Monthly Archives: Oct 2016

Idanha-a-Nova

Idanha-a-Nova – Day 1

After leaving Benquerença, we first headed south west to the large town of Fundão, to seek out a good cycle shop we had heard whispers of, in order to have the chain replaced on Aaron’s bike. We also hoped to find a laundrette, so initially had written this day off as a transitional ‘jobs’ day.  By good fortune we found the recommended cycle shop, a supermarket and a self-service external laundry depot all within 100m of each other, so spent the best part of the morning placing loads of washing into machines, completing a grocery shop and having a new chain fitted, leaving us all good to go.

Fundao (Doing Laundry).jpg

We had considered heading further south as the weather forecast wasn’t looking too special, but we also had a map of a possible cycle ride a little way south east of where we were which was purported to be an especially beautiful route, so we cut back that way with the hope of a weather window, and headed to a campsite set on the shores of a lake near the town of Idanha-a-Nova.  We arrived mid-afternoon and drove into the campsite, but after discussion with the reception staff, we turned and left, instead parking up directly outside the fence near the entrance on an area retained as a free aire.  We could have paid the €9/night to be inside the park, but the swimming pool was closed down for the winter, and the dusty earth campsites were not particularly level.  We didn’t see what we’d gain from paying, so being frugal travellers we decided to stay two nights in the free aire, with it all entirely to ourselves and with better views of the lake.  We could still pick up the camp’s free wifi from outside the fence, so that was a nice bonus too.

idanha-a-nova-lake-walk

We had a quick walk around a part of the reservoir lake, down chalky paths and across rocky areas that are obviously underwater at certain times of year, but were completely dry during our visit.  The calm water and sky, moody red with a setting sun, made the whole area look and feel a little magical, but up close the water’s edge was infested with large flies and flying ants so we backed right away from the swarms and this made thoughts of a sneaky swim disappear.  We wandered a little following the shoreline at a safe distance, with small islands in the water to our right and abandoned cabins in the woods to our left.  It was a pretty, calm and quiet spot to spend a few nights, and all for our favourite price.

idanha-a-nova-lakeside-camping

idanha-a-nova-sunset-at-lake

Idanha-a-Nova – Day 2

The next morning, after a very decent sleep, we readied ourselves for the proposed cycle.  The weather was looking good; clearing skies with a hint of blue and not too cold.  We sensed it was going to be a decent weather day, so on with plenty of sun screen for the first time in weeks.  The proposed ride was a bumpy 60+km loop taking in Idanha-a-Velha, Monsanto, Medelim, Proença-a-Velha and back to base through Idanha-a-Nova.

idanha-a-nova-cycling-to-monsanto
Leaving the village, we saw jet black sheep, like shadows, wandering between the blood red tree trunks, on a background of burnt yellow grass; a rural scene with such a limited, simplistic colour palette it was reminiscent more of Rothko than Constable.  Rows of cork oak trees stood with their bark removed to just above a man’s head height, their inner trunk exposed like a skinned rabbit, raw and red.  We saw evidence of localised bush fires, natural or controlled, with deeply blackened trunks, stalks and grass interspersed with the lime green of new growth, spread all across the hills.  The air held a constant smell of curry plant and wild garlic, mingling with the scent of pine and eucalyptus trees.  There were patches of intensity where we could almost taste it, waxing and waning in depth as we passed along the road.

idanha-a-velha-view-from-road
The small settlement of Idhana-a-Velha was first visible from above, on a nice descent towards the town.  It was beautifully framed with a mountain behind.  Little did we know that the craggy top of this distant peak was on our route – if we had, we might have turned back.  Idhana-a-Velha, once called Egitania, was a Roman town of some significance, and much of the original walls were still visible, along with various other towers and ruins.  We explored the ruins on foot, learning a little of the history, from it being the birthplace of 7th century Visigoth Kings and the seat of powerful bishops, to its desertion due to a plague of rats in the 15th century.

idanha-a-velha-central-church

idanha-a-velha-roman-ruins

Today, a small community of locals still live between the ruins and Roman remains, no doubt in a similar, rural manner to many previous generations.  We saw old, bent double ladies dressed in black hanging out washing amidst the ruins, whilst weather-beaten men with flat caps sat still in the shade and contemplated the day.  The only modern change would be the recent injection of historical tourism, but as we were the only visitors on this hot, sticky day, perhaps that has not made an appreciable difference to the everyday lives of the locals.  It may be very different in peak season.

idanha-a-nova-the-road-to-monsanto
Leaving the ramshackle loveliness behind, we continued back on the main road for a short while before turning right and following a steep road uphill in the direction of Monsanto.  The rugged hills were wilder here, less ordered or cultivated than in previous areas. The views were more African Savannah than Europe; wispy yellow grasses and bare earth with sporadic thin trees. We half expected to glimpse elephants hiding in the woodland areas, like back at Cabarceno.

idanha-a-nova-climb-towards-monsanto

The road continued ever upwards, with a few turns through tiny settlements on the way.  As we were on mountain bikes, once we got close to Monsanto we decided to take a shorter, more direct but off-road route to the town.  This led up a narrow, bouldered pathway that started reasonably but increased in gradient so much it became impossible for us to overcome the uneven rocks and maintain momentum.  We had to dismount and push, or even on occasion carry, our bikes along this stretch, and that effort in the heat of the day drained us. We stopped near the top of the track and enjoyed our packed lunch, sitting on ideally placed rocks with a glorious view through the trees to the expansive valley below.

