A Ghostrider's Wanderings

After discovering the joys of cycling in 2002 I took a group of fellow riders to China in 2006. Since then we have gone on to complete something like 35 other overseas cycling and trekking adventures which have taken us all over the planet.
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  • Day33

    It is always fascinating to observe the quick changes of season in Europe at this time of the year. When we arrived in Madrid five weeks ago, summer was still definitely in charge. The days were hot and sultry, the women all wore their bright summer clothing and the deciduous trees were still covered in (mostly) green leaves.

    This afternoon, as I wondered about Lucerne, it was plainly evident that autumn has well and truly taken over. The days are now fine and cool, the women have all donned their dark winter clothes and the trees are almost bare. I really love this transition and would find it very difficult to live in a location where it is the same all year round.

    Last night as I was preparing to go to bed I noticed a guy in a suit, sitting in his office, almost directly opposite my hotel room. Although it was nearly 10 pm, he was obviously still hard at work, peering intently at his computer screen. I could not help but feel sorry for anyone who has to spend so much time in such a miserable way. The following morning he was back in his office at 7.30 am. What was even worse was that it was a Saturday. I am sure that life was never meant to be lived in that way. As for Allan and I, we had other plans.

    Our main objective in coming to Switzerland was to experience some of their most amazing mountain railways and reach some lofty mountain top summits along the way. Our first challenge was to reach the summit of Mt Titlis. At 3200 metres it is one of the highest peaks in the Swiss Alps, so it seemed like a good place for us to start.

    The first step was to take the train from Lucerne to Engelburg, from where we could catch a series of cable cars to to very summit of the mountain. Our main concern was the weather. It had been very murky since we arrived at Lucerne and we were both a little worried that we might not have been able to see anything when we reached the mountaintop.

    The train ride to Engelburg would have been very comfortable if I had not been seated with the most garrulous family group you could possibly imagine. There were three of them and they never stopped talking, even for a single minute of the journey. Even worse was the fact that they were mostly all talking simultaneously, never even stopping to take a breath. I thought that I must have stumbled upon the Swiss Olympic Talking Team on their way to a training camp.

    We were both glad to get off the train, however, when we walked from the Engelberg Station to the cable car station, it became evident that we would be accompanied by hundreds of bus tourists who had also descended en masse. It also quickly became apparent that nearly all of them were from India, and we also deduced that nearly all of them must had had a serious hearing defect as every one of them was shouting uncontrollably. It was a sight to see and a cacophony to hear.

    The good thing was that the cable car rapidly lifted us well above the cloud cover and up into brilliant sunshine. The whole construction was a marvel of Swiss engineering and the views were breathtaking. As we were steadily lifted above the snow line, the thin air became breathtaking too. Gaining 2500 metres in a few minutes certainly can leave you gasping for oxygen. It reminded me a little of how we felt when we first stepped out of the plane in Cusco.

    When we left the final gondola at the summit, the temperature gauge told us that it was 0 degrees. It felt every bit of it. On went my hat and gloves and out we went into the snow. Since it had been packed flat by hundreds of stomping Indians (most who had never seen snow before and were shouting even louder and faster than before), the surface was treacherous. It did not take long for me to slip straight over onto my backside, and Allan followed suite soon after. It was more fun than the Keystone Cops.

    After we had recovered our composure and found our footing, we had a chance to look about us and savour the views. It truly was an incredible sight. All around were dozens of snow covered peaks, stretching into the distance. Some more serious climbers were making their way up the glacier to the very top of the mountain, while hang gliders were soaring overhead. Much closer to us, dozens of fellow tourists were busy trying to secure that elusive catch - the perfect selfie. I should not have been surprised.

    Way down in the valley we could see that the low lying cloud was still there, making a beautiful white ocean. Rather than detract from the view, it actually made it much better. We busied ourselves taking photos, knowing full well that pictures can never capture the full impact of such a sight. You just have to be there, to know what it is all about.

