Between those cities, the iMax view from our handlebars has created a new story at every corner … from the sand dunes of the Alentejo beside the wild Atlantic … to the orange plantations of Valencia beside the gentle Mediterranean.

Lunch stop in the Alentejo

The covid pandemic hasn’t affected us as much as we expected it to. A bicycle journey keeps you outdoors and away from other people most of the time. Both Portugal and Spain have both felt very safe, with relatively low case numbers and some of the highest vaccination rates in Europe. Everyone automatically pops on a mask when they go anywhere indoors.

Time will tell if we were lucky … as we write, travel bans are making a fresh comeback as the world becomes worried about the new Omicron variant.

Plenty of space

Staying in apartments was also safer during a pandemic. It meant we could cook for ourselves more often (especially vegetables!) and indulge in the washing machines. But we’ve also enjoyed learning about the food of both Portugal and Spain … a bit rich and meaty at first, we found that it gets better the more you understand it, helped greatly by Clare’s ever improving Spanish.

Valencian Paella

Lots of people have been asking us which parts of the journey we enjoyed most?

The answer is … all of it! But for those of you that love a list, here’s our league table:

  1. The Golden Triangle … from Tavira to Seville, Cordoba and Granada (589km)
  2. The Silver Coast … from Porto to Lisbon (639km)
  3. The Way of El Cid … from Cartagena to Valencia (342km)
  4. Crossing the Badlands … from Granada to Cartagena (346km)
  5. The Golden Coast … from Valencia to Barcelona (450km)
  6. The Alentejo and Algarve … from Lisbon to Tavira (549km)
La Mezquita mosque cathedral in Cordoba, our favourite building

There were plenty of mixed feelings as we eventually rolled down Avenue Diagonal into Barcelona, the same road we’d used to enter the city five years ago on our first cycling tour.

Excitement at seeing Sarah. Looking forward to going home. Sadness that this surprisingly good bike tour was ending. Relief that our legs could have a rest.

Cruising down Avenue Diagonal (again!)

Once again we posed for pictures at the Sagrada Familia (Gaudi’s unfinished masterpiece) and by the sea at Barceloneta.

See if you can spot the difference …

2016
2021

Next Autumn we still hope to pedal down the east coast of America … world events permitting. It will need to be very, very good to match the supersub that was Portugal and Spain.

Thanks for following us on this journey. Until next year … muchas graciasmuito obrigado!

Clare and Andy

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In the footsteps of El Cid

It felt like the last glowing embers of summer.

We were sitting by the waterfront at a small beachside cafe in San Pedro del Pinatar sipping a Cortado coffee and munching on a toasted croissant. It was 9am on a warm Thursday morning. In front of us the waters of Mar Menor, Europe’s great coastal lake, were gently rippling in the November sunshine.

When we eventually dragged ourselves away to climb on our bikes, we were so intoxicated that we decided to ride out into the lagoon past salt flats and mud baths. Blown along by a gentle breeze we kept going and going, only stopping after 7km or so.

Just one problem … it was the wrong direction!

As we turned around, the gentle breeze immediately transformed itself into a strong northerly headwind. Heads down, we battled our way back to our breakfast cafe and then onward up the coast, the wind becoming stronger and stronger as the day warmed up.

Andy admitted that he was secretly pleased to have to pedal a bit harder as he hadn’t yet lost all the weight he was hoping to shed.

“That’s OK” said Clare, quick as a flash … “You lose it and I’ll cruise it!”

She tucked herself into Andy’s not insubstantial slipstream and resolutely cruised it for the next few days. Whenever he started to flag, she joyfully repeated her words of encouragement until they become something of a catchphrase.

Losing it
Cruisin’ it

Our route briefly took us through part of the Spanish coast known as the Costa Blanca, much loved by Brits seeking winter sun. There were so many English voices and English signs that it sometimes felt as if we’d left Spain and arrived in a new part of Essex or Birmingham.

You know you’re in the Costa Blanca when you see signs like these …

But as soon as we turned inland past huge cacti farms towards Elche/Elx, we were immediately back in Spain. Elche/Elx is famous for being home to over 1000 shoes factories and over 200,000 palm trees which give it the flavour of a tropical oasis.

It has two names because Elx is the Valencian spelling, the official language of the region and very similar to Catalan. Elche is the Spanish spelling, sometimes referred to as ‘Castilian’ in this part of Spain, perhaps as a hangover from the country’s feudal past.

El Cid, a legendary hero from those feudal times, rested up in Elche over the winter of 1088 during his campaign against the Almorávids from Morocco, who ruled over most of southern Spain at the time.

In the epic poem ‘El Cantar del mio Cid’ (the song of my lord) the exploits of this much celebrated medieval knight take all of 3730 verses to describe. More interestingly to us, they’re also commemorated in the ‘Way of El Cid’, a cycling route that runs from Burgos in the north (where he was born) to Alicante in the south.

We picked up his trail in Elche and followed El Cid for over 200km all the way to Valencia, the city he dreamt of wrestling away from the Almorávids and ruling as a private kingdom.

After a year long siege, he eventually succeeded in forcing them out in 1094 only to die just 5 years later when they returned and besieged him back. Valencia then remained under Muslim control for the next 139 years.

With El Cid as our guide we climbed steadily through wide, fertile valley corridors flanked by forbidding mountain ranges on either side. He took us from one fortified hilltop town to the next … Montforte del Cid, Sax, Biar, Villena.

As the biting headwind accelerated towards us, Andy called back to Clare … “I bet El Cid didn’t like this!”

