Category Archives: Gallery

Bairnsdale to Beechworth (Wangaratta) wrap-up

Monday 21 November 2016:
Day 1: Bairnsdale to Ensay, via rail trail to Bruthen. “You can never have too many shifters”
83kms, 877m total climbing, 645m total descending, 230m elevation gained, avg 15.7kmh.
After a lovely hosting by Dad’s old university friends Tim and Jayne in Eagle Point, Jordy dropped Michael and Billy off at a non-descript Bairnsdale oval. Luckily it was right at the rail trail. By a 9:30 start it was already heating up. First 8kms to Nicholson were on a cruisy bitumen track with us getting used to the bikes (and the weight) again. It was a wake-up call after yesterday’s ‘Ride with Greenedge’ at Mitchellton winery, where we cruised 60kms without panniers. After crossing the Nicholson River on a magnificent bridge we were on gravel and taking it pretty easy, with the sun shining through the intermittent line of shade provided. We came upon a couple with twice the bags and weight we had – and they were about three quarters of the way through a 12 month tour of Australia! We snuck along with them for a little while, then wound our way into Bruthen; stop #1. We were pretty happy with the 30kms clocked up – we lunched on the green and Dad grabbed a tea-towel from the op-shop to use as a bandana; the map of Queensland printed on it was not going to help us much though. Our ninety degree turn North was the beginning of the Great Alpine Road (B500) and meant we were back on a road, sharing with log trucks of salvaged burned timber and a few other utes and cars. At the top of the first climb (a shock to the system) Dad decided the chromed steel shifter discarded on the side of the road was worth picking up – as if we didn’t have enough weight! The road was lovely, through thick forest with some challenging undulations. Dad was over-heating (and fair enough) in the 37 degree sun so we had frequent stops, water dousings in the Tambo River, and snacks to keep up energy. The day was certainly mostly uphill, and the kilometres were being counted down given it was a long gap between Bruthen and our destination of Ensay. An energetic red-bellied black snake slithered alongside us with its head raised – luckily we were on a flat and we could outpace it. Our entry to Ensay was an anti-climax as it really consisted of just a few scattered houses, a general store shut in 1983 [or was it 1883?] and post-office relocated into the Little River Inn pub. We had no energy to get to Swifts Creek and wouldn’t have made shop closing time anyway, so luckily our publican Graeme was accommodating despite no rooms or meals being available. After a cold beer and even colder shower [by choice] we were feeling better and chatted with the local fellahs at the bar for the evening – Ensay’s ‘Men’s Shed’ it seems. A ham toastie just satiated our hunger, but we were in the tent early trying to sleep and hoping the mosquito plague would not ram down the mesh ‘door’. Dad’s finder’s-keeper shifter had probably slowed him down up the hills, but strangely hadn’t quickened his pace down them…?

Day 2: Ensay to Omeo. 45kms, via Swifts Creek, Cassilis. “Is the steady ascent better than the steep climb?”
50kms, 882m total climbing, 510m total descending, 374m elevation gained, avg 16.2 kmh.
First night in the tent turned out fine, with any snoring sounds masked by the hotel’s chiller compressor (I think we slept too deeply anyway). With a cup of tea brewed on the trangia we set off in decent time. Thankfully the mercury had dropped – just a bit muggy with some welcome clouds. The road to ‘Swifts’ was not nearly as hilly as expected, so with some nice valley-vistas we cruised at a decent 18km/h and arrived before the school-kids. At the general store we got the day’s supplies – including milk for our muesli breakfast – and promptly sat for a picnic on the bench in front, watching the little town start its day. The previous evening’s pub straw-poll had suggested following the B500 to Omeo; a long slow climb versus the alternate sharp, steep climb on Cassilis Road. However, local knowledge with cycling experience from one old fellah who chatted while we munched our breakfast, determined the ‘back way’ was more enjoyable. We took it, winding on a much quieter road in some very beautiful and haunted former gold-digging territory. Tongio West and Cassilis are pretty much just dots on the map now, after housing over a thousand people during their short-lived gold rush days of the early 1900s. The road-side info-board showed denuded forests and told of high arsenic and sulphur concentrations resulting from fluvial processing – a very destructive practice. The ‘short, sharp’ climb certainly proved sharp. We were straight into the ‘dinner-plate’ gear and pushing up a 12-15% grade at 6-7km/h. Both sweating buckets by the top, a gain of 300m elevation yielded a rewarding view. The vegetation was changing to alpine, with more wildflowers and grasses appearing on the roadside in lovely bloom. Despite the rigorous climb, the route was definitely the right choice, with very little traffic and genuinely peaceful riding. We had to ascend another steep hill into Omeo, but knowing we were almost there pulled us along. The Omeo Visitor Info staffer suggested that the weather was about to turn drastically and staying in town was a better idea than trying to get a bit further towards Dinner Plain. We ended up in the caravan park with a rather deluxe tent – more deluxe than our heated cup-a-soup and rice-packet lunch. One of the old fellahs from last night’s pub was with the local PAG oldies getting a tour of the caravan park’s facilities, so it was another chance to chat about the riding. The bad weather didn’t seem to eventuate and we ventured into town to buy supplies, book Dinner Plain accommodation and peruse a few of the buildings. Most of the town was destroyed in 1939’s Black Friday fires and having already been past its gold heyday much of it wasn’t rebuilt. It means the town looks a little sparse, although it is set in hilly terrain and still very pretty. We’d earned a pub meal for dinner and sat at the Hilltop Hotel for a recovery beer. We got back to the tent just as the weather changed.