    Part of the complex at the summit allows you to actually walk through the middle of the glacier, via an ice cave. It was an amazing experience, even if it was cold and slippery, and even if I managed to bang my head on the low ice ceiling.

    Finally it was time to have some lunch in the mountain top restaurant. It was an incredible view and the prices were also pretty incredible as well. I have never before paid almost $40 AUD for some chicken nuggets, baked potato and a cup of coffee. I guess you pay dearly for the ambience of the place.

    We were soon sliding back down the mountain in a much quieter cable car. Most of the masses had been summoned back to their buses and were already on their way to some other distant location. Although we had a little trouble remembering where we had left the railway station, we managed to step straight onto an almost empty waiting train. It did not take me long to fall asleep in our first class carriage. We were the only passengers in the carriage and I seem to have have perfected the important art of falling asleep in seconds.

    It had been a wonderful day.
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  • Day32

    Trains, Planes & More Trains

    October 19 in Switzerland

    Our short stay in Amsterdam passed far too quickly. Once again it was time to pack my bags and head off to the next leg of our journey. On our arrival two days earlier we had chosen the expensive option of travelling by Tesla taxi from Schipol Airport to our hotel. That little thrill set us back the princely sum of 55 Euros.This time we opted for the much cheaper alternative of taking the train instead.

    Fortunately we were relatively close to Amsterdam Central Station and the walk only took us about 10 minutes. We then paid 5.40 Euros each for our tickets, so it was well worth the minor inconvenience. By far the hardest part of the exercise was hauling our luggage through the enormous airport. That place really is huge, in fact it is like a city in itself. The lady at the information counter told us that it would take about 30 minutes to walk to the check in desk and she was probably conservative in her estimate.

    I am not sure if there was some sort of heightened security at the airport, but the screening was certainly the most thorough I have experienced for some time. We both received not only a full body scan, followed by a body frisk search, but then had to unpack our carry on luggage to show what was inside.

    After feeling thoroughly violated, we sat down to wait for boarding our KLM flight to Zurich. The flight itself was not particularly comfortable, but at least it was over in one hour and I managed to sleep through most of it.

    At Zurich Airport we managed to find the correct luggage carousal and were soon on our way to the train station to catch the train to Lucerne. We had lashed out for 1st class seats and were very pleased that our carriage was almost empty. The train was whisper quiet and departed right on time. I guess a nation that makes the best watches in the world should be pretty good at accurate timetables.

    I would like to describe the journey in more detail, but I was soon back asleep again and cannot recall anything other than our arrival at the end of the line at Lucerne. By a fluke of planning our hotel happened to be about 100 metres from the Central Station so we had no need of wasting any more money on a taxi.

    After checking in to our rooms, Allan and spent the rest of the afternoon walking the streets of this beautiful lakeside city. It would have been even more scenic if the entire city had not been enveloped in a cloudy haze, making it impossible to see more than a couple of kilometres. The undoubted highlight of the city was the covered timber walking bridge (The Kappellbrucke) across the Reuss. This incredible wooden bridge was begun in 1333 and is festooned with flowers along its entire length. It is the world's oldest surviving truss bridge.

    The old city centre of Lucerne is also home to numerous ornate medieval buildings. Its waterfront location and style of architecture reminded me little of Passau on the Danube. It was also obvious that Lucerne is also very popular with the bus tourists as we encountered more tourists than we have seen anywhere else in our travels so far.

    It is also worth mentioning that Switzerland is still one of the few central European countries that has not adopted the Euro as its currency. The currency of Switzerland is the Swiss Franc, whose value is almost identical to the US dollar. As we looked at the prices of common items, it did not take long to realise that Switzerland is a VERY expensive place to do just about anything.

