A hundred weeks ago in spring, I left a gorgeously renovated Portuguese farmhouse belonging to a wonderful family I had met while cycling in Angola. I had decided to head north to Spain's Santiago de Compostela, along the Caminho Portugues, and from there, I wanted to head east to France via the Caminho Frances.
In 2020 I had been on my way from the southernmost tip of Africa to the northernmost top of Europe. Then the pandemic happened. All borders were closed indefinitely. Visas expired and weren't being reissued. A repatriation flight from Yaounde (Cameroon) to a country I have no connection with. A bout of near-death malaria that only the five-star standard (and luxury) of a Swiss hospital in Zürich could heal. After this five-week drama, the doctors agreed that the best thing to recover bit by bit would be to move every day, as much as possible. Fresh air and whole foods, too, as tests showed my blood, heart, kidneys, and liver were worryingly dead-like. So off I set homeless and too weak to deal with more than the very, very basics of eat-sleep-cycle-repeat. Doctor's orders.
The best things in life are free
The wonderful thing is, for the first time since becoming an adult, I hadn't spent a single cent on accommodation for that entire year. Not one cent. Campsites were closed. So I wild camped through eleven Western European countries (even Monaco!), from Copenhagen to Lisbon. I was hosted a few nights here and there (laundry day!), but the bulk was me sleeping in your forests, fields, bushes, abandoned houses and such. What delicious rebellion to camp anywhere (semi-secluded) my heart desired. I cycled the easy, breezy EuroVelo 7 south to Florence and then connected with the even easier EuroVelo 8, which whisked me west along the gorgeous French Mediterranean coastline, so devoid of tourists, that when I arrived in September at a city market, a vendor exclaimed I was the very first!
Eat. Sleep. Ride. Repeat
This is why in 2021, I started 180km south of Lisbon, cycling through endless forests of cork trees. I was in a hurry to get to Lisbon. There is an 11km bridge that connects the south with this photogenic, hilly city. It is the longest in Europe, but no bicycles are allowed. So alas, a giant unsexy loop loomed instead.
Another Angolan (I love Angola!) friend hosted me in the gorgeous capitol for a few more weeks, during which I explored the stunning coastal bicycle route that is EuroVelo 1. This route snakes up to the westernmost point in Europe - Peniche - and beyond. Ericeira has a beach (it is in a nature reserve) that is so stunning I wanted to move there and surf forever. The beautiful hilltop village of Sintra is worth an inland detour. And if it is winter, head further north to Nazaré to watch some wild epic giant wave surfing.
The tortoise or the hare
When the border to Spain officially opened, I was like a horse at the races. I met a cyclist while looking for the pilgrim route's turn-off. She suspected as much, motioned to follow, and we chatted merrily while cycling along. I was invited to her place for lunch, and much information about what lay ahead - as she had done both the inland and coastal pilgrim routes - was shared. This delayed me so much that I didn't make it out of the industrial outskirts of Lisbon in time and, for the first time ever, camped under a (thankfully hardly used) overpass. Oh. The. Shame.
Easy does it
To keep it super simple, my plan was to continue inland to Porto and, from there, switch to the Atlantic coastline to swan along EuroVelo 1 again, up to the border with Spain. But first, inland we go. The best of both worlds. On many stretches, it felt like I was the first to clear the cobwebs that season. Only from the town of Tomar did it get pretty and interesting. Because of this, most pilgrims start in Porto, halfway up the country. They will, however, miss quite a few inland gems, and the solitude of the wilderness that is central Portugal.
It got pretty muddy and, at times, rather unfriendly too. I had experienced far worse in Spain the year before. Too many weren't happy with me being there, I guess. Portugal had been indifferent, neither welcoming nor unwelcoming. What was surreal, as I was in Western Europe (a very touristic part of this world), that as a blonde, I still stood out 'too much'. Later I met another blonde traveller. He confirmed the same experiences. So for once, I was looking forward to fellow tourist-appropriate hotspots and the super popular Caminho Frances. What a way to cross a country or two, so I thought.
Now for the good news!
Not only did I have perfect weather 95% of the time in May, but I also had fun on a route that had everything from easy, to endless meh flats, then challenging wind and traffic (Portuguese joked on more than one occasion that for the first time, there was something that was killing more humans their traffic: covid), seemingly forever uphills at >10%, followed by swoopingly fun <7% downhills. Add to that endless climbs to the smallest of villages clinging onto steep mountain slopes. I had mostly dirt roads, sometimes single track, one of which was so slip'n'slide, I had the bruises to show for it.
You see the Caminho trail, after the first 100km, got really fun. Much more than expected, which led to me running out of water one morning. I got this close to licking a puddle, as villagers en route had refused to engage with me, even at a distance. Then I remembered to keep my mouth closed. To stop desiccating my lungs with mouth breaths. Get that nitric oxide blasting. Only calm belly-rib-chest breaths. Feels weirdly hard at first, but it worked. A steep, long and still dehydrated climb ahead seemed brutal until the first sip of roadside 'do not drink this' water from a once beautiful fountain solved that problem.
I have always wanted to be a beach bum.
The busy coastal cycling route was not as diverse, as the more zen and natural inland route. Cobblestone, tar, wooden plank paths and sand along the endless beaches made up my way beyond the lovely city of Porto through either towns or farmland. Add to that a persistently strong but still cyclable headwind, and it was time to just have fun, normal human being style. Finally.
And I was in luck, as most campsites in Portugal were now open, ridiculously gorgeous, and usually at peaceful beach-adjacent locations, where tents rule. On a continent of caravan-loving Europeans, this is rare. I was delighted to find out that pampered (shower, toilet, mirror, laundry) legal rest was half price for the first two nights. A pilgrim perk at €4.50 (average). At Praia do Cabodelo, I bumped into the wind-kite-surf crowd. With so many Swiss, some Germans, British, French, Belgian and Spanish, this beach campsite was a beehive of water sports excitement. An impressive surf school is next door too. No wonder, with that endless shareable breakup front.
Luckily I had a remote spot to myself, but everywhere else was a melange of surf-bleached hair, bronzed skin, big outdoor smiles and athletic bodies... I was not used to seeing so many people together anymore. Not a mask in sight either. It felt surreal. How fast we got used to a new normal.
Peace out, Portugal
And if the wow-wow-wow remote campsite in the north-west most part of Portugal hadn't decided to unexpectedly hike the price of camping three times in as many days, I would still be there. I could see Spain across the river. Alas, the triathlon a friend was competing in was blocking my route to Spain.
The ferry was still suspended. The bridge was clear, but the way to the bridge was taped off. Athletes only. The police said no way. I got a train for 30km. The police lied. I saw a gorgeous bicycle path along the river for most of the way. Me and my bike can scale pretty much anything. I should have tried to make a run for it...
Hang on 'til next month to read about the mind-blowingly beautiful (and yet stunningly brutal) Caminho x Eurovelo 3 adventure that lay ahead.
Author and pictures credits: Birgit, aka @rawcandyrides on Instagram