idanha-a-nova-n-pushes-bike-up-to-monsanto

idanha-a-nova-lunch-spot-near-monsanto

Monsanto

A few minutes more of pushing our bikes and we suddenly arrived on the outskirts of the village of Monsanto.  We could ride again, but only short portions before either the steepness of the paths or a set of stairs defeated us and we had to dismount and push again.  After a few more difficult minutes of pushing, we finally decided to abandon the bikes at the side of a small shop, and proceeded up the precipitous cobbles to the mountain top on foot. Nicky decided to abandon her SPDs at this point too, favouring the comfort of socks to the clanging of cleats on stone.

idanha-a-nova-the-path-to-monsanto

monsanto-arrival-in-town

The entire town was built into the rock of the slopes.  In several cases, quite literally, as some buildings were fully constructed around large boulders, flashed and weathered to the very mountain rock in-situ.  We progressed slowly upwards, the stone path splitting and narrowing as we reached the top, feeding off in various directions.  We first went left to inspect the ruins of the chapel buildings, before returning to enter the castle via a stone archway and steps.

monsanto-walk-up-to-castle

monsanto-mountaintop-chapel

monsanto-castle-ruins

Once inside, we immediately climbed narrow stone steps to the top of the ramparts on the castle walls, and followed these around to a large white trig point that was denoting the highest point of the facility.  The views from the castle ruins on the very top of the hill, in every direction, were breathtakingly special. We could see for ten miles in each direction, the plains spread out in vivid colours and looking deceptively flat when viewed from above.  We could see the lake where we were parked and the village of Idhana-a-Velha we recently left, already so far away.  We paused for a while to enjoy the views, then descended back the same path into the village.  After returning and recovering our bike, we enjoyed a well-earned ice cream and a sit-down with a view.

monsanto-view-of-village

monsanto-view-from-top

monsanto-valley-views
The downhill out of Monsanto was a descender’s delight; a fast, steep, winding road with constant stunning views and very little traffic.  We swooped down like swallows, leaning into curves and loving the wind in our faces.  Within a few giddy moments we were down, back on the flat and heading west.

We had the constant reminder of where we had just been, the mountain town of Monsanto standing tall, now looking far away on the horizon.  Each backward glance surprised us with how far we’d moved on from the craggy mountain top, dominating the plains but shrinking further into the distance with each pedal stroke.

monsanto-views-back

monsanto-views
We were still not halfway around, but had seen so much. The hour was getting late, so returning home we decided to push on rather than linger as before.  We cycled the straight, flat road stretches like a time trial, pushing hard, with continuous plantations of olive groves on our left and barren grasslands on our right. The tall yellow grasses at roadside tickled my outstretched hand as we passed by at speed.  The arrow straightness made these long roads seem like they would never end.  These long runs were even more tiring than the steep hills as we worked harder for longer to ensure our speedy progress.

We made good time getting back, and the long shallow climbs of the roads into town rewarded us with another all too brief but still quite glorious winding downhill stretch, out of the town of Idhana-a-Nova towards the reservoir lake we were currently calling home.  There was one last kilometre-long steep sting in the tail to drag our weary bodies up before arriving back to a stunning vista over our lake; a rewarding finale to a wonderful cycle.

idanha-a-nova-arrival-back-at-camp
61km in total, but with the long climbs and sharp descents, the exploring on foot and the essential pushing of bikes up roughly bouldered paths and cobbled steps, it all seemed so much longer and involved.  But a lovely, satisfying ride that definitely earned us a decent meal and a large glass of red.

Advertisements

Benquerença

Benquerença – Day 1

The drive from Belmonte to Benquerença, if taken direct, was a short distance, through rural backwaters lined with olive trees and eucalyptus.  But we decided on a detour first, into the Serra da Estrela.  We thought it necessary when passing to visit mainland Portugal’s highest point – Torre, 1993m above sea level.

We had hoped to walk to this point, build in a decent day’s hike and earn the summit, but no one had information or maps available regarding any paths or climbs.  So, in the end, we did what all other tourists and visitors do – drove all the way to the top.  First we headed to Manteigas, but the whole village looked closed.  We walked around but could see little sign of life.  When the weather is poor, tourism drops dramatically and the shops close.  So it was on to the Torre, ever upwards.

torre-cows-on-road

It was an incredible road, winding steeply and narrowly up the rugged mountain side with hairpin after hairpin, but we were in dense cloud and slim visibility the whole time, so had little opportunity to enjoy the views.  We just may have picked the single worst day of the year to visit the highest point, but as we were passing just once, we decided to keep on going on.  We passed loose cows on the road, only seeing them when mere metres away.

torre-the-road-back-down

The top trig point, built seven metres high on the order of Portuguese royalty to make the highest point an even 2000m (not that it does as it’s a built structure, and there are other adjacent higher built structures) was a monstrosity, set in the centre of a roundabout.  There was parking for hundreds of cars and buses, today all empty except for three other cars, staff most likely.  Beside this was a large, tacky souvenir store selling mostly trinkets and cheese, and a weather station.  In all, the highest point in Portugal was an utter fail in all possible ways, and perhaps it was for the best that we could barely see it.  Lovely road to drive, but best experienced when traffic free.

torre-low-cloud-layer

We descended the mountain an alternative way, to the town of Covilhã, before cutting cross-country on tiny roads to our destination of Benquerença, where we hoped to spend a few relaxing days.  We arrived at the well signed site to find only one other motorhome, driven by a Dutch couple, on the large site that could accommodate 50.  Perfect.

