Criss-crossing Portugal: Troia and Nazaré

April 11-18, 2023

We had already ridden four hundred miles north, from the beaches of southern Portugal’s Algarve region to just north of the Douro Valley. Now we were once again headed south, all the way back down to Troia, which is about twenty miles south of Lisbon as the crow flies. We had accepted a house sit in Sol Troia, a private community of villas right on a beautiful beach, which itself is on a tiny finger of land only about a quarter of a mile wide (and less in places) and about ten miles long that sticks up from Comporta, Portugal.

On the way south we rode over the Serra da Estrela mountain range, crossing at 1993 meters or 6340 feet in elevation. This is the highest point in mainland Portugal. I had no idea there was anything like this in Portugal. There’s even a ski area at the top.

If you’ve read some of our posts about house sitting and wondered “why would someone want to do that?”, well here’s one reason: This view, for free.

Oh, and living on this beach for a week. Again, free.

And hanging out with these three great dogs is an added benefit.

As we’ve mentioned before, doing these house sits offers us the chance to slow down and relax in one place, while planning our next moves, which helps avoid the burnout of constant travel. It also offers us the opportunity to cook some real meals in a real kitchen and do laundry. Let’s not fail to mention that it also allows us to hang out with some great pets. And of course, it also helps our budget considerably.

In this case we had the pleasure of caring for three dogs and a nice home on the beach for seven days.

The peninsula we’re on is mainly a tourist area; most of the homes are owned by part-time residents or are used as rentals. At this time of year — not quite the leading edge of tourist season — it is mostly vacant and very quiet, though a few families did show up for the weekend. There is a small convenience store about five miles away, but no real grocery store or market. So on our second day at the house, we made a trip to Setubal to go grocery shopping. Diana joked (although it’s true) that the grocery store is only about six miles from the house, but you have to cross the Atlantic to get there. We rode to the ferry landing, took the ferry to Setubal, and walked to the grocery store to do our shopping.

On the way to the store, we passed this little Citroen Ami. The whole thing looked like it was 3D printed from one piece of plastic. A little research revealed that it is not a car, but rather a “quadricycle”. It’s electric, with a small battery which is good for about 47 miles, and has a top speed of 28 miles per hour.

I also ran across this MacBor Montana 500. Made in Barcelona.

In a park in Setubal were these amusing sculptures by Maria Po. This one was called “Birdwatcher”.

“Vineyard Lady”

“Miss Livramento”, in reference to the Seafood and Produce Market we visited in Setubal.

After recharging with the pups for a week, we again headed north towards Porto, but we stopped in Nazaré for one night, spending it at Zulla Surf Village. Nazaré is home of some huge waves, and in fact the top three tallest waves ever surfed are all at Praia Norte in Nazaré, the largest recorded being 86 feet. I’ve been wanting to come here to watch the big wave surfing competition for years, but our schedule just hasn’t worked out. The big waves are mostly in winter, typically around November to February. The day we were there, the waves were only about six to eight feet.

Looking down at Praia Norte, where the big wave surfing takes place in the winter..

Looking down at the south beach from atop the hill above Nazaré.

Beautiful fiery sunset from our room at Zulla Surf Village.

“Veado”. This sculpture sits just above the viewing point of the big waves. It is a combination of a big wave surfer with a deer’s head; part of local folklore that goes back more than 800 years. It’s an interesting story, but rather than reprint it all here, you can find the story of the hunter who in 1182 was saved by a deer and attributed it to a statue here

We’ve enjoyed Portugal so much that I’m hoping we’ll get back to Nazaré at some point during the big waves.

Porto and (Again) the Amazing Douro Valley

April 19-26, 2023

The Douro Valley was calling to us again, and we couldn’t resist. This area of northern Portugal is just so beautiful and relaxing.

We would have liked to spend another day or two just chilling in Nazaré but we decided to head north to Porto, Portugal’s second largest city, and do an official tour of the Douro Valley from there. I wanted to see what we might have missed on our first trip through, as well as get some deeper insights into what not to miss as we passed through for the third time a few days later.

We checked into our apartment on the fourth floor of an office building before heading down to the heavily tourist laden area of town. A fun fact passed along from our host: after the elevator stops, count to three and it will drop about a foot; we started doing this in front of other passengers, and they looked at us like we were nuts…until the drop. Then everyone laughed and nervously got off.)

This is the Livraria Lello, “The Most Beautiful Bookstore in the World” (according to their own website at least). It is rumored to have been an influence on JK Rowling, who wrote Harry Potter while in Porto.