    Tomorrow we start early to head to the summit of Mt Titlus, at over 3200 metres it is one of the highest mountains in Switzerland.We just hope that the sky will clear enough for us to enjoy the views.
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  • Day31

    Tilting Buildings and Tall People

    October 18 in the Netherlands

    When I first visited Amsterdam, some years ago, the first thing I noticed was how tall the people were. I first thought that I had shrunk by about 10 cm, but discovered that the Dutch are now the tallest people in Europe (and maybe the world). This is even more remarkable because, a century earlier, they were well known for being very short.

    Just what caused this dramatic gain of stature is open to debate, but many put it down to their large intake of dairy products. Whatever the reason, you do feel a bit like you are in the land of the giants.

    The other feature that visitors soon notice is that none of the buildings are vertical. Some lean prodigiously to the left, others to the right, and many just look like they are about to fall straight forward into the street. Apparently the whole city is slowly sinking into the mud, and the residents seem comfortable with the fact that spirit levels would be completely redundant in this city. It certainly does add interest and charm to the place.

    Of course the other things that makes this city famous are the thousands of bicycles that clog every street and that are chained to every suitable anchor point. It is soon evident that there are many more bicycles than people, suggesting that some of the chained bicycles may not have been ridden for a long time. Other unloved bikes are simply thrown into the canals in their hundreds. This means that regular dredging must be done to retrieve these bicycle remains and stop them from completely clogging the waterways.

    On this visit we only have two nights in the city, so I was happy to just spend my time wandering about and revisiting some places that I remembered fondly from previous visits. The weather was fine and cool, those early hot days in Madrid and Bilbao now seem a distant memory. I have now packed the shorts into a remote part of my luggage, not to see the light of day till I return to Melbourne.

    Because the buildings of Amsterdam have very narrow and very steep staircases, it would be impossible to deliver anything larger than a small matchbox to the higher floors. For this reason every building is equipped with a protruding beam at their highest point. This is done so that a pulley can be attached to lift furniture and other items to the upper floors. As we walked about the city we witnessed numerous deliveries being done in this way. We could see that the brawny lifters who were hauling the ropes certainly would not have to waste money on gymnasium memberships.

    As I was walking the streets and looking at the strange assortment of shops in the tiny alleyways (many selling hash & other drug products) I did witness one interesting event. A young, well dressed young man rapidly came out of one of the large department stores and intercepted a middle aged guy wearing a large backpack. He flashed some sort of ID in the face of his victim and then escorted him straight back into the store and up the escalator to the office. The guy had obviously been caught shoplifting and offered no resistance. Some types of crime happen the world over.

    Tomorrow morning our brief time in Amsterdam will end as we return to the airport to catch our flight to Zurich. That is where Allan and I will begin our Swiss Railways Adventure.
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  • Day31

    Hello Amsterdam, Goodbye Portugal

    October 18 in the Netherlands

    It certainly would have been very easy to spend more time at the Castelo de Estremoz. In fact it would have been very easy to settle into this lifestyle permanently. With its palatial rooms, marble staircases, incredible antique furniture and priceless works of art, it really did give us a brief taste of what royal living must be all about.

    To complete the fairytale picture, we awoke to find the surrounding area had been covered over by an impenetrable white blanket of cloud. The castle and a few other nearby small mountains protruded through like islands on a white sea. It was spellbinding to see and we felt that our adventure had been given the final seal of approval.

    It would also have been wonderful to have spent much longer over breakfast. The huge dining hall and carefully prepared tables surely warranted at least an hour or two while we savoured our cereals and pondered the news of the day. Unfortunately it could not be. The problem was that the servants did not open the breakfast hall till 8 am and our bus was due to leave at 8.30 am. Where was the justice in that ? Life can be cruel sometimes.

    In spite of the haste, breakfast was still something I will never forget. I have dined in some pretty exotic places over the years, but this was probably the epitome. Everything else will be pretty mundane by comparison.

    When we loaded our luggage into the bus I walked over to the statue of Santa Isabel, where we had left the two scallop shells. They were still there. Behind the statue the white sea of cloud showed no sign of lifting, although the sun was already shining brightly over our heads. I hoped that Paul and Jan were enjoying the views with us since they had accompanied us all the way in our hearts.