Day 3: Omeo to Dinner Plain. 45kms, via Cobungra. “From one extreme to the other”
45kms, 1438m total climbing, 451m total descending, 993m elevation gained, avg 11.5kmh.
Lightning and thunder had woken us a couple of times through the night and we awoke to some heavy rain. Still, we were on a tight schedule and pedalled out by 8:30 – almost soaked by the time we’d left the gate. We’d been warned of the climb out of Omeo and within a couple of k’s we’d reached the bottom. It was an incredibly long, slow slog up in the ‘granny gear’, getting absolutely saturated. The quality waterproof panniers were worth their weight in gold. The Kosciusko lookout was just thick mist and finally, a straight hour of climbing later, we’d made the top. It was cold and even trying to layer up for some descending to Cobungra couldn’t prevent Billy from shivering through a short food break at the revamped Cobungra CFA Station (surely Dartmoor is due for a new shed?). We had budgeted time for having a full lunch on the trangia but needed to keep pedalling to keep warm. Going past the alpine sled-dog company stirred the huskies and we were given a howling reception into the snowgum line. It was steady climbing most of the afternoon – one stretch of road with less hills and a break in the rain was very welcome but the forecast still suggested imminent snowfall. One bloke out of the blue overtook us on his racer – going from Omeo to Harrietville and back, an extreme effort! Arriving in Dinner Plain was very welcome; soaked and shivering we only had to wait 10 minutes at the Hotel High Plains to be let in. We had the place to ourselves off-season and appreciated a heater, hot shower, and washing machine. The first snowflakes caused excitement and after a couple of hours of build-up we were able to go play in it! In a ‘return to the past’ we were able to write the purpose of our ride in the snow – ‘Cycling The Divide for MSF’ – just as we had traced ‘Cycling Across Borders for MSF’ on the Grimsel Pass, Switzerland in 2007. The rest of the evening was some R&R, TV and another cup-of-soup/packet-rice special feast. Luxury!

Day 4: Dinner Plain to Myrtleford. 105kms, via Mt Hotham, Bright. “Going down”
104kms, 576m total climbing, 1893m total descending, 1322m elevation lost, avg 20.8kmh.
If yesterday’s light flakes were unexpected the scene we awoke to was surreal – centimetres of snow laying on the ground; more than enough to build a snowman. Even better, there was no precipitation and it was completely still, so while the climb to Mt Hotham was very crisp, the road was dry and the riding exhilarating with the surrounds having a dusting of snow. The air must have been thinner though, because we were certainly puffing. The summit was cloudy and we took a stop to check over maps and consider a walk – a well informed CFA volunteer suggested there would be nothing to see, and he would know, as he is posted to the fire watch tower in summer; often there are hours in a row with cloud enveloping him. We put all our layers on and zipped up as we left the summit, although we didn’t realise there were still a few decent climbs out of saddles before the real descending began. The long gradual descent gave some great views through forest and mountains, with recent fires evident in the stands of gaunt trees. It was our fastest patch of riding, although many corners prevented us getting too much speed up. ‘The Meg’ climb had a lot of cyclists slogging up the other way, and when we got to Harrietville we could see the beginnings of the strong regional cycling culture. A quick food stop (we didn’t have much left) then we trundled the slightly downward 22kms to Bright, in lovely sunny conditions stopping only for smoked salmon at the fish farm! The Bright Brewery seemed like cycling mecca, with brews plastered in bicycle motifs and fan-art along the walls. The neighbouring bike shop provided no shortage of people wanting to chat out the front, curious as to our heavily laden voyage. The beer went down very well and so did the rolls we made with our salmon treat. We jumped on the rail trail which to our surprise is completely sealed for its length. Cruising out of Bright, through Porepunkah and along the Ovens River was very scenic and could easily make us come back again. There was a slight headwind but we punched into that well enough and were in Myrtleford just after 4pm. Our accommodation for the night was with hosts Phil and Joyce from WarmShowers, although it meant an extra 7kms riding out of town – the undulations to get there still sapping despite our ‘downhill day’. A delightful evening going over our respective bike tours, with Phil and Joyce having tackled extreme climbs across Europe – on a tandem! Their legs were certainly tougher than ours. We pitched tent in the yard and slept soundly after a long day and filling dinner.

Day 5: Myrtleford to Beechworth, Wangaratta. 85kms, via Buckland Gap, Milawa. “Rail trail delight”
83kms, 560m total climbing, 679m total descending, 120m elevation lost, avg 18.5kmh.
It was our earliest morning of the week – up at 6 to enjoy a beautiful sunrise over the valley and on the bikes by 7. We breakfasted in Myrtleford with Iced Coffee as a plain milk substitute in our muesli – no 600ml milk for sale, but the caffeinated milk may become a regular thing now? It’s sooo goood! A few extra discussions about alternative routes to Beechworth and we settled on the most direct, despite it not being recommended by our hosts who noted it’s a narrower and faster-trafficked road than via Stanley. But apart from being shorter, the 300m climb was the also the lesser of the options. Initially on rail trail, then onto the Buckland Gap road which indeed had no shoulder. We did ok though with only a few discourteous and disconcerting vehicles. While resting at the foot of the hill pre-climb another cyclist stopped by for a chat, followed by the Highway Patrol who seemed to want to satisfy themselves that we were carrying helmets. They flew away then we slogged up the 13% hill, sweating and thinking we would be glad to be done with this hill-climbing business. The last few k’s into Beechworth were recuperative and we’d arrived in good time, meaning we had a very casual couple of hours to peruse town. Coffee first at the recommended Blynzz Cafe, then some walking through the historic centre chatting history, including Dartmoor’s connections to this region and some bushrangers including Ned Kelly. [Do you know a local named Creed once applied for funds from the government to catch the infamous outlaw. But he couldn’t pursue him full-time because he had to be home for shearing!] A theme had developed, with a beer and lunch at the Bridge Rd Brewery. Well-earned…again. We made sure to get some ‘Beechworth’ photos, including a trip to the put-it-on-the-map bakery, then we struck out on the rail trail again. This section is magnificent – beautiful landscape (and going downhill might have helped our impressions). A bizarre Echidna incident had us shaking our heads in amazement for hours, rueing the missed opportunity for viral internet fame. Upon approaching we stopped and watched it waddle along, scratching its hindquarters with a back foot every few steps. Getting within a metre it was still oblivious to its viewers, and while Billy snapped photos it suddenly flipped onto its back and gave a smug belly scratch for seconds; rolling back over it took a few more steps then guiltily realised we were right behind, huddling down to hide in embarrassment. Sadly the phone was set to taking photos and not video! We stopped at Everton Station – a rail junction in the late 19th century, apparently thriving and with high patronage, now just a house or two. Yet Dad’s Aunt had written postcards back and forth with the then-station-master’s daughter, part of his ongoing research into the now National Museum in Canberra collection. We took an alternative route to Wangaratta via Milawa, meaning we had some roads to travel and wine and cheese to taste (and purchase!). It was a comfortable final dozen or so kilometres into Wangaratta despite some headwind – the satisfaction of completing the trip pushing us on. We were able to utilise the brand new Merrawa Park Bike Hub – an incredible facility including public bike lockers, tools and hot showers. The 3 hour train ride to Melbourne was far more comfortable because of it. The final link was cycling under lights from Southern Cross Station to Maggie’s home in West Brunswick at 10pm. We were done.

