Monday, December 31, 2007


The road out of Manteigas wound up the side of Rio Zezere River, to the Zezere glacier and then to Torre, the highest peak in continental Portugal. It felt like we were driving to the sun. At the top was the nations only natural ski resort, equipped with five lifts (though we could see only one), 19 shops selling ham and cheese, and taboggans everywhere. It is the dead of winter, but it was sunny and above zero, with only a light wind. There were only a few people wearing toques. We saw a cyclist that had completed the climb on his road bike. I think we will have to do that ride if we come back here.
Rural Portugal is packed with fixer-uppers. We saw a great one as we carried on south. It was a hotel built in the 40's (as far as we can tell), perched on the side of the Torre mountain. You could tell by the structure that it had been constructed as a luxury hotel, but it had long been abandoned and all that remained was the concrete structure, covered in graffiti and piles of smashed tiles. Erik had a lot of fun exploring and imagining building a cycling camp there.
Realizing that we'd allowed ourselves to get bogged down biking and relaxing and siteseeing this week, we decided to put some extra car miles in today. We stopped at a few castles, including Evoramonte, as well as checking out some neolithic stone monuments. We saw a travelling circus of gypsys in a funky painted bus pulling into the Cromlech. Seemed like a cool place to set up camp.
We arrived in Serpa after dark and found a room inside a house in the walled town. We were surprised to walk through the entrance, through a tunnel-like room, to find a garden filled with orange and lemon trees. Looking up from the garden, you could see the aquaducts that stood on top of the wall that encircled the town. Another cool place to stay.

Friday, December 28, 2007


With a generous layer of frost on the windshield and only a short drive to our cycling destination Reserva Natural da Serra Malcata, we decided to spend the first few chilly hours of the day taking a closer look at the castles in Sortelha and nearby Setubal. It is amazing what can be accomplished with an army of slaves. I am still waiting for the novelty of castles to wear off. It's fun to see how unique each place is in terms of style, layout and use of natural resources. Erik likes to climb everything that is within reach, as well as some things that are just beyond.
As we were getting ready to start the bike ride, Erik realized that he left his shoes at our place in Sortelha. For the sake of time, he elected to ride in his Adidas shoes on his clip-in pedals. Our ride took us up a frost-covered forestry road with fantastic views of the valley. It was cool to see the tiny little towns scattered around in the distance - and pick out where we had come from or travelled. It was clear from our vantage point that no square inch of land went to waste. Even though we were in a nature reserve, it was tree farming territory, carved up with cut lines and dirt roads. As usual, Erik indulged his need to explore and took us downhill on a cut line. We expected that it would eventually intersect with another road but, after descending for some time, that became less probable and the cutline less ridable. We bailed on a lateral cutline, rather than hiking back up. That, too, eventually became difficult to ride and questionable as a path back to civilization. I rode what I could until we came across an overgrown section - overgrown with rose bushes - and I bailed. I knew at the time that I would laugh about it later, but it was hard to laugh at that moment when I had thorny branches wrapped around my arms and legs, and stuck in my helmet, butt, and my palms. Getting unwrapped was slow and painful. We eventually made it out, but my thirst for adventure was fully satiated.
We found ourselves on the road later than expected and had to revise our resting destination. We ultimately settled on Manteigas, a ski town at the edge of the Parque Natural da Serra da Estrala. Erik masterfully navigated up what I felt more closely resembled a one-way sidewalk than a two-way string of streets, only to discover that I missed spotting the b&b that we were seeking. So, he went back and did it a second time, only to learn that it was full, as were many of the local hotels. In contrast to all of the other regions we've visited this week, it is peak season here.
We found a spot at a restored granite mountain house, which has slightly less character than our prior destinations, but beats the peugeot. We kept dinner simple, dining in with artesanal cheese, fresh bread sardines, and ONE bottle of wine. Simple, but delicious.

