Day 16 – It’s a Small Portugal After All
Starting point: Salvaterra do Extremo
Ending point: Covilhã
Today’s Distance: 110 km
Total Distance: 1,126 km
After giving my friend Marta not one but two big hugs, I was back out on the road alone and leaving Salvaterra do Extremo. People who know me know that I do not do well in the cold, and while this morning was cool albeit not particularly cold, the ride towards Monfortinho was a gradual downhill descent, meaning less exertion and more wind. Combining all of that with the usual stiffness when starting the day, my legs felt like frozen lead for the first 20 kilometres or so and overall it was a relatively unpleasant morning. Experiencing the negatives along with the positives is a part of travel though and without the challenging moments, the rewards would not be as sweet. Time heals all wounds, so I kept my head down and my legs moving.
Somewhere around Monfortinho, the gradual descent evolved into a gradual incline which helped a bit with the cold but unfortunately was counteracted by the increases in elevation. Kicking myself for not taking up Marta on her offer of a coffee this morning, I started somewhat compulsively checking the map for a place to grab a cup. A simple coffee can be a mental reset button, melting away funks and dissolving bad vibes. This time though, that knowledge came almost as a hinderance as I excitedly entered Penha Garcia only to find the singular restaurant closed. I kept looking for a café but time after time my luck came up short. Monsanto, a unique village high on a steep hill built in amongst the boulders, was up ahead and I joked to myself that I was literally going to have to climb a mountain for a cup of coffee.
In 1938, Portugal voted Monsanto to be “The Most Portuguese Village”, an honor it takes quite seriously and even advertises on their welcome sign. Higher and higher I climbed, stopping periodically to take photos of the decidedly quite Portuguese houses and buildings. Finally, upon making it to the main village, I stopped in a café for a coffee and a cherry pastel de nata with an incredible view overlooking my accomplishment: my funk had officially lifted.
After exploring around the heart of Monsanto a bit, I decided to continue on. I was planning on cycling over 100 kilometres today so skipping the Monsanto Castle (which is even higher up the steep hill and a place I’ve previously visited) seemed prudent. An overcast but unthreatening sky kept me significantly cooler through the heat of the day and the conditions for cycling were great. All my cycling had worked up my appetite for lunch, and, lacking recommendations for the area, I did some digging online to see what was available. My first choice was ahead in Penamacor, but I then saw how far up the side of the hill it was, and, while I do not usually advise people to pick restaurants purely on how easy they are to cycle to, I was really hungry at this point and looked for a second option.
Much to my luck I came across a restaurant named 2 Pinheiros / 2 Pine Trees. Just off the road and for all intents and purposes looking like someone’s house, I took a peek at the set menu posted outside and went in. A long, dark hallway stretched out in front of me with a man sitting behind a computer screen at the end. I asked, somewhat cautiously, if I can order lunch here and he gave a simple affirmative with a slight gesture to a side door. From there I entered into the main dining room, if it could be called that. Clearly this was an old home that had been converted into a restaurant and I was currently standing in the former living room. Three other tables had diners at them, all Portuguese men, and everyone turned to look at this brightly dressed and sweaty foreign cyclist who had just entered.
Lunch was both tasty and nourishing, and soon I found myself talking to some of the other patrons. The whole experience felt like dinner at a favorite aunt’s house. When telling the man seated next to me about how much I had been enjoying Portugal, he commented that yes, Portugal has many nice aspects but some of those are going away. The elderly man’s main concern were environmental, namely Portugal’s intense cultivation of eucalyptus. Forest fires are a clear concern, but the water they use and nutrients they deprive from neighboring plants were also doing harm to his country. While disappointing that the environment is in such a fragile state, I was very impressed by the importance the older gentleman placed on environmental issues.
Back on the road, I didn’t have any specific sites that I was planning to see so I got a chance to focus on my cycling and the beautiful countryside. Tree farms came and went as I cycled by and signs warning of the dangers of forest fires cautioned passing drivers. The air thickened with the strong smell of applesauce at one point and soon I was passing some sort of small processing plant, with heaps and heaps of apples piled up in their yard. Vineyards, crops, and pastures all scrolled past as well while the hazy Serra da Estrela mountain range grew closer; it would not be long until Shaka and I would be climbing those mountains ourselves.
One village had a statue dedicated to, “Homenagem ao Emigrante” / Homage to the Emigrant. I found it to be a touching tribute to all the Portuguese who have settled elsewhere around the world. Sadly, strong and daring emigrants from one country are immigrants in others and are seen today with increasing hostility and suspicion inside their newly adoptive homes.
Onwards I went, only occasionally stopping to take photos of all the beauty that surrounded me. This was going to be my second longest day of cycling of the trip and it included a fair bit of elevation gain as well, so I had to keep pushing.
After spending my entire day on peaceful, country roads, the rush hour traffic of Covilhã felt like a shock from all the cars and noise. Getting close to my lodgings for the night, I could see a car pulled off on the side of the road with a man peeking at me. I have found that there are three reasons why motorists stop to talk to cyclists: 1) they want to give encouragement, 2) they want to yell at the “stupid cyclist getting in everyone’s way,” or 3) they want to warn you about something that fell off your bike or some other hazard. To much my surprise, a fourth option was uncovered when the man hopped out of the car and called me by name! Leo, as I learned his name was, is a friend of Carlos, the police officer who accompanied me on my first day of the trip. Apparently, Leo had been alerted that I was in the area and was keeping an eye out for me. He offered me everything that he could possibly provide and was as welcoming as welcoming can be. I explained that I was already close to where I was staying but thanked him profusely for his kind offer. He insisted that he show me the way and off we went.
Leo carefully pointed out the correct turn of the next roundabout for me and when I turned and he continued on, I thought I was alone. A bit farther down the road, I see Leo coming up behind me to signal which exit on the next roundabout – he had been playing defense for me the whole way to my hotel! Many thanks to the delightful Leo.
The staff at my lovely hotel, Paço 100 Pressa, were extremely kind and accommodating, going so far as to upgrade me to a nicer room with a patio so I could keep Shaka with me. The whole process was so nice and room was so beautiful that I made a video to share my experience and thank the hotel for their hospitality. Just when I was about to head down for dinner, I heard a knock on my door. A kind Portuguese woman named Helena greeted me and explained that she was following my trip. Helena was staying in the same hotel and recognized my room from the video since she has stayed there previously. We ended up having a splendid evening together, sharing some excellent food and talking about travel, Portugal, and life. Thank you, Helena, for knocking on my door!