TOTALS: 365kms, 4333m climbing, 4178m descending, 155m elevation gained, avg 16.5kmh.
Other reflections: The most impressive of the riders we talked to was hard to pick: the couple on a year- long circumnavigation of the continent, the crazy bloke going Omeo to Harrietville and back, Chrissy from Bright doing the upcoming India-Pacific Wheel Race next March, or Phil and Joyce the indefatigable tandem team.
How do you pass the time while pedalling constantly? Just keep pedalling.
Most useless item packed? Tough competition…the trangia [underused but still useful], too many clothes [but lycra is light], two medical kits [maybe just lucky we didn’t need them]… No, it would have to be Dad’s picked-up spanner – you can have too many shifters!


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Days 24-27: Spain and Nature

Taking the Beartracks to the Bears – Sensa del Oso, Tunon – 52km, Wednesday 22 April

Some months ago I read about a rail-trail ride that had been established in a valley southwest of Oviedo – the bonus was it went past a free-ranging enclosure where some Asturian bears could be seen. So we took our BH [brand] Beartrack [model] bikes to see their namesakes, singing the ‘going on a bear hunt’ song as we went…and not being scared.

Though rain threatened there was only one fall of significance en route – it was therefore time for a picnic lunch which was munched-on in one of the many short rail tunnels. And a beautiful route it was, slowly meandering upwards alongside a fast flowing river that had cut its way over eons through some serious rock walls. It was a geologists dream seeing the folds and intrusions in the rock layers, and at the top of the canyon were a couple of peaks reminiscent of those above Lake St Clair in Tasmania.

The four or five bears we saw seemed happy in their naturally vegetated slopes and fields, though there was a bit of graffiti about suggesting the bears should be liberated! A couple had that listless walk that you see zoo animals have sometimes, but they were quite inquisitive – perhaps expecting a bit of tucker?
The summer tourist season is still a way off, so the bikehire and adventure watersport businesses were only just coming out of shutdown. Jordy could have got a job helping one bloke clean his kayaks, given his training at Paestan Canoe Hire, Lower Glenelg National Park. [How’s that for a plug Ross and Marg?!] After a very pleasant day out, we’d cycled 52kms of the 68km round trip trail – easy as!

Packed all the bikes back into the trusty Kanga, gave Jordy a drive in the carpark so he could say he’s driven a left-hand drive vehicle, and headed back to our ‘warmshowers’ abode in central Oviedo. Dodging downpours now, we checked out phone shops for a ‘sim and plan’, and found a restaurant to watch Real Madrid play Athletico Madrid in the Champions League. Nice regional food and a good soccer result…for Jordy.

Los Picos de Europa – Oviedo to Las Arenas driving, 5km walk, Thursday 23 April

Left Oviedo early…well, tried to leave Oviedo early…but a premature right-turn using the GPS resulted in us spending an unnecessary 15 min in heavy city traffic. [Let’s just say the driver wasn’t happy, but no-one is to blame!] Rocketed down the freeway to the seaside town of Ribadesella just as the tourist office opened at 10am. Sadly we would have to miss the ‘festival of the apple’ which started that night and went into the weekend, as we were headed to a large Parque Nacional, the Picos of Europe. In summertime traffic it would be a novice’s nightmare driving up, as the last 10km from Covadonga – with up to 15% grades – is narrow, winding and oft-times has no barrier-rail. But wow, on a clear, warm day the vista at the top was stunning. Two large perched lakes, surrounded by peaks, some still with snow, and a meandering walking circuit that if you turned off, you would definitely be in Mordor. We played ‘only stand on the rocks’ and ‘wannabe free climbers’ [going horizontally not vertically!], threw some snowballs, and enjoyed every step. Best part was the absence of a thousand signs eg stay on the track, don’t throw stones, keep off the grass, be careful, carry your rubbish, don’t tease the animals, blah blah blah blah. Just one multilingual catch-all at the start, and if you don’t want to die, follow the unobtrusive painted markings. There was a free-wheeling joy in the experience that doesn’t exist in an over-regulated, over-litigious society.

Ended up staying in a camping ground cabin at bottom of the valley Las Arenas, and luxuriated in cooking our own dinner, being loud, having separate rooms, spreading stuff everywhere, kicking the soccer ball, and playing cards. So we booked for two nights!

Able to visit Cain – Ruta del Cares -24km walk, Friday 24 April

A gorge walk, just out of Las Arenas in the Picos Mountains, called Ruta del Cares, runs 12km upstream from Poncebos to Cain – we were able to do the return journey within the suggested 6 hours. It is spectacular, and scary for those with a serving of vertigo. Initially the walk climbs sharply up the valley wall, then flattens out as it enters a final tight gorge of a couple of kilometres. No protective barriers, just the seemingly vertical drops to the raging river below. Whenever other walkers came along Jordy hugged the wall regardless of whatever passing protocols exist in Europe. Many mountain goats to be seen grazing; some shepherded, some not. A few eagles and swallows/martins flying about, and patches of daisy groundcover species in flower amongst the steep scree slopes. All backdropped by peaks of remnant snow – all very grand on a mild Spring day. Got lots of practice saying ‘Ola’ to other walkers, and one ‘Gidday’ to a couple of
Aussie women who were on a 4-wheel driving trek around Europe.

Our cabin was welcomed when we got back though – a well-deserved cup of tea with the feet up watching TV. Unfortunately the ‘Better Homes and Gardens’ story about the World War One Memorial Tree carvings in Dartmoor didn’t make it to Spanish TV.

