Camino Frances & Camino Portugues

A cycle tour through Spain and Portugal along the French and Portuguese Camino routes 

1. French and Portuguese Camino - Autumn 2023

In the early autumn I find myself cycling the French (most of it) and then the  Portuguese Camino routes, to and from Santiago de Compostela.  There is a variety of traditional Camino routes, reflecting the wide range of travellers and pilgrims who over the centuries have come from far and wide, heading towards Compostela, which is said to be the burial place of the Apostle James, son of Zebedee, whose remains somehow ended up in Santiago and were discovered by a shepherd guided by a star.  Allegedly.  Sound familiar ? Well, stranger things have happened, I guess, including Jesus going to the USA after his crucifixion to talk to a long lost tribe of Israelites who had ended up there and leading to the creation of the Mormon religion.  I suppose Apostle James ending up in Santiago doesn’t seem any more odd or unlikely ?!

Anyhow, over the centuries Santiago became an important and popular place of pilgrimage, especially during the Middle Ages.  People would journey there to pray at the tomb of St James for his intercession in their lives, difficulties, and especially for the all important issue of getting into Heaven.  It was big business.  People came from all over the known world.  The journey was called the Camino / walk / pilgrimage, and It has had a revival in the last few decades.  So, every year, tens of thousands of people do a version of the Camino, some from their home countries, some starting in traditional setting off points like St Jean-Pied-de=Port on the French side of the Pyrenees, some starting somewhere along the way.  Most walk.  Some cycle.  Like me. Some cheat and take minibuses or taxis and walk a few miles here and there. You can usually tell those ones by their designer walking gear.  The hardcore pilgrims do  the whole route, mostly the Camino Frances, which begins on the other side of the Pyrenees at St Jean de Port. However the Portugues route from Lisbon and Porto is also very popular.  You can tell the hardcore walkers from the weekend walkers because they are usually bedraggled looking after weeks of walking and camping or staying in pilgrim hostels.

Why do people do the Camino ?  Well, I guess there is a group of people who are of the mindset of the medieval pilgrims - looking for the help of the saint, looking to better their chances of getting into Heaven.  I think these days that will be the motivation of a minority, but many will still have some ‘spiritual’ motive for doing the Camino. It might not have the mechanistic, cause and effect, salvific motivation of the medieval pilgrim, but it will still speak to something deep inside them.  The fact is that many people do the Camino, and spend a lot of time, effort, energy, soreness, stiffness and expense in doing it.

I’m not sure why Im doing it.  Except that I like to spend my time cycling, and this is a route that is good to cycle.  I don’t think I can find it in myself anymore to believe in the conveniently contrived stories and myths behind the Camino.  Nice though they are.  I’m pretty sure that the bones which are claimed to be those of St James are not his bones.  There will be several collections of bones in other places that claim to be him and from which you could make up a dozen St James.   Like pieces of the True Cross that would make up a forest.  Or the several heads of St John the Baptist that abound in various shrines around the world.  And so on.  I’m content to be agnostic about the more unbelievable parts of the story.   However, there is something going on when so many people make the Camino, for all sorts of different reasons and motivations.  Something is going on, even it it isn’t about the bones of St James.  I guess it’s got to do with a broader spirituality, of people seeking, testing, discovering, about themselves and about others, trying to make some sense of themselves, others, and the world.  Not to mention the question of what happens when we are no longer here, as well as how we live when we are here !  Given the commitment of so many who do the Camino, I am prepared to give a hat tip. More than that I am not prepared to commit.  I will go and see St James’ tomb, and I will probably light a candle, and leave an offering, etc. etc.   Perhaps more to say thank you for a safe journey and for not falling off my bike !  At the end of the day, perhaps it’s best not to be too forensic about motivations, truth, reality, fact, story or myth. Maybe just go with the flow ?

So, Camino Francese and Camino Portuguese, here I come !  I’ll start in Santander, mainly because I’m able to get a direct flight there from Birmingham and not have to travel too far with my bike box in order to get to an airport.  Then I will head south across the Cantabrian mountains/hills and the Picos de Europa to join up with the Camino Francese route near Leon, head westwards to Santiago di Compostela, pause for a day, and then head south on the Camino Portuguese through Vigo, Porto, ending up in Lisbon. And then it will be a quick drive south to Faro for some, hopefully, autumn sun.