    All too soon it was time to bid farewell to Estremoz. The bus squeezed its way out through the medieval streets and over the drawbridge. Soon we were on the huge motorway and speeding back to Lisbon. An ideal opportunity to grab a few more minutes of sleep.

    We still had one final Portuguese highlight to experience. The incredible Vasco da Gama Bridge across the Tagus River was completed in 1998 and, at 14 km long, it one of the longest in Europe. It certainly must have made a huge difference to life in the capital when it was opened to the public.

    At Lisbon airport we bade farewell to the rest of the group, while Allan Barlin and I headed inside to get some information about our flight. Our next stop was Amsterdam for a couple of nights, before heading on to a week in Switzerland. Allan is a farmer from NSW and I had shared several adventures with him in the past. I always enjoy his wild sense of humour and his easy going manner.

    Our flight to Amsterdam went quickly and smoothly enough.Somehow we even scored the only empty seat on the plane - right between us. We arrived at Amsterdam's huge Schipol Airport right on sunset.

    The walk to the baggage collection area seemed almost as long as our Camino Walk a couple of week's earlier, but we eventually found carousel number 4 and waited for our luggage. About twenty minutes absolutely nothing had come out of the chute. Not a thing. At least we weren't the only ones waiting, so we weren't really worried.

    After a few minutes longer I decided to do some investigation. I made an immediate discovery. On the very next carousel a familiar looking bag was looking very lonely as it went around and around all by itself. It was my beloved blue bag. I don't know how long it had been going around while we had been facing in the wrong direction, but I was just pleased to be reunited with it. I called Allan over and we soon found his bag as well.

    We then walked about 3 km to the taxi stand (Schipol is a VERY big airport) and waited for the next taxi. Instead of a taxi, a futuristic black craft pulled up alongside us. The alien invited us to get aboard, so we did. The alien pressed a few buttons on a giant touchscreen and we silently slid off into the traffic. I wondered if the alien knew any English so decided to speak to him.

    "What sort of machine is this ?", I asked.
    "It is the new Tesla, Model S", it replied.

    Apparently it was only two months old and it certainly made for an interesting and entertaining ride. It took off like a cut snake and cruised effortlessly and silently at 120 kph while the huge screen showed our progress through the streets of Amsterdam. I had certainly never been in a taxi like it and it was almost worth the 55 Euro it cost us for the transfer to our hotel.

    After we had checked in to our rooms, I took Allan on a brief tour of the neighbouring area. I had to explain to him to be very careful when you order cookies with your coffee. It's that sort of place.
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  • Day29

    There were just too many highlights of this amazing hotel, not to include a few more. So here they are.

  • Day29

    For me, the final day of any long anticipated adventure, is always a day of mixed emotions.On the one hand there is the sense of relief that everything went according to the plans and I can finally relax a little, on the other hand there is often a feeling of disappointment that it can't go on just a little longer.

    After the trials and tribulations of the previous day, it was wonderful to awake to a mostly clear sky. The local weather bureau had assured us that there was no chance of rain, and they proved to be correct.

    Because the final day's ride was the shortest of the rain, we allowed ourselves the luxury of not getting underway till 10.00 am. We well know that every day's ride begins with a high (and always ends with one too), so it was a not a surprise to find ourselves immediately working our way uphill.Just to add a new level of difficulty, someone had decided to pave all the roads with rough cobblestones. Before we left the hotel, I had likened the final day of our Portugal ride to the final day of the Tour de France, however I had not expected it to be a replica of the rough cobbles of the Champs Elysees.

    We bounced and rattled our way slowly along, while Allan Barlin spent the time cursing every cobble stone that got in his way. This region is famous for the enormous marble quarries that pock mark the landscape, but you cannot understand the true scale of the operation until you see one of these up close. We quickly decided that it looked like a mighty dangerous place to work. If you didn't get flattened by a huge slab of marble,you would almost certainly choke on the marble dust and also go deaf from the noise of the machinery.

