Itinerant Royal Enfield rider, Jacqui Furneaux heads for the Iberian Peninsula for some freestyle camping and random touring…
I’d been on a few sailing trips with John on his boat. We’ve been to the Isles of Scilly and took a very exciting voyage to Brittany, and I was looking forward to our forthcoming motorcycle trip to Portugal. I was as keen to share my motorcycling passion with him as he had been to share sailing with me. I had ridden the Enfield over the snowy Cantabrian mountains and down through Spain to Morocco the previous winter but had never been to Portugal, where John wanted to look at property, worried for the safety of his savings in the UK plus having a real physical need for warmth and sunshine. “I want to travel how you travel.” he’d said. Assumptions being the mother of all foul-ups, I imagined us riding on dirt tracks and through rivers as I had done before, somehow reinventing Portugal into a European India or Australia. In my mind we’d have endless weeks to explore off-road, knowing full well we had only three. I’d forgotten this was his trip and I’d be tagging along for the ride. What a dreamer!
Since sleeping on the Plymouth to Santander ferry floor was not an option and you either have to pay for a reclining chair or a cabin, we chose the latter. With its own bathroom and piped classical music the overnight trip was a great start. The route we would take when we got off the ferry had already been decided and we arrived in northern Spain together with hundreds of other motorcyclists all eager, like greyhounds from the trap, to be released into the warm May sunshine. Our bikes the only two non-flashy ones and us not in proper bike gear, I felt we were from a bygone age with our luggage bungeed on, not packed in aluminium cases, as we waited for the doors to open. Only the vibration of the engine told me my bike had started, so noisy was it when everyone started up, choking the air with fumes. John’s 1978 T140D Triumph Bonneville is older and has more miles on the clock than my 500cc Enfield Bullet ridden the long way home from India.
We reckoned we would have compatible cruising speeds but had had no trial run. With fewer teeth on his rear sprocket, I needed to maintain my top speed as his lowest to enable him to stay in top gear and felt I was overburdening my trusty bike at the same time his was raring to go faster. We stopped at a car mechanic and borrowed a huge screwdriver with which to undo my front fork top screws as I needed to replace the oil. The job was done at a campsite on Spain’s Costa Verde. After paying a staggering 20 Euros for our stay there, we decided from there on to wild camp whenever possible. With so few campsites away from the coast it was an essential move anyway. John’s back brake started sticking as we headed for the Picos de Europa mountains. Each time he used it, he’d have to get off to release the caliper ready for the next braking necessity. There was a problem somewhere in the hydraulic system.
We’d have to investigate eventually but for now the front brake would suffice. Over the mountains we went, thrilled at each ascent, bend and descent as we headed for the north-east corner of Portugal. A stop for a brew was made at Riano overlooking a reservoir where I gave a cheery wave to a couple of Spanish police motorcyclists as they cruised past to look at us. Unreciprocal, they stopped us when we’d finished tea and filled up with petrol. They had correctly anticipated we would transgress the law by crossing over a solid white line and they informed us they could fine us eighty Euros each.
Apologising profusely we were let off and allowed to ride on promising we would NEVER do such a dangerous thing ever again.(I did, of course). At hot, sunny Leon, devoid of traffic wardens and yellow lines, we sat in the cathedral square having dinner with the bikes in sight knowing this would not be possible in crowded England. We needed to find a camping spot so left the city at dusk. John had had the sat-nav turned on since we arrived in Spain, causing me some consternation as this was definitely not the way I travelled. I prefer using my eyes and a map and enjoy asking people along the way. Agreed it took us out of the city albeit not on the right road but I found a disused road with a large field next to it and we put the tent up there for the night. We were between two busy roads but quite private.
Despite initial concerns of nocturnal human visitors (we had seen evidence of previous joy-seekers), I reposed to cicadas and nightingales. Next morning, I lit a fire for tea. This was more like it! Enamel mugs over the embers for tea, followed by porridge. I was in my element. Before we left, we looked and muttered at John’s rear brake and adjusted my tappets, a fiddly three-handed task I dislike doing on my own. Colonies of delightful storks were nesting on every tall structure be it telegraph pole, Roman pillar, chimney pot or tree-top, their shy, benevolent faces peering down demurely. We rode into Portugal on a small bumpy road from which we dived down a track and found our second wild camp.