We picked a nice spot, away from overhanging trees to avoid drips if it rained, and settled in.  Later we had a short walk around the site and back into the village centre.  It was deceptively large, sprawling place with several small shops and a busy café in the centre that had local traffic constantly arriving and leaving, with lots of small vans and cars parked near it at any angle or position, barely leaving the road available for any others;  an interesting dynamic.  The small, neat church was nearby, adding a sense of community.

benquerenca-top-camp-spot-p

benquerenca-village-church

Benquerença – Day 2

After a delayed start to be sure of the weather, we headed out for our planned cycle ride to Sabugal.  Leaving the aire we first passed through the village then out on tiny but beautifully smooth local roads, empty of all traffic, perfect for cyclists.  We passed private vegetable patches with huge cabbages and dead-looking sweetcorn, autumnal vineyards and barking dogs.  The roads got steadily steeper as we went, with no respite, and we started to question the wisdom of the route we’d chosen.  We were based 10km or so from the cycle route map we had, and this tail to join the route was an entire uphill slog, but at least our slow pace gave us time to warm up and to fully take in our surroundings.

benquerenca-hill-climb-pause

Arriving at the small crossroads village of Santo Estêvão, we joined the main road to Sabugal, right where it kicked up again and kept rising as it followed the contours of the mountain up, and up.  In total we had covered 18km of uphill before a nice 6km long downhill portion ran us joyously into the heart of Sabugal town.  We noted the castle on its domineering location as we approached from the valley, and headed there first on steep cobbled lanes.  The adjacent squares were quiet, with only us and one local present.  The castle walls housed a small Tourismo office at the entrance where we left our bikes whilst we explored the castle.

sabugal-az-in-castle

sabugal-castle-auditorium

An intact and a formidable fortress, we were impressed with the height and unique sloping nature of the boundary walls, with long flights of narrow stone stairs leading to the ramparts.  It would have been an unenviable task to attempt to penetrate and overcome any defence set here.  We’ve seen many castles in recent weeks, each with their own uniquely impressive features.  We walked around the top of the castle walls on slippy, narrow stone paths with long falls on each side; no Health and Safety considerations in place.  We then climbed up several steep timber stairs internally  through three floors to the roof of the keep, to enjoy panoramic views over the town; an impressive sight.

sabugal-n-in-castle

sabugal-view-of-town

We had lunch under a pergola on a platform overlooking the river from a high vantage point before heading back out of town in the direction of Sortelha.  The road climbed sharply out of Sabugal before levelling off and providing a smooth, rolling route of gentle bumps that we made good progress on.  The terrain changed again as we progressed into the hills, with a much more rugged, rocky and patchy look, more scrub moorland like Dartmoor than anything we had seen previously.  The hills were also lined with large wind turbines, half hidden by the low cloud and looking elegant and ethereal as they slowly turned, like thin, mechanical giants.  The combination of the turbine blades, the moorland and the low-lying cloud really added a mystical quality to the landscape.  Or it could have been exhaustion.

benquerenca-wind-turbine-hills

sortelha-town-view-on-approach

On the way down the final hill into Sortelha we stopped to admire the town’s setting and castles, before descending the final run.  At the bottom of the hill we had a downhill right turn, then an immediate left to head up a steep cobbled portion to the castle.  It was here a poorly timed, or attempted but non-existent, gear change and too much power in too high a gear conspired to create a large snap and to leave Aaron with a broken chain.  School-boy error.  We didn’t look around the town too much, just a short walk to partially see the castle, as our minds were now a little preoccupied of how we would get home.  We were 37km into the cycle, around halfway, with only one working chain between us.  We carry puncture repair, pump and various allen keys, but had no tools with us to fix a snapped chain.  With it being extremely unlikely that the town we were in or any nearby village would have a cycle shop, it was up to us to suck it up and work it back as best we could.

sortelha-in-town-walking

We checked our map and chose a more direct route back to base, rather than continuing the originally proposed route.  We knew from our extensive efforts so far that a large part of the journey home would be downhill, so we started on our combination journey of ‘free wheel, tow, then walk’ to get back.

The first two kilometres out of Sortelha town were steeply uphill and consisted of a lot of walking for me, even a little jogging, whilst pushing the broken bike along.  Difficult work in SPDs.  On the more gentle or level parts Nicky was able to provide a tow, hand in hand, to keep up momentum and progress us both quicker to the next downhill stretch.  Nicky would then sit up and recover on the downhill stretches, then try to time coming up beside me at a matching speed, just as the road’s incline was beginning to slow my descent, so that we could grasp hands again, sustain my forward motion and provide a tow to the next downhill.  Sometimes an uphill walk was inevitable, as for Nicky to pedal hard enough to propel both bikes uphill was too exhausting, but the downhills were all the more special for this.

benquerenca-into-the-cloud

Most of the downhill stretches didn’t require braking and were long, wide and sustained, so we tucked in and really enjoyed covering the ground home quickly.  To our surprise and relief, the journey back was a lot less arduous than our minds had originally thought it would be when the chain first snapped, and our shortcut route ended up only a little over 18km back, with maybe 12km of this being quality descending.  It was still a reasonably tough 55km day of cycling, with Nicky additionally exhausted from the efforts of towing, so we enjoyed a very good dinner with lots of red wine to help replace the spent calories.

