It's mid-september and I have been in Porto for two weeks. The lady who sells colors becomes my friend, she tells me she will make face-masks with holes in them, "they never said what exactly a mask needs to be," she laughs. In the bar I sit under white neon light as a Brazilian telenovela plays above the bar. Bruno and Maria are happy and laugh constantly. Many Brazilian women come to the bar, many with their kids. Their husbands are in France working, mostly construction and agriculture jobs. Bruno tells me how he went to Brazil to work as a fisherman and kidnapped Maria from the Indians, he lifts up his wife and spins in circles behind the bar. They keep pouring more beer and repeating the words, souzinha and Hollandaisa, incredible. I say to Bruno I will be back in a few weeks, I want to cycle to Sagres. He says he'll save a good bottle of wine for when I get back.
When you want her, Porto is everything. She surprises you time and again with a new color, then the men in the streets smile and you laugh with their warmth. A connection between the stars, the moon, the whole universe and your nose. The city applauds your feet, life is beautiful, you are beautiful. The purple flowers flow like waterfalls over the city walls and the Douro shines softly under the bridges that try to meet her beauty. Guitars play in the streets and men wait for their fate; a fish on hook, a number on a ticket, or another cerveja. A city without hurry, maybe the only of her kind.
When you don't want her, Porto is nothing, the men stare at you with eyes that make you sick, they say things you don't want to understand. Go away, you scream behind closed teeth. The sitting around, not doing anything, the begging masses looking into your wallet "there you have a euro". You get tired of the same old song, always that Amalia, the rumination of a past that has passed. The garbage man fills plastic bags with leaves that want to protect the dry earth, the glass behind which the film took plays cracks and slowly you wake.
I decide to continue cycling, it's easier than staying in the same place. I first head North to Guimaraes and sleep in a community. They live in a valley of joy and secrets and goats. A green blanket covers the hills.
From Celerico de Basto an ecopiste leads to Amarante. The ecopiste is accessible for everyone, it's a flat road that used to be train tracks and very easy to cycle. After Amarante the real cycling starts, and it's heavier than all previous mountains.
I take two hours to cover 14 kilometers of climbing, it's enormous. A man stops his car, he's a professional cyclist. "You cannot cycle here," he says. I ask him how to get to Viseu then. He tells me to go around the mountain, it's 40km extra, "here you will have slopes of 22% and you cannot manage that with that bike."
The sun pushes against my head, I do not want to go around a mountain. I tell the cyclist I will continue, he tells me I am crazy and wishes me the best of luck.
I stop at a bakery that I expect to be the last before the wild starts. Three men stand outside, one wants to bring me over the mountain with his car, the second one just shakes his head, and the third tells me I could cycle. "In four kilometers you will get to a village, Felguieras, there you can camp next to the football field. There's a baker, he works all night. I'll tell him you're coming."
I walk and push my bike, it's so steep that I almost fall backwards. On the way I ask people how long till Felguieras, someone says five, then later someone says seven. It's foolish. My calves are cramped, my shoulders feel sour. I stop many times and when I finally see the sign Felguieras I almost collapse.
Felguieras is a small village, cow dung lies on the street and chicken parade through the streets between the houses and sleeping cats. I arrive at the village bar, a few men sit drinking beer in their blue overalls, muddy shoes and brown faces. I drink with them and we discuss where I can sleep. After a few beers and confused laughter I set up my tent in the garden of the bar. A boy comes to me, he speaks English which takes me by surprise. He invites me to eat with him and his family. What would I like to eat. After three times of back and forth between his mom in the kitchen and me at the bar he stays gone a while, then comes out "you can come now."
We sit under white neon light at the table, a telenovela plays above my head. The mother, Vivianna, made rice, fries, omelettes with cheese, "for you" the boy says. I tell them they should have some too but they eat their sausages and nod contently as I make my way through the stack of omelettes. After each bottle of beer the father gets me another one.
After dinner they tell me to take a shower, "you need clothes," they say. I tell them I have clothes but they insist. I get out of the shower with new leggings, a new t-shirt with pink letters, an orange sweater and a thong too. Someone somewhere once said that traveling is giving in completely to the situation you are in.
In the morning I drink coffee at the bar with the people from the village. Everyone works hard, the woman takes care of the bar and works in the city and runs the local grocery. Her husband works as taxi driver and in the bar. Their daughter is an agricultural advisor. I have breakfast with the family, they give me bread and a lot of food for on the way. Then they all leave to work and to school. The village breathes conviviality on the move.
Men dot the roads I take, they sit on the railings of the road, on roofs. Always the waiting and the watching, a country that watches and waits. For what? The men cheer for me, they turn their hands to imitate a moving bike and clap. No shit. When I stop under a tree to drink some water, a few men on motorcycles stop next to me. They speak French and tell me, "they're coming, they're coming!" I ask them who's coming. They look at me in disbelief, the Volta! After an hour, indeed the cyclists pass us by, led by police vehicles and cameras. It's the tour of Portugal, also going to Viseu today. I cycle behind them, a little slower.
