With the hindsight of the past few months, it will come as no surprise to learn of the gratitude I feel for any travelling adventures I have had the good fortune and motivation to undertake. Last year’s cycling extravaganza in Portugal is no exception to this rule. Having had some time to galvanise the memories, I wanted to share some stories and anecdotes for anyone else wishing to take themselves off into the sunset on their faithful steel steed.
Before departing, I decided to keep this trip quite quiet. It was my choice to do this and I didn’t think it fair to put my family through any undue stress. I told those immediately around me, as well as a couple of friends whom I know as cycling-touring veterans, so I could pick their brains for information and advice. In particular, two Collett’s buddies Olly and also Emily, who writes the fabulous With Fair Winds blog about her own adventures on her bike Bridget.
As Emily has done her fair share of solo cycle touring, I asked her to share her plentiful knowledge about staying safe, healthy and happy on the bike. Her response matched my own thoughts perfectly; most people in this world are good people, have faith, and if it feels wrong it probably is – trust your own intuition. Dan and I have travelled together for a while now and in my life BD (Before Dan), I travelled with my favourite, Jo, a great friend from university. I had never had the opportunity to travel on my own, and that desire was something which prompted this trip.
I had some mixed reactions ranging from excitement to reactions centred around anxiety for my safety, but I was never nervous about this in the traditional sense. I knew the most dangerous part would be the actual cycling on the road – no different from cycling on the road to my supermarket, which I regularly do.
The morning of departure was mega stressful, I was overly concerned about the journey to my starting point: Lisbon. To get there I had to take a 6am bus from Angouleme (forgetting my metal water bottles 😩) to Hendaye on the French/Spanish frontier and then board the night train to Lisbon. Simple enough? No, no, no kind reader. No indeed. Bikes cannot possibly be taken on a bus or train as an actual bike. Perish the thought. For those of you who have ever tried to carry an unwieldy bike into, say, a shed, for example, will know the bruises, shin pain and pinching involved. Now imagine carrying said bike dismantled and slung over your should in a grossly inadequate bag (it really did look like a big white body bag), along with all your worldly possessions in pannier bags, your sleeping bag held in your teeth, as you walk across a train station, down stairs, up stairs, onto the platform, up the hideous steps onto the train itself only to be confronted with its itsy bitsy corridors, contorting yourself and the bike into positions a gymnast would be proud of. All the while the Spanish conductor is happily chatting away in Spanish telling me to hurry up. Muchos stressos. The only thing that got me over this ordeal was vino verde and a good ole chinwag with a lovely Londoner in the restaurant cart.
Once I arrived in Lisbon I put my bike, Marie, back together. It was the real start of the month-long trip. I cycled approximately 20 metres out of the station before I was promptly stopped by two young French cycle tourists, fresh off the same train, who invited me to share breakfast with them. This moment really helped me to get my bearings, because we heartily discussed our semi-planned routes as well as reminisced about the nightmare that is carrying bikes on a train! We exchanged numbers, and they provided me with endless information throughout my trip as they were well ahead of me, only having 12 days for their wanderings.
I spent the first day cycling on Lisbon’s beautiful cycle path along its riverside, all the way to the apartment of one of Dan’s online students in Oeiras. Getulio and his wife Barbara are Brazilian and invited me to stay at their lovely home, welcoming me to the city with such lovely hospitality. Meeting them in this way, through our online profession, felt like a lovely full circle, a real wonder of modern life.
The next morning I ‘commuted’ with Getulio on the train back into Lisbon city centre. I met his close friends and colleagues on the train where I caused a bit of a stir because the train was jerky and full and the bike heavy, so I kept dropping it! As we disembarked I walked alongside them all suited and booted towards their workplace. It was a beautiful moment as they questioned me about my trip and motivations. Getulio later told Dan that they continued this conversation all the way to their office, deciding that life is short so adventures should be grasped.
