Week Three: A Tale of Two West Coasts
Setubàl to Porto, 563 km - total 1,279k
“Here comes another cove climb!”
Our shoulders would slump each time one of us uttered the dreaded warning, curving left and gliding joylessly downhill away from the oceanside cliff, only to meet a hairpin 160-degree turn at the bottom, brake almost completely and then begin the sharp ascent back to the elevation we had just left.
It was the summer of 2005, our honeymoon bike tour along the Pacific Coast of North America from Victoria to Tijuana. Following our hearts and Route 101, we marvelled at the majestic sight of ocean meeting land, and learned much about life while partaking in the great metaphor that is travelling by bicycle.
This week, our family now enriched in endless ways with our increasingly strong tween and teen, we rode a different west coast - Portugal’s Atlantic. A lot has changed in bike touring over the last seventeen years, but the immutable beauty encountered while travelling on two wheels, and the personal growth involved in our favourite pastime that we’re now passing along to our sons, remain timeless.
The biggest logistical difference we’ve noticed comes from our handlebar-mounted cell phones. On our honeymoon, we would write out the day’s directions from our guidebook onto an old receipt, cram it into a plastic cover on top of our handlebar bag and hope for the best. If we glimpsed an intriguing sign, we might detour briefly, but we probably missed a few highlights not far from our trail.
Now fully comfortable navigating the little blue dot on our BikeMaps app along the green line designating EuroVelo Route 1, we bound from one spectacular vista to the next - like the wave-carved hoodoos of the Peniche peninsula, and the dune-mound-covered beach with kite-surfers at Foz de Arelho. On the somewhat frequent occasions when the app has misimagined a boardwalk along a beach, or not updated for unexpected construction, we zoom in on the digital map and improvise our way back on route.
More than once, our little onboard computers have navigated us thorough complicated cityscapes that would have otherwise taken us days to untangle. In the suburbs north of Lisbon, we avoided busy streets and highway crossings via cul-de-sacs, dirt-bike trails and footbridges and even found a favourite-ever adventure park of high ropes and ziplines. In coastal vilas urban-planned by drunk Romans, we darted through narrow one-way cobblestone alleys and around multi-prolonged roundabouts like a Mario Brothers game.
Then, rushing on our way to the last ferry before 11pm from Forte de Barra to Sao Jacinto, Joce led our crew in a mad dash through a series of sudden turns, random bridges and picnic parks to the ferry terminal behind an old port warehouse, with minutes to spare. On our honeymoon we may have been happy to pitch our tent in that park or under that bridge - but with children (or, more honestly, at our age), we’ll take the GPS and getting there, thank you.
Speaking of arriving, in 2005 we would typically come to our planned town and track down the closest campsite - if it was raining, we’d take the first place we found with a roof, regardless of the cost. But now we have several apps that show us the places within our budget with a kitchen and room for four, and how to get there. We get cheaper rates because we use the same app regularly, and good deals for booking last-minute. We get our check-in instructions and all our questions answered on What’sApp so the host doesn’t have to even live in the same city. Then we GoogleMap the nearest grocery store or bike shop and get our errands done in a snap. Instead of tracking down stamps for postcards that arrive two weeks after the fact, we send real-time photos and even do quick video chats with siblings and all the grandparents.
Our phones have also changed the way we visit big cities. In Lisbon, we picked up a old school paper map for our day off, but found it easier to follow our phones through the old town, search up details on the church we were staring at, research the schedule, fare and best station to hop on the famous (and famously busy) Trolley 28, and even - get this! - pay online to rent electric scooters, then tap the first ones we found standing idly around town, which activated them for us to ride merrily around town until our payment ran out. Then we just left them there for the next person to tap.
Thankfully, our phones haven’t hindered the happenstance touring moments, like when a community choir emerged from out of thin air in a square one Sunday morning in Setubal, singing a short set for the spontaneously assembled crowd. We would surely butcher the lyrics that we had no hope of understanding, so instead we hummed the catchy tunes in our heads as we climbed out of town and onto the next.
Most importantly, though, our phones haven’t impaired our abundant enjoyment of the spectacle of west-coast nature. California has its redwoods and Big Sur - and Portugal has Nazare, where just weeks before our overnight visit, the world record for largest wave ever surfed was vaulted to 97.3 feet. A mammoth 5,000-metre-deep underwater canyon just off the fine-sand beach causes immense swells that collide with the tides over the continental shelf just to the north, forming Godzilla waves ideal for the new extreme sport of tow surfing.
From Nazare’s medieval fort on a thousand-foot-high rocky overhang, the ocean feels like an unearthly beast biding its time. Inside the old walls, a makeshift surfing hall-of-fame has a rainbow of boards hanging side-by-side, signed by the daredevils who now annually seek the elusive hundred-foot wave at the end of a rope pulled by their equally crazy friends on jet skis. We were a day late for the end of the three-month festival when the tidal height peaks, but could still feel the energy in the town and in the sinister current below.