This time we were by a river and were able to wash. All that night we heard a creature tunefully calling, ‘bing-bong’. Whether it came from animal, bird, insect or amphibian we couldn’t tell. So nice was it there that we couldn’t tear ourselves away until early the following afternoon. The sun was hot enough to melt my lipstick, the place deserted, and we were able to walk around in just our sun-hats. Washing up was a delight! I watched a huge swimming leech, little fish, weenie green frogs, beetles, water-boatmen and butterflies. We filed down John’s rear brake pads in the hope that this would stop the callipers permanently gripping them. Later as we rode south west through the Douro range he had to disable the brake entirely. Could it be the pistons? Remembering the purpose of the trip, we got into conversation with an English-speaking shop-owner who had a builder friend and viewed a brand new two-bedroomed flat in Villa Nova. For 92,000 Euros it was great value but not suitable due to the distance from any airport.
Little evidence of a recession, apartment and road-building to the point of urgency is in full swing in Portugal and a roadside restaurant we stopped at was more like a canteen with a ‘prato de dia’. I can never decide what to have from a menu so ‘dish of the day’ suits me fine. It usually involves freshly-cooked fish or meat with rice and a vegetable. Roadside stalls sold cherries so cheap we ate kilos of them. We were beginning to realise that Portuguese is a difficult language to learn as what is written bears little resemblance to the spoken word! A smattering of Spanish and French helped occasionally. I learned that ‘chay-ooh’ means full tank. A remote cemetery provided our next quiet resting place! I went to sleep imagining ghouls climbing over the walls to get us. Next morning I found a rear puncture. We could find no cause for it. Was it the revenge of the undead?
The landscape had changed from green and lush to coarse, dry hills. Nearby was prehistoric rock art in the Coa Valley, conveniently and realistically copied from their widespread locations and shown at one large museum. Shakes of the head and sign-language told us that the mechanic we found in Pinhao wanted to strip down the whole hydraulic rear brake system on John’s bike and flush it through with fluid but being a very able mechanic, John wanted to do it himself. So we continued following the river Douro with its slopes of port-making grapes towards Porto. Suddenly feeling the need for a bit of excitement John suggested a short-cut using his sat-nav on the ‘shortest route’ setting. I leapt at the opportunity and was thrilled when we had to open some railway-line gates and ride steeply up a walking track by a gushing stream. But it was a bit worrying for John with only one brake due to the steep drop and the uncertainty that it may get worse so we turned back. We were getting good at this wild camping business and found a great location by the River Tamega, ideal for bathing! The owner of the vineyard gave us permission to camp and also a large amount of his wine.
The red was pretty rough but the white not as harsh especially when mixed with some almond liqueur. Our tent was beside a tumble-down house which was for sale. Could this be a suitable investment? The location was superb with its own beach but too much of a lifetime project so we didn’t ascertain the price. Heavy rain accompanied us all day which involved some exciting slithering about in mud for a while. For respite, we learned a few more words from the phrase book whilst sheltering in a beautifully tiled bus shelter. Later there was time for a café stop for calorific cheer. Roast pork sandwiches and beer gave us the boost we needed to carry on to Porto where my map (Praise be!) showed a campsite. It had trees, pool and a warm welcome. No sooner was the tent up than John, exhausted, fell into bed. Not used to covering such daily distances, I was tired too. I’d brought a summer dress and I was going to jolly well wear it! So we had a day off from the bikes and went from the campsite by bus. I liked Porto, its ramshackle old city stuffed with tall buildings in winding streets, a beautifully ugly bridge and more port-tasting opportunities than we could exhaust.