Guarda and Belmonte

The town of Viseu was a pleasant stop, but afterwards the weather continued to frustrate us a little as we’d been patiently waiting for a decent weather window to undertake a planned 40 mile cycle ride in this region.  We’re not fair-weather cyclists by nature, but without a clear day you don’t get the stunning views and the same experience.  Also, if we got soaked by rain, drying wet gear presents a logistical challenge when in an aire where you are not permitted to hang out any clothes to dry, as this is deemed to be a camping activity.  Good, clear weather is the key for an enjoyable and practical cycle, when your base is a small motorhome.  Reluctantly, we decided to move on towards our next stop, and to concentrate more on walking for a day or two, until the weather improved.

Staying off the motorway due to our uncertainty of how to pay the toll (the toll must be pre-paid we are told, but buying a ticket in advance of travel at post offices that don’t open on a Sunday is impossible) we followed an older ‘B’ road that followed the same route parallel to the motorway.  We were in no real rush and happy to dawdle, but each village we reached, and there were many, was entirely paved in cobbles and this slowed our progress to an uncomfortable bumpy crawl.  As pretty as it was to see these rural villages, and the road hugged the slopes creating fantastic views down the adjacent valley, we vowed to ensure we have a motorway toll option in place for future journeys, if we can.

For quite a number of miles in the valley road we passed through small villages with huge flying ants swarming outside, hundreds hitting the windscreen every minute.  We needed to use the wipers, even though it was smearing them across the glass, to ensure clear visibility.  The constant pattering of their inch-long bodies on Benny, like heavy raindrops, was disconcerting and we were quite glad not to be out walking in such a swarm.

guarda-catherdral-front

We arrived in Guarda about two and a half hours after leaving Viseu, a trip that would be under 50 mins on the motorway.  Rather than heading to an aire on the north east side of town, we stopped about one kilometre shy of the centre, parked on the side of a wide road with ample space, then walked into Guarda from here; logistically much simpler.

We had assumed Guarda, the highest city in Portugal, would be larger.  For half our walk it looked like there was not going to be a town at all, as we were expecting a large city to appear.  We reached the main square and located the tourist office, but as usual no maps of anywhere other than the immediate town were available, so still no maps or information for the Sierra de Estrela walks we were hoping to undertake over the next few days.

A walking tour map for Guarda had a detailed route, taking in most of the main sights, which was stated to last some two hours. We completed this wander in a little less than 30 mins, and we thought we had dragged it out somewhat.

guarda-king-and-cathedral

guarda-cathedral-back

We first visited the cathedral, only metres away from the tourist office in the central square.  There was a service on so we didn’t linger, but it was pleasantly austere, simplistic and neat internally.  Outside, a statue of the 11th century king Sancho I stood guard by the cathedral.  The 18th century Provost’s house was on the opposite corner of the same square.  A short walk away was the 13th century Jewish quarter, although visiting here felt like an unwelcome intrusion into the current occupiers’ lives.

We saw the remains of the original city walls and various gates around the perimeter, that all had a different use in days gone by.  We had our lunch in a park at the top of the town, with a view of the nearby villages (and of a terribly clad ugly shopping centre right adjacent to the ancient city walls).  From here we did a little shopping in the impressively modern mall before returning to the main square for a final look around.

Belmonte

After our quick shopping side-trip, we moved on to the nearby town of Belmonte.  We passed through more rural villages and avenues of trees and over many more cobbled roads and raised speed bumps, before arriving in our aire for the night, in a parking area adjacent to a seldom used bus station.  It doesn’t sound too glamorous, but it was a rather nice spot, paved and level, with all services available for free.

belmonte-rural-roundabout

We decided on a short wander into town before dinner, with little expectation, as the walk from our aire to the centre of town was rather less than salubrious.  We passed a strange roundabout installation, where the design was all plastic sheep, dogs and farmers, a tacky full size version of a rural scene, as would appear in a model railway set.

belmonte-castle-external

belmonte-castle-entrance

Climbing up through the town, the centre suddenly looked a little more looked after, and we passed a large fountain arrangement with picnic tables and neatly designed pergolas and barbeque areas that must be well-utilised in summer. We continued up the hill and were delighted by the far reaching views across the valleys on all sides of the town’s castle positioned, unsurprisingly, at the very top.  The castle walls and keep were mostly intact and with a modern amphitheatre constructed of modern cut stone inside the castle, it was a neat juxtaposition of two contrasting times.  It was great to see a contemporary use of the castle has been accommodated, respecting both the old and new.  The castle also houses an impressive Manueline late Gothic style window, added by the Cabral family in the 15th century.

belmonte-auditorium-space

belmonte-manueline-window-view

belmonte-castle-auditorium

A small bell tower with steep steps leading to the bell stood alone in the cobbled square near the castle.  An old man, previously resting on the steps, obligingly gave way to allow us to climb to the top and enjoy the view. A tiny stone house with a colourful washing line of clothes sat adjacent to the castle entrance.  An old lady dressed all in black unpegged her laundry and returned it inside her tiny stone home, with no windows at all on the two elevations visible to us.