“He didn’t care” she replied, “he was on a horse, not a bike!”

Sax
Biar

Eventually the wind dropped as we rode out of Villena the following morning and slowly climbed up to 800m at the head of the valley. It felt very peaceful in the stillness of the autumn sunshine, a freshness to the air and a greater intensity of colour.

Somewhat surprisingly, this 76km day with 800m of climbing turned into one of our best ever.

Partly it was the long slow descent we enjoyed once we’d reach the top of the pass.

Partly it was the beautiful old towns we passed through … from ramshackle, medieval Bocairente to bold Xàtiva with its imposing castle.

Bocairente

Partly it was the delicious Sunday lunch, eaten in a simple restaurant full of Spanish families and so good that it easily powered us through the three short, sharp climbs we faced to reach Xàtiva and our overnight stop.

But mainly it was the orange trees!

Now we thought we’d seen plenty of orange groves near Seville. But ohhh no …. those are poor relations when compared to the oranges of Valencia. Valencian oranges are much bigger and much juicier. They’re just … more orange.

As well as oranges there were tangerines, mandarins, clementines and smooth skinned persimmons … an ocean of ripe fruit stretching out in every direction.

The trees were literally dripping with fruit, begging to be picked. It seemed rude not try one … or maybe two … or three. Fresh from the tree they were zingy and delicious.

Valencia itself is an old city in a modern wrapping.

The old walled city is a maze of tightly packed streets that open out onto squares buzzing with cafes and end-of-summer life. There are countless churches and a large imposing cathedral built over a mosque. In a corner chapel is a chalice that many people believe to be the holy grail, the cup that Jesus sipped wine from at the last supper.

The Holy Grail … allegedly

We wandered into the cathedral late in the day. It was almost empty apart from an organist practising a dramatic and somewhat haunting piece of choral music. As we stood behind the chancel letting it wash over us, we glanced down and were surprised to find ourselves gazing at a display case containing a wisened human arm!

It turned out to be the left arm of Saint Vincent, a 3rd century martyr who was rather unpleasantly tortured to death by the Romans. This saint has been following us around the Iberian peninsula … perhaps working with El Cid to help guide us on our way.

He’s the patron saint of both Lisbon and Valencia. But of more significance to us, the most south-westerly point of Europe, the ‘End of the World’ is also named after him. After his death, his body was thrown in the sea at Cape St Vincent where it was guarded carefully by ravens until it could be recovered.

So thank you Saint Vincent for the helping hand. For putting your arm around us.

It’s been finger-lickin’ good!

A white knuckle ride!

St Vincent’s arm

The modern wrapping of Valencia is the old riverbed of the Rio Turia. After several bad floods in the 1950’s, the river was diverted away from the city centre leaving a huge green strip full of playing fields, cycle tracks, jogging trails and gardens.

This new space also created room for the futuristic Ciudad de las Artes y las Ciencias (the City of Arts and Sciences). Opened in 1998 it’s a series of spectacular buildings that include an opera house, a science museum, an iMax cinema and a huge aquarium.

L’Hemisfèric iMax cinema (shaped like an eye) with the opera house behind
The science museum, inspired by the skeleton of a whale

Next door is the type of quirky museum we love to visit. This one celebrates Valencia’s famous festival which takes place each March. Las Fallas is a huge pyrotechnic party with parades, concerts, bullfights … and lots and lots of fireworks.

Overnight on March 16th, over 350 ornate structures (fallas) spring up across the city ready for the parades. Made from papier-mâché and wood, they usually consist of a central figure up to 20m high surrounded by lots of smaller life-size ninots.

Five days later every falla and ninot goes up in flames in a final blast of pyrotechnic glory. Except for one. A single ninot, pardoned by public vote, is preserved in the Faller Museum for posterity.

It’s fun to see how they’ve changed through the years. Right now, an old fashioned sentimentality is popular … children and grandparents sharing simple pleasures.

Sausage Vespa, taking grannies to mass (1958)
Hippie couple (1971)
Who is a shoemaker, who makes shoes (1989)
Don’t tell Grandma (2021)

As we leave Valencia, summer is eventually turning to Autumn in this part of Spain.

Waving a fond goodbye to El Cid we’re now looking forward to exploring 400km of the Costa Dorada (the Golden Coast) heading north towards Barcelona. Let’s hope the wind changes and it can live up to its name with some golden southerlies to warm our backs.

Clare and Andy

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Stats to Valencia:

2,465km pedalled

22,633m climbed

163 hours in the saddle

Crossing the Badlands

We always thought that the five day bike ride across the Badlands from Granada to Cartagena would be the biggest challenge of this trip. And it didn’t let us down!

The first test was to get through the mountains of the Sierra Nevada or at least the edge of them. It was a long climb up to the Puerto des Blancares pass (1297m high) but a clear blue sky, autumnal colours and cool, fresh mountain air brought back many happy memories of our first mountain journey through the Pyrenees … exactly five years ago.

Sierra Nevada

Descending the other side down to Guadix felt like landing on a different planet! This high plateau is the El Altiplano de Granada otherwise known as the Badlands.

Protected by the mountains which act as a natural rain shadow, the Altiplano is an arid semi-desert … stone dry and slightly forbidding.

Once covered in water, different rates of erosion between sandstone and clay have created deep gullies and folds in the earth. It’s an otherworldly landscape of yellow, orange and brown.

Some of the earliest fossils and bones have been discovered here, indicating that humans were hunting and gathering in this area over a million years ago.