Anzac Day – Las Arenas to Santilana del Mar driving, Saturday 25 April

Got all the facebook messages about Oma starring at Anzac Day; Essendon not so much. [And well done to young Kate Mani who I dobbed in for the address at the Dartmoor service – heard it went really well Kate!]
Drove to coastal Santilana del Mar with occasional views of the snow-capped Picos behind us – but certainly other tourists had been here before us! Santilana has a primly-restored medieval central area filled with door-to-door artisanal shops, curios and restaurants. Its popularity and wealth is aided by being adjacent to the famous Altimira Cave of prehistoric paintings. We visited a cultural history museum and a museum of works of a local famous sculptor. Two local delicacies begged to be tried: anchovies, and meringue ‘snotblocks’. No takers for the first [because the other two didn’t want to put up with the smell of me afterwards!], and no likers of the second [a big-mac sized chunk of meringue between layers of puff pastry – impossibly sweet and impossible to eat neatly!]

Picnicked at nearby Suances Playa [beach] which Jordy declared to be the ‘Best beach cricket beach in the World’. A very flat, expansive area of hard fine sand – just choosing the time of year to play might be an issue, because the number of hotels, holiday houses and apartments indicated beach patrons would be densely packed in summer.

Drove to El Castillo Cave, rather than Altimira, because the former has the oldest rock paintings and you can see them in situ, not as reproductions. Though guided in Spanish, we still managed to easily pick out the depictions of black and/or red bison, goats and ‘negative’ hands, which had been strategically located on the rock wall surfaces to give ‘relief’ to the paintings. Only the Neolithic sharman would paint, lighting the area with an animal thigh bone with the marrow alight inside which was smokeless evidently… Not sure of the rock type but there were stalactite and stalagmite formations that indicated some sort of carbonate deposit?
All very interesting and somehow sobering as the significance of our minute blip in the continuum is contemplated. [Just remind me again…is the universe still expanding?]

Back to Suances, where the bravest soul went for a toe-tingling evening swim [guess!], after having booked our apartment accommodation at the camping ground at Santilana. Sadly the tent was left alone in the car…again…we’ve carried it for a month now without use – it must feel quite unloved. Jordy cooked – tortillas with a healthy dose of vegetables to fill them. Some life in Spain only starts at 10.30pm, but camp ground life definitely stops then, as the café and internet access closed early at 10.15pm.

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Days 20-23: Spain sightseeing and recovery

The Pilgrims’ Mass – Santiago de Compostela, Saturday 18 April

Waved off Maggie and Rosie for their bus to Porto, then walked to the Cathedral for the Pilgrims’ Mass which is held every day at midday. All in Spanish, though we understood the warning not to take photos or video, and got the welcome to the many peregrinos and the countries they had commenced from. Splendid singing led by a nun, accompanied by the booming organ made a great atmosphere, though two things couldn’t be done that I would have liked: doing the special entering touching hand thing/place in the portal! [closed for renovation], and the massive incense burner wasn’t set off a-swinging down the aisle [as in the Emilio Estevez film ‘The Way’]. All three of us nodded off during the sermon which was probably taking the Spanish siesta practice a bit too far.

It was a recovery day really – a slow stroll around a few souvenir shops, a cup of coffee in a warm café in the gardens, and purchase of some titbits for tea back at the apartment where some essential work needed doing: catch up on this diary, transfer photos across computers/phones/cameras, answer emails…and pack! The bicycles were put in the Kanga with front wheels off, and handlebars turned, and we think some luggage and people may be able to squeeze in around them.

We shall see. Spain and France here we come.

Last Barry standing – Santiago to Mino driving, Sunday 19 April

After an anxious drive hoping we were going to the correct airport, we dropped Jen off for her flight to Barcelona, doing about 5 laps of the no-parking departure zone to make sure she disappeared through the boarding doors. It was sad to see our last ‘Barry-be-in-It’ leave us. It had been great fun, and great assistance, having people invite themselves along on our holiday. On the positive side [?] it meant Elly and I would get a second whole day to ourselves. Drove to Luxe and an opportunity to see the wild coast of Costa del Morte. Walked out to the lighthouse, did a walking circuit of the point, and marvelled at the two fishermen in a chugging little boat park themselves in a surging spot behind some rocks taking the brunt of the Atlantic rollers. No life-jackets of course – they’d probably been to the same spot most days of their lives. Returned inland 30km to the village of A Silva which we had noticed had been setting up for a festival earlier in the day. Turns out it was the once-a-year nosh-up on mussels, octopus, barbequed ribs and chorizo. All sloshed down with bowls of red wine. The caterers and waiters had done it before; a slick operation under a marquee with about 300 people and the smell of the grill wafting through. Superb. [Though I didn’t like the licorice flavoured spirit added to the coffee quite as much as Elly.]

Not quite sure how good my driving was to Betanxos, but we made it safely in the late afternoon. Looked at the town and for a for bed without success – one over priced hotel – and the town had little appeal despite being written up as trying hard to attract tourists to its historical centre. On to nearby Mino, a summer beach resort town, where we had a win – double hotel room at a low season 41E. Walk along the esplanade with a few locals, and crashed.

Talking with the Boys – Fragas de Eume – 7km walk, Monday 20 April

With Jordy AWOL, Elly and I drove to the nearby Nacional Parc Fragas de Eume. ‘Fragas’ in Spanish means the part of the forest floor where the light is always dappled, usually in ravines and along waterways. The park boasts some of the best remnant north Atlantic Iberian vegetation. Well, only where the temperature gets below 5 degrees, otherwise the upper slopes and warmer bits are riddled with bluegums and acacia.
At our entry point I had a long ‘spanglish’ yarn with three foresters/rangers who said in summary, bluegums aren’t too bad if they’re left to grow out a bit, but felled young for paper pulp they are nutrient and carbon users rather than sinks. And they are a monoculture that the birds don’t like and that kill the understorey. And [naturally] they are a fire hazard. The acacias they liked for their nitrogen-fixing capability.