A large green and white water tower with the town name written on the side formed a large portion of the skyline.  Not too dominant a feature, but eye-catching in that it’s unusual to see a town name painted on the side.  Its dominance was more about the contrast against the older buildings surrounding it.   A neat, white church with stone quoins and window surrounds was the only large structure, bar the water tower, to break the skyline.

belmonte-castle-window-view

belmonte-bell-tower

The town has been home to a small Jewish community since the 13th century, a constant presence in all the prevailing years and still continues strong today.  A small museum commemorates their centuries of history in the village.  We passed by old men congregating in a neat, green square by a large statue of Pedro Álvares Cabral, a famous son of Belmonte who is credited with the discovery of Brazil in 1500 CE, and the town recently celebrated 500 years of continuous missionary work in Brazil following his original landing.

belmonte-old-church

belmonte-church

All these interesting facets and experiences from a small, previously unconsidered and insignificant town visit, gave us a feeling of having been treated to an unexpected jewel on our journey.  It’s sometimes easy to forget that history happens equally everywhere, not just in the well-known cities where the wealth and interest is concentrated.  This was a facinating place, made all the better for us knowing nothing about it before our arrival.

Méda and Viseu

Méda – Day 1

From Bragança we drove south, in dull drizzle and greyness.  With the weather as it was, we thought making a bit of an inroad south would be the best use of our time.  We skipped over several potential places to explore and drove around 85 miles, a decent day’s distance for us, to the large town of Méda.

On this occasion we paid, €9.50/night with electric hook-up, for a municipal campsite in the centre of town, as we knew we had to sit out some terrible, rainy weather.  This way, rather than suffer at an aire, at least we had a reliable internet connection to allow us to Skype, update the blog and email some photos.  We settled in and snugly spent a luxuriously lazy afternoon in bed watching movies while the wind and rain battered Benny outside.  A rather wasted day in some regards, but with little else appealing in such stormy times, it offered us some much needed rest and chill time.

With a short weather window available we took the opportunity to stretch our legs and walked around the town, but could find nothing of much interest, or even anything that looked open.  We located an ATM and topped up our cash reserves, but that was the extent of Méda we saw, outside of our battened down hatches.

Méda – Day 2

meda-cycle-finally-a-flat-road

Regardless of the weather, we had arrived here for a reason; to complete a circular cycle ride from Méda to Penedoro, then south to Trancoso to return via the hillside town of Marialva.  The skies were still steel grey and the morning air colder than it had been at any time so far, so we wrapped up well, donning waterproofs and buffs, to begin our ride.  With icy cold fingers and toes, we climbed out of Méda, after which we had a fast, very chilly descent for around 8km.  The roads were smooth and empty, but the mist was yet to burn off so we had limited views across the valley floor, although we could tell it would be stunning on a clear day.  After the downhill, we knew exactly what was up next, and the following 9km was true to form.  We crawled back up the steep, winding road, regaining all the height we’d lost so quickly, passing uncultivated scrubland and slender trees, to the town of Penedoro.  We were both secretly grateful for the hard, steady, climb to warm us up and get some blood flowing to our cold extremities.

meda-cycle-penedoro-castle

We stopped briefly to look at the central castle in Penedoro, before turning south.  This road rolled along gently rather than climbed, as it passed though tiny settlements.  We saw old ladies dressed in black, carrying or rolling baskets, slowly making their way to or from the local shops.  We passed through small cobbled squares surrounded by leaning timber buildings in a state of disrepair.  It was like going back in time; an image of a simpler life, but a harder one too.

meda-cycle-penedoro-town

Somewhere on the last hill ascent before our proposed halfway stop, at the furthest point from home and around 5km shy of Trancoso, Nicky suddenly let out a large yell with a clatter and stopped, mid climb.  The cause – her right pedal completely threaded off the crank and detached itself from the bike, but was still firmly held on her SPD cleats.  Due to whatever weird effect the twisting had on the threads, the pedal simply refused to be refitted by hand. Neither of us had ever had this happen in decades of cycling, and we had no suitable spanners with us to fix it.  The accident also caused Nicky quite impressively large bruising, where her opposite leg crashed into the cross bar when the pedal support suddenly disappeared.

We had a short walk pushing our bikes to the top of the climb, then we rolled downhill, Nicky cycling carefully with one working pedal and a dangling right leg.  We rolled into the next village of Castaíde and looked for someone who could possibly help, but it was siesta time and few places were open.  After a fruitless search and a few dead ends of signing, pointing and gesticulating the issue to various locals, Nicky managed to wave down a white work van as it was leaving a restaurant and the kindly driver, a wind turbine engineer as it turned out, had the correct tools and we forced the pedal back on, thread be damned.  It’s not coming off again in a hurry and both it and the crank will need to be replaced at some point, but we were thankfully moving again so all was good.

meda-cycle-trancoso

We continued on our route to Trancoso, and the rain began again on the approach into town, leaving us cold and wet. This was reported to be the highlight of the cycle, a beautiful village with a lovely tree-lined square and church, but the weather adversely affected our exploration and enjoyment.  We ended up hunkered down under the only scrap of shelter we could find, a timber pergola to the side of the main square, sitting on the hard ground eating our picnic lunch, much to the bemusement of local street cleaners.