2. Birmingham - Santander - Palencia - 
18/19/20 Sept 2023

God bless Ryanair, cheap and cheerful, but they got me to Santander. It’s a small airport and I was out of it fairly quickly and able to put my bike together and cut up the cardboard box which was deposited in various trash cans around the airport.  Then a quick ride to my hotel, which smelt of cigarette smoke because the two old brother owners seem to spend their time walking up and down smoking cigarettes. Smoking seems to be alive and kicking in Spain. I won’t be going back to that particular hotel, not because of the smell of cigarettes, but mainly because they charged me €15 to put my bike in the downstairs storeroom. Never had that happen before. Food was cheap and cheerful in some local bar with an enforced wine stop on the way home because of a storm. And so to bed. 

My plan is to ride south from Santander and meet up with  the Camino route and some American cycling friends in Leon. Easier said than done.I set out on Tuesday morning, 19 September.  The first part of the ride was very nice along an old railway track, but at some stage I had to turn into the hills and mountains and that’s where things began to unwind. I really hadn’t done my homework, and I’d forgotten just how unforgiving and demanding are the Cantabrian hills and mountains and the Picos de Europa. These are serious, nasty, vertiginous, vertical mountains, not really designed for cycling up. I did my very best but by 3 o’clock I wasn’t very far and there was still lots more to do, and I worked out that I simply wasn’t going to make it to where I should be that night. Also, I badly needed water. So, prudence uncharacteristically dictated and I turned around, and free wheeled back down to Santander to regroup and rethink and spend Tuesday night there. 

 I was scheduled to meet up with Dean and Bev, two people I know from cycling in the US, who are currently cycling in Spain and will be in Leon for a couple of nights. So that I can meet them as arranged on Thursday,  I worked out that I could get a train across and through those bastard mountains on Wednesday to Palencia and then cycle from Palencia to Leon next day, Thursday,  which is what I did. However, the first bit of the trip was a bus replacement service, which wouldn’t take bicycles, so I had to cycle along the coast some 30 miles to where I could pick up the train on to Leon. Spanish trains are not very frequent, and only the regional trains will take unboxed bikes. So the regional express train, which is definitely not express, was the only option. But at least I got to see the beautiful hills, and mountains as the train meandered its way through the countryside. And so to Palencia.

3. Palencia - Leon
21 Sept 2023
115 km

I had a lovely whole squid for dinner last night in Palencia.  See the pictures.  That was about 10:30 pm, and people were still coming in to the restaurant at 11 pm sitting down to eat.  Spaniards don’t even think of starting dinner until at least 8:30 pm.  In the morning I was up very early and on the road shortly before 7 am, when it was still dark.  It doesn’t get light util 8 am here at the moment.  The weather was not great, rain showers and a stiff breeze out of the west right in to my face.  I had 115 km to do, so it was doing to be a challenge.  However, I made it, arriving in Leon for 7 pm, meeting up with Dean and Bev, and going for dinner.  It was a tough day of cycling, mostly across the flat plains of Leon, but made difficult by the weather and especially the wind.  There you are, I have mentioned the wind !

4. Leon - Astorga
22 Sept 2023
55 km

I cycled with Dean and Bev today to Astorga, about 45 miles from Leon.  They are taking their time on their trip, cycling no more than 40 - 50 kilometres a day, but I will need to be a bit speedier than that in order to get to Compostela, on to Porto and then to Lisbon, and then back to Porto to meet up with Richard and David for a Portugal road trip.  So, after today, I will push on somewhat faster.  Astorga is a small town, with a lively Plaza Mayor.  Eventually we found somewhere to eat that served at 8:30 pm and had a marvellous meal of octopus, oxtail and belly of pork after a sharing plate of local cheese and quince.  With beer and wine. 100 euro for the three of us.  Spain is truly reasonable price wise.  Mind you, apparently 1000 euro a month is a very usual wage for many workers. I guess you can find super expensive places, but the generality of good places are still reasonable on the pocket.  Along the Camino route cafes and bars up their prices because they have a captive audience / clientele who desperately want refreshment, but in the little villages and towns off the Camino trail prices are very reasonable.  As is accommodation. 