Following their recommendation for a walking route, we tramped off along a ridge to get the most stunning view of the park, where we munched on our standard sandwich lunch in the warm midday sun. Back to the car, we then went to the fragas areas , entering the Eume River valley from the estuary end at the scenic Pontedeume. At the end of the 10km road there was a walk up to a quaint 9th century restored monastery: just 4 small buildings perched above the river. The architectural renovation must have cost a fortune.

Back to our Mino hotel for a well-deserved feed – lettuce salad with raisins, goats cheese, and prawns, and a flavoursome, eyes-bigger-than-our-stomachs, chips and chicken dish.

Together for the Road Trip – Mino to Oviedo driving, Tuesday 21 April

After many messages through space and even via Billy in Australia, met Jordy at 9.30 at A Coruna railway station, happy but tired after his weekend away. [But had he been hit by a golf ball on his neck?] Missed whatever highlights might be in this big city, and headed north to the Faro [lighthouse] at Capo Estaca de Bares, the northernmost point of Spain -impressive and wild coastline with high cliffs and reefs. Stopped briefly at the picturesque estuary town of Ortigueira, and a free tour of the municipal museum, with its displays of anthropologic history and oddly, a display of scarabs and butterflies of the world. Did you know it was a crucial port in Roman times – on a shipping trade route from Lisbon to London?

The road trip continued for a lunchstop on the beachfront at O Vicedo, where we were subjected to watching a Billy in 50 years time, prancing about in his red budgie smugglers for all to see! Afternoon coffee for the driver, and toilet, at the next recommended must-see town of Ribadeo. Not bad – just needs more money spent on a couple of old buildings in the main square to compete with the best. Got to Oviedo about 7pm, and having a later meeting with our warmshowers apartment host Ken [warmshowers is an organisation of bicycle-touring aficionados who are prepared to host other tourers], we wandered the central streets getting hopelessly lost [ as we did every time after that in Oviedo.] Quite a nice city centre though with a large pedestrian zone, flashy offices and glitzy stores. Ken met us at 9.30pm full of beans, as was his dog. A bit of yarn, and it was once again bedtime.

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Days 12-15: Porto, Porto, Porto

Putting the Port and Gal into Portugal – Sao Joao de Madeira to Porto, Friday 10 April , 39km, 637m climbing

The purpose of the long previous day was to allow an easy trip into Porto and see Maggie when she arrived by plane about midday. We got the easy trip okay; but a leisurely breakfast, flat tyre, steep trail section, views worth stopping for over Porto [Portu] from the Gaia [Gal] side of the river, and stamps at the cathedral meant we arrived at our ‘Yoga Palace’ airbnb accomodation, with hosts Aurora and Alberto, at a tardy 3pm – just as the others rocked up! [Our street rendezvous was tempered with sadness though as the emergency services were attending a suicide in a house a few doors down.]

Afternoon tea was taken in the ‘jardin’ – Maggie and her friend Rosie had brought halva and Turkish delight from their Easter trip to Istanbul; complemented by fresh naval oranges from the tree above us. Alberto recommended a local restaurant with authentic mountain Portuguese cuisine, and we went off to chatter the night away.

“Porto, Porto, Porto” – Porto, Saturday 11 April

Billy and I took to the streets on bikes while the rest of the crew walked. Amazingly, we always seemed to be at the same place at the same time thereafter! First stop the market – more fish of a hundred varieties, than anything else, which posed the question… ‘is it all sold, and what happens to it when it isn’t?’ Then a council-ran building advisory place that held recycled tiles, stuccos and friezes for free use by locals keen to renovate their facades in the appropriate historic style [Porto’s historic centre is UNESCO heritage listed]. It’s a fascinating building, and not in the guide books. Sit-down lunch at a specialised tea-house and backyard, leafy eatery with a ‘Brunswick feel’. Nearby botanical gardens had million dollar views of the city and river, though I doubt any home in Porto costs a million dollars. Then it was back home to meet up with Jordy and his new Portuguese ‘friend’ Madalena, to drive 30kms to Vila do Conde and watch Portuguese professional soccer club Rio Ave battle their more famous and richer opponent – Porto FC. Supporters of the latter outnumbered the former, and together may have only just outnumbered attendant police and security?! But a riot never seemed likely as the continuous Porto chant and drums inspired a comfortable win – 3 goals to 1. [Porto’s bigger challenge will come later when they take on German giants Bayern Munich in the Champions League finals.] Jordy was happy – one European soccer league match ticked on the list, with the added bonus of an interpreter for all the cheeky crowd comments!

Everybody was happy when we got home; Elly and Jen had enjoyed their dinner of vinho tinto, accompanied by food, and the kids already had a night on the town planned.

Allah protects the Queen – Porto, Sunday 12 April

Another walking day around town in sunny weather, initially without a lot of joy as the Photographic Museum was ‘close-ed’ for lunch when we arrived, and Alberto’s café suggestion appeared to have disappeared off the map. All made up for when we entered the Bolsa Palace, purposefully built as the stock exchange and Chamber of Commerce in the mid-1800s on the direction of the Queen. It is the most visited attraction in northern Portugal and easy to understand why. The interiors, fittings and furnishings are superb without being ostentatious – until you get to the Moorish styled drawing room. Pictures tell a thousand words here, except they will not translate the three Arabic inscriptions repeated throughout the ornate painted plasterwork: Praise to Allah, Allah Above All, and Allah protects the Queen. In this ultra-Catholic country almost two centuries ago ecumenical tolerance was expressed most vividly… if only we could live it today. God-adherents and non-adherents alike. That’s why we cycle for Doctors Without Borders – no favour, no fear, no motive except respect for all in their humanitarian work.

We crossed the river to the famous brand port caves for a tasting; fittingly our last ‘tourist’ activity in Porto, especially as Maggie and Rosie had never tried Port before. ‘Calem’ was the closest house with a detailed explanation of port wine production and ageing as part of the experience. For an instant we were experts on the styles, serving temperatures, food accompaniments, keeping times etc etc…then promptly forgot it all as we sat down at the sampling table! Oh well, I don’t really like the stuff much anyway! The hilarious moment of the day came later when feasting on our home-made salad for tea, as the girls, recalling the information for Elly and Jen, kept blithely referring to the characteristics of ‘Tony Port’. The accent of the tour-guide had led them completely astray!