This is the inside of the bookstore. The staircase allegedly influenced the staircase at Hogwarts, or so I hear (I’ve never watched any of the Harry Potter movies).

This is the line to get into Livraria Lello. Yes, you have to buy a ticket and stand in line to walk through this book store. Yes, it is beautiful. No, we didn’t buy a ticket or stand in line. It’s a book store.

I have to admit that we often go to McDonalds while we travel. Not for the food, but for the wifi, so we can sit and plan the evening’s destination, etc. However, this McDonalds in Porto is a bit different. It’s in a historic cafe, complete with art deco and chandeliers. It’s commonly referred to as the “Most Beautiful McDonalds in the World”. (See a common thread here??)

We didn’t have to buy a ticket or stand in line to get into McDonalds, but we did buy some fries and sit outside and watch. It was amusing to watch the hordes of people taking selfies and posing in front of a McDonalds.

I wish I could have gotten a better photo of this incredible mural on the wall of this building, but it’s in a narrow alley between buildings so you can’t really back up enough. It has a lot of whimsical, almost sci-fi like aspects in it. I could have stood and looked at different portions of it for a long time.

We walked down to the Ribiera, or River, District and had a lunch of shrimp tacos, which are served here not in tortillas but in toasted bread. There were still good.

More interesting architecture in Porto. Many of the buildings on this street were in the process of being renovated and sold as apartments.

The Capela das Almas in Porto. This church (and several other buildings) are covered in Azulejo tiles. Azulejo tiles are hand-painted, tin-glazed ceramic tiles, and cover both the inside and outside of many buildings in Portugal.

Our tour of the Douro Valley included two wine tastings: this one in Peso da Regua.

The different types of port wines and olive oils are arranged for our tasting, with information on the mat to help us understand and remember.

Our sommelier here is holding a bottle that I would never touch or even breathe on. After explaining the winery, the vintage (1886) and the history, she asked “How much it this bottle worth?”.

Here’s the bottle: “Very Old Port”, indeed. The answer to her question: €4500, or about $4,900.

Part of the Carvalhas Vineyards, near Pinhao.

Our second stop was at the Croft Family Vineyards.

These three large tanks are used to stomp the grapes. Yep, just like in the I Love Lucy episode all those years ago.

In the tasting room at Croft.

After a couple of days in Porto, we rode east again, this time taking a meandering route north of the Douro River. Our first stop was at Quinta da Barroca, outside of the small village of Fontelo.

The entrance to Quinta da Barroca.

This place has a walking path around the perimeter and through the groves and vineyards. It’s maybe a mile and a half long.They grow a lot of fruit in addition to grapes, including Brookfield Gala Apples, Reineta Apples, and Golden Apples. These fruits are used in the making of port wine, as brandy is used to stop the fermentation process during the production of port.

On the walking path at Quinta da Barroca.

Lloyd spent his life in education after serving in the US Navy during World War Two. His background gave him a lifelong desire to continually learn (or was it the other way around?), and that contributed to his desire to travel the world. I don’t know if he ever made it to the Douro Valley in Portugal, but I know he would have loved it here.

I’m still trying to work out the details of this sign…So, you can’t sell alcohol to a 12-year-old if he is notoriously intoxicated (definition, please), otherwise it’s okay, unless said 12-year-old has an “apparent psychic anomaly”.I looked up “psychic anomaly”, and it is defined as “anything that deviates from the norm”. So, if he has a genious level IQ, or ESP, he can’t drink. Otherwise, go for it, dude.

Back at our little Mill House at Quinta da Reciao, the vines have gotten much greener since we were here a few weeks ago.

I wish I had taken some better photos. This is the actual water-driven mill next door to our apartment in the little building where we are staying. It’s been restored but many of the parts are original, and it’s still used, but only occasionally now. It’s been a mill for hundreds of years.

If you look at the center left of this photo, there is a new house in the vineyard, just down from our mill house. Henry and Francisca have nearly finished it, and I’m putting it on the short list of places I want to return to soon.

Running Through Countries, Part I: Portugal to Spain

April 27-May 2, 2023

We’ve criss-crossed Spain multiple times on two wheels, beginning in 2006 in Barcelona, last year to store the bike in Malaga, and this year from Malaga to Gibraltar to Portugal and back across to Barcelona. To be honest, we’ve enjoyed Barcelona, Malaga, Manilva, Cadiz, and more, but Spain is a relatively large country, and there’s a lot in the middle that, aside from Madrid and some other attractive places, looks a lot like New Mexico in places and Nebraska in others. So we’ve decided to blast across on a mission to get to new ground.