5.  Ponferrada - O Cebreiro
23 Sept 2023
55 km (mountains !)

I left my American friends to cycle their route to Ponferrada, but I needed to make up some time and distance, especially considering that there were some serious climbs on the route to Ponferrada, then to be followed by even more hard core climbs up to O Cebreiro where I needed to be that night in order to stay on track.  So, I entrusted myself to the 0752 Renfe train from Astorga to Ponferrada, which took me through some spectacular mountains with wonderful views of mist laden valleys and very rural villages and hamlets.  I still had 50 miles or so to do from Ponferrada to O Cebreiro, the highest point on the Camino.  Boy, was the climb tough, going up 3000 feet / 1000 meters in less than 10 miles in the final stretch to O Cebreira.  I had the added pressure of the guest house I was booked to stay telling me that check in needed to be before 6 pm because there was nobody there after that time, although the lady did eventually say she would leave a key for me under a stone !  The gradient up to O’Cebriero was serious stuff, and cycling was well nigh impossible on some sections.  So Shank’s pony it had to be. The little hamlet of O Cebriero is uber cool Camino territory.  Very hip, full of lithe long haired and bearded Australians on their gap year, lots from China, Korea and Japan, young and old , who probably haven’t got a clue what the whole thing is about or where they are but know it’s something that ‘with it’ people do, and a whole variety of the world’s walkers and pilgrims. Including me.  I had pulpo / octopus (a very Galician thing) and some kind of pig’s cheek, which was not what I am used to for pig’s cheek, which was all grizzly and cartilage crunchy and not to my liking.  Well, they say people like the Spaniards eat every bit of the pig !  The views from O Cebreiro are amazing, and the sunset spectacular.  It was chilly up there in the evening, even chillier the next morning !

6.   O Cebreiro - 
Palas de Rei
24 Sept 2023
110 km 

I had an early start, well, 8 am, because any earlier and it would be pitch black night in this part of the world.  One hour ahead of BST and two hours ahead of GMT.  I think.  And it was cold up there, especially so because the first hour or so was downhill.  Once the sun came out and warmed things up it was much more pleasant, although at this time of year the air is quite cool, even in the sun.  My target today was Palas de Rei, some 110 km away.  With the usual ups and downs, especially from Portomarin to Palas de Rei.  The town is another major stopping point on the Camino walkers’ route and full of the varied pilgrims I have come to expect.  My pensione had a contingent of Korean walkers, some of them built in the Kim Jong Un mode, together with the Dear Leader’s haircut.  They were noisy, and I had to ask them - politely - to keep the noise down.  Koreans shout and eat kimchi.  Not a pleasant combination,  Eating was in a very busy small restaurant next door, where I was well sated.  And then to bed, disturbed by the Koreans late at night and early in the morning.  I do wonder if they have a clue where they are or what they are doing.  They look so confused and out of place.  I’ve a feeling that the ones I came across were doing a relaxed and truncated version of the Camino - mostly via minibus and taxi - with the odd mile or two of the more benign sections walked. The hefty ones really would find it difficult to trudge up and down the Camino way that I have seen.  Each to their own.

7.   Palas de Rei - Santiago de Compostela
25 Sept 2023
95 km 

My ride from Palas de Rei today saw me arriving in Santiago de Compostela.  The landscapes and small rural villages along the way remind me of the west of Ireland , only with sun.  The locals, at least in the countryside, are a sturdy people walking around with a staff and tending their small fields and allotments and stock.  The Camino walkers / pilgrims provide a lucrative source of income for the many small guesthouses, cafes, bars, restaurants that are dotted along the way, and no doubt contribute greatly to the local economy.  Prices are a little inflated in these places, but I guess if you are gasping for water or a beer then you will pay over the odds.  The route was very up and down crossing small rivers, quite tiring when you haul yourself up a few hundred meters in altitude only to go down again and then to repeat, many times over.  The latter portion of today’s ride I stuck to the main N547, because most of the traffic was using the new autovia that is partly finished, consequently the N route was very quiet, with a nice shoulder to ride along.   Construction of the remaining autovia eastwards is ongoing, and is pushing through challenging territory.  I don’t understand why places like Spain are able to build high speed railways and autovias through this big country with its challenging terrain, while we struggle to build a single high speed line a few hundred miles through pretty benign territory.  If the Tory government cancels the northern section of HS2, they deserve to have a Peasants’ Revolt on their hands.  Not that they will mind because they know they won’t be in power to have to answer for it.  My lodgings in Compostela is an Airbnb on the edges of the city near the University Hospital, very modern and pleasant and bike friendly.  I’m happy to be a little out of the town because, if memory serves me correctly from previous visits, the city centre around the cathedral is very busy and noisy with walkers and pilgrims celebrating their completion of the Camino in to the small hours.  Out here it is quiet  I have a lovely restaurant just down the road, and a small supermarket nearby, so all my needs are catered for.  Today, Tuesday, I am spending some time doing a bit of personal admin of washing and drying, and I will do a bit of cleaning and maintenance on the bike,. Then I will either walk or take the bus into the centre this afternoon / evening to have a look at the sights and observe the walkers / pilgrims celebrating their achievement.  Then tomorrow, Wednesday, I will turn south on to the Camino Portuguese, heading for Porto and eventually on to Lisbon.  I wonder if I will run in to many walkers / pilgrims doing that route from south to north ?  I, of course, will be heading in the opposite direction southwards