“There’s only one thing I like more that wine tasting…” – Douro River, Monday 13 April

On the ball again with his frugal tourist tips, Alberto recommended a train trip up the Douro River to Pinhao, rather than an expensive boat trip. [Suited us – 20E pp instead of 60-80E pp.] It is a spectacular trip, following the broad, winding river upstream through a continuous valley of ancient, terraced vineyards. Right hand side, water-viewing window seats were at a premium and the graffiti-ist bad-boys had the respect to only paint the windows on the left side. Two hours later our entourage – boosted by Maggie’s Canadian friend Maggie [no typo] – disembarked and headed across the river to the nearest winery tasting house ‘Real Companhia Velha’. Several tipples and comments later we all selected the same red table wine as worthy of a takeaway. All much to Jordy’s disinterest and disdain for wine notes! But for the record, try ‘Porca de Murca Reserva Tinto 2012’; it’s a winner.

Staying awake on the journey home was a task beyond us, but that meant on return, packing was done quickly and efficiently so we could vacate our accommodation and have dinner out, while Aurora and Alberto ran their evening yoga classes. Back to our nearby ‘mountain restaurant’ recommendation, for a sizzling served-at-the-table beef loin, rabbit stew, and pork schnitzel complemented by spuds, chips and salad. [Oh, and did I say, soup?] Can you believe 8 people ate like Portuguese kings and queens, for less than 10 bucks a head. Maaate!


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Days 8-11: rolling along the Caminho, Coimbra

Vale Lynn Stewart – Obidos to Leiria, Monday 6 April – 69km, 743m climbing

We all have a teacher from our student past we recall, either with affection or dread. Today I fondly remembered my former secondary school English teacher Lynn Stewart, accompanied by tears of sadness. Her husband Rob emailed to say she had died after a short and sudden illness, and wondered if he could use some of my thoughts in a eulogy service I cannot attend. That’s the twist with travel – money and time give the opportunity to step out of an everyday life, but the clock doesn’t stop and meaningful events occur in absentia. Vale, Mrs Stewart.

Our last Concha breakfast had a magnificent fruit salad to accompany the ever-famous fried egg, and fuelled us up for our third day of cycling. We followed the caminho arrows along the quiet roads to Caldas de Reinha no problems. Hoping for the same on the exit I dropped in to the Tourist Office for a map and got a long conversation instead. “Yes, I like Australia. I have seen it on the television. You have sun and space and beaches. I do not like the city.” I agreed that it is hard to escape the built environment in Europe, even though Portugal has plenty of sun and outstanding beaches.

Our planned stops for the day were the impressive monastery towns of Alcobaca and Batahla. The forward scouts [Billy and Jen] soon phoned in to say to ‘yes’ to the first and not the second. We obliged. Alcobaca is a World Heritage Site with a sprawling and imposing 12th century monastic complex of church, cloisters, dormitories, kitchen and dining hall. Quite austere constructions inside, evidently the monks led a more colourful and debauched lifestyle by the early 1800s, and they were sent packing! The kitchen and chimneys defy description, or even a decent photo, but they were the highlights. Again the scouts had done their job and found hostel accommodation in the heart of Leiria, and obtained advice on where to eat. Jordy already had his advice for an entrée – a place dedicated to the chocolate spread Nutella, where you could order a yiros of shaved nutella ice-cream in a pancake amongst many other yummy specialties. A business franchise opportunity awaits him at home, if he doesn’t eat all his produce first. ‘Proper dinner’ was also delicious in a very basic looking, 3 generations old family restaurant with specialty dishes of tasty rabbit, mackerel, chicken, and chips [with mayonnaise to Jen’s delight].

Miradouro – Leiria to Coimbra, Tuesday 7 April -76km, 1054m climbing

Great day for cycling with more records broken for Elly – another ‘longest day’ with ‘most climbing’ thrown in. Not that the route was spectacular at times; times when we hugged the shoulder of the major arterial IC2, and trusted the Portugese truckies to give us a wide berth. Which they did! Jordy recalled talking to an Aussie campervanner in Turkey last trip who commented on Portugese drivers being the worst in the world. None of us concur. With few exceptions they are considerate, patient and giving on the road. Maybe it’s because they have such short distances to travel? Even on the bikes it seems one town/ village follows another with an industrial/commercial zone in between and a few small orchards or bluegum plantings intermingled.

When not on the highway, Jordy worked his GPS Strava navigation a treat, so we travelled some backroads to Pombal, Conímbriga and Coimbra. The first town was a lunchstop [read bakery]; the second had the ‘best Roman ruins’ in Iberia [not completely ruined], and the third is a stunning university city [got the speccy ‘miradouro’ [lookout/view] from one of the many hills on the way in] where we were greeted by the dynamic support duo with smiles, fantastic accommodation at Serenata Hostel, and then a cooked dinner of pesto ravioli and a bottle of vinho tinto! Tour de France pro-teams could not do it better.

The Farewell Ballad of the Graduating Law Students of 1988/89 – Coimbra, Wednesday 8 April

A sleep in, and an adequate cornflake and bread-roll continental breakfast. Dropped laundry to front desk; great value 6E for wash and dry. First tourist highlight was outside the front door at the old cathedral; got the obligatory pilgrim stamps and bonus free entry! Naturally, Jen took photos at the altar of St Claire. Amongst the university campus which dominates the high ground of the city, several museums and galleries were on offer – I opted for the Science Museum, pushing buttons and watching chemical reaction demonstrations with a group of enthusiastic local secondary students. The Botanical Museum had displays of how corks are cut out of the bark of cork trees, and what products the pine turpentine resin is used for that we had seen being tapped in the forest. Two questions answered. Met Jen and Elly for late lunch before getting ready for fado concert. Fado is a musical style particular to Portugal, and in Coimbra is traditionally only performed by male singers and guitarists who are students or ex-students of the university. The three musicians certainly kept us awake; the girls liking the ‘eye-candy’ as well. [Uugh, middle-aged women on holidays.] Elly bought a CD which unfortunately didn’t contain the beautiful hit song of the night – ‘The Farewell Ballad of the Graduating Law Students of Coimbra 1988/89.’ Made me think of when the Melbourne University Agriculture and Forestry Students of 1981 graduated; all we came up with was a t-shirt with a one-fingered salute on the front, and the caption ‘dishonour before death’ !