Thursday, December 27, 2007


We started driving 'early' today, with the objective of finding a hotel a few hours southeast of Torreira, checking in, and then going for an extended bike ride. We picked the Beiras Mountains as our general destination, but the route was was almost immediately too complex for navigation using the pathetic little map that we had. So, we caved in and bought a map; three, in fact. This was helpful for navigation, but did nothing to help decifer the signage. We discovered already that the numbers on the side of the road can't possibly be the speed limit, since they bear no relation to the speed at which the cars drive. We also discovered that a red circle with two cars in it means 'no passing', while a black circle with two cars in it and a black line through it means 'not no passing'. But what is a black circle with a strike through nothing inside? No nothing? Anything goes?
We arrived in Sortelha around 1pm and scouted out accommodation. Instead of hotels, this town relies upon turismo rural, which are essentially historic b&bs. We spotted a sign for the Casa de Cerca and turned in to find a basic granite-based historic home with the door open. Nobody was to be found and the the building next door was abandoned, with practically a jungle growing inside. An old lady was walking by and I jokingly suggested that erik ask her where we could check in. He responded 'old people don't know other languages'. We were wrong. It turns out the lady is a Viscountess and owns three casas in the town, including the one at which we will be staying, and speaks at least four languages. She confirmed that we could stay the night and within minutes (portugese minutes), we were on our bikes exploring the area. As good as the mas that we bought are, there is nothing shown for the area except for the main road that brought us here.
Erik wanted to go 'up', so we did. Up a cobblestone road to one edge of town and surprisingly to the start of what turned out to be great network of mountain-bike-worthy double and single track. The landscape would be similar to northern california or nevada, except with stone houses and fences thrown in at wide intervals. In contrast to the old-style living these represented were giant windmills that laced practically all of the hill tops. Erik wanted to explore every nook and cranny, and we eventually ran out of trail riding up to see some windmills. We ditched the bikes and went on foot, checking out some abandoned stone houses along the way. Good fix-er-uppers for sure. It was a good hour and a half walking and climbing around in our bike shoes over huge rocks and through tall grass. It was an adventure. Each ride on this trip has reinforced my belief that there is no better way to see a place than by bicycle, and today was no exception. So many cool places are inaccessable by vehicle - or by foot alone.
After we arrived back in 'town', we rode up to the town castle and the fortified part of the city. Obidos was cool, but this takes the cake. Slightly less restored and impacted by tourism. No wonder EuroDisney flopped. Who needs to pay 75 bucks to see mickey's enchanted castle, when you can see the real deal for free!
We made it back to our place just as the last ray of sunlight disappeared. We are the only guests at this place tonight. The old lady had to call someone to come and make the beds and clean up for our arrival. Our room has a view of the town castle, which you can see from the granite seats carved into the window sill. We went for dinner at a small stone walled restaurant in the fortified city. The food was magnificent. Today will cost about 100 euro to stay in what is probably the most expensive spot in town (and which we have entirely to ourselves) and to dine at the best restaurant in town. Not bad, considering it cost $230 to crash at the Holiday Inn for one night when I was snowed in at the Toronto Airport only a week and a half ago. This place is fantastic. Why Portugal isn't a top destination for more peole is beyond me. We have graduated to two bottles of wine per night, so I can see that my cost of living might increase after some time here, but slurred English sounds a little like Portugese, so there might be a valuable side effect to balance it out.

Wednesday, December 26, 2007


After toast and coffee for breakfast, we drove North to Parque National da Peneda-Geres and started riding from the town center in Britelo. The town center is comprised of two parking spots and a cafe that serves espresso and liqour and has the television tuned to a station with nearly pornographic commercials. We climbed the road up to Lindoso, near the Spanish border, and hung a right at a sign that seemed to indicate a hiking path.
I have to admit that it is unlikely that I would have ventured down this path on my own. On the same note, Erik wouldn't be in Portugal at this moment on his own either. I guess we work well together that way - though it is not always obvious that it can be a 'right' thing to be in a place that neither of us intended to be.
Our 'right' turn took us up into the suburbs of Lindoso. If it was medieval Portugal that we discovered yesterday, today we discovered primitive portugal. People still live like this??! Clearly an agricultural village. No commerce, in the modern sense. Stone road, stone housing, and espigueiros (I have a secret surprise for the first person that can post a good definition for espigueiro).
Steep, narrow roads not built for or accessible by car, but super fun on a mountain bike. As the road stretched higher, it deteriorated into a path of large mossy rocks that were eventually too technical to ride. We carried on anyway.
Other than the potential to twist an ankle, the only danger seemed to be the massive horned cattle using the same route. These things had horns that extended the entire four foot width of the path. It wouldn't surprise me if they had to turn their fat bovine heads to get through the narrow parts of the path. Hornless cows make me nervous on a good day. And here I was with my bright red, long-sleeved deadgoat jersey and bike trying to squeeze past giant-horned cattle.
The higher we went, the less beaten the path, until we finally broke through the tree line and found ourselves in a meadow overlooking the valley. A spiderweb of cow paths made it almost impossible to find where the hiking path continued. It was strange to be in such a remote place with a feeling of safety (apart from the horned cattle). No concern of getting lost, of dangerous wildlife (bugs, snakes, bears, cougars, etc) or of crazy landowners (I don't see these people having the need or resources to own a gun). Once the path became practically  undetectable, we decided to go back the way we came.
We drove south toward Santa Maria de Fiero to stay for the night. Erik decided to start paying the tolls, which relieved a lot of stress for me, for a while. By the time we were approaching Porto, it was dark and traffic was fast and aggressive. About 40km/hr over the posted speed limit seemed to be a popular choice, though some chose to go faster and would tailgate you until you got out of the way. I think Mario Karts must be part of drivers education here. The fact that people in Calgary worry about driving on the Deerfoot is rather pathetic. I was glad Erik was driving - though he was considerably more aggressive than I would have been.
Our first choice for accommodation was closed, so we had to navigate to a small town nearby in the dark without a real map. I hate maps, but I have to admit that one would have come in handy tonight. Googlemaps on my blackberry (powered by Erik's blackberry battery) saved the day. We worked together as a team and eventually made it to Pousada da Ria in Torreira, which faces eastward on an ocean inlet. We had our first sit down meal, at a table that overlooked the ocean. The moon was just rising and cast a giant beam across the water. We feasted on seafood and a buffet of Portugese desserts. This hotel isn't as unique as the first two that we stayed at, but it has offered us a unique Portugese experience all the same. I love that each day so far has brough us something totally new and exciting. I am looking forward to our journey south, but it will be hard for the rest of the week to live up to the standard set so far.


