I came down with a cold so I’ve been shacked up in a cheesy resort in a town called Albufiera on the south Portuguese coast for last couple days while I recover. It’s nothing too bad but still bad enough to make the thought of riding unappealing. Good news is that I feel better today. Better news is that I’m hoping I feel well enough tomorrow to ride the ninety miles to the Spanish border and the city right beyond it, Huelva.
And the best news of all? I now have some time to catch up on the blog. I will proceed chronologically, starting with my first day on the road, April 20th.
April 20th, Day 5 on The Continent, Day 1 of The Ride
My first day began late, as is often the case with first days of bike tours. You always discover that something is fucked up: a broken spoke; an essential tool that’s gone missing; your head, because you stayed up too late the night before drinking. Chalk it up to Murphy’s Law. (Or, if we’re going to honest here: “Son, you don’t have bad luck. The reason bad things happen to you is that you’re a dumbass.”)
In this case, like a dumbass, I snapped the head off a crucial bolt that holds one of my racks to my bike because it wasn’t threaded straight into the braze-on and tried to force it (you know, exactly like a dumbass would) rather than remove it and start over correctly. It’s a lesson that the universe has tried to teach me repeatedly and which apparently I have failed to absorb: If something doesn’t feel right, it probably isn’t. Start over. Returning to square one is preferable to having to go on Amazon and order a whole new game of LIFE because you got frustrated that your friends were all retiring to Millionaire Acres with the five plastic peg children or whatever and your empty minivan is heading straight for the nursing home and so you spun the spinner too hard and it exploded. (A dubious metaphor. LIFE is the worst board game ever and obviously tool of the capitalist class to inculcate in children the lie that is the materialist conception of the American Dream.)
Just because a part is small and cheap and easily overlooked (in fact, it is the very likelihood that it will be overlooked that makes it pernicious) does not mean that it does not have the terrible power to totally fuck your shit up if it fails. One corroded o-ring caused the Challenger to explode–and at least as tragically, one tiny snapped bolt threatened to ruin my vacation.
But it all turned out fine thanks to the heroic efforts of a mechanic at one of Lisbon’s few bike shops, bikeiberia (Go rent a bike from them if you’re in Lisbon! They’re awesome!) who was able to drill the bolt out (breaking three drill bits in the process). Then the shop offered to use their retail discount to ship my two enormous cases to Barcelona. Then they asked me for thirty euros. I wanted to give them sixty but they wouldn’t take it. In even the darkest, dustiest, and dingiest bike shops of the world, heroes lurk.
A match on the Hindenburg, the o-ring on the Challenger, the spinner in LIFE
With my mechanical issue resolved and my bags shipped, I was ready to go.
So I hit the water. The only way to cross the river with a bike is to take the ferry. Then I rode about twelve miles through a run-down industrial suburb of Lisbon to…another ferry. This one took me from Setúbal, a sort of satellite city of Lisbon, to Tróia, a sandy peninsula and popular beach-y weekend destination (sort of similar to North Carolina’s Outer Banks). With the sun setting, I decided it was time to camp for the night, despite the measly twenty miles I’d covered.
And I’m glad I did, because I found what turned out to be a truly singular campsite. Just a few hundred feet from the ferry terminal, there was a gated dirt road leading off the (deserted) main road, with a sign “Ruínas Românticos”. With no one in sight and the guard booth vacant, I decided to investigate.
After following the dirt road for a mile or so, I came to a beach with the ruins of a villa on it. Next to the villa were more ruins–the promised ruínas românticos: the stone foundations of what had once been a Roman village. And then, for good measure, there were yet more ruins on the site: the remains of what a plaque explained was a seventh century Christian church.
And no one in sight. All I could hear was the distant bleat of the ferry’s horn and the cries of the terns swarming in and out of the shattered roof of the villa.
The villa and my trusty steed. (And experimenting with HDR)
The view over the ruins and the river to Setúbal.
The ruined villa’s forbidding facade
I climbed the fence and set to exploring. I was stunned that I had such an eerie and beautiful place to myself. That may partly be due to the fact that it is still the low season for tourism here. Or it may be that Europeans are simply more blasé when it comes really old stuff, given that they are surrounded by it.