8.  Santiago de Compostela - O Porrino
27 Sept 2023
110 km

I've seen Compostela a couple of times before, including the swinging massive thurible at the Pilgrims' Mass in the Cathedral.  So, I wasn't too bothered about doing all the usual end-of-Camino things on my rest day on Tuesday.  I was staying in an Airbnb apartment a little out of town, which was very a la mode, mezzanine  bed area, and comfortable.  There was a nice grocery store across the road and a lovely cafe and restaurant just down the street, where I had two dinners and my breakfasts !  I am a habit of creature, especially when I find somewhere that I like.  I was tired, so I slept a lot, and I took some time to catch up with personal admin. laundry and a bit of bike maintenance.  Also, catching up with this blog.  On Tuesday afternoon I walked up to the Cathedral and the square and looked at and watched the pilgrims / visitors, all types, shapes and differences.  Interesting time people watching.

My ride on Wednesday 27th September was south on to the Portuguese Camino route, which starts in Lisbon and goes through Porto to Compostela.  I will be doing it in the wrong direction, north to south.  I was surprised to see so many people walking this route, perhaps not as many as on the French route, but still considerable numbers of people passing by.  No doubt driven by the same motivation and energies as I have seen over the last week on the French Camino.

The ride to O Portino (with a little squiggle over the n) was very much up and down, initially down from Compostela, but then up over some mountain / hill ridges, at least twice, if not three times.  I just put myself in automatic mode when going up inclines, and then enjoy the freewheeling down and cooling off.  I notice that the Spaniards are planting lots of eucalyptus trees.  Very abundantly.  Why ?  They are not indigenous to the Iberian Peninsular, I think they are Australian.  So, why are they keen on planting them here ?

O Porrino isn't much to write home about, but I had a great bed sit apartment which met all my needs, including being able to take in my bike for security.  That's always an important consideration.  Self-check in properties with key codes etc make it easier to do that with all the fuss of asking. What they don't see they don't worry about.  I'm still smarting from the Santander experience where I was charged 15 euro for the keeping of my bike in some downstairs store room ! My review - I did not hold back !!  

I ate at an Italian place in O Porrino, which was very authentic and acceptable.  As I was about to leave at 10 pm a group of young Spaniards, late teens/ early twenties, sat down and ordered and ate.  All very civilised and normal here.  Youngsters go out and eat together, no fuss, no misbehaviour, just pleasant socialising and eating.  Very different from Broad Street in Brum where all you see is drunk overweight  white girls showing off their chubby midriff with early onset cellulite on their bovine legs as they teeter down the road on their stiletto heels, in company  with drunken - either lardy or scrawny - white lads, shouting, swearing on their way to another Five Guys hamburger and chips..   Spaniards learn to eat as families, and appreciate eating food together and spending time at the table.  We have lost that.  It's all take aways, snacking and grazing, and not knowing how to cook, or eat a proper meal. Fat is the new normal.  I guess most of those girls on Broad Street don't even think they are fat.  Problems for the future and all the associate health issues. . And I don't buy all the rationalisation that goes on about poverty, or opportunity as the reason for their bad diets. They have enough time and enough money to spend on Pina Coladas and Jack Daniels and Coke, or whatever they consume in vast quantities.  If they wanted to, they could spend their money on a proper and healthy diet. In great part it  has to do with upbringing, lack of interest, lack of horizons, and being limited in their aspirations for a healthy and decent life. Parents, schools, and the general culture of the UK are in great part to blame, I fear.  Telling, isn't it, that I haven't seen one drunk, misbehaving, swearing Spaniard in the last week.  Any day of the week I can walk down Broad Street and see it. Oh dear, I am getting old, judgmental and crotchety.

