Updated: Feb 28, 2019
After 10 days of family time, rental cars and surfing, Emma and Ryan headed out for a ride across Andalusia in Spain and we give Riley a hug and send him off to the airplane. Suddenly we are staring at each other across the table and wondering what to do next. We have the local guidebook so within 24 hours we have pulled it together and are headed to Loule on a Sunday train. We hop off and ride a short way to our hotel. It seemed like a good idea at the time; but little did we know how hard the next few days would be. Generally, our style of hasty decision-making works but the next few days were not one of those times.
In Loule we are treated to hyper-local food. The only café in operation on a Sunday night opens at 7:30. We are the first ones there and in five minutes the place is full of locals. The menu is chicken, pork, beef and fish with potatoes. No vegetables only meat/fish and boiled potatoes....salt & pepper are no where to be found. It is very typical, very popular with locals and very similar to hospital food. We may need to start carrying Tabasco and salt and pepper in our pockets!
Our route for the first day is from Loule to somewhere south of Almodovar. 51K.
We chose this route into the Alentejo because it was not too far to get to our planned hotel stop. It’s only 30 miles- how bad can it be?
We did see a Buddhist Stupa- in Portugal
So we went from sea level to over 500 meters with a whole lot of up and down. To make it much harder, Karen’s bike seat was knocked out of position by me and made pedaling very painful for her. It only took 4 days of travel before we figured this out and managed to fix it, adding to the difficulties. As noted in a previous post, there is no easy way from the southern coast of Portugal into the interior- and we proved it.
We finally pulled into our country spa hotel with an hour of daylight to spare. After a tour of the grounds, all we could do was wait "hangrily" for our 7:30 meal- there was nowhere else to go.
You may have noticed that Pedaling Pensioners spends an inordinate amount of time talking about food. That’s because we only have 3 activities- Ride, eat and sleep and there is not much worth writing about sleep unless you have insomnia. Tonight’s meal was extremely local Portuguese cuisine. Picture a pot, cooked in the oven with a layer of potatoes in a solid inch and half of oil with 2 pieces of cod. It actually doesn’t sound that bad when I write it down, but no vegetables, no salt and I broke the pepper shaker trying to add some flavor. We picked out all the bones and ate it anyway- or at least I did. Karen has higher standards and/or is very tired of codfish!!
The wind picks up the next day as we ride from Almodovar to Aljustrel- 60K. We skip our breakfast and leave early to make it the first 20 kilometers. The terrain is lovely although it is very cold. From Almodovar the road heads directly into the teeth of a strong wind. It is easy terrain, but the riding is very demanding. The gusts shake the bikes as large trucks come by every few minutes and there is no shoulder. Karen is very nervous about the wind since she was blown over a few weeks ago and has only just healed...physically. Emotionally she is probably scarred for life!! Our guidebook has sent us here and we wonder what the author was thinking. It makes for a painful day on the bike and we are glad to leave the route early and take refuge in an extremely modern hotel. (It is also the only one in this small town.) We like modern hotels because our experience has been that the historic ones have VERY small showers and beds that are too short for me; and since sleeping is an important part of our Ride, Eat, Sleep mantra we generally choose modern over historic.
Don Quixote windmills and a tough day
From Aljustrel to Alvito- 54K- The winds continue and we have still not figured out what is wrong with Karen’s bike. We no longer trust the guidebook so we have decided to skip the next large town and give Google maps a chance to pick a "walking" route to our destination. Alvito has a Pousada (a castle converted to a hotel) so we wind through some lonely roads and grind up the final 2k. Sometimes it seems that every town in Europe is located on a hill. So this is one of those times that historic wins over modern hotel...I mean, it's a 15th century castle converted in to a hotel! It is a perfect blend of modern and ancient.
Lonely roads and a Pousada
Alvito to Evora is another 50 kilometers that pass slowly and painfully under our wheels. Google maps can’t help us a we approach Evora and we end up on the main N roads. The wind almost stops us but eventually our road bends to the east and it becomes a cross wind. It is easier but also a bit scary in the gusts. Evora is a UNESCO city full of beautiful sights and ruins, including the humbling and creepy Chapel of Bones. We make it to our great hotel and plan a rest day. The last four days have been something of a horrible grind as we finished the western half of the loop. We hope the second half is better and that we will have a tail wind....we can dream can't we!?
Evora to Monsaraz 66 kilometers and 3 castles
After our rest day things are looking up. We finally figure out what is happening with the bike seat and Karen can relax a bit. The hotel has such a great breakfast that we almost stay another day. We get information from a local bike shop and are willing to try the guidebook route again after they confirm that the roads are indeed quiet. Finally we can raise our heads up and look at some scenery. Monsaraz is on top of the steepest hill yet but it is a lovely tiny place and we really enjoy ourselves, finishing the day with quiche and wine served in coffee mugs in a tiny tavern. It is one of the best meals we have had in Portugal.
Monsaraz to Serpa- 84K
Another three castle day as we wind over Portugals largest reservoir and down the river to Serpa. We get lost in a maze of streets on the wrong side of the town wall and our hopes for another great hotel are dashed by the sound of church bells just feet from our window and a lousy breakfast. We often use Booking.com for booking our lodging and depend on visitors reviews....this was one time they led us astray. We find out that Emma and Ryan are just one day ahead of us in Mertola as they ride into Portugal on dirt tracks from Cordoba, Spain.
Last day in the Alentejo
Serpa to Mertola- 51k This turns out to be the last day of our trip as we take side roads and gravel for 51 k. There is some great riding and really big gorges to descend and reascend. As we drop down to the river/fortress town of Mertola, the wind comes up again and fights us all the way to the hotel. So much for those tailwinds we were hoping for! We take shelter in a hotel with an archeological dig in the basement. It is an easy decision to arrange for a taxi ride the next day instead of a hard last day of up and down. We wander around yet another castle, this one perched between two rivers. Once again we can't find a place open for dinner so we eat bike bag leftovers in the hotel room.
The next day a train ride brings us back to Lagos to meet up with Emma and Ryan.
So the Alentejo Loop was not all an Instagram dream of beautiful photos and happy times on the bike. Yet, when I look at these pictures, there are very few of them with our heads down into the wind or cursing the guidebook or being "hangry" as we find another restaurant with "fechada" (closed) sign in the window. Already, it doesn't seem that bad and some of it was actually pretty great. Selective memory loss for us Pensioners is probably a good way to look at life. We start to think about the next trip and begin making plans.