Sunday, August 19, 2018

Biking Nations: In Porto, Portugal with the Urban Sketchers

I haven't been to Portugal since my biking adventure in Lisbon in 2011. It was a rented bike. I didn't have much experience riding in foreign countries. I didn't have a lot of wrenching skills. I had little sense of direction. How had I evolved since?

Let me back up a second.

The 2011 trip to Portugal was made for the same reason as the 2018 trip: the Urban Sketchers were having their annual symposium and they chose Porto. Last year they had chosen Chicago, Illinois and I didn't have a language barrier to contend with as I explored famous movie sights and rode to Gary, Indiana and back. 

Returning to Portugal did put me in a place where I wondered about how I had changed as a cyclist. 2018 Portugal Me had changed careers a total of three times since 2011 Portugal Me. I had moved from Connecticut to California. I had approached, hit, and passed my 40th birthday. 

What I hadn't done was change my equipment much. The first time in Lisbon was the only time of all of the eight Symposiums I've been a part of (see the #WhileYouWereSketching hashtag) where I rented a bike. The last seven in a row I've brought my 1998 Bike Friday New World Tourist.

Bike Friday's are made in Eugene, Oregon and in about fifteen minutes you can pack it into a Samsonite suitcase to avoid paying excess baggage fees - in about the same amount of time you can unpack it and set it up. Mine has been to the United Kingdom, Spain, Germany, France, Singapore, Brazil, Japan, the Dominican Republic and several states in the U.S. - even lesser known ones like Florida. It's rugged, reliable and easy to fix since it takes standard components. 

The rugged part is especially important. Not only does any travel bike have to put up with the bruising ride from the bag drop area at the airport to the baggage claim section, but harsh terrain like...cobblestones.

The cobblestone factor was why I headed far from the city center of Porto on every trip. Along the Douro River to the Portuguese coast is a shared path of sorts. At the beaches be sure to yield to students crossing the path to take surfing lessons.

I can say that for the novice travel cyclist, Portugal is a good place to go since cars drive on the right and all of the cars are left-hand drive like they are in the U.S. So unlike, say, London, you don't have to relearn how to instinctively look for danger.

Portugul also has some inspiring food and patient restaurant workers. Being unable to speak Portuguese and riding far from the tourist centers where few speak English, going someplace to eat for lunch everyday proved to be just another part of the adventure.

That first day I biked across the Douro River using the Ponte De Arrabida bridge (which is just for pedestrians and the lovely light rail) so I could look down on the city. Then I rode aimlessly on this side of the river looking for a place to eat. I scored by finding a Piri Piri chicken place and using my tried and true method of pointing, I was able to order a "half dose" (which I assumed to be a "half order" of chicken.

What happened was the woman behind the counter took an entire chicken off the grill, sliced it up with a big knife, dunked it in the most breathtakingly amazing Piri Piri sauce, and handed it to me in a aluminum tray.

I looked around the take-out counter and not only did I not see utensils or napkins but I also didn't know how to ask for either of those things, so I thanked her and left. 

And it was inside a park I found a couple of blocks away I ate chicken with my fingers and was so hungry I didn't bother to remove my fingerless bike gloves first. The chicken was just remarkable And it was really, really good. I ended up rinsing my fingertips with the enormous bottle of water I bought (holding my hands out in the "I-once-caught-a-fish-THIS-big!" formation and asking for "agua.") and drying my hands on my socks. 

A bit of an inside-joke happened about fifteen minutes later, when I was riding through another residential neighborhood. I bumped into a guy grilling small fish on the sidewalk. He'd step out of a door, flip the fish over, and go back inside. Reminded me of my first lunch in Lisbon seven years ago.

It was a fun 30 mile first day, and the second day I decided to see if I could cross the border into Spain. In order to do that I'd need to take a train from Porto to Braga and follow a complex series of roads up a mountain and into Spain.

The second part of this did not happen. Trains are on what is known in the U.S. as a "schedule" and if you get on a train too late to get to where you want to go, you have to change your ride mid-stream. 

So after riding on a later train than I wanted I also ended up riding for ten minutes in the wrong direction. When I straightened myself out I realized I had no possible chance of crossing the border before nightfall so I decided to work my way east to the coastal town of Apulia and then head south back to Porto. 

I had wisely bought an international cell phone chip so I could use Google Maps to plot my route - but this part of the world has a strange love of traffic circles which led me to make a few wrong turns here and there. I didn't mind so much since it was mostly very pretty and peaceful.

Once again, when I got hungry I stopped at a restaurant. Unlike the Piri Piri chicken place, there was no menu, but here there was a young waitress who nodded at me eagerly and kept motioning for me to sit down, which I eventually did. 

At first she brought me some soup, which I ate reluctantly as Meghan Trainor's "All About the Bass" played on the restaurant's sound system. I could only shake my head and smile. The pop artist's song "No" was playing at the noodle place I found while biking in Japan two years ago - another Biking Nations adventure in a place with a big language barrier.

Before long the waitress brought me...this.