Tomorrow, Thursday, is crossing in to Portugal.

9.  O Porrino -Povoa de Varzin
28 Sept 2023
115 km

I crossed the border from. Spain to Portugal at Tui. The route was through bucolic wooded glades, a bit up and down, alongside large numbers of Camino walkers making their way north to Santiago.  I hadn’t realised that the Portugues Camino route is very popular, and that was very much in evidence judging by the numbers of walkers.  At one point there was a guy playing the Galician pipes, rather like Irish pipes or bagpipes, and doing good business busking as the walkers passed by.  It was very atmospheric as I went though those woods.

Tui is definitely a Camino town with all the usual coffee places, restaurants, hotels and B&Bs catering to the walkers.  The river is the Minho.  However, once crossed there was definitely the impression that I was in another country, Portugal !  In summary, Portugal is a poorer country than is Spain, definitely noticeable in the infrastructure and in the roads in particular.  Yes, they have the signature Autovia roads built with EU money, and one or two decent N roads.  But for the most part Portuguese roads leave a lot to be desired - narrow, poor surfaces, little or no shoulder and what there was would be potted and rutted with dangerous drainage culverts right by the side of the road.  

Worse still are Portuguese drivers.  In Spain I had a sense of some order, respect and courtesy from drivers.  They kept their distance, waited, gave me the right of way.  Once over the border, it was completely different. Fast, aggressive, intimidating, determined to get by no matter what, very dangerous and not at all fun.  It’s definitely a different driving culture from Spain. Portugal also has a lot of traffic, everybody seems to drive, and they drive crappy hand-me-down cars, no doubt from the more affluent Spanish, Germans and French once they have finished with them. I did not enjoy my cycling in Portugal because of the dangerous driving and the poor state of the roads, which meant that I was on edge and having to be super aware all the time.  I won’t tell you about the number of times somebody shaved me as they passed by at great speed, even though there was an articulated lorry coming the other way.  

In fact, so much did I not enjoy the cycling in Portugal, I have already decided that I won’t be doing any more cycle touring in Portugal once I finish this trip in Lisbon.  They have lost my business. I know I have cycled before for many years in the Algarve / Faro, but being an upmarket tourist area there is generally a decent bit of cycle infrastructure which seems to make it safe.  Elsewhere there appears to be very little, and also a careless and dangerous driving culture which now makes me think twice about cycling in Portugal again. Sorry, Portugal, lovely people though you are and wonderful weather that you have, and marvellous scenery - next time I will see it from a car !  I’ll just finish by reminding you that ,as well as the general awfulness of the driving culture here in Portugal, I had to crawl my way through Porto and Lisbon on this trip, and cycling through the urban jungle of those cities was just horrible as well.  Lisbon has some Gucci cycle infrastructure in the centre, legacy of some urban regeneration that has happened in the last few years, but outside of that, nothing. And, don’t get me started on cobblestones !  The Portuguese love their cobblestone roads, especially in towns, but they do not make for pleasant cycling.

Portugal has 55 road accident deaths per million of population (2021 figures), exceeded only by places like Romania (90), Bulgaria (80), Croatia (70), where I have cycled before and will not be returning.  UK figures are 26 per million, in company with places like Norway and Sweden.  Makes you think !

Anyhow, I persevered and ended up in Povoa de Varzin, staying in the wonderful Sao Felix Hotel overlooking the coast, but high up.  Note to self - after a day of climbing steep hills, don’t book a hotel that requires you to climb for half an hour at the end of the day on cobblestone roads to get to the hotel !  Still, it was a wonderful view from the top and a really nice hotel with a touch of class, definitely up a few notches from my usual hostal / B&B / pension.

