Yesterday was brutal hell. As a wise man said, when you’re going through hell, keep going. So I did. I knew the journey to Castelo Branco would be tough, involving more than a hundred kilometers through a patchwork of back roads. A confluence of factors — distance, mountains, strong headwind, and difficult navigation — created a brutal alchemy. I journeyed 130 km over 10.5 hours and climbed 2000 meters, going way off the grid and beyond my comfort zone in the process.
The morning started well. I had hills and headwinds to deal with, but I can manage that. I went through a couple small towns, which were more comatose than sleepy, and also through Macao. I couldn’t find any of the trademark features of the Asian version (casinos, dodgy massage parlors) so I kept going. At the hilltop town of Furtade I stopped for a snack. Upon setting off again, I reset my GPS to the next intermediate town. The GPS response was: “Not routable.” I tried routing to the next town and the ones after, all yielding the same “not routable” response. The GPS could not even specify my location (thanks, Garmin).
So I got out my map and set off on my intended route, which involved a series of lesser and more quiet roads. The secondary road which appears on my map doesn’t appear on the ground. There’s a major highway, but I know by now that’s off limits. So I had to carry on. There were a few cars on these backroads and I stopped one or two for directions. One man was very helpful, and explained in fast Portuguese that I will have to get to Castelo Branco the long way. “There’s no other way, sorry,” I understood in Portuguese. So I continued on desolate, empty roads, which were practically deserted after the highway was built. The one or two small towns I passed through weren’t even comatose; they were dead. I felt very uneasy being in the middle of nowhere, mindful the clock is ticking. This region looked abandoned. So I trudged on through nothingness, up and down and in the wind, toward the town of Nisa. It was dispiriting to have to travel in a Southeast direction in these conditions when I wanted to go North. I prayed. Eventually I got to Nisa and headed North on a more major secondary road to Castelo Branco. My faith is restored.
I arrived in Castelo Branco around 5:30pm and it took me another hour to get through the city and find the hotel. I had previously identified two hotels, the three-star Best Western in the city and the four-star Tryp Hotel on a bluff. I wanted the city hotel but just couldn’t find it. Upon asking for directions the fourth or fifth time, one gentleman pointed to the Tryp up on the hill and said it’s a much better hotel. By then I just wanted the day to end so despite my resolution to not stay on hilltop hotels, up I went. My fuel tank was on empty and the final stretch to the hotel was just too much. I had to push my bike and trembled with exhaustion by the time I reached the hotel. I almost had a meltdown when my bike didn’t fit into the European-sized elevator.
The Tryp Hotel had great internet, so did more extensive research on possible routings to Spain. I had originally planned to continue North in Portugal to the city of Guarda before heading east into Spain, but for one 1.2km stretch of a 100 km journey, the routing involved an IC connector road. That’s the same kind of road the police busted me on Day 2. So rather than risk another bust or a long work-around detour, I created Plan B. In my research before leaving Hong Kong one helpful cyclist whom I met online, Jim in Finland, told me about a good backroad from Castelo Branco into Spain. The staff at the Tryp Hotel tried to dissuade me from this route because of the hills. I decided to go with Jim’s advice and head for Valverde del Fresno, in the Sierra de la Malvana mountains, via the hilltop town of Penamacor. Great decision.
Today was near-perfect cycling, everything I expected and anticipated in touring rural Europe. I left Castelo Branco this morning with dread, anticipating a repeat of yesterday’s ordeal. Instead I was rewarded with rolling hills, and beautifully expansive, rocky countryside turned golden by the sun. The towns of Sao Miguel de Agua and Pedrogap were bucolic, sleepy, charming. People were out and about in the towns, friendly, cheering me on, interested in what I was doing. In Pedrogap I stopped for ice cream and chatted with a 90-year woman. She spoke Portugese and I spoke English and while we didn’t understand each other, we had a great conversation.
I also met another touring cyclist, Pedro, a Portuguese who is doing 10 days around the country with just a backpack. He told me I’m carrying too much stuff. We chatted a bit, and cycled together for a few kilometers before going separate ways.
Crossing the border was a complete non-event. I stopped at the Espana sign for a photo-opp. It was the same as travelling between US states. I love the EU.
I was also motivated to get to Valverde del Fresno (which naturally sits on a hill — no one wants to build in a valley) because I had a reservation at a rustic hotel which I found online. It’s such a great find, full of atmosphere and personality and comfort. The Avelha Fabrica was tastefully converted from a former textile factory. My room is a loft. I arrived by 3pm and soaked my tired body in a bath. This happens to be the most interesting, and least expensive, stay of the trip, but the meals run on Spanish time (9am breakfast, 9pm dinner). They agreed to accommodate my more American schedule.
So far my impression of Spain — all 20 km — is very positive. This is my first experience in rural Spain. The people are friendly and helpful, though I expect that language will be an impediment. In Portugal I got by with a combination of English and French, but Spain may not be so easy. As I am quickly learning on this trip, there’s always a lurking challenge to keep things interesting.
Days 3-4 summary:
Days 3-4: Abrantes to Castelo Branco, Portugal to Velverdere del Fresno, Spain
Days 3-4 distance: 129.35 km (Day 3) and 80.48 km (Day 4)
Day 3 acsent: 2015 meters; Day 4: 831 meters
Terrain: Day 3 – mountainous; Day 4 – hilly. initially flat, then hilly.
Weather: Overcast. Hard headwind.
Cume distance: 398.01 km
Cume ascent: 3,797 meters