    At one point we stopped at a marble showroom where the lady tried valiantly to explain to us how the process of mining and preparing marble is actually done. Unfortunately she only spoke 4 words of English, so it made the explanation a little difficult. When she realised that her four words of English were slightly inadequate, she recruited Mary to help with the translation. Of course Mary only spoke three words of Portuguese, so the dialogue was still a little limited. The Portuguese documentary movie she showed us made even less sense as it didn't even have four words of English. I discovered that I must be allergic to marble dust as the place just made my throat itch from the moment I walked in the door.

    We were all relieved to be free of the cobblestones and to finally enjoy some glorious riding through idyllic rural farmlands. For once the roads were flat(tish) and the progress was almost effortless. Our riders chatted happily as they rode along and nobody was in in particular hurry for the ride to finish. From time to time we stopped to look for those elusive green doors that Jorge told us about.

    After lunch in an ancient private winery, we resumed the journey to Estremoz, which was to be our final destination for the ride. Of course the highest point of the city is the royal castle, and that is where we would be staying for the night. After our amazing stay in the convent, it was hard to imagine that the standard could be raised even further, but I think it was.

    The Castelo de Estremoz is another magnificent building belonging to to the Portuguese Royal Family. The huge castle tower dominates the surroundings and the attached hotel is like a living museum and testimony to regal wealth and power.

    As the arrived at the base of the tower we all congratulated each other on the fine achievement and then posed for the final group photograph. In the centre of the photograph, in pride of place, were two scallop shells inscribed with the names "Paul" and "Jan". They had completed the final day (and every previous day) right along with us. I only wish they could both have shared that moment with us.

    After checking into my palatial room and throwing away my tattered riding gloves and cycling shorts, I decided to climb the narrow staircase right to the top of the tower. It rewarded my effort with sensational 360 degree views of the whole region. I spent quite some considerable time savouring the moment and thinking back over some of the magical moments we had shared together. When I looked down at the statue of Santa Isabel, I noticed that the two scallop shells were still there where we had placed them. It seemed entirely appropriate.

    Tomorrow morning the group will disburse and head their own separate ways, however I am sure that we will all take away a huge number of incredible memories to relive in the years ahead.

    A Final Footnote
    One matter has been an ongoing topic for discussion and confusion throughout the past 10 days. There are two words for Thank You in Portuguese - they are "obrigado" and "obrigada". Although it seemed to be very complicated as to when you should use each variant (on one occasion, one of our team got so confused she actually said abracadabra), the rule is actually quite simple. If you are a male speaker you use the term "obrigado" and if you are female it is "obrigada". It makes no difference whether you are addressing a male or female, it is the gender of the speaker that is relevant. Simples. Why did we make it so damned complicated ?
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  • Day28

    We had always been warned that today was going to be toughest day of the trip. The guide even went as far as to advise a couple of riders on our team that they should not attempt it. We now all know that he was not lying.

    Looking back over our 40 or so previous overseas adventures, there is usually one day that stands out in everyone's memories, far above all the others. On our memorable 2007 Great China Ride it was the successful conquering of the notorious Mud Mountain, in Africa it was our ill fated ride to Poopa Falls, on our 2015 France ride it was the ride from Orleans to Beaugency, on our 2009 trek in Nepal it was the day we got caught in a Himalayan blizzard on our way to Kohpra Ridge, and so on. In a strange quirk of the mind it is always the worst day that people look back on with the greatest enthusiasm and affection. Today will probably go down on the annals of the Ghostriders as "one of those days".

    Yesterday evening was memorable for an entirely different reason. Jorge drove us back up to the castle on the summit of Monsaraz so that we could eat in one of the local restaurants up there. It was a glorious night with a clear sky that gave a perfect view of the steadily waxing moon. Apparently this area has been made a designated dark sky region to assist with astronomical observations.

