Our Wheels Start SpinningOctober 11 in Portugal
Our first impressions of Arraiolos were rather confused. In some respects it was a bit like being transported back to the 1950s and a time when shops were only open when the owners felt like working, when people still had time to sit and talk in the centre of town and where the only two colours of paint available were blue and white.
By 9.00 am most of us were ready to start riding. After all, that is what we had come so far to do. The only trouble was the weather was looking threatening. From time to time a light drizzle started to fall. When I spotted a tiny patch of blue overhead, I boldly announced that "the rain was finished for the day" and that we would not be needing the wet weather gear most of us had donned. It turned out to be a little bit premature.
There was another small problem. Our guide Jorge was yet to arrive, and he was the only one who knew where we were meant to be riding. Soon after 9.30 am he arrived and proceeded to explain that he would be driving the van to each important road junction and then showing us the way. It sounded simple, but I was not overly confident that it would work.
Actually there was yet another small problem - the road immediately climbed up at a steep angle. Since most of us had not ridden a bike for several weeks, we were soon left stretched out over a large distance. I guess that was why the tail enders took a wrong turn and managed to get lost within the first 5 minutes. It was a worrying start.
The lost sheep were eventually located and we worked hard to perfect the system. At one point we stopped outside a very old church. If I heard Jorge correctly, he explained that it had been built in 300 BC. That posed all sorts of problems in my head, but I guess I should not get bogged down with details.
The road continued to climb and climb, making me wonder we were ever told that this region is very flat. After our very first day in the saddle, we all know now that it is simply not true.
Our first stop for the day was at a large cheese farm. It was quite interesting watching the cheese being made, but by far the most interesting part was when the guide explained that the large Russian female cheesemaker was a fearful woman who continually worried that someone was going to steal her husband. I must admit that I would not have wanted to have been on the receiving end of a beating by Nina. The other fascinating attraction at the farm was a beautiful (and very large) three legged dog that seemed happy to follow after us. I can't remember what name was, but I think it might have been Hoppalong.
I was curious why every building had been painted blue and white and asked whether that was the only colours available on the Portuguese colour chart. The reply was that it was to "keep away the flies". I think she was serious.
It was while we were at the cheese factory that the weather took a turn for the worse. With steady rain now falling, Jorge explained that our planned picnic lunch would no longer be possible. We were told that we would be able to have it in the big hall instead. It certainly was an impressive space. The fireplace was the biggest I have ever seen and the mantlepiece was large enough to accommodate two huge stiffed boars. It was that sort of place.
None of us were sure what happened next, but somehow it seemed to take an eternity for the picnic lunch to be ready and we didn't get back underway until about 2.30 pm in the afternoon. At the least the rain had stopped by that time and the sun eve started to make a reappearance.
Of course the only way out of the cheese farm was up the same steep hill we had arrived by. When you combine a steep slope with bone shattering corrugations it makes for a serious hard work.
Jorge had equipped Douglas and Brian with GPS units to help them find the way through some tiny off road tracks. That move was guaranteed to inject mass confusion into the peloton. The path deteriorated into a sandy cow track (complete with real cows) that had everyone quickly trying to perfect their mountain biking skills. In spite of the difficult riding, only Rhonda managed to actually fall off, although many others came very close.
We finally arrived at the Winery which was to be stop number two. While most of the group went into the premises for a lengthy session of wine tasting, the rest of us sat outside and chatted. The winery was also famous for its huge collection of antique and beautifully restored carriages. Apparently the entire collection is worth many millions of Euros. It certainly was fascinating, but I was really starting to worry about the time. Sunset was rapidly approaching.
We finally headed away from the winery and started climbing more huge hills. You could only imagine my horror when I saw that we had actually ridden right back into Arraiolos. After hours of riding we were right back where we had started from. It was now about 5 pm and I knew that there were only two hours of daylight remaining.
Normally when you hear that you will be riding on a "rail trail" you imagine that it will be a lovely smooth surface to ride on, with almost no hills. This one was more like a sand pit, with numerous patches of treacherous deep sand. On several occasions my bike almost came to a complete halt, but somehow we all managed to keep moving ahead.
We finally arrived at our destination Evora with only a few minutes of daylight remaining. The most impressive sight that greeted us was the towering city wall that seemed to continue for ever. It was with a huge relief that we eventually reached our home for the next two nights - the huge M'Ar De Ar Muralhas hotel. It has a four star rating, but inside it had a distinct "lived in" feeling that suggested that its grandest days were behind it. Nevertheless, the room was large, clean and very comfortable. It was a pity that the towel rail fell straight off the wall as soon as I touched it, but somehow I wasn't surprised.
The restaurant that we enjoyed our evening meal was packed. I also noticed that it had a Michelin rating. When we saw the level of service experienced the quality of the food we could see why it was the most popular place in town.Read more