10. Povoa de Varzin- Albergaria-a-Velha 
29 Sept 2023
100 km

Today was another day of up and down hills and pretty atrocious roads and drivers, which took me through Porto and on to the south.  Porto is a very hilly city, up and down to the River Douro, with an especially hard slog on the south side pulling myself out of the city.  I’ll be back once I’ve finished in Lisbon to spend a few days, so will explore the place then, before heading back to Lisbon again by car ! Albergaria is a Camino town on the Portuguese route, with a good choice of pilgrim / walker hostals and pensions.  Mine was very tidy and clean and pleasant, and very good value.  Food was pretty simple and basic in a local eatery, the girls serving me speaking with a bit of an Irish lilt, it turning out she had spend some years in Galway working before returning home.

11. Albergaria-a-Velha - Pombal 
30 Sept 2023
100 km

Yep, you got it, more hills and more indifferent roads and mad drivers !  What I have begun to notice is that the Camino walkers have given way to Fatima walkers.  Fatima seems to be a big thing in Portugal, and people walk from all over Portugal to visit the place.  My route took me through Fatima, where I had lunch and a snooze, and past the basilica and pilgrim centre which was moderately crowded.  I’ve been t0 Lourdes a few times, and Fatima is definitely a notch above Lourdes in its hotels and restaurants and general air.  All very swish, modern and contemporary.

If you are not familiar with Fatima and its story, then expect to come up against lots of Catholic stories and thinking which, as so often, require a sifting through judicious filtration and a healthy application of common sense if you are to get anywhere near what is really being said or meant, or come close to the reality. The Fatima story of apparitions and apocalyptic secret messages, threats of holocaust and destruction, sin and God not being happy with us and the world, the "dancing sun" which is supposed to have appeared etc. - well, they all leave me cold. And not a little annoyed that I am expected unquestioningly to believe such stuff.  Fatima and its story does seem spookily conspiratorial, secretive, and threateningly apocalyptic.  I think it's designed to make people scared and afraid of the world, the future, and of God.  What's the use of that ?   Except, perhaps, as a mechanism of control. A small detail leaves me particularly unsympathetic to the whole story.  The three children (see picture above) who apparently received the apparition of the “Lady in white” in 1917 were very young - 10, 9 and 7.  The “Lady” told two of them that they would not have long lives.  And, in 1919 and 1920, two of them duly died of the Spanish ‘flu.  I suppose the justifying narrative is that God loved them so much that he wanted to spare them this world and take them to the next ?  How cruelly capricious !  The third child spent most of her life in a convent, dying at the age of 97.  I know that in 1917 the world was embroiled in the First World War, and perhaps sensitivities were heightened as to the terrible things that were happening in the world (although Portugal was neutral during the First World War), and perhaps this led people to being open to believing all kinds of weird explanations for what was happening, and what could be done to make things better.  But, I’m afraid the Fatima story just doesn’t do it for me, and I am content to be critically agnostic about what is claimed to have taken place and to be suspiciously wary of the "messages" and "warnings" that are supposed to have been delivered to the children   And by critical, I mean that I think much of it is - well, frankly, patent nonsense.  Medugorje in Bosnia Herzegovina is another case in point.  Very strange, secretive, cult like  and pretty dubious.  But, people flock there as well.

My own reservations aside, I do recognise that people walk from all over Portugal to Fatima.  And, as with the Camino to Santiago, I am intrigued as to why they do it.  I don't think that they can all be fools and  taken in completely.  So, maybe there is something there that draws people for positive reasons ?  A wider spirituality, challenge, achievement, community. common purpose etc ? I suspect as well that there is something of Portuguese cultural pride in Fatima, something that has given modern Portugal an identity and put a part of it on the map, at least in the Catholic world, (although why they feel the need for more when they have such a wonderful discovery and navigating history in the likes of Henry the Navigator, Vasco da Gama, Ferdinand Magellan et al), I do not know !  And so the Portuguese walk the Fatima Camino in their thousands..  Each to their own. Live and let live, I guess.

I bet the inhabitants of Fatima count themselves very fortunate that the story of Fatima stuck and took on a life of its own, bringing in huge numbers of pilgrims / walkers over the last 100 years and more, all needing to be fed, watered and housed.  It will be a profitable business, without which they would still be herding the sheep and the goats in the surrounding hills.  So, I don’t blame them for hanging on to what they have and to the story that underpins it.  Don’t bite the hand that feeds you, I guess, would be their thinking !