    The trip is obviously starting to take its toll. It is not easy to do front up day after day to quite demanding days of walking or riding. We have now been on the go for almost 4 continuous weeks and I am not surprised that some are starting to feel the pressure. Three people actually decided to stay in their rooms and miss the evening meal entirely. They really missed a treat - the meal was superb and the serving sizes were enormous. Perhaps the restaurant had been forewarned about the challenge we would be facing the next day.

    Although the following morning began with fine weather, the temperature was by far the coolest we had experienced since arriving in Europe. The sky was dark and there was the distinct smell of rain in the air. Riders donned their warm gear and tried their best to prepare for the predicted downpour. I guess it was just "good fortune" that served to make sure that the hardest cycling day also coincided with the worst weather as well.

    At least it started dry. For all of about the first 100 metres. And then the rain started. At first it was just a nuisance, but it just would not go away. Slowly the water started to find its way into shoes, jackets and helmets. It would have been nice to take a few stops to enjoy the scenic beauty, but we were just too darn cold and wet to really notice it.

    About halfway through the ride we managed to take shelter in a covered outdoor eating area outside a local restaurant. We waited for the rain to stop. Of course it didn't - it got worse, much worse. We had no alternative other than to simply mount the bikes and head into the downpour. And this is when the going started to get hard.

    Soon after leaving the restaurant we began the climb that we had been dreading. It went on for over 15 km at a pretty steady gradient. We might have actually enjoyed this opportunity to demonstrate our new levels of fitness if the rain had not degenerated into a freezing cloudburst. I could no longer see anything through my glasses, but when I took them off, I discovered that I couldn't see anything with my eyes either. The droplets were so heavy and cold that they stung my cheeks and forehead.

    In rain like this there is simply no place in your clothing that does not get completely soaked. I could feel my feet sloshing about in my waterlogged shoes and started to wonder how long it usually takes to develop trench foot. And still the climb went on, and on.

    After what seemed like an eternity we finally felt the surface of the road start to level out and , a little further on, we noticed Jorge parked by the side of the road. "I think we have reached the top", I announced to the peloton. At the time I believed it to be true, but we all discovered soon enough that we were probably only half way up. Each time we thought we must have crested, we turned a corner and were horrified to see the road just keep pointing to the skies.

    Of course every hill must eventually reach a crest at some time or later and somehow we all managed to stay alive long enough to reach the point where we could climb no further. This area of Portugal is renowned for its incredible marble and we could see a succession of huge marble quarries on both side of the roads.

    Our destination for the day was the town of Vila Vicosa. We found it had an impressive castle that we rode past on our way in, but it also had something much more impressive than the castle. The Pousada Convento de Vila Vicosa is a huge 16th century convent that was converted into an amazing hotel in 1997. I have stayed it some pretty incredible places over the years, but this place would certainly be one of the most memorable.

    The current hotel is owned by the Portuguese Royal Family and it still has a huge number of the features of the original convent. Some even claim that the place has the presence of the last Abbess, who is still sternly overseeing the convent. In 1652 Cecilia do Espirito Santo professed in the convent and she remained there till her death in 1723. Man of the frescoes that are still visible around the corridors and rooms are said to be her handiwork.

    Considering the majesty and history of this place, it was a shame that our thoughts were on much more mundane matters, such as how on earth we were going to dry our sodden clothing and shoes. Personally I don't think we have a hope of even getting them even half dry, even if we worked for hours with the hair dryers. It might be just as well we only have one cycling day remaining.
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  • Day27

    The Best Cycling Day So Far

    October 14 in Portugal

    Our brief time in Reguengoz de Monsaraz proved to be quite eventful. As we rode into the town we soon discovered that the council had been very busy destroying all of the footpaths and most of the roads. I suspect that they might eventually get around to putting them back again, but in the meantime anyone walking around the town has to navigate past piles of dirt and slabs of concrete.