It would have to do. 

After lunch, I left the restaurant - being sure to photograph it first to document my journey.

I continued on - occasionally singing "'bout the bass, 'bout the treble." until I finally reached Apulia - a nice little beach town. While riding I found someone's functioning FitBit lying in the road, which I took with me. To this day I have no idea what I am supposed to do with it. 

I did two very smart things in Apulia. The first thing I did was I had a cappuccino.

The second smart thing was actually being in Apulia in the first place. The town is about 27 miles north of Porto, and I had already gone 43 miles. And because the wind - that otherworldly force I remember reckoning with on my last trip in Portugal when I rode from Sintra - was violently blowing south I knew I'd be able to have it at my back on my entire return ride. 

It was the N13 most of the way down. That road is a bit busy in places but most of the time had a generous shoulder. And with the wind blowing the way I was headed I broke 20 miles an hour most of the way. 

I did do something really stupid on this leg of the journey. I did not buy this bike seat, which I saw at a bike shop on the outskirts of Porto. I've seen these things in India a couple of times and I don't know why I didn't just pull out my Euros and point to the seat.

So dear bike traveler: if you come to a shop that looks like this, please go right in and succeed where I failed. Buy that springy chrome seat...cause it is kinda awesome.

The next morning my non-buyers remorse had faded to the point I wanted to try another direction to ride in. Knowing it would be my last full day riding (we'd be embarking on a 27 hour extravaganza of travel to get back to San Jose the following day) I wanted a predictable route that did not involve me having to stop every mile to see where I was. 

As luck would have it Porto has the Douro River, which runs east-west. I reasoned I could follow the river 35 miles in one direction, do an about face, and ride in the other direction.

I reasoned right.

The first stretch of the ride isn't too scenic, and parts of the entire trip were quite hilly but still fun. It really is a beautiful river.

On more than a few spots the road would bend and twist away from the river and I'd lose sight of it. At those points I did unfortunately have to pull out my phone to do some light wayfinding, but it was still just nice to stop and check things out - like a tree growing out of the roof of an abandoned house. 

About thirty miles into this ride, I made an amazing discovery. I found it. The pod birthing station. The hatchery. The womb from which the devil children spring forth. Yes, I found where they make cobblestones. I took a quick picture to remember where it was so that, when I come to power, I can close it down and create a decree that all cobblestones must be painted on if used at all. 

Around 35 miles it was lunchtime and I was hungry, so I stopped at another restaurant. This time was a little easier than the others since a gentleman sitting at a table nearby was eating something that looked rather good, so I pointed at it when the waitress came by with a little notepad. 

Fried chicken, rice, salad, and soup. Lunch of champions - or, at least, non-picky cyclists. I also ultimately pointed at a huge bottle of water and asked for it by pointing and refilled my now-empty Camelbak right there at the table.

I headed back the way I came - pausing here and there to admire Douro Valley - which I would have seen even more of if I had the time to continue following the river. 

I know I look strange from behind - or possibly any angle, for that matter - but after riding in 16 countries I've learned to be ready for anything. You can't see in the photo but that green pack on my back has no fewer than three bike pumps, three tubes, two patch kits, and a complete tire. I'm sure that one day I will have a cycling vacation cut short because of a catastrophic equipment failure (or just something I just can't fix on my own) but my pack conveys the "ain't gonna happen!" vibe. 

Oh - and another fun fact on this trip: I have not had a flat tire on this bike in over a year - which is a record I attribute to my decision to start using Mr. Tuffy bike tire liners after the debacle in Manchester. So I offer that nonpaid endorsement. Tire liners are worth it. 

The other thing I did on the ride back was stop at a couple of places for some incredibly strong - and remarkably inexpensive - espressos. This was actually the first coffee I had all day - and there is a method to this madness: I find that drinking coffee on your own "local" time a day or two before you fly back home will help your body clock; as in, if you're used to drinking three cups of coffee before 9:00am, like me, just drink the equivalent wherever you are to match up with that time to get your body used to craving caffeine at the usual schedule. 

Riding back the way I came helped with the wayfinding and I didn't mind covering ground I had covered before since the views were so lovely. Before long I was back in Porto.

Back on Cobblestone-Firma, I ran into The Portland Sketcher as she was leaving her hotel. I had met her in Paraty and we relayed tales of cycling and USK to one another before I returned to inPatio. 

I downed some more water and packed the bike up. After a mandatory shower I walked to the museum to see if I could intercept the rest of the Urban Sketchers.

I ran into my wife outside of the museum and she gave me some interesting news: The Urban Sketchers' 2019 symposium is going to be held in...

...wait for it...

...wait for it...


Hmmm. I wonder if they have good biking there. 

So long, Porto. You're a good city. And it was a good bikecation. I'm older now than I was when I first started these international cycling adventures but feel like I'm getting smarter, so that evens things out. Check out #USKPorto2018 and #WhileYouWereSketching on social media - and take a look at Suma's beautiful sketches. Thanks for reading and thanks for riding.


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