Cave district of Guadix

The layers of sandstone and clay create perfect conditions for tunnelling out cave houses. Today there are several thousand cave homes in the area, the highest concentration of anywhere in Europe.

The main cave district of Guadix is an extraordinary sight. The whitewashed outer walls of cave homes nestle into the hillside. Stumpy chimneys and TV aerials indicate which mounds of earth are inhabited. A spiders web of pathways lead up and over many of the houses.

Once shelters for poor migrant workers, cave houses are currently enjoying a renaissance, as practical and trendy homes. Cool in summer, warm in winter they have many advantages. Need a new room? Then just dig one out!

Andy might not fit in this one

Leaving Guadix for Baza, the N-342 Autopista rudely blocked our path and made for a very tricky day. Built on top of the old road, it’s now the only way to get from one town to the other… and we humble cyclists aren’t allowed anywhere near it.

Instead, we found ourselves climbing up a dried-up river bed, taking long deviations on remote country roads, riding down a bumpy service road beside the motorway and sliding in the fresh, chunky gravel of a Via Verde that was really designed for mountain bikes.

The dried-up riverbed under the Autopista
The country road deviation
The Via Verde

This Via Verde came to an abrupt halt after tunnelling under the motorway just outside Baza. The only way back was up a steep track. So steep that we couldn’t push the fully loaded bikes up it and were forced to leave our panniers at the bottom, before climbing back down to retrieve them.

A new challenge for our bicycle touring CV!

The climb

The ride that day was only 65km with 800m of climbing … but it was slow going. By the time we eventually hobbled into Baza we were utterly exhausted!

The motorway tunnel

The following day was just as epic but much more rewarding. We pedalled across the remote desert wilderness of the high Altiplano for over 90km, climbing gently back up to a height of 1300 metres.

There didn’t appear to be any vegetation worth eating, yet several times we passed a classic biblical scene of a shepherd guarding his flock of sheep as they squeezed every drop of nutrition from the dried stalks of grass.

At lunchtime we bumped into Sandy and Chris, two fellow cyclists who now live in the unspoiled village of Galera where they have built a beautiful cave house on the hillside above the village. In an extraordinary coincidence they moved to this area from Bath, our own hometown.

It was interesting to learn more about the area from them and reassuring to hear that they had often cycled the remote road that lay ahead of us that afternoon, despite the threat of rain.

Their cave home Photo Credit: Sandy & Chris Hicks
Photo Credit: Sandy & Chris Hicks

Luckily the mountains protected us from a weather system that was stirring up storms across the rest of Spain, although the brooding skies only added to the sense of isolation. That same weather system also presented us with a strong westerly wind to push us along for mile after mile.

Trying to show the strength of the tailwind

There’s nothing quite like riding ahead of a powerful, sustained tailwind on a bicycle. A rare pleasure in our experience, it literally feels like you’re being pushed forward by an invisible hand. And it’s completely calm … there’s no hint of a breeze on your face because you’re travelling at roughly the same speed as the wind.

High Altiplano

After two of the most dramatic days we’ve had on our bicycles, we really enjoyed relaxing in Velez Blanco that evening, a pristine mountain village capped by an imposing fairy-tale castle.

Velez Blanco from the castle

The last two days from Velez Blanco to the Mediterranean port city of Cartagena were mainly downhill. We were riding on a Sunday and then on All Saints Day, a public holiday in Spain when families gather to remember their ancestors. This meant the roads were almost deserted.

Empty roads, a tailwind, a downward false flat and a sense of euphoria from making it through the badlands unscathed all combined to make us a little giddy. We took turns at pretending we were Mark Cavendish or Marianne Vos, surfing each others wheel before sprinting to an imaginary finishing line.

Perhaps the Badlands had made us a little mad?

But we felt we deserved a bit of fun. On our way to Cartagena, we passed 2000km and 20,000m of climbing for this trip.

Not too bad after all!

Clare and Andy

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Stats to Cartagena

2,124km pedalled

20,253m climbed

140 hours in the saddle

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Featured photo credit: Sandy & Chris Hicks

Cycling the Golden Triangle

One of the many pleasures of travelling slowly by bicycle is crossing a border from one country to another. Whilst there may be no change in the landscape, everything about the people feels completely different.

Spain felt like Portugal on steroids … it was bigger, grander, louder.

Where Portugal has small orange groves and olive farms, Spain has endless plantations.

Where Portugal has plazas filled with blue and white azulejos, the tiles decorating the squares in Spain are a riot of colour.

When those plazas are full of people eating and drinking, there is a low hum of conversation in Portugal. In Spain people are practically shouting at each other, such is their excitement.

Even cycling in Spain takes on a grander scale. We found ourselves riding longer distances, climbing more hills and looking out at wider horizons and bigger skies.

Looking across to Zuheros

Our plan was to cycle to Seville, Cordoba and Granada, the three great cities that form the ‘Golden Triangle’ of Andalucia, pedalling for three days to reach each one.

These cities were first shaped by the Islamic kingdom of Al-Andalus …which lasted for nearly eight centuries and extended at it’s peak to most of Spain, Portugal and even a bit of France. Then by Isabella and Ferdinand, the great ‘Catholic Monarchs’, who began the unification of Spain through their marriage and completed the Christian Reconquista of the peninsula when they captured Granada in 1492.

As the last Moorish ruler reluctantly left Granada, Isabella immediately agreed to sponsor Christopher Columbus for his voyage across the Atlantic. He was seeking a new trading route to India but instead discovered the Americas and with it untold riches for the Spanish royals, ushering in the Spanish Golden Age of Exploration.

