Week Two: Portugal’s Awesome Off-Season
Vila Real de San Antonio to Setùbal, 454km (total 716k)
Algarve is a rising vacation mecca for wealthy Europeans - rivaling Ibiza, Nice and Amalfi for its sun-soaked beaches, dramatic coastal cliffs and ritzy resort life.
Certainly not the place for a family of sweaty cyclists on a budget requisite of a six-month tour.
Except for in March, that is.
“Look at this one, Mom!” sounded a common refrain this week from that day’s accommodation researcher. “It has a pool and a waterslide and a ropes course, and it’s only 32 Euros for a family suite!”
“That’s the cost for extra pillows?”
“Noooo. For the whole apartment!”
“Noooo. For the whole night!”
This may have been our most affordable non-camping week of the whole trip - actually, the nearby campgrounds were more expensive, for what amounted to a muddy patch in a treeless campervan parking lot. Each night we had a spacious suite (we even brought our bikes up the tiny elevators to join us) with multiple rooms, full kitchen and fancy soaps. We first thought the bidets were foot-washing tubs, but thankfully didn’t try them until after we discovered our resort-newbie ignorance.
The only downside (other than no fluffy housecoats) was that the waterslides and ropes courses were under yearly maintenance, and thus off-limits for our bummed-out young beach bums. The outdoor pools were open - but one ecstatic pair of cannonballs revealed the frigid reality of why no one else was enjoying them at the moment.
Otherwise, we were in cycle-tourist heaven with multiple pillows and ultra-comfy beds to rest our acclimatizing muscles in between stunningly scenic days exploring this natural paradise.
Like the resorts, the beaches were largely barren - still quite a healthy cohort of retired Brits enjoying the calm before the summer tourist tsunami, but loads of vast open shoreline to change into our bathing suits mid-beach and ride the warm(ish) Atlantic whitecaps before biking on to the next view.
After all, we didn’t come for the waterslides. Algarve is home to staggering cliffs and stunning limestone grottos carved by the mighty salt tides over millennia, just waiting for us to come explore. We are now experts in navigating the EuroVelo route maps and bike paths that come in all colours of painted asphalt, but still often end in abrupt dead-ends, like train bridges left unfinished mid-crossing.
We did visit one especially fascinating tourist-trap attraction that worked perfectly well off-season: SandCity in Logoa has Madame Tussaud beat with its unbelievable sculptures created over months by visiting artists from around the world. Their playful themes featured life-sized Asterix, Yoda, The Simpsons and Bob Marley, along with the Eiffel Tower, Big Ben and Viking warriors. We took our time to marvel at the intricate detail, the extraordinary patience and planning invested in a project so fleeting (a few heads and noses were missing like modern-day Sphinxes) and above all why we can barely make a beach tunnel that lasts five minutes before crumbling.
Our discount tour through southern Iberia’s tourist district also helped us shift languages from Spanish to Portuguese - which has frankly left us near speechless. Sure, reading billboards and grocery labels seemingly confirmed the similarity: some n’s become m’s, like una becomes uma, and sin (“without” - handy for those of us allergic to gluten) becomes sem. But when we tried our first Ola, bom dia, we got back a deluge of sounds we had no worldly idea how to put together - with an inordinate amount of “sh” and “ch” like the Slavic languages of Eastern Europe. It’s as though our new Portuguese friends are messing with our heads by speaking an entirely different dialect than the ones on their signs. Fortunately, since they speak English to tourists all summer here anyway, they quickly switch over when our glazed eyes make clear that our well-rehearsed greetings are as far as we go this early in our visit.
While our language skills may be lagging, our bike bodies are gradually gathering strength. After working so hard to keep up with the pack for the first week, Sitka took a nasty tumble down the slippery stone stairs at our hostel in Lagos. He was in so much pain that he was shaking and throwing up, which was equally traumatizing to Jocelyn, who stayed up all night researching tailbone injuries and how we might take care of “the little one!” as Portuguese people admiringly refer to Sitka. But true to form, our little energy-ball bounced out of bed the next morning, bruised and sore but eager to prove he could press on. He bounded gracefully about the cobblestone streets on an early-morning test ride with Ed, then Heron offered to absorb his little brother’s pannier contents into his already-second-heaviest load. For the past week Sitka has been merrily keeping pace with his much littler legs as we’ve hit successive 100km days including snack breaks, beach swims and ocean vistas.
Heron is equally keen to show off his teenagerly strength, sneakily packing the heaviest panniers (all our spare protein bars) onto his bike and giving Dad an easy day. He has even taken on the morning bread run all on his own - though he often comes back with additional sweets for his daily “Desserts of Europe challenge.”
Mid-week, we reached the very southwest tip of Iberia at the Farol do Cabo de Sao Vicente, with 270 degrees of ocean beneath breathtaking cliffs, before heading north and immediately finding a wholesale change in mood and feel up Portugal’s west coast. Gone are the swanky resorts, hectic highways and convoluted route-plotting - now we’re gliding along simple, straight country roads lined with vast open fields, citrus orchards, vineyards, rice paddies and distant rolling hills. Cows, sheep, and even ostriches stare back at us, and the occasional car slips past, often with hands, arms and whole torsos hanging out to wave and give thumbs up.
Every dozen miles or so we meet a winding, brake-burning descent to a peaceful, almost dormant vila of pure-white, terracotta-topped houses clustered onto the steep hillside, next to a postcard rugged beach - then back up sometimes unrealistic grades of road back to the countryside again. Midday, all the mercados are closed, so any Canadians seeking lunch groceries should have stocked up after breakfast in the last village.
On Saturdays and Sundays, we’ve also been joined by streams of fellow cyclists, of all ages, shapes and outfits - from the lean spandex-clad race trainers (and the working-towards-lean spandex-clad), to the retired gentlemen in their everyday plaid shirts and work pants out for a rip to pick up veggies from the store. They all perk up when they see us, applaud us vociferously at the tops of hills, and shout all forms of encouragement (at least we think that’s what they’re shouting) - part of that universal connection that comes from getting around on two wheels.
At one stop next to a lighthouse at Cabo Sardao we found the only place in the world where storks nest on rocky outcroppings a hundred feet above the ocean (looking after their own offspring, we presume, and not incubating baby humans for later delivery). Occasionally one will stand up, contort its rangy neck backwards and clap its long red beak together repeatedly in a captivating display of we know not what. Later down the road, we spot similar massive nests perched with some brilliant engineering on top of successive electrical poles, and then the telltale white head and red beak of these remarkable graceful birds pop up to check us out.
On these narrow, quiet roads we can often cycle two-by-two and chat away the afternoon - theories on how to pronounce Portuguese words, hopes for next year’s basketball tryouts, how many seconds there are in a year. It’s even greater biking bliss than off-season resort suites, even with the fluffy housecoats.
On our final day in the countryside before Lisbon, we were reminded of just how exceptionally fortunate we are to be on our European Epic. At a small village park in Melides, we met Julia, a mom from Ukraine and her two young sons who had just recently fled the war with a group of women sharing a house of a friend-of-a-friend in Portugal, and who had to leave the men behind to fight the Russian invasion. The boys - early school-aged - were playful and curious about our bikes. We shared strawberries and Yukon pins, and Heron showed them how to solve their Rubik’s cube. We’ve felt pretty powerless to do anything about the news lately, but for an hour we could give friendship, human connection and distraction to feel a smidge of normalcy in what must be an impossible time.