Here is where the adventure began, I took the ferry across the Tagus and cycled along the coastal road to Costa Da Caparica. I didn’t get far, I was enticed by the soft waves, sandy beaches and balmy weather. I camped up here, and on my first night alone in the tent I felt a pang of “I wish I had someone to share this with”. Luckily, there were many cats at the site, to whom I happily told about my day, the fun parts, any strife. They are great listeners. Cats were to be a theme of the whole trip, keeping me company most nights, some almost keeping guard with their little paws visible under the tent door.
I should have clocked that the first day was a sign – I was destined to be sucked in by the glory of the Atlantic throughout the entire ride. Originally I planned to do a circle in the gorgeous, rolling Alentejo region of Portugal. However, this best-laid-plan fell by the wayside as, day after day, I fell more in love with the wild, raging coastline. In the end I continued down the coast, eventually reaching ‘The End Of The World’.
The first few days of cycling were tough. Super tough. I managed to cycle myself to a place of endless hills and even into the mountains. My puny legs were not ready for hauling the 40kg bike. It was a baptism of fire, yet I have to admit I wouldn’t change those first two or three days. Yes, it was difficult cycling but the places were magical. Sesimbra in particular, where I went dolphin watching. This experience left me feeling like I could die happily in that moment because nothing is more beautiful than being so close to a school of dolphins.
After a few words with myself alongside phone calls to Danham, I realised I had to go through this physical pain to ensure my legs would beef up. My body obliged and by day five or six Marie was no longer some form of untameable beast; I had found my pace and henceforth my peace. Marie and I bonded entirely, she became my everything; my transport, my shelter, my getaway car, the recipient of my endless singing and my muse. In short, I relied on her.
An interesting point, which became more apparent the longer I was away, was that more people approached me than I had ever experienced on other trips. Reflecting on it I think it was a combination of being alone and on my bike. I was stopped, approached, chatted to, questioned, given advice and even cycled with, many times along the way by both friendly locals and fellow travellers.
The funniest story was of Norbert from Nuremburg. I was trying to calmly but also kinda speedily cycle down a pretty major road with endless lorries going by wanting to get to my turn off as soon as possible just to get off that road when a jolly ‘Morgen!” was heard to my left. Just like that, Norbert appeared, and cycled with me (at an exhausting pace!!) all the way to my next destination. We discussed many life matters, including how he works for six months and then cycles for six months. He had me in stitches (literally – still cycling fast!) when I asked him who he worked for and which employer allows such a great work/life balance, and he pointed to his branded cycling top and said “Bosch”. “They sponsor my life”. Chuckle chuckle!
I took every opportunity to swim despite concerned looks from the locals. It seems they don’t swim in the Atlantic in November, but it was practically tropical for a Brit like me. This penchant for swimming led to an unexpected consequence of often being on the beach for sunset. What started out as a novelty developed into something of an obsession where I felt stressed if I wasn’t at a suitable location to watch the sunset over the Atlantic. I was handsomely rewarded for this effort though, come rain or shine the Sun nearly always put on a show.
Once I was feeling strong, fit and confident, a second challenge befell me a couple of weeks in; Tempest Amelie. A storm straight off the Atlantic, it hit most of Western Europe, and not least of all me and Marie. I didn’t mind at all at first, I wasn’t cold and the first day or two were fine. But as the pervading humidity got into everything, including, finally my sleeping bag, I started to feel quite down about the dampness.
The final straw came about as a bad decision on my part – I decided to leave my camp and move on at the height of the storm. I desperately wanted to stay on the coast. So I chose, what I thought was, a coastal road. It was not – it was an off-road track. As I approached it I had already come down one cliff side to the beach level and exerted such energy to get Marie back up the other cliff side that I was not going to turn around and do that again just to reach tarmac. Well, my stubbornness/laziness was not rewarded. There was yet another cliff-beach-cliff combination coupled with a ferocious wind driving rain into my eyes. I couldn’t see a darn thing. My bike was slip sliding all over the “road”, losing my back wheel time and again. I was miserable yet randomly elated! I kept asking Amelie if that was the best she’d got. Looking back it was rather similar to the scene in Forest Gump with Lieutenant Dan shouting at the storm from atop the shrimp boat 😂 More elation followed when I randomly came face to face with a beautiful deer. She licked my hand – I must have been salty! I don’t know if that was from my effort or the incessant spray coming off the ocean.
