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Head east, don’t die (part 1)

Portugal’s capital, beaches beckon

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Words and images by Jens Ourom

Bicycle tourists risking death and dismemberment in Sea to Sky Highway traffic, struggling up endless hills with all their worldly belongings strapped to their bikes — as these very belongings drag them right back down again — are a curious sight. Upon glimpsing these cyclists, I always find great solace that I’m not That Guy , whose life consists of getting very sweaty, and very nearly annihilated in traffic day after day.

So where exactly the idea developed that this would be a fun way to spend three entire months, I don’t quite recall. In an area of the world notorious for unforgiving summer heat, no less. Keeping with this trend of making life inexplicably difficult, four countries whose language I did not speak, and one whose language I spoke eloquently enough only to evoke vicious, disapproving glares from creperie restaurateurs, were decided upon. And some say planning truly enjoyable vacations is difficult.

In truth, the “plan” was far from complex. Having secured the companionship of a more-than-game Sean Wilkinson, we set ourselves two goals: bike across southern Europe, and stay alive. After deciding the ideal jumping-off point would be Europe’s most westerly capital city, Lisbon, Portugal, and a fitting terminal destination would be Athens, Greece, our goals were simplified; head east, don’t die.

And 4,507 kilometres, 94 days, five countries, one kingdom and 12 flat tires later we arrived in Athens with barely functional bicycles. But that is getting a little ahead of ourselves.

We arrived in Lisbon with the kind of bleary anticipation that accompanies jet-lagged travelers eager to embark on their adventures. Our excitement was matched only by our angst. Would our bicycles arrive intact? They did. However, any momentum was immediately stalled once we realized how time-consuming it would be to re-assemble the various components we had removed.

Hours later we saddled up our 50 kilos of luggage — including the sleeping bags, tent, and cooking utensils we hoped would make the trip cost-efficient.

Mercifully, Lisbon’s airport was located at the top of a hill, and the descent into the Baixa, the downtown, was well-marked. Unfortunately, we had absolutely no idea how to navigate safely the eight-lane roundabouts with infinite entrances and exits. Our trip was almost over as soon as it began.

Slightly perturbed, we could take comfort in one realization. After waffling back and forth for weeks, we had come to the right decision — mountain bikes over road bikes. Lisbon’s jagged cobblestone streets would have been a nightmare without suspension forks and fat tires. We had enough trouble simply balancing our loads and avoiding the miniature Peugeots zipping around us in every direction.

While bicycle touring, and even trekking, in Europe is not the most original adventure in history, we were still without concept of how long our journey would take, as most cyclists stick within the lush, winery-rich areas of Brittany, Provence and Tuscany. By hugging the Mediterranean Sea and exploring the sometimes alarmingly arid south of Portugal and Spain we hoped to make our journey distinct. The downside was the reality that we would have little or no information to pace ourselves. We would bike as hard as we could between major cities, recuperate for a few days while taking in the cultural sights, sounds, and smells of each of these cities and, ideally, this would take less than the 102 days before our scheduled return flight from Athens.

We settled in Lisbon for a few acclimatizing, jet-lag recovery days to begin.

Lisbon was nearly completely destroyed by an earthquake in 1755, and the modern city is mainly a product of post-quake rebuilding. As is common in ancient cities that have recently experienced major catastrophes, Lisbon’s buildings are relatively uniform in age, style, and size. A view from the Castle of São Jorge revealed a homogenous canopy of red-ribbed tile roofs. The castle itself, situated on the highest of Lisbon’s seven plateaus, was only fully restored and renovated to its present glory in the 1940s.

From ground level looking up, the influence of the Moors on Lisbon can still be felt, though Christian Reconquistadors ousted these North African rulers nearly 1,000 years ago. Clotheslines span alleyways, and one can’t help but feel a character in an Aladdin -esque cartoon. Alleys are enclosed by buildings that seem to gradually grow together, getting progressively closer until they nearly converge at the top, leaving only a sliver of light to cast shadows on the cobblestones below.

After experiencing this optical illusion, dining on salted wild boar at a restaurant sprawling into the streets of Lisbon’s pedestrian-only downtown, and spending countless hours contentedly lost amidst basilicas and soothing public parks, we felt the urge to progress. Lisbon’s passionate inhabitants, who heroically humoured our attempts at Portuguese, set the stage for what promised to be an enjoyable, if not leisurely, journey across Europe.

As we were only a few days’ ride from the southwest tip of Europe, Sagres, we decided we would follow the Portuguese shoreline south, and then strike eastward.

Just south of Lisbon, in Setúbal, I glowed upon issuing my first full Portuguese sentence that didn’t begin with “ onde está…”.

“Aqui… o aí?” I asked the grocery clerk, “here or there?”, and motioned to two potential spots to place my basket, after emptying it of our staple diet of chorizo, queijo , and the rock-like, tooth-endangering grain product Portuguese call bread.

“Aí.” She giggled — but had answered in Portuguese. Victory!

It was generally smooth cycling as we gradually increased our daily kilometre output from 50 to 90 by day six. At this point we reached Sagres, a destination notable, really, only for its geographic location, whitewashed fortress, and because it is the namesake of Portugal’s beer of choice. We had made a pilgrimage equivalent to that of visiting Molson, Canada if such a place existed, and felt like suckers for having done so.

However, the journey had been rewarding in itself, and we were not quite so naïve to be caught up in the destination, after a week of ideal riding, weather, and outrageous experiences.

What we encountered beyond Lisbon was exactly what we had envisioned at our kitchen tables before embarking: blossoming forests, startlingly gratifying stone kilometre markers, and pristinely deserted beaches for us to camp upon.

Surprisingly, we also enjoyed our fair share of encounters with cyclists heading the opposite direction. Passing one group nearly each day, we allowed ourselves to believe we would have company on the road all summer…

It would be over a month until we saw another cyclist. The reason for this became increasingly evident as we rode east towards Seville, Spain, into both the heart of the Iberian Peninsula — and summer.

A book detailing this journey, head east, don’t die, will be published in May 2008. For more information visit jensourom.com.

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