If you’re like me you’ve always thought of Portugal as something of an annex to Spain, tacked onto the side, a 20% Extra Free offer on land area, kind of like Wales. You’d be very wrong.
Spain was big, with wide open spaces and unending plains. As soon as I got to Portugal the scenery changed, with roads twisting through secret valleys and round the sides of hills, always changing, never what you expected. After the long sweeping climbs of the Pyrenees and the the Massif Central, this was much more like British topology; perhaps Derbyshire, the Chilterns out the Pennines.
Not here your scraggly sheep and British drystone walls though. The British love to crow about how the Gulf Stream warms us to inhabitable temperatures despite being a frozen rock in the far north of the Atlantic. Here though I realised the truth of it: Portugal gets first hit at the Gulf Stream, we get the leftovers from the table. I’ve never been to Brazil but Portugal was more like the Brazil of my imagination than it was like any European country of my experience. Certainly not Britain, Holland or Germany, but neither France Italy or Spain. Lush vegetation was everywhere, crammed into every corner, nook and cranny until I wondered how anything could find the space to grow. Fruit seemed to hang from every tree here and the sun itself often struggled to shine its beams down through the thick foliage.
The food was another big difference. While the Spanish had enjoyed their omelettes and meat, Portuguese cooking was all about the baking – I’d wander into a café for breakfast and be unable to choose between the eye-watering selection of pastries, sweets and jellies in the counter so would end up having one each of as many as I could fit on my plate. The cost of all this indulgence? About five Euros, including the second 50 cent coffee to chase it all down. It was a cyclist’s dream and amazingly cheap, though what with all that sugar in such handy “one more” pastry-sized packages, I don’t think my teeth could have stood many more weeks in the country. At least in Spain it had been easy to eat savoury.
There I go again, comparing Portugal to Spain. They’ve sat there on my maps, a chunk taken out of Spain’s western side and I’ve mentally assimilated them. They’re not quasi-Spaniards though, they’re something else: they’ve got a different geography, different cuisine and a different language. They’re a former colonial power to rival Spain, and their language sounds much less like Spanish than I’d expected – In a way it sounded more like Dutch. One thing is for certain though: I unambiguously enjoyed visiting Portugal, and unambiguously enjoyed cycling here. There are many places I’d like to revisit but this is one place I’m fairly sure I’ll come back, and will come back with a bike. Every road holds interest, there’s something new around every corner and after a long hard ride, you’re always near the perfect cafe stop. If you’re planning a holiday for your cycling club, your next trip should be to Portugal.