Much of this wealth was spent on huge cathedrals, built over mosques to establish the dominance of the Catholic faith. As the architects of Seville cathedral said at the time …

“Let us build such a church, that those who come after us shall take us for madmen!”

Giralda Tower, Seville Cathedral

It is both awesome and awful.

Awesome as a staggeringly beautiful building. Among many treasures, it has the world’s largest altarpiece … 45 scenes from the life of Christ carved in wood and covered by an extraordinary amount of gold.

The altar in Seville Cathedral, created by a single craftsman

Awful as a symbol of religious power that was enforced by the Spanish Inquisition, set up by Ferdinand and Isabella at the same time.

This reign of terror, based on local informants, torture and ritualistic executions lasted for 350 years. The Spanish Inquisition drove out all other religions (Jews, Muslims, Protestants etc.) and gradually extended their remit to a wide variety of other ‘crimes’.

Having made all this wealth possible, Columbus is rightly honoured with an enormous tomb in the centre of the cathedral, held aloft by four kings no less, representing each region of Spain.

Tomb of Christopher Columbus

Cycling from Seville to Cordoba we followed the River Guadalquivir through endless orange plantations, interspersed with pomegranate, walnut and almond trees.

We enjoyed staying in small hostales, simple 2-star family run hotels that usually included a breakfast of crusty toast topped with tomato paste and olive oil.

A noticeable feature of these small Andulician towns is the large number of churches, each with a bell tower that rings out the time.

They’re charming during the day but not so endearing at night!

Whilst most churches stop ringing their bells at 10pm, some are less polite. One culprit was right next to our hotel. Clanging every half hour, it was so loud that we thought the bells must be in our bathroom!

Yes … we accuse you … the Inglesia de Santa Maria in Carmona … for keeping us awake all night! Luckily for you, we are not the Spanish Inquisition … so we can only name and shame.

The annoying bells

Cordoba was our favourite of the three cities. It’s famous for the Mezquita, a huge 9th century mosque that extends out in all directions through a series of striped arches. In the 16th century, a Cathedral was plonked right in the middle of it. This has created a unique ‘Cathedral Mosque’ that shows off the contrast between the simple, geometric designs of Islam and the more decorative Catholic style.

Inside the Mezquita

An important part of Andalusian culture is flamenco music and dance. We took in a show at El Cardenal in Cordoba where prize winning artists have been strutting their stuff for over 25 years.

To be honest, we didn’t know what to expect. But it was astonishing … from the virtuosity of the guitar playing, to the rhythm and colour of the dancers and the serious, passionate expressions on their faces. Standing ovations all round!

From Cordoba to Granada the nature of the cycling changed. It was mainly uphill!

We climbed more than 1000m a day, often riding up through groves of olives trees to stunning white villages that are nestled on the hill tops and are always protected by an old Moorish castle.

Moclin

Spain produces about a third of the world’s olive oil (more than any other country) and most of it comes from Andulucia. It shows … every day we rode through an ocean of olive trees, lined up across the hillside like legions of Roman soldiers. They call it the worlds largest human made forest.

It was noticeably cooler when we arrived in Granada ready to explore the jewel in the crown of the Golden Triangle, the Alhambra. This towering Moorish citadel is set against a backdrop of the brooding Sierra Nevada mountains and contains some of the finest Islamic architecture in Europe. As one of the most visited attractions in Spain, you need to buy a ticket several weeks in advance.

But it’s worth it … it genuinely takes your breath away!

Alhambra at night
Window inside the Nasrid Palace, Alhambra

Granada is one of the last places in the country to continue the highly civilised tradition of serving a free small plate of tapas with every drink. Each time you order a small beer or a glass of wine, a plate of deliciousness will magically arrive. Another drink, another different tapas.

One tapas we were not so sure about was Salmorejo, a local Cordoba delicacy. It’s a thick soup made from tomatoes, bread, olive oil and garlic, served cold and topped with crumbs of Iberian ham and hard boiled eggs. Delicious at first, we thought there was a hint of baby food after a few mouthfuls.

Salmorejo

So, where next?

Our immediate plan is to cycle east into the Badlands of Baza and then onto the Mediterranean coast at Cartegena. We promise to be good while we’re there!

Over the last few weeks a thought of where we might end up has been stirring in both our minds. Here’s a hint, from a picture that was taken in the Plaza de España in Seville (where Spanish tourists traditionally pose for a picture in front of a fresco of their home province).

It may not be our golden age of exploration but if we get there … it will be our longest bike ride so far!

Clare and Andy

Stats to Granada:

1,778 kilometres pedalled

16,613 metres climbed

120 hours in the saddle

To the end of the world

If you like quiet unspoilt beaches, seafood dinners straight from the sea and watching life roll by at a gentle pace … then the Alentejo is a perfect holiday spot you.

It will transport you back to a simpler, more innocent age where you can sit under a cork tree and gaze out at a beautiful rural landscape that seems unchanged for centuries.

But … perhaps it’s not the best part of the world for independent bicycle touring.

Situated south of Lisbon, the Alentejo is the poorest and least populated part of Portugal. That probably explains why most of the small country roads that criss-cross the cork forests and dusty fields are still made of gravel or sand.

Further north these ripio tracks are an occasional hazard. In the Alentejo, they’re lurking around every corner … rutted, very bumpy and often covered in heavy drifts of sand.

On a mountain bike it would probably be a lot of fun. But our touring bikes just slither from side to side … or grind to a halt.

A bit sandy?
Some new tarmac roads …
But not all!