I ended the day in Pombal, staying in the little lovely and classy Hotel Belem, and eating in a fish restaurant as the Portuguese watched some apparently important league football game with great relish. And then they tucked in to crab and octopus and all sorts of delightful looking crustaceans to celebrate their win, or drown their sorrows, depending on the result. The large glass of white wine I had served to me cost less than the little sachets of sardine paste that came with some bread as an amuse bouche.  1.50 euro.   I’m sure there’s a red wine I’ve had in the past called Marques de Pombal ?

12. Pombal - Santarem 
1 Oct 2023
100 km

My route today took me to Santarem over the to- be- expected ranges of hills and small mountains, up and down valley.  Portugal is a rugged and mountainous country, the river valleys providing the main through routes where possible, but since most go them go from east to west, and I am doing north to south, it means I have to cross them, which means down and then up and then down and up again !  The new autovia follow the same north - south routing, but they just build soaring bridges over the valleys.  All built with EU infrastructure money, no doubt.  Not that I am complaining, as an unreconstructed EU fan and keen on us returning to the EU fold.  I don't buy the argument that the British people have made their decision. The British people didn't understand what the EU was about and what the debate was about.  All they did in their referendum vote was give the government of the day a kicking after 8 years of austerity and vote against immigration and foreigners, because that's what xenophobic Brits do. Why shouldn't I still argue against something that 48 % of people did not vote for ?  Do you think the likes of the Brexiteers /UKippers would not still be pushing for their agenda if they had lost the referendum ?  So, I am perfectly entitled to keep arguing the case for belonging to the EU again.  At the moment, I am very disappointed in the Labour Party who seem to have brought in to the narrative that we shouldn't introduce divisive issues that will split the nation, meaning the EU issue.  Nonsense.  Politics is divisive.  That's half its fun. No, I am still an ardent EU fan, and always will be.  I hope that one day we will rejoin.  If they will have us pesky Little Britons back!  By the way, where are the Sunlit Uplands of Brexit ?  Anybody seen them ?  Oh, I forgot - Brexit hasn't been done properly yet, so we are still waiting to see them !

In Santarem I stayed at the Umu Hotel, which is evidently keen with cyclists, because there were a number of us there, including a party of Belgians of a certain vintage, with a wagon to take their kit and provide sustenance throughout the day at various stops.  I think they were Fleming Belgians, a bit serious and not terribly friendly to a fellow cyclist, I thought.  Belgians are a strange bunch anyhow, riven with historical, culture and linguistic divisions between the French speaking and Flemish speaking populations.  It's a hybrid, artificial creation formed 15 years after the Congress of Vienna settlement of Europe following the eventual defeat and demise of Napoleon, when in 1830 various provinces of the Netherlands broke away and formed Belgium.   I think !  They were pretty atrocious colonial masters of vast swathes of central Africa, only slightly bettered by the Portuguese in Angola, Mozambique and a clutch of other smaller countries.

One interesting observation while being here in Portugal, especially in places like Porto and Lisbon, is the racial mix of the people with African, Indian (Goa was another Portuguese colony) and anything in between, all reflected in the people on the streets.  There has evidently been a lot of cross fertilisation which is reflected in the population mix.  Not so the case in Spain.  Yes, in Spain you get the new immigrants / refugees who have come over from Africa, but you don't get so much of the evidence of mixing of populations over the years,  probably because the Spanish didn't have that same kind of empire in Africa / India / Far East.  Oh, I forget, of course the Spanish do still have Cueta and Mellila on the North African coast.  But, they apparently don't count when it comes to their case against the British holding on to Gibraltar !  Mind you, I'd gladly let them have Gibraltar, and the Barbary apes on the Rock,  which is a dump of a place in my experience.

The Belgians at the Umu Hotel had arranged a big meal for themselves in the hotel dining room, but there was no room at the inn for people like me, so I took myself off up the road and found a really very good sushi / noodle / poke place that mostly did take away, but also had a few tables.  It was really good, fresh and tasty, in contrast to much of the oriental food that you seem to get at home which looks as though it has been lying around for ages already cooked in the kitchen and then just reheated.  The Belgians went off the next morning early, and I noticed that a good number of them had electric bikes.  Mmmmm?