Following the Caminho – Coimbra to Sao Joao de Madeira, Thursday 9 April, 99km, 1292m climbing

A blog written by two Brisbane cyclists a couple of years ago, hinted the caminho north of Coimbra was well-marked and gentle cycling. It certainly is superbly signposted and indicated by yellow arrows painted on poles and kerbs, but past the 50km mark at Agueda the roller-coaster begins. But what a delight to ride! For some sections through bluegum plantations it was mountain-biking material on forest trails; in towns it was smooth-running bitumen along side streets and there were even a couple of walking paths thrown in alongside creeks and railway lines. Happy and hungry we rolled into the well-appointed town of Agueda. Stamps at the tourist info and a recommendation for a cheap, authentic Portugese lunch. Usually the special is soup of the day, then a choice of a couple of mains, with a drink for 5-7E. With no English menu or speaker in sight, it was a point-and-smile affair – Jordy almost gagging at my rice and poultry [of some type] dish that included a juicy foot.

Onwards to Sao Joao became harder work for Elly as she again conquered distance and climbing ‘records’, but without swearing… aloud at least. Tired and a little bit nauseous, from the effort and a touch of dehydration[?], she plonked into bed for an early night at the quaint Hostel Solar while we scavenged for food.

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Days 4-7: On the Caminho and Easter in Obidos

Bom Caminho – Sintra to Ericeira, Thursday 2 April – 27km, 436m climbing

Last hour attaching speedos on bikes, setting seat heights, organising essential pannier contents, and farewelling host Joao meant Jen had to wait until 10.30 before waving us off with cries of ‘Bom Caminho’. Santiago de Compostela here we come…slowly. [At least the late-ish start meant we could get our passports stamped at the tourist office which had only just opened anyway.] A massive downhill start was great for Elly, but that meant the first chest thumping climb was awaiting across the creek. Ah well – that’s cycling. Jordy and I slowed the pace a bit, but it wasn’t long before we had Elly complaining behind us…’Can’t you ride any faster?’ Amazing! It was a splendid day and we had glimpses of the Atlantic Ocean as we pedalled towards the coast, hitting the beach at a spectacular surfing spot with a tall headland and wild waves. Onwards to the blue-and-white town of Ericeira, with a cobbled centre and seafaring nature. It must be dazzlingly bright and hot under the summer sun; on a balmy spring day it was still sunglasses and shirtsleeves. A supermarket visit took us through an arcade past ‘Photo Australia’, the owner stopping us as she saw our Australia emblazoned cycling lycra. She had children in Australia, was selling her shop and planned to retire there. To help get rid of shop stock, she loaded us up with monogrammed shopping bags and photo-holder freebies. Just what we needed.

We had not pre-booked accommodation, but decided to try the council camping ground just north of town – they must have seen us coming from Sintra! ‘We only have 1 cabin…and there is a one-night premium…and an Easter premium…and a tax…so that will be 132E for 5 persons’. Still, it was better than sleeping on the beach or in the car, and after a glass of wine back in town…who cared?

Jordy Falls the First time – Ericeira to Obidos, Good Friday 3 April – 65km, 764m climbing

Left our camping cabin just after the planned 8.30am; both boys tired to the eyeballs after returning home at 3am or so from an evidently successful night out! In the first kilometres north we watched from cliff headland height, the ant-sized surfers trying their luck with the swells, then turned inland; one village after another with seemingly unkept tiny parcels of rock-fenced paddocks between. What crops existed, mainly spring onions, seemed in desperate need of a drink. It was though, a perfect day for cycling – absolutely calm, just warm, and clear. Testament to the fact was there were many other cyclists out and about, kitted up on road-bikes and often in groups [including one pro-team with a pace-car!]We stopped for tourist info and lunch supplies at Torres Vedras, had our ‘credencial’ stamped at the church [but decided against having our confessions heard – only because the queue was too long?], and climbed on through bluegum plantations and brickworks to a hilltop village with well-located church steps for a picnic. After a quick bite, Jordy promptly succumbed to tiredness and fell asleep, head resting on his arm. With the church cross above him, it was a scene reminiscent of the journey to Calvary – Jordy falls the first time.

Arrived to Obidos at 3pm, found our accommodation at the quaint and distinctive Hostel Argonauta and gave host Concha a kiss of gratitude on the cheek, for bearing with the exchange of emails over some months to establish dates of arrival and numbers of guests. Billy and Jen drove up soonafter , happy with their day’s sightseeing, and just in time to join the town’s ‘Stations of the Cross’ re-enactment procession. A gourmet meal of pesto chicken pasta prepared by myself was commented on favourably, and the evening was completed by a further candlelit funereal procession around the tiny streets of town, re-enacting the placement of Jesus in the tomb. Fantastic musical accompaniment by the town brass band of a booming dirge march. Unforgettable really.

Art and Peace – Obidos, Easter Saturday 4 April

We ordered Concha’s breakfast for 9.00am, and all awoke at 9.05, stunned we had slept for almost 10 hours! Fresh bread [haven’t come across bad Portugese bread yet], with quince jelly and local honey, followed by a delicious salty and oregano and thyme-herbed fried egg courtesy of the hens next-door. Jammed our dirty clothes into Concha’s washing-machine and wandered the streets and impressive, intact castle walls of Obidos. The highlight was seeing a resplendent, dead-ringer Gandalf guarding the main portal, and for just a few coins you get a photo and a blessing! Another load of washing on, then we all drove to the nearby town of Caldas de Reinha to wander the fruit and veg market, then the botanical gardens, within which was Portugal’s first dedicated art gallery, opened in 1933 to house the works of famous local artist Jose Malhoa. Nicknamed the ‘painter of Portuguese people’, he brought the Naturalism style of painting to the country in the late-1800s. All picked our favourite works, bought the corresponding postcards, and were acclaimed by the staff as possibly the first Australians to visit the less well-known town.