So we stuck to riding on larger roads instead. Not the big main roads but the secondary roads that connect one idyllic white-washed village to the next. These proved to be very straight, very flat and very narrow … therefore invitingly fast for cars and trucks.

They also contained an alarming number of obstacles at the edge of the road … large potholes, deep cracks, tree roots, drains, manhole covers. For the humble cyclist, riding along them can become a game of chicken. Smash into the tree root that’s looming up ahead? Or avoid it and swerve into the path of the car that’s zooming up behind?

Not a combination that adds up to a pleasant and peaceful bike ride.

Vila Nova de Milfontes

Whilst it may not be ideal for a bicycle tour, the Alentejo is a paradise for long distance walkers. The Rota Vincentina offers a network of over 750km of caminos to choose from, including the Fisherman’s Trail down the coast, the Historic Way inland and lots of shorter circular walks.

Relaxing at Zambujeira do Mar

But cycling wasn’t all bad! Apart from the delightful coastal views and the idyllic seaside villages, one of the best things about riding through the Alentejo was that we enjoyed a tailwind every single day!

Before we knew it, we had been blown to the ‘end of the world’, the name still given to Cabo de São Vicente (Cape of St Vincent), the most south-westerly point of Europe.

With only the brooding Atlantic Ocean beyond, people did indeed think it marked the end of the world, right up until the 14th century. We could kind of see why … it all felt a little unworldly as we cycled out to the cape early one morning before breakfast.

To the ‘end of the world’

As we reached the lighthouse our odometer passed 1000km cycled in Portugal. This also meant we have now pedalled for more than 10,000km since we embarked on our first bicycle tour from Bath to Barcelona, back in 2016.

On the way to the ‘end of the world’ we had a curious incident. A lady in her car flagged us down, rather flustered and urged us to be careful as there was a loose pack of dogs prowling around ahead. She was right … a dozen forbidding shapes were visible on top of the next ridge.

In rural Portugal every household has a dog. As we cycled past, each one of those dog’s barked as loudly as it could and flung itself violently at the fencing around its home. Perhaps to come and say hi? Perhaps to tear us limb from limb?

Either way … we’re a bit nervous of dogs!

As we reluctantly decided to turn back and go the long way around, a farmer rolled up in his wagon. He stopped, laughed and reversed back up to the dogs, urging us to follow him … which we did with some trepidation. As we reached them, he nuzzled a couple of the pack leaders and the rest immediately became as docile as could be.

We passed by without the slightest bark, not even a growl … in fact not even a flicker of interest!

Typical Alentejo houses

In the Alentejo we have stayed in lots of AL’s (Alojamento Local or self-catering apartments) often only booking one that comes with the gold-standard-ultimate-travellers-luxury … a washing machine!

But the main pleasure of an AL is that we can cook for ourselves.

Which creates a bit of a challenge as we can hardly carry a larder of groceries around with us in our panniers!

How do we get together a kit of ‘basics’ without repeatedly buying huge quantities and then wasting most of it? Olive oil, for example, rarely comes in anything less than a one litre bottle.

Clare has had to become very creative at collecting bits and pieces whenever she gets the chance.

She washes out the miniature shampoo bottles provided by some hotels and fills them with the olive oil, salt, pepper and vinegar. We carry a few cloves of garlic, some Italian herbs, chilli flakes, cumin and a couple of stock cubes … and bingo, we’ve got everything we need to make a familiar meal.

Clare’s kit

Every café coffee comes with a sachet of sugar. Every Pastel de Nata (custard tart) comes with a little cinnamon. Together, these combine to create some delicious stewed fruit to spice up our muesli.

The one big grocery item we’ve always got in our panniers is a large onion! But this has nothing to do with cooking.

Clare has taken to rolling around on it as a substitute for a pilates ball … to relieve her aches and pains after a long day in the saddle.

After a few days we usually cook them up … they’re always nice and tender.

Carvoeiro

Turning east along the Algarve, we treated ourselves to some beach days in Lagos and Carvoeiro. Suddenly we’d arrived in the English Riviera. You could tell this not only from the distinct Yorkshire or Essex accents that floated up from the pavement cafés, but also from the number of Tandoori restaurants that were suddenly available.

Boat trip from Lagos

Deciding not to cycle through all the pristine golf courses that hug the coast, we headed for the hills instead, passing through the lovely villages of Silves and Alte and endless groves of pomegranates, oranges, lemons and olives.

It meant a lot of climbing … but that felt like a good alternative to headwind that was developing near the sea. After all, you can’t go down a headwind!

The Algarve is only 143km wide so before we knew it we had arrived in Tavira and our last night in Portugal. To celebrate we treated ourselves to a night in a Pousada, an old convent converted into a hotel. It was delightful … so delightful that we even forgot to take away the sachets of sugar!

Pousada Convento Tavira

Marking the border between Portugal and Spain, the river Guadiana is crossed by a long motorway suspension bridge. For foot passengers and cyclists an old, wide bottomed ferry does the job instead.

For only seven Euros we chugged across and passed seamlessly into Spain. No passports, no Covid vaccination certificates, no passenger locator forms. Just masks. It was almost like the old days.

Ferry to Spain

As in any country, Portugal has its own curiosities. Sardines are served to your table still in the can. Cutlery comes in a paper bag to keep off the dust (and more recently the virus). Pastel de Nata are a daily obsession.

But one of the most endearing curiosities is that men and women say thank you slightly differently.

It’s obrigado for men and obrigada for women, regardless of who you’re talking to, although nobody much cares if you get it wrong.

We’ve loved exploring Portugal on bicycles (including the Alentejo!).