We planned the next stretch of our trip back north, and after a quick loop of the centre of Trancoso to salvage what views we could of the visit, we started out north.  We pushed on quickly, as the next 18km or so out of Trancoso was all fast descent through beautiful rural scenery and we ate up the distance home quickly. The day brightened up and the air warmed a little, and we enjoyed lovely views of autumnal reds and oranges in the trees lining our route.  We decided to skip seeing Marialva, as we could see their castles on the hillside from our approach, it would add another sharp hill climb to our day, and the rise back up to Méda was suffering enough.  Perhaps another time.

meda-cycle-road-home-to-meda

The cycle was a decent 77km in total, with a few long, tough hill climbs.  We were glad to have braved the weather and got active, as it would have been all too easy to stay indoors and await blue skies.  Comfortably back in Méda, we abused the available hot showers in the camp for a long, soothing time and then settled back into our cocoon.

Viseu

From Méda, we moved on to the large town of Viseu, as the next step in our journey south.  We located a free aire in a car-park, just north of the town centre and within easy walking distance, and headed here.  We arrived early enough to ensure we bagged one of the eight available spaces and then wandered into town.  The weather was still unpredictable and changeable, but we had a dry window for a while so planned to take advantage when we could.

viseu-camara-municipal

We walked first to the Jardin das Mães where we chatted to the information kiosk girl, before heading up to the centre.  Here the main historic quarter had two impressive buildings set opposite each other – the Igreja da Misericordi and the Catedral de Viseu – both in very different architectural styles.  The sky was looking blue and cloud free again, offering a lovely contrast to the façades and we greatly enjoyed being outside wandering again after a few days in the limited confines of our tiny home.

viseu-igreja-da-misericordi

viseu-cathedral-cloisters

viseu-cathedral

We later walked back through the town, seeing many small squares and interesting spaces lined with small cafes, to the Parque Aquilino Ribeiro where we had a pleasant, shady walk.  We liked the centre of Viseu, and the fact the weather had given us the excuse to take our time and slowly enjoy the town, rather than rushing through as we had with so many other places.

viseu-central-street

viseu-az-chilling-on-street

We ended up spending two nights in the Viseu aire, catching up on various jobs where we could and exploring the town on foot when the weather allowed.  It was calmly satisfying to have nothing to do for a day or two but wander aimlessly or sit still in a park, and we took full advantage.

Castillo de Monterrei & Bragança

Castillo de Monterrei

We left our very comfortable temporary home in O Mundil after suffering through three very relaxing days, with the site to ourselves, and headed south east towards the Portuguese border, first to the outskirts of the town of Viren.

The fortress, Castillo de Monterrei, was beautifully sited for both strategic and aesthetic value. The drive to it passed by vineyards where the harvest was underway, and we watched locals picking grapes ready to be turned into wine.  The winding access road was lined with impressive lime trees and offered great views of Verin and other nearby towns.

monterrei-added-restaurant

monterrei-the-towers

The fortress compound, originally a frontier post during the Portuguese-Spanish wars, was begun in the 14th century, with the central keep of the Torre de las Damas (Lady’s Tower). The 15th century brought the Torre Del Homenaje (The main Keep). There are three concentric rings of protective stone walls, the final outermost wall being completed in the 17th century.

A decorative three storey stone arcade lined the enclosed courtyard, providing a softness to the building in comparison to the harsh austerity of the ancient stone keeps.  The small chapel was even older, built in the 13th century.  It had a tiny portal to the right of the main nave with a delicately carved tympanum showing various images of the life of Christ, along with a very unusual statue showing not a mother and child, but a pregnant Mary, pre-birth. A glass case also housed a replica of the first ever book written in Galicia, so we were told.

monterrei-arches

monterrei-the-keep

The fortress has been sympathetically and subtly added to, to provide decent access and facilities for visitors and functions. We could easily imagine this being a sought-after wedding venue, with its own chapel, restaurant and a spacious garden terrace commanding exceptional views. There were many simple and effective solutions offered by the chosen architect, incorporating the new elements neatly into the original courtyard; timber decking to level out courtyard steps, grey steel stairs to access the courtyard and glass infills for fall protection.  The works may not be considered exceptional by architectural magazines and current fashion, but ego-free, sympathetic, neat conservation works of this calibre and level of subtle detail are hard to come by and should be lauded much more than they are.

monterrei-az-at-main-courtyard

After a quick supermarket shop and a tasty lunch, we decide to change our plans to cross into Portugal to the town of Chaves and instead, as we had a bit more time to spare, to travel further into Portugal to the town of Bragança. We stayed in Spain for an hour longer as we first drove east, parallel to the border,  before turning south over the mountains into Portugal.  The drive across the rolling hills in the border area was exceptionally pretty with new vistas opening out around every turn, of orchards and vineyards and cultivated hills in autumnal colours.  Pink Floyd instrumentals, soaring to match our mood, provided the perfect accompaniment to our arrival in this new country.  A great start to a new country.

on-the-road-to-portugal

Bragança                                                                                                                                

The steep sloping sides of the mountain passes were covered in dry yellow grass and rows of horse chestnut trees all neatly planted like a large orchard. We wondered if there is an edible variety, or an attempt to repopulate the slopes over time. Either way it formed beautiful vistas when interspersed with the cultivated mountain slopes behind and the autumnal colours of the adjacent trees.