Christmas Day started with a casual ride around Sintra. We didn't have a map, or any idea of the area was laid out for that matter, so we took our chances and headed 'right' from our hotel. There is no road grid here - just twisty, hilly, narrow streets that suddenly take you in a different direction than you started. The single consistent reference point is a castle way up on top of one of the hills. This was an obvious target for two keen cyclists.
Along the way, we passed a group of local cyclists congregating at the Palacio Nacional de Sintra, a beautiful, yet understated, structure that dates back to the 14th century. We followed some signs that promised to take us to the Castelo, and soon found ourselves on a lovely quiet road that switchbacked through a magnificent forest peppered with old palace-like homes. It was cycling heaven. 
As we approached the top of the hill, we passed the remains of a 9th century Moorish castle and Erik made friends with the resident cats. Next stop was the Palacio National de Pena, a 16th century Monestary-turned-castle. The descent was a bumpy old stone road and I was glad I brought my mountain bike.
It was a short ride, and the we headed North by car. Our first stop was Obidos, a medieval castle and town enclosed by stone walls. Apparenty it was a port town in its day - but you'd never guess, as it is 10km from the nearest coast. We walked through the labyrinth of footpaths and atop the wall that surrounded the town - peeking through the crenellated walls. Although tourism is probably its lifeblood, Obidos wasn't uncomfortably touristy - perhaps because it is Christmas or perhaps because it was raining. We tucked in to an unnumbered, unsigned door for a quick ham and cheese sandwich. The restaurant decor was modern, in striking contrast to its exterior and, well, all of what we have seen since we left the Lisboa airport. It felt like we had transported back to the future for a brief moment.
There is no snow here and, apart from the 'hanging santa' decorations that adorn many of the buildings here, not many traditional signs of Christmas. So, the roasted chestnuts that we bought from a street vendor on the way back to the car were a nifty way to celebrate the day.
We carried on north using the toll roads, which seem to operate on an honor system. Erik keeps blasting through the prepay lane, while I sit anxiously on the passenger side expecting to be pulled over at any moment. I'm not sure why this terrifies me - but I'm also not sure why Erik is totally unphased by it. Our perspective on authority is very different.
We arrived in Porto just after dark. It took a while to find our hotel, but it was worth the effort. It's effectively a castle tucked inside the densely built downtown core.
We went for a walk to find dinner and found that the only thing open was a street vendor. Christmas dinner was comprised of a hot dog, topped with ham, corn, lettuce, mushrooms, carrots, shredded potato chips, mayonaise, mustard and ketchup. We finished it off with jelly and chocolate filled churros. Our €2.05 bottle of wine was spectacular. Christmas never tasted so good.

Monday, December 24, 2007

Portugal Day 1

Other than placing a call to 911 in response to the high pitch of a fire alarm and clouds of smoke billowing out the windows of our neighbours house, this was easily the lowest stress start to a vacation in recent memory.

We had a connection in Frankfurt. It was our first time in Germany and it made for an exciting layover. Things generally looked familiar, but the food was different and it sounded like people were speaking in reverse.  I felt like I had landed on another planet.