Anywho, I turned inland eventually and made it to my next campsite. I was rewarded with another beautiful beach and sunset but the rain set in again not long after. Another night of trying to dry things out and I was at my sleeping-in-the-damp capacity. This is, after all, my holiday, so I decided (with some prompting from Dan) to stay in a hostel. It was a top choice – a beautiful little place where I met wonderful people, a cat, and….wait for it….a bed. *Jumps for joy, dances around the room*.
The cycling in Alentejo was truly lovely, generally very quiet with good-quality roads, it was only as I entered into the Algarve that things busied up a little. The landscape started to change; Alentejo was full of cork trees and pine, this gave way to orange and eucalyptus trees in the Algarve. So many orange trees.
I covered ground quicker than I expected, reaching ‘The End Of The World’ aka Sagres a bit earlier than I had planned. So after celebrating this landmark moment, from Lisbon down to the tip of Portugal, I headed east along the south coast. Not very far, just stopping at a couple of places before ending up in Lagos. I met incredible people in both Sagres and Lagos, fellow travellers I hope to stay in touch with.
After a relaxing few days in a quiet Lagos, I came back to reality with a bump by transporting Marie on a train…again. Due to changing to a linear route I had to take the train back to Lisbon to repeat the train journey home. Over the course of the month cycling around under my own power and at my own speed, I had conveniently forgotten what a pain it is to have a bike when you’re not cycling on it.
Anywho, after a difficult train and connection I arrived at night into a torrential Lisbon. I had to find my way to my hostel, which wasn’t fun in such conditions, and I was in danger of losing the peace of mind I had cultivated on the rest of the trip. The next day was brand new however, so spending the day sightseeing as well as meeting up again with Getulio, Barbara and their friends for a Brazilian Brunch, lifted my spirits.
Despite having a wonderful time in Lisbon for the second time, I couldn’t shake the feeling of impending doom about taking Marie home on the train. The reality was just as difficult as I imagined, although my motivation for getting home was as big as my motivation had been for the adventure. I couldn’t wait to see Dan and Whisky, and when Dan raced on to the actual train at Bordeaux to help me get my gear off the packed out train, I felt a mixture of delight, relief and euphoria.
I’m so grateful to Dan for being incredibly supportive of my desire to do this solo cycling trip – I think he understands because his own experience of solo cycling for 6 months in south-east Asia when he was 18 has shaped the rest of his life.
This trip was a glorious mixture of getting back to my own pace and rhythm, which even in a fantastic relationship, can be lost, as well as an opportunity to empower myself further, reigniting a memory of a time when I was completely self-sufficient in terms of looking after myself. Selfishly, I didn’t have to consider anyone else, I don’t mean this in a rude way, I mean it in relation to judgement. I was free of judgements from the new people I met because I wasn’t with anyone I knew. It was refreshing.
Marie was the only one who knew my secrets; perpetually singing whilst riding, sneakily stealing campsite electricity from the shaving plugs in the toilets, scoffing down literally 1000 pastel de natas, fuelling myself with pingado coffees, and guiltily watching an episode of The Graham Norton Show in my tent one particularly wet and damp night.
Lessons I learned include:
- Be sure to tighten the bolts on your pannier rack often. Then they won’t fall off on a cobbled street.
- Sing loud-Lee at every opportunity
- There is no problem that gaffa tape can’t fix
- Damp clothes suck
- Use your glutes!
- If in doubt, eat a pastel de nata 😄
- When a hill is seemingly too much, slow down and you’ll get there