In Viseu my knees hurt, my legs, even my eyes. All is pain. My bike makes a cracking noise and rain is coming. It's time to rest, I stay for a week with a friend.
The autumn makes Viseu a beautiful mountain city; orange leaves spread across the cobblestones, chestnuts waiting to be eaten and darkness at seven thirty. This city has the most roundabouts of Portugal and an old population, all I see is youngsters and everyone seems to be in love. There's a theater in the park in the evening and bread that tastes like cake.
Cafe das Beiras becomes my home. The old man with four teeth is part of me, the grey tiles under my feet were cold marble, now a palace on which soft feet dance. A woman with straw on her head becomes my friend, her name is Maria and she also isn't in a rush. The toilet with her chlorine smell and the lottery tickets sold day after day, raising hopes and not meeting them. The news plays on the television, the tables in rows positioned exactly for max screen time. The man with one leg in a wheelchair who comes in, goes out, comes back in. So the days have gone. So the days will go.
The bicycle repair man knows not how to fix my bike, a man in Lisbon can help me. Probably.
I tie another goodbye to my heart. An ecopiste leads from Viseo to Santo Comba Dao, it's easy biking between the rocks which have been hollowed our for the train tracks that used to be this way. It has something artificial but with the pain in my knee I am glad for an easy fifty kilometer cycle.
I decide to cycle to Coimbra which is another 80km, from there I will take the train back to Porto or to Lisbon. My knee hurts so much cycling isn't possible.
The day is much walking due to the pain. I stop in a village, six men sit out drinking. Joao drives his pickup ahead of me, he tells me I can sleep next to the church. On the way he meets an old lady, exchanges a few words with her, and leaves me. I can sleep at her house.
She is French and has lived in the village for forty years, something about Portuguese love. It was difficult to leave her life in France, "c'est comme çashe says, as if the words are a bandaid on the wound of melancholy. She tells me of the village activities that made life fun; fitness, parties, activities. Now no one sees each other due to COVID, "c'est comme ça.”
In the morning the sky is a thick blanket of dew, "that means it'll be warm today," the woman tells me. We drink coffee and she sets the table with bread and cheese and anything I'd like. When I leave she laughs with warm eyes and in another time I would have given her a hug.
Softly the sun sparkles through the softness of the sky and the day materializes. It's very quiet and I ride through beautiful forests. Branches hang down like drapes, the forest celebrates in the morning without anyone knowing.
I buy a train ticket to go to Lisob the next morning. Whether I can keep cycling is a question I have no answer to, but the city of Fernando Pessoa I want to see.
In the evening I cycle through the park and look for a place to camp. Why I exit the park I don't know, but I arrive at a horse-stable. A few horses are jumping in the ring with men, they are young sport-horses. I walk onto the terrain with my bike, intrigued by the animals. A conversation half in Portuguese and in made up words leads the men to see me as a professional rider from the North. I find myself in horse-riding pants, boots, and a helmet on a scared white horse. The horse does not understand, I understand even less. The men stand gathered between the jumps, full of anticipation for the show. I jump a few obstacles, surprisingly well. The horse-boss tells me he needs a rider like me. He shows me his forty horses, frightened animals waiting for the sale that will hopefully give them a better life.
I sleep in a horse-stable that night.
I cycle slowly through the streets of Lisbon, one large boulevard rather. The city is immense, colors and smells and people. As in all cities, I become anonymous.
The man fixes my bike. He wants to money, the only thing he asks is that if he needs help in the Netherlands someone would do the same. I hope so for him.
In the evening I meet the lady who had given me her number, and predicted my being in Lisbon when we met North weeks ago. She lives in an apartment with her sons and dogs and cats. I enjoy life with the family, meet their friends, go out for food. After a few days I feel like continuing my journey south.
I meet somebody who joins me the way down to Sagres. I say goodbye to the loneliness and taste what many along the way had recommended me: traveling together.
Alentejo becomes Algarve, the Al's indicate a past set forth by the present. Villages are inhabited by Indian men, sometimes families. The air smells of spices. They come to work here on plantations and farms with cows.
The red sand, the fig trees, olive trees and vineyards, and the drought even now in the fall. The coming together of all this with waves and cliffs and barking dogs and surfers. The Algarve is hard do describe coherently. Cars cut through the roads, people raise their hands up as if to say 'what are you doing here??'. Volkswagen buses speed by reading peace & love, just not on the National roads. There are eco-campings with organic vegan food, prices as in the Netherlands, wages not. A Danish man sits speaking of how he lives here most of the year, feeling more at home than in Denmark as he fills his mouth withknäckebröd with cheese. In the Dordogne (FR) I met many Brits like crumbs leading South, in the Algarve many Brits have succeeded the pilgrimage.