Our first view of Bragança was disappointing, with several huge 8-storey apartment blocks each stretching hundreds of metres long; like a collection of solid anonymous monstrosities from the Soviet era. The centre was much more appealing, and we parked up in a pleasant aire in the shadow of the walled citadel.  We bagged a great spot, we had French neighbours and blazing sun; all was good for both relaxing and language practise.

braganca-view-of-aire-from-castle

braganca-az-chilling

Our space in the aire was on a central, level terrace with lime and walnut trees defining the front and back.  We parked parallel to the side wall, with Benny’s nose looking directly at the walled citadel in front and above us.  A sublime space to spend a night or two, and all free for visitors to the town to enjoy.  We felt rather privileged to be here, quiet and safe, great hillside views and with the bright sun burning hot.

The original idea that we can be anywhere, see anything and enjoy the journey as we go is really beginning to sink in.  It’s not a holiday from which we have to return; this is our real life and we live it where we want, one day at a time.  We can change plans at a moment’s notice, stay still another day or leave immediately for another venue, as we wish.  We’ve always known this was to be the case, but intellectually only now are we beginning to appreciate and fully understand what this means, and how liberating it really is.  This morning we had no firm plans to be in Portugal, now here we were in a beautiful walled town set in glorious green hills, surrounding by like-minded travellers with tales to share.

braganca-local-square

braganca-tiled-facade

braganca-church-at-night

braganca-castle-at-night

After an afternoon of chatting, sun-worshipping and a few chilled beers with dinner, we decided to go for an evening wander around the walled citadel to watch the sunset and gain a flavour of the town.  We didn’t go far, but the views from the fortress, both over the green, neatly cultivated slopes of nearby hills and the terracotta rooftops of the nearby town, were quite stunning.

The next morning we enjoyed a breakfast entirely consisting of copious amounts of tea and pain au chocolats on a bench in the nearby park, whilst we read our books in the early sun. There was a deep chill in the air, the October days were definitely slow to warm up.

We decided to remain in place for one more night, so a more thorough city explore was the order of the day.  We walked back up through the walled castle, passing through on our way down cobbled streets to the main centre of Bragança.  The traditionally detailed whitewashed buildings contrasted beautifully with the morning sky.

 

braganca-church

braganca-railway-sidings

We passed several small churches to reach the modern heart of the town.  We bought a few trivial essentials (a larger diameter hose connector, super glue) in the myriad bric-a-brac shops that lined the central road, before passing the railway station that had an old siding transformed into part of the entrance pathway, along with curved timber benching that was set on the chassis of old rolling stock – a very neat and effective idea.  On a back street we passed a haphazard private garden filled with many aeroplanes and scale models of famous monuments, such as the Leaning tower of Pisa and the Eiffel tower.  We climbed the many steps to enjoy the view from above the external auditorium space, before returning and following the river back to the walled castle near our aire.  The weather flicked a switch and looked like threatening rain again, and then delivered a deluge for much of the night, but we’d already enjoyed our lazy town explore and our time here.

Ourense and O Mundil – rural camping

Ourense

We left the eerie, misty sea in Boiro, heading south and east to our last large city in Spain, at least for a while. After an hour or so of wide, empty country roads, through vineyards and tiered orchards, we arrived on the outskirts of Ourense.  As we’ve often found, we again encountered difficulty finding a suitable Benny-sized parking space.

On our second loop, we finally found a very nice parallel spot on a wide back street and gratefully parked up neatly by the kerb.  From here we walked along the nearby riverside path to an old Roman stone bridge, then turned left into centre of town, passing through a grassy play park filled with excited and screaming kids from a nearby school.  We zigzagged through busy, active streets lined with locals to locate the central quarter, hosting the main elevated sight of the Catedral-Basílica de San Martiño.

ourense-catedral-de-san-martino

ourense-catedral-from-praza-do-trigo

Following a city walk tour from a leaflet picked up in passing from a friendly tourist office, we began a self-guided tour of the nearby key buildings in the Historic District.  There were few people in this area of town which is no doubt normally so full of tourists the locals choose to avoid it. This clear October morning there was only us.

The height of the buildings forming the tight-knit streets provided much needed cool, shaded areas, with the sun back out in full force this morning. The heat still penetrated so we walked slowly, and this gave more opportunity to absorb and consider each defining space as we passed.