Why can't we get delicious sandwiches like these ones at the airports on my planet? Good bread, good cheese, good meat. It's not that hard people.

Is English really a germanic language? Because, seriously, it doesn't even sound like humanoid. We could decifer words like 'SintaKlassen', but were otherwise lost for the most part.

As we boarded the flight from Frankfurt to Lisbon, we were in front of two women with short hair and leather jackets. They were holding hands and openly affectionate (ear-biting qualifies as such in my world). We figured that they must be Lisbians.

It was great to have Erik do the driving when we got to Lisbon. We arrived at a family run B&B in Sintra just after dark. Knowing it was Christmas eve and stores would close soon, we rushed out to buy some wine and snacks from a local store. We took our time putting the bikes together and chatted as we worked through a delicious €2.65 bottle of red wine. Tomorrow's plan: ride and relax. Sounds like a plan to me.

Merry Christmas.

Sunday, December 23, 2007

The long way home

When I saw the airport security line-up at Dulles Airport, I was glad I had arrived 2 hours early. There were no physical barriers to organize the hurried masses trying to get through airport security, but travellers had organized themselves into three switchbacks and were self-policing to reduce the incidence of line-cutting. I marvelled at the impressive display of cooperation and self-imposed discipline for the benefit of all.

Maybe human-kind isn't doomed afterall.

I was devastated when, after almost an hour in line, a mysterious event (still unknown to me) resulted in the line deteriorating into a self-indulgent rush toward the front. It was another hour before I was through security. I ran in my socks, with my belt and shoes in hand, toward the shuttle that would take me to my gate. It was 5:00pm already - the time my plane was scheduled to take off - but I crossed my sweaty fingers that it was delayed. No such luck.

I was rebooked on the 9:30pm flight to Toronto, but my connecting flight would not be until 8:30am the next morning. My 9:30pm flight was delayed until 1:45am and my checked luggage still hasn't arrived back in Calgary.

After my bad luck this week, I could be totally turned off the whole airline travel thing, but I'm still really looking forward to my trip to Portugal this week. At least this time I will have erik to amuse me if there are any hiccups in our travel plans.

Monday, December 17, 2007

Lessons for hassle free air travel

Despite Air Canada's constant efforts to ruin my travel experiences, I actually really enjoy airports, airplanes and travelling in general. I can attribute my continued enjoyment to three factors:
  • I follow a few simple rules for hassle free travel; arrive early, avoid layovers, don't stand behind stupid people or families in lineups, and do your strip routine before you get to the conveyer belt.
  • I have a travel toolkit that includes a book, a fully charged and loaded ipod and blackberry, and a fleece blow-up neck pillow and eye shade.
  • I've been lucky; I rarely have issues with late or cancelled flights.

This weekend, my luck changed.

I was on the road by 5:00am the morning after FirstEnergy's smashing FirstRocker Christmas party in Banff. I had to get to the airport to catch a 7:30am flight to Washington DC, via Ottawa. I was scheduled to arrive mid-afternoon and I was looking forward to watching Edward II at the Shakespeare Theatre that night. But, Mother Nature had plans of her own.
We were unable to land in Ottawa due to a snow storm and were rerouted to Toronto. Landing in Toronto, I felt like I was arriving to Echo Base in the Millenium Falcon.

The little luggage transport people looked like Imperial stormtroopers all bundled up and hurrying around outside in the blizzard.

With 397 flights cancelled, leaving volumes of connecting passengers stranded, and dozens of unscheduled rerouted flights dumping hundreds of unexpected travellers at the airport, the Toronto Pearson airport was a disaster zone. All of the baggage carousels were stalled with mechanical issues relating to luggage jams. Luggage was strewn everywhere and peole were forced to search back and forth between the unorganized piles to find their luggage. It was two hours before I was reunited with my bag, but that was just the beginning. It would be ANOTHER 4.5 hours before I arrived at my hotel, where I would wait (and pray) for the next available flight to DC.
I made it to Washington the next morning almost without a hitch - relative to Sunday, anyway. I arrived at my meeting late, but in time to make the trip worthwhile. There were people from all over the world (Argentina, Bangladesh, China, Germany, Malaysia, South Africa, Sri Lanka), many of whom have never been to Canada. I spent a lot of time trying to convince them that I do not use a dog sled to get to work and that winter in Canada is not really that treacherous. It was really just lip service though - I am going to add 'avoid connections in Canada in winter' to my list of tips for hassle free travel.

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

December 2007