So it’s a Muito Obrigada from her and a Muito Obrigado from him. We are both much obliged!

Clare and Andy

Our stats in Portugal …

1,222 kilometres pedalled

11,489 metres climbed

83 hours in the saddle

Magical mystery tour

As you cycle south towards Lisbon three things happen:

1. There are lots more tourists around. Further north, we only came across intrepid French tour groups. Now there are people from everywhere across Europe, which makes for much more of a buzz!

2. You need more cash. Everything becomes that bit a more expensive. This is best explained by the Clare & Andy Coffee Index which we use to measure the relative cost of everything, wherever we are.

In Porto, an abatonado (long black coffee) was €1.50. In the countryside it could be as low as 75 cents but by the time we reached Lisbon it was as much as €3.50!

3. It becomes a lot more hilly. A lot! Our average daily climbing metres increased from around 300 metres to well over 700 metres.

One of the steepest hills we tried and failed to cycle up wound it’s way up to Sintra, a fantasy hill station just north of Lisbon and the summer playground of Portuguese Kings and various other eccentrics.

As Sintra is much too hilly for sightseeing by bicycle, we decided to hire Twizy … a little electric buggy that we could just about squeeze into together for a magical mystery tour around the various attractions.

First stop on the mystery tour was the Quinta da Regaleira, an extravaganza dreamed up by an Italian opera-set designer on the orders of a Brazilian coffee tycoon locally known as Monteiro dos Milhões (Moneybags Monteiro).

The villa is packed with ferociously carved fireplaces and Venetian glass mosaics but it is in the gardens where they really set their imagination free. Footpaths wriggle through dense foliage to follies, fountains, lakes and underground grottoes, all eventually leading to the Initiation Well that has now become a symbol of Sintra.

As you descend nine spirals of the staircase to a mysterious underground gallery at the base of the well, the nature of the initiation is never explained. But there are dark hints that it involved the rituals of the Knights Templar!

Next stop was the Palacio de Monserrate, a Moorish-Gothic-Indian romantic folly created by a wealthy Englishman in the 19th century and surrounded by gardens from all corners of the world … English roses to Mexican yuccas to Japanese bamboo.

A corridor at Montserrate

Then onto the Convento dos Capuchos (Convent of the Hoods). Here monks lived a simple but well-ordered life in tiny hobbit-hole cells with low, narrow cork-lined doors.

But these cells weren’t cramped enough for one reclusive celibate, Honorius, who moved into a tiny burrow in the ground and stayed there for 36 years.

Mind you, he lived until 95 years of age, so maybe he knew a thing or two!

The Palácio da Pena is the antithesis of this spartan monastery. Built in the 19th century as the kings summer retreat, it’s a wacky, colourful confection of lilac and lemon towers, moorish domes and writhing stone snakes gazing across at a vast Moorish castle that became part of the estate.

Sintra is only 28km away from Lisbon.

However, as aspiring touring cyclists we decided to cycle 75km around the coast instead … just to take a picture at the lighthouse that marks the most western point in Europe.

Luckily we were powered by Travesseiros de Sintra, a puff pastry ‘pillow’ filled a syrupy, creamy mixture of almonds, egg yolk and cinnamon. Enough calories to last several days!

As we cruised down a rewarding 12km descent and along the mouth of the Tagus river into Lisbon, we agreed the longer journey was worthwhile after all. As the famous bridge got closer and the city came to life, we jostled with an increasing number of cars, bikes, electric scooters, runners and tourists.

Each morning we were woken by the sound of old trams rumbling by. But we didn’t mind one bit … as this is the authentic sound of Lisbon.

Dating from 1930’s, they’re still the best form of transport to climb up and down the steep, winding cobbled streets of the old town. From time to time, the road narrows so much that pedestrians are squeezed into doorways as the tram rattles by.

Lisbon struck us as a city to hang out in … and there are lots of people doing just that. At pavement cafes, in parks and at Miradors (viewpoints) each of which came with its own busker playing Van Morrison or Ed Sheeran songs.

View from one of the many Miradors

It’s also the city of Fado, a unique type of traditional music featuring soulful vocals, backed by the lilting sound of a 12-string pear-shaped Portuguese guitar and by a classical Spanish guitar.

The mournful lyrics are often about the sea or the life of the poor, and are infused with a sentiment of resignation, fate and melancholic yearning for the past. To some extent, Fado is a window into the character of the people here. This is captured by the Portuguese word saudade … a deep emotional state of nostalgia or longing for something or someone that has been irreparably lost.

Fado

As well as hanging out with everyone else, we did manage to drag ourselves along to what turned out to be the most extravagant monastery of them all. The Mosteiro dos Jeronimos was built to celebrate Vasco de Gama’s discovery of a sea route to India that would bring the country even more wealth.

Mosteiro dos Jeronimos

It includes a room that pays homage to many of the most famous Portuguese kings, including the nicknames given to them by the people.

Hence, the first king (Afonso I, 1139-85) is known as the The Founder or The Great.

Peter I (1357-67) whose love story we described in the last blog, was know as The Cruel because of the nature of his revenge. And perhaps because his other nickname The Till-the-End-of-the-World-Passionate was rather a mouthful.

Others nicknames the kings probably liked include …

The Handsome (Ferdinand I, 1367-83)

The One with Good Memory (Joao I, 1385-1433)

The Musician King (Joao IV, 1640-56)


But these kings might not have been so sure …

The Nuns Lover (Joao V, 1706-50)

The Asleep (Sebastian I, 1557-78)

The Fat (Afonso II, 1211-23)

Praça do Comércio, Lisbon

After all this sightseeing in Sintra and Lisbon, it’s now time for us to get back on our bikes to cycle south through the sand dunes and coastal plains of the Alentejo.