To the north and south of Nazare, we stayed each night in a cozy beachfront town, in modest contrast to the resorts of Algarve, and watched the sunset over the water as the tamer waves lapped our bare feet and flushed the sand from under our heels. By day, we rode the coastal ridge, often with ocean to our left and the vast valley to our right, with splotches of orange and white vilas huddled on the hillsides. Often our route would drop us into one of these centuries-old towns, half-dead but half enlivened with fresh paint jobs and with splashes of modernity - a surprising number of solar panels on roofs and windmill farms atop the rolling green mounds. One afternoon we found a saltwater marsh with white flamingos, sparrow hawks, glossy ibis and even a purple heron taking flight.
This cyclists’ paradise is no accident: during the Covid pandemic, Portugal intentionally bolstered its Europe-leading bike manufacturing industry and built hundreds of kilometres of dedicated bike paths - vividly painted, abundantly signposted, and some wider than the car lanes beside them - in towns and in between. We frequently went hours along these smooth, flat paths without a break, getting lost in the scenery instead of lost in our route.
For all the beauty of Portugal’s geography, Mother Nature couldn’t be all kindness. Despite our diligent research, we faced headwinds like the waves of Nazare for days on end - especially in the late afternoons when the consistent gusts passed 50 km/h. Ed and Heron generally rode up front, with Joce to the west to keep Sitka as sheltered as we could. We blared our Spotify playlists but couldn’t hear them for the gusts blasting past our ears. Each night we arrived exhausted after riding those gloriously straight bike paths straight into a gale-force wall for hours. In Pedrogao, after 15km of a gorgeous straight shot through scrubby plains, we found the beachfront boardwalks and half the roads buried in dunes, and later our homemade Greek salad dinner had a gritty coating by the time we abandoned our picnic mission just after sunset and played euchre on our beds while feasting.
But it’s those daily épreuves that truly make bike touring such a magical metaphor for life in general - as recalled to us in unlikely fashion by a local curmudgeon in Nazare as we passed by his cafe patio table, out of breath after plodding our way back up from the surf museum fort.
“It’s all uphill, my friend,” the motorbiker-sized man with the goatee called out to Ed the family caboose in heavily-accented English. “And not just on your bike.”
Just like life, this week’s rides had their uphills - literally some absurdly steep ones that had the boys asking out loud whether we really had to go back down (just like those honeymoon cove climbs), and also figuratively like those headwinds, long stretches on deeply potholed country roads seemingly last maintained by the Visigoths, a dead odometer and our first flat tire in Sao Pedro de Moel just as we were departing a late-afternoon lunch fiesta.
But just like life, we’re coaxing our boys to build resilience through the uphills and notice the upsides that come along. While patching our flat, a charming old man stopped to check on us - first in Portuguese then in a blend of French and English. We haven’t had many lengthy encounters in Portugal so far, as the language barrier provokes a certain shyness on both sides. But Antonio had lived and worked in Cambridge, Ontario for several years, and was elated to tell us about his work in tool machinery and life in Portugal. His son Joao, whom we had subtly greeted with a Boa tarde back on the beach, later joined us to share his experience growing up in Canada then moving back to Portugal as a teenager. Without that flat tire, we would have missed this uplifting exchange. Life lesson learned.
But it was Heron who schooled us the next day, when our map app led us astray onto a postcard crescent beach in a bay protected by huge natural breakwaters.
“The boardwalk re-starts in 200 metres, I can see it!” he shouted down from the lookout dune he had just effortlessly scaled.
“Let’s just bike on the beach!”
“Nope!” came the quick, skeptical parental reply. We’d slogged through too many quicksandy patches in our time to agree to a half-hour of sweaty pushing.
But soon Sitka joined the campaign, running down to stomp on the dark part where the tide was going out.
“It’s hard enough I think!”
Once we calculated the equally daunting distance to go the long way around, we aquiesced. Within minutes, the boys found their rhythm and were cycling on sand. Soon after, parents were joining the giggly fun. We got our rims washed with saltwater and our cogs clogged with grit (the boardwalk Heron spotted was under construction, so it turned into more like a half-kilometre venture). But it was worth the tune-up session later to have tried something new and succeeded in overcoming another of life’s speed bumps, together.
After all, with pain comes gain. Our last day this week into the stunning city of Porto was gloriously smooth. At one point we were flying side-by-side as a family on one of those uber-wide bike lanes with the waves crashing beside us, like a Tour de France team in training. Looking between us to our grown-up boys so contentedly and capably partaking in our favourite kind of day, we felt blessed beyond belief to be back on a west coast again.