Leaving the Douro Valley for the last time (this trip, anyway), we headed towards Barcelona again. Originally, the plan was to take the ferry from Barcelona to Sardegna (Sardinia), and island-hop to Sicily and southern Italy. After some research, we found that:

(A) We were once again arriving before the official high season, and the campgrounds on Sardinia were still closed. I emailed a couple of them begging for a piece of dirt to pitch our tent on, and was told “sorry, we’re closed” each time.

(B) Sardinia is “Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous” land, so the hotels and AirBnBs are way above our budget. Combined with no camping and no house sitting opportunities, this didn’t leave many options.

So we decided to take the land route around to Italy, through France. We’ve done this twice before, but we were on a different budget and staying in nicer hotels back then when we were both working. This time we were going to take a different route.

Our first night in Spain was spent in a very small, non-touristy village called Berlanga. As we rolled into town, it again looked like many other small towns we encountered in Spain: that is to say, closed. These places really roll up the sidewalks in the evenings. Aside from our hotel and the small cafe/bar attached to it, we didn’t see another business open. In fact, the hotel sent me a message while we were on the road, asking when we expected to arrive, as the front desk clerk only planned to show up to check us in, then leave again.

The hotel — a total of about six rooms — turned out to be great. The room was nice, but the woman who checked us in was extremely nice. Extremely limited English, of course, but thankfully we were back in a country where I could communicate, and my rusty Mexican Spanish was working pretty well. The online reviews for the hotel nearly all mentioned her as one of the top reasons people enjoyed their stay, and I would agree: if more hotel staff were as nice, enthusiastic and happy about their jobs as Araceli at the Hotel Rural Villa de Berlanga, it would make choosing hotels a very simple task.

Looking across the town square from our hotel. This is about as busy as it got while we were in town.

Our hotel and the cafe/bar in the background. The only other guests at the hotel were another couple that showed up on a BMW. They spoke no English, but they offered us some great tips on routes through the Basque Country, “heaven for motorcycles” as he put it. Unfortunately we were now on a schedule (I hate schedules), so the Basque Country will have to wait for another time.

The cafe/bar next door was attached to the hotel by an interior door, but Araceli explained that it was not owned by the hotel. We ordered a couple of hamburgers and took them up to the balcony of the hotel, overlooking the local castle ruins, and enjoyed dinner. I asked the ladies at the bar if they served breakfast and the response was priceless:

Them: “Yes”
Me: “What time do you open for breakfast?”
Them: (Brief glance between them)…”Eight thirty? Nine O’clock?”
Me: “Okay, Nine o’clock”.
Them: “Maybe.”

Like I said, it’s a small town, and we were pretty much it at the hotel.

They take the term “HAM Burger” seriously in Europe. Unless you see “Angus Steak Burger” on the menu, you can pretty much expect it to be ground ham, pressed into a patty, and lightly cooked (sometimes looks like it was steamed). Think SPAM, in the shape of a burger patty.

The next day we made it to the coast, just south of Barcelona, to a campground. I had emailed the campground a couple of weeks earlier and asked if I needed a reservation for a tent pitch on this specific date. The answer was “No. Just show up.”

So we just showed up. I walked into the office and asked for a tent pitch.

“Do you have a reservation?”
“No, I was told we didn’t need one.”
“You were told wrong. We are sold out this entire week.”

Huh. I walked back out to the bike, a bit irritated by the attitude. I pulled up the email exchange on my phone, and found where they had told me I didn’t need a reservation. I walked back into the office, stood in line again, and got a different employee. I showed him the email, and he checked me in. The other guy that originally blew me off was obviously irked about this, and stood up and stormed out.

Later that evening, we met a German bicycle tourist setting up his tent near ours. I struck up a conversation with him, and he said he was told that they were sold out and didn’t have space for him when he arrived. He pleaded that he was on a bicycle and it wasn’t possible for him to just go to the next campground. He said the guy checking him in then walked down to the tent area, looked, and told him that he would let him stay, but that they had a two night minimum. The bicyclist begrudgingly paid for two nights, even though he was only staying one night.

I asked him, “Was it the guy in the white shirt?”
“Yes!” he replied.
“Same guy. We were also told by him that they were sold out. But a different guy checked us in, and we didn’t have to pay for two nights.”