We’re looking forward to it. After all, there’s no mystery about bicycle touring.

It’s simply magic!

Clare and Andy

Picture Perfect Portugal

As we rode out of the delightful seaside village of São Pedro de Moel and climbed gently through a wood of maritime pines and huge eucalyptus trees, we were greeted by wide smiles and cheery “Bom dia’s” from every family we passed. Trees make everyone happy.

The air felt crisp and cool, the sun warm on faces. This was bike touring at its best.

Rounding a corner, we suddenly emerged into a starker landscape of charcoal stumps and blackened earth. It was all too familiar.

For several days we’d been cycling through the remains of the vast Leira Pine Forest, planted to build the sailing ships that drove Portugals golden Age of Discovery in the 15th and 16th centuries.

Unfortunately, 86% of the 110 square kilometre forest was destroyed by a huge wildfire in 2017. This small wood near São Pedro is a reminder of how glorious it must have been.

After the fire

On our route south from Porto to Lisbon, we’ve been alternating coastal rides with diversions inland to visit some of the great historical sites … Coimbra, Batalha, Alcobaça, Óbidos.

This part of Portugal seems ideal for bicycle touring. The distances are manageable (around 50km or 30 miles a day), it’s relatively flat and if you travel north to south you have a good chance of a tail wind to blow you along. We’ve been blessed with many sun filled days and a ‘Goldilocks-just-right’ warmth of around 25°c.

It’s also good value for money, both the accommodation and for eating out. As well as small hotels and Casas (traditional guest houses), we’ve stayed in several self-catering Alojamento Local (local accommodation) which have recently sprung up across the country.

Alojamento Local

Bike touring in Covid times has been easier than we expected. At the time of writing Portugal has relatively low cases and the highest vaccination rate in Europe … so it feels very safe.

To enter the country we had to show evidence of a negative PCR test or a double vaccination certificate. This is also required for tourist accommodation and, bizarrely, for indoor dining from Friday through Sunday (but not for the rest of the week, when restaurants seem to be just as full!)

We were worried that Brexit might cause us some difficulty as the UK is not yet part of the EU Digital Covid Certificate. This means that hotels and restaurants can’t scan our QR codes for proof of vaccination as they do for everyone else.

But it doesn’t seem to matter.

We say “… sorry, the scan doesn’t work for the UK one …” They then shrug, mutter “Inglês?”, shrug again … and we’re shown to our table.

Sardines and fries – a Portuguese staple

Here in Portugal people wear masks a lot. They’re mandatory inside and on public transport but plenty of people, young and old, choose to wear masks outside too. We’ve even seen them worn on a deserted beach … just in case!

Masking up at the end of a long ride when we arrive at our accommodation can get tricky. Sorting out the bikes, fumbling about with the panniers, lugging them upstairs, whilst chatting to the owner with steamed up glasses and sweat soaking through the masks can be a challenge!

All masked up for a boat ride

One reason why Portugal is such a great country for bike touring is that there are so many stunning things to see. A lot of them date from the Age of Discovery in the 15th and 16th centuries, when the Portuguese Kings had more money than they knew what to do with, so splurged it on lavish buildings.

Much of this cash came from a lucrative trade in gold, spices and slaves as the ships built from the wood of the Leira pine forest plundered their way around the world. Whilst it’s impossible today to sympathise with the ethics behind the source of the wealth, it’s difficult not to be staggered by the beauty of the architecture.

The royal palace, library and chapel at the ancient university in Coimbra, Portugal’s first capital.

Chapel of Sao Miguel, University of Coimbra

The castle and maze of well-preserved medieval houses in Óbidos.

Óbidos

But most striking of all, the imposing grandeur of the monasteries at Batalha and Alcobaça.

Batalha Monastery

Batalha, built to commemorate a crucial victory over Castile, took 200 years to complete. Ironically it is the Unfinished Chapels that most astonish visitors, the scale of the pillars and their ornamentation are even more dramatic for being open to the sky.

Unfinished Chapels at Batalha

At the monastery in Alcobaça we came across a tale of two star-crossed lovers to rival Romeo and Juliet.

In 1340 Afonso IV, King of Portugal, married his son and heir Pedro to Costanza of Castile. She was accompanied to the Portuguese court by Inês de Castro (her lady-in-waiting) … “beautiful as a flower, blond as the sun” … and just 15 years old.

Pedro fell in love at first sight … but with the wrong Spanish lady. He and Inês soon began an all-consuming love affair that threatened to rip Portugal and Castile apart, especially when Costanza died a few years later.

Alcobaça monastery

Fearing trouble and strife, Afonso refused to let the lovers marry and instead banished Inês. Desperate to be together, they found a way to live together in secret and even had four children.

Eventually the old King could stand it no longer and ordered her death. Three assassins rode to Coimbra and violently decapitated her in front of her small children. Her spirit can still be heard crying at the Fountain of Tears, site of her murder.

As you can imagine, Pedro was not happy about this. When Afonso died 2 years later the new king immediately set about tracking down the assassins. He found two of them, tried them for murder and ripped out their hearts with his bare hands … in revenge for breaking his own.

According to the legend, he then had Inês exhumed, dressed her in queenly robes and made all his courtiers swear allegiance by kissing what was left of her hand. Ugh!

She was reburied in the abbey at Alcobaça where they now lie together ‘até ao fim do mundo’ (until the end of the world). Quite a story!