In contrast, the next place we visited is well-touristed! The Gardens of Art and Peace at a very rich man’s winery, were commenced a decade ago as a result of the Taliban destroying the giant Buddha statues of Bamiyan in 2001. So incensed at the wanton destruction, he decided to recreate the statues, throwing in a hundred or so terracotta warriors, and large contemporary art installations and sculptures. All this amongst cork trees, ponds, manicured gardens and vineyards. It is something between tacky theme park and an art lover’s gift to the masses. I’d like to go with the latter end of the scale, and the multitude of smiling and serene, Saturday Portugese visitors seemed to back me up.

“Rest Days are Terrible” – Obidos, Easter Sunday 5 April

So says Jordy when discussing the joys of cycle touring with Elly over breakfast. We interpreted it to mean he always wants to be on the bike, which he hasn’t always found joyful? But he quickly explained it meant that after a rest day, it was hard to get motivated to get back on!

This rest day was spent driving to the fishing port of Peniche, and the long sandy beaches of Baleal. Picnic lunch under the lighthouse at Cabo [Cape] Carvoeiro with rock formations and views rivalling our local Cape Bridgewater, lots of walking, kicking the soccer ball on the beach, and a [very] quick swim in the cold Atlantic waters, just to say ‘been there, done that’. Timed our return to Obidos to catch the end-of-day trade at the monthly flea market. Wow there’s some junk about, all around the world. But there were bargains to be had too? Jordy scored a Portugese flag for 9E, and Jen a traditional and distinctive [ugly?] green cabbage-leaf plate for 1E which evidently is destined to be on display at ‘Kyndalyn’ for evermore. We are all looking forward to that!

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Days 1-3: Arrival and getting bearings (haha)

Sorry it took a while to post – enjoy the stories!

The Movie Marathon – Melbourne to Lisbon via Singapore and Dubai, 28 hours Monday 30 March

Courtesy of Possum we got to the airport on time for check-in, but Billy nearly missed the flight in the customs area! The bloke in front of him put his on-flight luggage through the scanner, only to have it stop with Billy’s in there too. The conveyor shut down and the Federal police descended on the fellow with some heavy duty questioning. Turns out he had something resembling a pistol in the bag. Made the in-flight action movies seem tame by comparison.

A wander of the airports in Singapore and Dubai stretched the legs between meals, some sleep and movies. My pick of the bunch was ‘Selma’, a portrayal of events around a Martin Luther King inspired black-rights demonstration in Alabama in 1965. Jordy saw the Pyramids out his window, which boosted his seen-list of Ancient Seven Wonders to 5 – only Babylon and Alexandria to go. And before you knew it [cough, cough] we were waiting at the baggage carousel at Lisbon Airport with Jen, who had arrived the day before, but her ‘lost’ baggage arrived on our flight! For which she was very relieved.

Our brand new leased Renault Kangoo was waiting outside – a few quick instructions and Billy was pushed into the driver’s seat to negotiate Portugese roads and drivers. Without incident, and with a brilliant GPS we arrived soon after at the appealing hill-town of Sintra, resplendent with palaces and castles, 25km from Lisbon, and our home for the next three days – Almaa Sintra Hostel. Settled in, then walked the km or two into town for a reconnoitre, and an evening snack and tipple at the ‘Lord Byron Café/Bar’ who had evidently snacked and tippled at Sintra some time before us.

Up, down, walking around – Sintra, Tuesday 31 March

First task of the day was finding ‘Cycling Rentals’ and collecting our 3 ex-rental bikes I’d pre-purchased that would [hopefully] take us to Santiago de Compostela in Spain. Catherine, and her sister Deidre with whom I’d negotiated the deal, run a fantastic operation. They were super-obliging, provided us with a few extras like drink bottles, spare spokes and hangers, and cycling tops each! It was a delight to wheel the machines out the door with their best wishes.

Then it was tourist time in Sintra: first the Moorish castle, then the Pena Palace, and lastly the National Palace. Each attraction different, but all required a stiff, hilly walk in the afternoon sun. There were lots of other tourists about, mostly Portugese nationals as schools were on an Easter week break. Probably the Pena Palace was the highlight. A sort of Willy-Wonka, candy-colored, oddity built in a Romantic style and a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Billy and Jordy may have enjoyed the National Palace more, because it had a forecourt and they could boot around the soccer ball they had pooled their money towards.

Joao from Almaa Sintra had recommended a local restaurant serving regional food, but without the regional language we ended up with a massive amount of tucker that we struggled to do justice to. Amongst the dishes selected were liver, cuttlefish, octopus, wild boar…and spuds cooked every which way. It was a slow walk home!

Bad Boys – Lisbon, Wednesday 1 April

Some days, you just get a feeling about? Our grand plan was to park near the Sintra railway station, train into Lisbon for a day’s sightseeing, and come home content…

First win was getting timely assistance to buy our train tickets from a machine. The weather was great, and we meandered around the highlight districts and buildings of the inner city without incident. Phone shop for sim cards, great lunch at the market, waterfront stroll, stamps for our caminho passports at the cathedral, views over town, and a funky, art-jewellery shop for Elly and Jen to spend money on recycled coffee capsules[!] that they hung on their ears and necks. And yes, ‘Lisboniphiles’ will note we missed the big galleries and museums, but you have to leave something for next time. And we only had a day. And I felt uneasy all through it…

Returning in the late afternoon to our loved, 2 day-old brand new car, we found it had been scraped nastily down the driver’s side by a side-swiping car/truck/bus, which had detached the whole bumper assembly and left it dangling by a headlight wire against the footpath. I was the calmest, suggested Billy and Jen go to the nearby police station, Jordy to help me cable tie the bits together, and Elly to watch our backs. After the necessary police report had been made and they’d surveyed the scene, and calls been made to the very-helpful Renault Insurance, we drove carefully and quietly home commenting only about ‘bad boys’ not ‘bad parking’…

Lisbon Market

Sintra - Moorish Castle

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