Food in Portugal isn't as good as in Spain.  Sorry, but just my observation !  Spanish food is more authentic, Portuguese food seems to have succumbed to a lot of the fast food wave, with a bit of piri-piri thrown in.  I know that down in the Algarve in some of the finer eateries you can get excellent fare, especially fish and seafood, but the generality throughout rural Portugal and even in Porto and Lisbon leaves a bit to be desired.  Service is also pretty slow, certainly at two places in Porto that I have eaten at, mainly I think because they just don't have enough staff.  One restauranteur said the problem was young people didn't want to work.  An ongoing effect of the Covid times.  Also, Portugal is more expensive than Spain.



13. Santarem - Lisbon
2 Oct 2023
90 km

A final day of cycling to get me to Lisbon, with the first half through nice country side, this time mostly downhill,  but the second half slogging my way through the extensive and chaotic outskirts of Lisbon in to the centre.  I can't say I enjoyed the latter part of my ride and was glad to get to my Airbnb for the night in the centre of Lisbon.  Except to find that it was on the fourth floor, and I had to lug all my bags and bike up and down.  A pleasant meal that evening refreshed me.  Before going to the accommodation, I did a quick recce of the Airbnb I will be staying at later in the week back in Lisbon with Richard and David, as well as scoping out the railway station that I need to get to tomorrow morning in order to take the train back to Porto to meet up with D and R, who will be arriving in Porto tomorrow afternoon.  The rail journey from Lisbon to Porto is just short of three and a half hours to go 300 kms / 200 miles.  Bullet train it is not, the rolling stock feeling and looking like it had come out of the 1980s with toilets feeding directly on to the line below.  It was pretty full, with Americans and Chinese with humungous amounts of luggage.  And mostly looking a little lost. Anyhow, it got me to Porto and I was able to get to the Airbnb, which was a really nice, quirky house, very comfortable and very interesting.  One final observation about Porto - dog poo / doo, which was in abundance, and not its most attractive feature.  It remind me of Naples which definitely takes the prize for dog mess. They really should do something about it.  Other than that, it is a lovely place, a lot of up and down, with old fashioned small trams rattling about the place.  I'd like to go back for a longer visit.

So, that's the end of the cycling tour (Santander - Leon - Compostela - Porto - Lisbon, with only a little bit of cheating by train in order to keep on schedule), and now it will be a road trip from Porto to Lisbon and then on to Faro. The weather has been very good, except for one day of rain and wind as an Atlantic storm charged over Spain, and it is set to stay fine for the Porto/Lisbon/Faro legs.  I enjoyed my cycling in Spain, where I felt safer and more relaxed than I did in Portugal.  Cycling in Portugal, given the state of the roads I was riding on and the careless driving culture of Portuguese drivers, was not great fun, and I will think twice about cycle touring in Portugal in the future.  The people are warm and friendly, the countryside beautiful, but I value life and limb as well. As I get older I am getting more risk averse, and I like to feel that I am going to be safe and secure when out on my bike.  In some countries you feel that - Germany, Netherlands, Belgium, Poland etc - in some countries you don't, like Portugal, and I will also say, the UK, where I tend not to cycle tour because of the lack of good cycling provision and the general contempt for cyclists by most other road users.  Also, because the weather in the UK  is so unpredictable and variable and you can never be sure if you are going to get soaked, frozen or windswept, even in high summer.

What's to come ?  The tree surgeons will be in soon to do some serious work on trees around, which the Calthorpe Estate is very keen on having and protecting.  The garden needs a revamp which will happen over the winter and then new planting in the summer.  There will be lots of leaves to clear up over the autumn, and gutters to be cleared.  Busy, busy, busy !


A beer, some wine, some good food....and I am happy at the end of a day of cycling.  Here are some of the offerings I've been tendered over the last weeks.  Even in the most modest cafe / restaurant you can get wonderful food.  And, it is great to see families and young people siting down to eat together and enjoying company at the table.  Little fast food here  Click on a picture for a slide show !

( the sixth picture of coffee and cake, the implement featured is a Camino fork/spoon/spanner/screw driver/bottle opener/can opener /whatever other use you can find for it/ tool.  Mine's titanium !  I got it in Tui, which has lots of lovely shops and cafes for Camino walkers, selling everything they could possibly require on their Camino walk !

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