Day 13 – Slightly Derailed
Starting Point: Elvas
Ending Point: Marvão
Today’s Distance: 85 km
Total Distance: 863 km
Even knowing that Elvas is a medieval fortress on a hill, I somewhat underestimated how steep the roads were. This morning gave me a harsh reminder as I rode cautiously down the very steep cobblestone roads. Making my way through the gate of the old city put me onto flatter roads and smoother pavement, a welcome sight indeed.
The harsh heat of the Portuguese summer abated a bit today and a light, friendly cloud cover kept the sun off as well. A tailwind pushed me along for most of the morning so between the quality roads and benevolent weather, cycling this morning was quite effortless, and I just floated over the road. Someone had recommended a restaurant to me in São Vicente, the Restaurante Pompílio, and while it was still too early for lunch, I stopped in for a coffee and morning break. Portuguese dressed in their Sunday best filled the outdoor patio: socializing, drinking, and, in the case of one elderly woman, scratching lotto tickets. The hustle and bustle of the café made for great people watching as I got to peer into this slice of Portuguese village life.
After continuing on, I noticed a bird of prey gracefully floating in the wind. Noting the direction it faced, the bird confirmed my suspicion of having a tailwind pushing me along, and I gladly welcomed that as a sign of a good day. Signs are easily misinterpreted however, and I faced a new challenge upon enterting the village of Arronches. For my first time this trip, I had a mechanical failure on my bike that I could not fix myself. Shaka’s front derailleur (the mechanical piece by the pedals that shifts the gears) had been acting up for awhile and now would no longer shift at all. Luckily, the chain was stuck on the smaller gear so I still had all the power needed to make it up the hills but I would no longer have the higher gears available to travel as quickly on the flat ground and downhills. When looking for bike shops in the area it dawned on me that today was Sunday and all the bike shops would be closed. Since I could still continue onwards, albeit slower, that is what I chose to do, hoping I could find a shop to give Shaka some needed love tomorrow.
The cooling clouds of the morning had unfortunately cleared by the time I left Arronches. Portuguese summer heat and I were well acquainted by this point and simply made me appreciate even more just how lovely my morning had been.
A busy restaurant hosted me for a lunch of carne de porco à alentejana, a mixture of pork and clams that Alentejo is known for. Then it was off to Alegrete to explore yet another castle… can one overdose on castles?
Alegrete, aside from being home to the aforementioned castle, also marked my entry into the Parque Natural da Serra de São Mamede which meant steeper hills and more of them. With almost two weeks of this trip behind me, I relished the chance to start tackling some elevation in earnest.
Into the mountains I went, climbing and climbing my way up the steep grade. The backside into the valley was even steeper on the descent and I rode my brakes all the way down, ever mindful of losing my grip on the brake levers from my sweat-covered hands and going flying off the side of the mountain. Fortunately I made it safely to the valley only to be faced with another harsh climb up the opposite side. While hard going and strenuous, I was proud of my accomplishments today in the high-noon heat.
With two hard climbs and subsequent steep descents behind me, I entered a relatively flat valley on a nice road lined with large trees. Riding in the shade once again, I was appreciative of this cool ride down after my intense workouts.
Marvão, my destination for the night, waited silently for me at the top of a steep hill. I knew that Marvão had a castle, and I knew that castles typically sit on the high elevation of the region, but it wasn’t until I saw Marvão looming up above me that I truly appreciated what I had gotten myself into. Admittedly the climb up to the town was not quite as difficult as it first appeared — relentless, maybe, but certainly conquerable. The real challenge came about three kilometres from my destination in the form of gnats. Now, I don’t know who invented gnats, an organism whose soul purpose seems to be general harassment and flying into cyclists eyes, but I am certainly not a fan. My sunglasses deflected most from my eyes but the only thing to prevent a swarm around me was speed, not an easy task on such a steep road. Up and up I went, alternating between bursts of speed and tiring out to madly swat at the swarm that appeared whenever my speed dropped.
I finally arrived and was relieved to discover that the streets of Marvão were free of the cursed gnats. My accommodations were inside a sweet little house in the center of the city. The kind hostess greeted me and graciously allowed Shaka to stay inside the living room-like lobby for the night. Heading back out, I got to explore the castle in the twilight. Marvão’s castle is much better maintained than most of the others I had been to and beautiful lighting made it look magical in the fading blue sky; a gorgeous end to a strenuous but rewarding day.