Tomb of Inês de Castro

Cycling down the endless beaches and sand dunes of the Silver Coast (named for the silvery glow of the ocean on sunny days) has been a perfect contrast.

This is a surfers coast, every beach is dotted with human seals waiting for the perfect wave. We stayed at Nazaré, where an offshore canyon famously combines with Atlantic storms to create the biggest waves in the world, towering some 30m above the beach. Andy was tempted to have a go but, sadly, conditions weren’t right on the day of our visit and the waves were a bit small for him.

Small waves at Nazaré

No bike tour would be the same without some ‘dreadful detours’ and sure enough, Andy’s map reading skills have led Clare up the normal quota of rough stone tracks. But EV1 has been just as guilty, occasionally asking us to canyon around a steep cliff or climb a precipitous rocky path.

An EV1 dreadful detour

To be fair, EV1’s dreadful detours usually ended with a spectacular view. Andy’s just finished in a swamp!

Our next stop is Sintra, a fairytale land of dense forest sprinkled with imposing hilltop castles, mystical gardens and strange mansions. Not a place for getting lost. After all, we don’t want any ghostly tears!

Clare & Andy

Pedalling back to planet normal

As we bumped down the cobbled streets of Porto and wound our way past the decaying port wine warehouses that line the Douro river estuary, we felt a frisson of excitement for the open road ahead wrapped in a blanket of familiarity.

Back on our bikes. The weight of our panniers. A salty breeze in our faces.

Leaving Porto

As we all know, it’s been a tough 18 months for many people across the world since COVID-19 raised it’s ugly head. A world of lockdowns, restrictions, cancellations, social distance, travel plans on hold. A world of severe illness and loss.

Many, many people have suffered far more badly than we have. After all, cancelled bike tours are hardly the worst impact of a global pandemic.

But here we are at last. Back on our bikes and armed with vaccination passports, lateral flow tests and passenger locator forms.

It felt like a little bit of normal.

Leaving London Heathrow

Our original plan was to cycle down the East Coast of the United States from Boston to Miami. But the American government are not yet welcoming vaccinated Brits to their shores so that will need to wait for another time.

We’ve come to Portugal instead, seeking warm air and warm hospitality. Our plan is simply to cycle south from Porto and see where it takes us. Mainly following Eurovelo 1 (EV1) down the coast but wiggling inland whenever there is something interesting to see. Hopefully into Spain as well.

EV1, the Eurovelo Atlantic Coast Route, is part of a network of cycle paths that criss-cross Europe and runs from Norway to Portugal. We’ve cycled bits of it before, as it includes the Wild Atlantic Way in Ireland.

Porto by day
Porto by night

Porto (literally port or harbour) is a spectacular city that twists its way up from the mouth of the Douro river in a maze of medieval streets, colourful houses and ornate churches.

Pastel de Nata

Some of the food is as unique as the city itself. 

We enjoyed the port wine (of course), the Pastel de Nata (deliciously light custard and cinnamon tarts that are a one-a-day treat for many) but were not so sure about the Francesinha (literally little Frenchie, as it was adapted to local Porto tastes from the Croque Monsieur sandwich in the 1950’s).

A steak, some fresh sausage, cured sausage and cured ham are all stuffed inside two slices of bread and covered with melted cheese and an optional fried egg.  It’s then doused in a hot thick spicy tomato and beer sauce and served with chips and a large beer.

Enough calories to fuel any bike ride!

Francesinha – a Porto speciality

But not enough for a ride into the steep hills of the Douro Valley.

Haunted by memories of long, hilly days at the beginning of past trips we decided to take a tour instead. As we drove up yet another sharp ridge it felt like a smart decision … and gave us more time for wine tasting!

The Douro valley is stunning. Terraced vineyards, built behind ancient dry stone walls climb precipitously away from the river as far the eye can see, their whitewashed quintas (wine estates) glistening in the sunshine. Many with names that remember the end of a good dinner … Sandeman, Dow, Taylor’s, Graham’s, Croft.

Douro Valley

The first few days of this bicycle adventure have been spent gently pedalling down the coast on flat roads, cycle paths and board walks. Through pretty little beach towns and across salt marshes that attract a variety of migratory birds … herons, egrets, even some flamingoes.

A striking part of this area are azulejos, decorative tiles that adorn many buildings. In a tradition dating back to the 13th century these hand painted tiles help keep houses cool and beautiful.

Ovar, our first overnight stop, is a ‘living museum’ of azulejos with many fine examples from the 19th and 20th century.

Railway Station art

From Ovar we cycled onto Aveiro, a city that grew rich from salt but now relies on tourism as the self styled ‘Venice of Portugal’. It’s not quite as grand as the Queen of the Adriatic … although a gondola ride makes for a pleasant diversion, passing under many bridges adorned with thousands of brightly coloured ribbons.

Our young guide giggled as she encouraged us to join in … “you can tie a ribbon on the bridge for everlasting love and friendship … ooh-la-la!”

Sadly the ribbon shop was closed for lunch.

Each gondola in Aveiro has it’s own ‘kiss-me-quick’ image

The next day, we were reminded that bicycle touring is not all about easy cycle paths, boat rides and pretty coastal views. A fierce headwind blew up and it poured with rain as we struggled into Praia de Mira, sodden and a little weary.

It almost felt like cycling in England.

Arriving in Praia de Mira in the rain

But not quite. We’re in Portugal. Back on our bikes.

Ooh-la-la!

Praia de Mira, the next morning

Clare and Andy