With a clear starry ski and a steady breeze to keep the mosquitoes at bay, I didn’t bother with my tent. I laid out my sleeping pad and sleeping bag…and then couldn’t sleep because I was still jet-lagged and it generally takes me many nights to adjust to sleeping on the ground. So, surrounded by ancient ruins, the stars glimmering above and a crescent moon hanging from the sky, I lay awake curled up on the beach…reading my Kindle and sporadically checking my iPhone to see if anyone had liked my recent social media posts. [*Cue lugubrious philosopher voice*] I suppose such are the ironies of our modern existence, yes?
April 21, Day 6 on The Continent, Day 2 of The Ride
I did not really sleep that night. At some point in the night grew aware that my sleeping bag was growing damp from the mist coming off the sea. Soon enough there was no denying that I was, in fact, getting quite soggy. But in my stupor I did nothing and when my alarm went off at 7:00 I peeled myself out of my sleeping bag, packed up, threw my bike, my gear, and finally myself over the fence, and rode off.
I rode all day and then a significant portion of the night, too. The first hundred miles was perhaps the easiest century I’ve ever ridden. I had the wind at my back, it was relatively flat, it was warm and sunny, and I was riding along the ocean. Later in the afternoon, I cut inland into the countryside. It was beautiful. Everywhere there were citrus groves of gnarled orange and lemon trees, shaggy eucalyptus forests, and ruined stone farmhouses. It not only all looked beautiful, it smelled amazing: A medley of orange blossoms and eucalyptus, faintly cut with the earthy smell of manure.
The Portuguese countryside. The roads were virtually empty.
Then, around the 110 mile mark, it was no longer possible to deny that the twisty, windy section of the road I was following on my map indeed indicated a monstrous switch-backing climb…over a genuine mountain range, the the Serra de Monchique. Desperate to sleep indoors after such a long day and so little rest the night before (not to mention my dread of my damp sleeping bag), I kept climbing. And climbing. And then it was dark and it started to rain. Bicycle narcosis started to set in. The cleat on my shoe came loose–a very minor and easily fixed mechanical issue, one that would normally not give me pause–but I found myself screaming at my wrench for its impudence when it slipped from my hand. Then I ran out of cookies and so I started screaming at the empty wrapper for daring to contain so few cookies.
After a series of infuriating false summits (I screamed at every one of them for their falseness), I finally felt myself beginning to roll down hill. Several miles later, bedraggled and utterly exhausted, I arrived at my hotel in the town of Monchique. I took one of the best showers of my life, ate an entire pack of sliced ham and an entire pack of cheese (out of bread), talked to Lilian for a bit, and then passed out and enjoyed the first truly sound nights of the trip.
Total mileage: 140.
Supposedly what I would have seen from the top of the Monchique Mountains if it hadn’t been dark
April 22, Day 7 on The Continent, Day 3 of The Ride
I permitted myself to sleep in after the grueling ride the day before. When I eventually got on my bike, I was greeted with a gradual ten mile descent to the city of Portimão, on Portugal’s southern coast. I spent most of the afternoon fucking around there: I lingered over three or four or another number of espressos, I wandered around a huge supermarket, I found some gas for my cooking stove, I ate a pretty good sandwich and washed it down with a couple beers.
The Holy Trinity: Espresso; Sumol, a kind of semi-sweet orange soda similar to Orangina; and tarta, a tasty custard pastry that is available in even the lowliest gas station.
The view from the cockpit, sunset at my back. Sure to become a very familiar sight.
I concluded my day in the town of Albufiera, where I checked into a cheesy (but very cheap! 20 euros for a comfortable room with a kitchenette!) resort that clearly caters to the hordes of English tourists that descend on the Mediterranean coast during summer months. Then I went to bed feeling like I had some kind of allergy.
April 23, Day 8 on The Continent, Day 4 of The Ride
…and then I woke up undeniably sick with a cold. I booked the room for another night and spent most of the day sitting around sniffling and feeling too sick to ride but not quite miserable enough to take any satisfaction in feeling sorry for myself. Poor me.
April 24, Day 9 on The Continent, Day 5 of The Ride
And this brings me to today. Again, I woke up feeling sick enough that I didn’t want to ride and risk setting my recovery back so I booked one more room at the resort. I’ve been camped out at the bar, from where I’ve been observing the desultory old English couples taking advantage of the off season discounts. It’s less than riveting work and I don’t suppose that anyone even really has to do it.
But I feel well enough that I expect that tomorrow I will by on my way. The Spanish border is less than 100 flat miles away and I am excited to dust off my Spanish.