This is the tent area at the campground. The green tent belongs to Herman, the bicyclist from Germany. Ours is behind his, and there is one tent and a hammock to the left of the photo. So if you take our two tents out, the remaining tent and hammock constitute the “sold out” condition that caused both of us to be turned away. Hmmmm….

Fortunately the place had a cafe/bar with nicer staff that took good care of us, and the three of us shared stories of our travels over dinner and beers. Herman, the bicyclist, had recently retired from teaching, flown with his bicycle to Portugal, toured Portugal, and was now on his way back home to northern Germany, where his wife was set to retire in mid-June. He’s two years older than me, and I wish I was still in his physical condition. I might have to get the bicycle out whenever we get home.

Running Through Countries, Part II: Spain to France to Italy

April 29 – May 1, 2023

Having started two prior motorcycle trips through Europe from Barcelona, we had previously spent a few days touring the city. It had been about seventeen years since Diana had seen La Sagrada Familia, the amazing basilica designed by Antoni Gaudi and still under construction (since 1882!). We agreed that we would ride directly through Barcelona and pass by the building so she could get a photo of it before heading out of Spain and into France.

La Sagrada Familia. Yep, still under construction.

The plan this time was to avoid the major toll road along the Cote d’Azur and hopefully avoid the tourist traffic along the French Riviera and the Cinque Terre area of Italy (again, we’ve been there. It’s beautiful. I highly recommend it if you haven’t been. But our goal was to slow the bleeding of cash (this is an expensive area) and get to new horizons. So we took a large loop, north to Valence, France, then east to Piacenza, Italy before heading into Tuscany and on to new explorations.

By the way, the toll roads usually have Service Centers every 25 miles or so, which offer fuel and food. The last time we were in France, we stopped at several of these Service Centers on our way west to the UK. We began to notice then how badly people parked, and Diana started taking photos. During our brief ride on the toll road in southern France, we encountered more examples. Here are two to add this year’s collection:

A new take on not parking in the handicap spot…just park behind it. That way you’re not violating the rule, right? These two guys in their Porsches pulled right up behind the handicap parking spots — but not IN them — totally blocking access. It’s not like they were just running in to grab a drink; they parked there for quite a while. Side note: pretty sure that’s a Swiss license plate on the red one, so it’s not just the French.

This guy managed to take two spots in his not-too-big, not-too-expensive Nissan. His wife caught Diana taking the photo, and appeared to give him her thoughts (either about his parking, or about Diana taking the photo, or both).

We stopped that evening in Valence, France, and took a hotel as it was forecast to rain overnight and into the next day. We managed to beat the rain to the hotel. In the parking lot, there were three other bikes, one from the UK, and two from Germany, all parked into locking wheel chocks. There were four of these chocks, but the empty one sat between a loaded BMW K-bike and a BMW GS. It seemed like a tight squeeze with our large boxes on the bike, so I parked in the car parking area. I also noticed that the chain needed to be adjusted, so this gave me more room to work.

While adjusting the chain, the owner of one of the German BMWs walked up.

“Put your bike in the locking stands”, he said.
I explained that it was a tight fit, and I thought I would be okay out here with the disc lock on it overnight.
That’s when he explained that a couple of years earlier, at this same hotel, his prior BMW was stolen out of the parking lot “in less than a minute”.
Ok. I’m convinced. Into the chock it goes. We should thank the hotel for investing in these motorcycle security items. It would be nice if they were more common. Somehow I couldn’t help thinking we had gone from Morocco, where we were constantly told the bike was safe on the street or in an open parking lot, to France, where…

These locking wheel chocks were securely bolted into the ground. They are designed in such a way that you can’t get to the mounting bolts, the lock, the locking bar, or the bike’s axle. A well-thought-out piece of security equipment.

The next morning was overcast, but still not raining as we headed towards the border with Italy. Following the GPS, we turned off the main road and began climbing into the French Alps.

Then it started to rain. The temperature began to drop. We continued to climb. We passed a lighted road sign in French announcing that one of the two passes was still closed due to snow. I wasn’t sure which pass we were going over, but we continued on, hoping for the best. I turned the heated grips on, but my fingers were still going numb from the temperature.

First of May…too early to be riding in the Alps.

We rode along in the clouds and rain for what seemed like at least two hours, before finally dropping down to lower elevation and warmer temperatures. The rain stopped shortly before reaching our destination of Piacenza, Italy. I had discovered the night before that the chain on the bike was on its’ last miles, so we decided to take an extra day in Piacenza due to the bank holiday (it’s Labor Day in Italy) in order to search for a new chain.