We followed the dictated route in reverse, beginning from the tall stone fountains of Alameda square, passed the impressive interior of the Pazo Oca-Valladares to the grand facade of the Igrexa de Santa Eufemia, a 17th century Baroque temple originally built as a Jesuit school.  Along with the complexity and detail of the work, the asymmetry of the facade was quite striking as the second tower was never completed, perhaps due to the Jesuit expulsion from Spain in the 18th century.

ourense-igrexa-de-santa-eufemia

ourense-museo-municipal

After the cathedral, we wandered through Praza do Tigo, leading to the the tree-lined and ornately symmetrical Praza da Magdalena, to the Igrexa de Santa Maria Nai, only mere metres away from the other prominent churches.  This was the site of the original cathedral of Ourense, dating from the 4th century, set on the south east corner of Plaza Maior.  The original building was destroyed by Muslim invaders in 716 BCE, rebuilt as a Romanesque chapel in the 11th century, before being demolished and rebuilt again in the 18th century in its current formalised Baroque incarnation, complete with marble columns and matching bell towers.

ourense-igrexa-de-santa-maria-nai

The city’s highlight for us was the hot spring baths, with water at a temperature of 67 degC constantly spilling and steaming its way out of the overspill wells.  They were closed when we visited but still looked inviting.  The reconstruction of the ancient bathing pool, with changing rooms and neatly terraced landscaped gardens behind, has been very nicely integrated into the grounds of a block of modern apartments, hopefully ensuring its continued use and maintenance, along with creating a overall sense of shared ownership.

ourense-hot-baths

ourense-burgas-hot-baths

ourense-67deg-hot-spring

Overall, the city carried a more Italian feel throughout, than that of the typical Spanish towns we’d visited previously.  Whether this was the Roman bridge, the close proximity of all the churches, the intricate stonework facades, or the enjoyable sunny weather, we’re not quite sure.  But this distinctive Italian vibe was a definite feature of our visit here.

O Mundil – Day 1

We then proceeded south west of the city, to our chosen overnight spot near the Portuguese border, a commercial aire located in tiny hillside villages adjacent to an equestrian centre.

We arrived to find we were the only motorhome and for the grand sum of €10, to be paid into an honesty box when leaving, we could plug into their electric, access free wifi inside Benny and enjoy exclusive use of the shower and toilet block.  We passed a very pleasant evening eating outdoors, even though the nights are becoming chilly, watching the deep red sun set over the trees of the nearby hills, lighting up the clouds just for us.

o-mundil-peaceful-camp-site

o-mundil-sunset

O Mundil – Day 2

We had a slow and lazy morning, enjoying the stillness and quiet of our little corner of the world.  Aaron had a new haircut from his new hairdresser.  We were adopted by a local dog, who came close and just lay down in the shade of our motorhome and looked longingly at us, as if we were the only company he’d had in weeks.

By lunchtime the sun had broken through again and began the process of heating the air; until then it had a real morning chill.  We enjoyed an al fresco lunch then decided to explore a little locally by foot.  We headed downhill on dusty chalk fire tracks in the pine forests, enjoying the smells and noises of the forest.  We could see rolling hills with managed forests in all directions, but no people around.  We dropped down to meet the river at Pont Nova, an imaginative name, and crossed over to join a riverside walk.

o-mundil-river-walk
o-mundil-skinny-dipping

This turned out to be one of the most beautiful river walks we could recall; the colours of the interestingly gnarled trees, the narrow well-worn stone pathway, the calm reflections on the meandering water – all combined to create a very gentle, lovely walk.  All along the water looked very inviting, varying from a shallow flow to deep pools.  Too inviting.  As we’d not seen or passed anyone on our hour long walk so far, we decided on a skinny dip. We located a suitable entry point, ensuring we could safely get back out again, and stripped and dived in.  The cold water was an instant shock, like an ice bath, so the swim was rather brief, but very refreshing.  We dried off in the sun on the riverbank before re-dressing and headed back along the same pretty stretch.

On our return we walked past our campsite, instead heading further up the road to the local village of Nogueiro to check out the possibility of them having a shop.  They did.

o-mundil-village

The local old village centre was like being dropped back in 19th century Ireland;  a shambolic, run-down, falling apart buildings of unfinished timbers, with old rusting agricultural equipment strewn around hay-covered cobbled yards.  It was a stark contrast to the modern commerce on the main street, adjacent to the through road. We were passed by an old wooden cart heavily laden with recently picked grapes, towed by a dirty quod bike rather than a horse, with a small girl and several cats hitching a ride on the back, legs dangling.  That scene summed up the distinctive rural feel of the whole area, and capped off our explore.  In all, our walk was just shy of 10km; an excellent afternoon.

O Mundil – Day 3

As before, we had a very chilly morning with the sky grey and overcast.  This day took even longer to warm up than the previous, so we relaxed until the cloud burned off and the sun returned. After a leisurely lunch at 1.30pm, the sun was finally warming up, so we decided on a local explore by cycle.  We headed past the local village again, then on north west on small local roads through small, pretty villages, with pine wood forests and pretty rolling hill views in between.  Our cycle took us to the nearby village of Castelle and we had a quick look in the church at the top of a small cobbled street.  We got quite surprised by the very loud bell ringing out just as we approached.

o-mundil-cycling

o-mundil-villages

After the village, we had quite a bit of an uphill drag, on empty roads;  a solid climb for six kilometres, not majorly challenging as it was at a consistent gradient, but enough to keep us honest.  It was a lovely cycle, only 19km in total, but it was really good to have a bit of activity on what we had designated as a down day.  It was a welcome treat to spend three days in the same place, and we had a cycle, walk and a swim (of sorts) – bliss.