    We had an enjoyable dinner at a local restaurant where the owner spent most of his time and his limited vocabulary in telling us what a fantastic bloke he was. To emphasize the point he had decorated the dining room with large photos and drawings of himself. To be fair, the food was pretty good.

    I had not been long in bed when a mighty storm broke overhead, complete with rolling thunder, lightning and heavy rain. My main concern was over whether it would be still pouring down in the morning. In spite of the rain I did eventually fall asleep, only to be awoken when the room was brightly illuminated. At first I thought it might have been a police raid because I had not shown my passport when checking into the hotel, however it turned out to be the automatic emergency lighting. There had obviously been a power blackout and there was no way to turn off the emergency lights. It was like trying to fall asleep under a searchlight.

    In the morning I awoke to find the rain stopped. It was not the only thing that had stopped – the internet had also stopped working and no one seemed to know how to turn it off and on again to get it working again. The television at least, was still working and the lead story was of how Portugal had been hit by one of the worst storms in history. Winds of up to 170 kph had destroyed much of the trees of Lisbon and the north of the country had suffered huge damage. That was the region we had been in just 4 days earlier, so we counted our blessings that our hardships had been relatively minor by comparison.

    It was about this time that I witnessed one of the most amazing sights of my lifetime. While I was sitting in my room, gazing at the screen of my notebook computer, I heard a rustling noise close by. I glanced across to see that Helen was actually climbing in through my open window. At first I thought it was some sort of joke, but realized that she was intent on climbing the whole way in. It took a while for my addled brain to click into gear and the only thing I could think of to say was “What the hell are you doing?”. From the startled look on her face it was obvious that she had been sleepwalking and had regressed to her previous life as a cat burglar. She immediately climbed back out again, the same way she had entered and I was left wandering whether I had imagined the entire episode. An alternative explanation might have something to do with the fact that her room was right next to mine and she just made an honest mistake, but I will leave it up to the readers to make up their own minds.

    By the time we were ready to start riding we got the message that Jorge was running late and was still 30 minutes away. Allan used the time to discover that his key would not open his bike lock and hoped that Jorge had an angle grinder in the van. We eventually managed to cut through the lock with a pair of pliers and a lot of elbow grease.

    At least the overnight storm had lowered the temperature to a much more comfortable level. This made our early cycling absolutely delightful. We even had the assistance of a lovely tail wind. The combination of lovely smooth bitumen, cool weather and helpful wind surely made for the best riding of our trip so far. We even managed to hold the peloton together. Well that last sentence is not perfectly correct. When we stopped for our first rest break we found that three riders were missing. Since we had been riding at a very sensible (modest) pace we could not understand how that could have happened. A phone call revealed that they had gotten rather muddled and had headed back in the same direction we had arrived from the previous afternoon. They had thus succeeded in riding about 3 km in the opposite direction to the rest of us. Old age really is a bummer sometimes.

    With the group all reunited we were able to make good, cohesive progress with everyone obviously enjoying the picturesque surroundings and the great road. For the first time since the ride started, it really could be accurately described as “flat”. The only problem was that we all knew that the ride was going to have a mountain top finish.

    The fortified village of Monsaraz can be clearly seen from many kilometres away and we could all see that it was going to be a serious challenge to get to the summit. The road kicked up to around 5% at the base of the climb and must have been over 10% on the tight corners. Riders sought ever lower gears as they slowly made their way up the mountain. It certainly was a help that the temperature was cool and the wind was still mostly on our backs. I am sure that our riders were justifiably all proud of their efforts when we finally reached the town entrance and were able to enjoy the panoramic views in all directions.

    The landscape was dominated by the massive Alqueva Dam Reservoir, the largest artificial lake in Europe. The white city inside the city walls was easily the prettiest town we had seen thus far and the lunch we enjoyed at an old olive mill was equally as impressive.

    The final attraction was the magnificent Hotel Rural Horta da Moura we had been booked in for the night. The only way I could describe this place is SUPERB. I think we could have happily stayed here for a week.
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