A tall defiant statue depicting Portugal’s victory over French occupation during the Peninsular War dominates the park. A lion, its paw pinioning a defeated eagle says it all. A restaurant deep inside and under a medieval house provided a six-Euro two-course lunch with wine. Walking round the city, we found all sorts of little corners where people lived and worked. We stopped to look at a carved wooden door, which resulted in a man showing us round the house with its stately sweeping staircases and views of the river. It is not just a city for tourists although port barges do trips, looking anciently romantic in the sunset. It was back to bike maintenance the next day. A cause for John’s rear brake dysfunction had to be found. We took the wheel out and although cleaning all parts except the callipers and pistons there was no improvement. Everything pointed to the hydraulic hose being blocked or perished. We’d spotted a car mechanic near the campsite and wondered if he might have some suitable hose. He helped enormously by phoning a hose-maker in the next town on our behalf and drawing a map of how to get there.
With one glance at the existing hose, spiral protection cover and end fittings, the boss called an employee who within 15 minutes had made a complete new one. The cost was twelve Euros. We also left with a pen each and good wishes for the remainder of our journey. John fitted it at the roadside and immediately had a working back brake again. My Enfield was either not enjoying the heat, the fuel or the speed and was stalling, being awkward to restart. It was pinking on hills, too. We adjusted the timing which improved things but from then on I put higher octane fuel in when I could. I was now pleased with how my bike was going considering its history but it seemed to like Portugal as well as any other country we’d ridden through. After an outstanding seafood lunch at an award-winning restaurant, John’s clutch cable snapped as we rode off. A much simpler job than on the Enfield, he had it done in a trice. From Estarreja we turned westwards to the coast and stayed on a municipal campsite at S. Jacinto. Next morning we took pictures of the picturesque fishing boat-life on the Ria de Aveiro, an inland sea with a small opening into the Costa Prata. We caught the ferry across, and rode all day through dunes and pine forest where tree sap was collected in little buckets. Long, straight, bumpy and potholed roads continued for hours as we rode southwards down the coast. A few kilometres from Pedrogao we went off the road and found our next free camp.
Confidence in my observational powers were restored when by tree and sand-dune recognition, I found my way back to the place we had put the tent without having to resort to the sat-nav. After our sightseeing day it was time to get down to the business of finding a suitable property. We toured a ten-mile radius of Lisbon, and found Montijo, an old fishing village with an attractive atmosphere. Here we were shown a flat in a small 1940s block next to a beautiful park in the centre of town. After only five days, the right place had been found and negotiations began. The final details about the purchase are too lengthy to relate here but another visit was made three weeks later to sort out the legal and financial details. The purpose of the trip concluded, we hurried back towards the ferry, and had some superb overnight camping experiences on the way. We passed through miles of cork oaks and peeled off the main road to find somewhere to rest, tired out from the home-buying enterprise. We joined a sandy track and turned off , settling on a clearing surrounded by fragrant eucalyptus trees. Next morning, the sat-nav not knowing where we were, I directed us along more miles of sandy track to the main road. It was hot, sunny and I felt elated.
A delightful stop was made at a little place called Macao. It was run by a charming elderly woman who did her best to understand how we make tea and also sold us a bottle of wine she filled from a wine box. Some of the other customers had admired the bikes and we received cheery farewells from them all as we left. But it was one of those embarrassing ‘sat-nav can’t find us’ moments and we went round twice before finding the right road! The next most beautiful camping spot stopped us both in our tracks as we wound round hilly roads. A flat promontory jutted out into a river, just asking to have our tent on it.
Within minutes, I was in the silky water, cooling off deliciously. An idyllic evening followed as we sunbathed until dusk with the usual lovely wine and cheese. Fishermen were early arrivals the next morning, catching dozens of whitebait-sized fish, glad to see us go so they could fish from our camping spot. Back in Spain, as we joined a main road we were stopped by police again. This time it was because we rode without lights. It wasn’t worth trying to explain that this would run down our old battery-systems so we conformed until we were out of sight of them. Our two last days were spent hurrying to Santander but we had lovely places to spend the nights, both at the sides of rivers. The method was to start looking for a lake or river in the late afternoon and find a track used by fishermen leading to the water’s edge. This is ideal for washing and swimming as well as being picturesque. The trip was finished off very satisfactorily with a restaurant meal on the ferry and a ride back to Bristol across Dartmoor, the wonderful sat-nav showing us the quickest and prettiest way across!