Day 30: Alcoutim to Mertola - Grampies Go Valencia to Paris: Spring 2024 - CycleBlaze

March 7, 2024

Day 30: Alcoutim to Mertola

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The youth hostel set the breakfast time at 8:30 a.m., very late for us, and we wondered if we should just forget breakfast and beat it. But a look at the route showed maybe one random cafe here and one there, no enough to tackle the expected hills with. Our bikes had been stored by reception in the main building. We hatched the plan of getting them all loaded and ready to go. Then we could grab breakfast and quickly leave. 

Our room was in an auxiliary building - quite nicely overlooking the river. So I grabbed two of our heavy bags and skuttled over to the main building to drop the bags by the bikes. The word skuttled is appropriate, because it was raining heavily. Since I a quite a fast skuttler, I went without a raincoat or anything. But, when I got to the door to the main building - locked! There was nothing for it but for me and the bags to skuttle back, and try phoning reception for a wtf.  Reception, of course, did not answer (they only come in the evening), but eventually two other residents found a way up the hill (the place is built into a hill), found an open door, and freed up the whole operation.

The breakfast worker did not start to bring stuff out until 8:33 a.m. , sharp!  And it was a confusing situation. He began by bringing out two small dishes - with one orange, one apple, and one pear cut up. We could not tell if this was for us, the only ones there, or for the others maybe expected to arrive. We compromised, and just took most of it. When others did arrive and asked for fruit, he looked at the almost empty dishes an said  "Oh, that was for sharing".  He also asked me if I wanted any bread, and I explained that we were planning a long cycle and needed all the food he could bring. This scored us two buns each, some butter and jam. Later I saw that another resident had gotten a packaged yogurt, and I realized that you had to ask the worker , to receive this kind of largesse. I guess in my "all the food he could bring" request, yogurt did not figure because I was already stuffed with 1/2 apple!

The hostel main buildings, from our annex. Unless you can get up that hill behind, the (locked) entrance is by that blue railing.
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Looking up the Guadiana from our room.
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Looking down the Guadiana toward Sanlucar.
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Bolstered as much as possible by our "buffet breakfast", if that what it was, we completed loading the bikes in reception. Only thing, it was pouring rain, and the forecast was for it to continue for three hours. Since we are who we are, we would not have waited even a half hour. Rather we suited up with our full rain gear, and blasted off into the deluge.

The deluge
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Jacquie GaudetYikes! Even we would have waited.
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1 month ago
Steve Miller/GrampiesTo Jacquie GaudetAnd you a West Coaster! As Dodie always says "It's only water."
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Blast off. Notice rear light already on.
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If I was thinking "Why did I come to Portugal to cycle in the rain, I can do that at home", I cancelled the thought because even with the temperature at 10 or 12 degrees, the rain, wind, and cold just didn't have that good old Canadian bite. It was still a rather pleasant cycle! We did have to start with a steep climb, not the best idea when starting cold. But it was ok.

And once again, though with the rain and all, we found ourselves wondering at the beautiful plants lining the road. Of course, as mentioned yesterday, these are not deliberately planted but still must be the result of years of management of the lands here. This could most clearly be seen from the trees, which cover the hillsides, but in orderly ranks.

These obviously did not just happen to grow this way.
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There were a few birds flitting about, but I was hampered in trying to photo any because the camera was buried under layers of waterproofing, and my hands were in waterproof gloves. Still, we got one or two:

Iberian Gray Shrike
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The Shrike's ruffled feathers show how windy it was.
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Crested Lark
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OK, the panel below does describe the enhancement of this landscape by soil amendment and by planting soil cover species. One big tip found on this panel, is that the trees - that we have called "lollipop Pines" and that Kathleen called "popsicle Pines" are actually Stone Pines. I found this ode to stone pines online.

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Still trying to establish that this is not totally a natural landscape, I show here the square patches of trees on the hillsides. We also see, of course, the great road.
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Cyclists sometimes suffer from the callous assumption in society that everyone is in a car. This includes supermarket billboards that crow "just five minutes ahead", when for us, especially uphill, that could be 30 or more  minutes. Or some interesting sight, like today some menhirs, will be flagged with a direction arrow, but no distance given.

Today we came to what could have been a most devilish application of the principle. A sign (that I somehow failed to snap) said that there was a bridge closure 4 km ahead , and that we would have to take a detour (of unspecified length or direction), seemingly coming right up. At what they must have meant as the detour road, we found no markings to encourage us to go for it, so we just blew by. But now the mentioned 4 km proved to be straight down, such that if the bridge were really out, we would be seriously screwed, crawling back up 4 km, and then to the mystery detour.  You can see the 4 km hole we descended in to as the big divot in our track shown above.

While descending I was thinking about just how long it would take to backtrack out, and also how annoyed we would be if the warning about the bridge were a false alarm, causing all that worry.

Ok, the bridge is intact!
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There is really no sign of construction or a problem here at all. The photo does also show that by now we were on a busier road (N-122) no longer the 507. We now had much more frequent cars and trucks, but still not a problem.
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This caught my eye because the Portuguese have clearly invested in a lynx picture, and are not reliant as were the Spanish on a generic leaping deer symbol. Not that we ever expect to see an actual lynx here.
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Although cycling by at high speed, as we do!, I was noticing something in the pines that seemed strange. At first I thought it was giant pine cones, but no. Birds' nests? wasp colonies? wood galls? hard to say, especially if you are too lazy to stop and look. Finally all I did was to snap one of them while passing. So with similar lethargy, I now toss this image out, to see if anyone knows what it is!

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Bonus, a kind of prickly pear cactus that isn't.
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Bill ShaneyfeltCholla. Not sure what kind since cacti outside N & S America are all imported, and also possibly some crossbreed.

https://www.inaturalist.org/taxa/49352-Cylindropuntia
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Steve Miller/GrampiesTo Bill ShaneyfeltSo the fruit would be edible when ripe? If one could get past the spines to pick it.
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Bill ShaneyfeltTo Steve Miller/GrampiesNot likely. Most cholla fruits are not very good.
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Presently, we came to a sign indicating Mertola 1 km. That surprised us, because we thought we still had a fair bit to go. We must be pretty strong to breeze up to town so much faster than we expected.

Yup that castle must be it!
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Yesterday, with a bit of internet snooping, I determined that we were not on the Camino de la Plata, which in fact runs north in Spain from Sevilla, but rather were on the Caminho Nascente. The first photo below is just to show the sign showing where we are, it's too distant to actually read.

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But look, the sign does give good coverage to the routes of six Caminhos that thread through Portugal.  

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In fact, though we may be on the Nascente just now, we will shift at Mertola to the Raia, passing by Serpa, Moura, Mourao, and Reguengos de Monsaraz, before shifting again to the Nascente at Evora. Later though, we will shift again, to the Central, via Atlantico, I think.

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I am writing about these Caminhos as if I really know where we are going. But get this. We soon passed the  bridge at the base of the castle, and crossing a tributary of the Guadiana, the Oeiras. While this bridge looks like we could call it a Roman bridge, I think not. It's a bit confusing because there is apparently another old partial bridge and aqueduct a bit downriver on the Guadiana, that was part of a wharf and also defensive structure of the town. Even that is not Roman, but 8th or 9th century Arab.

Our bridge to town.
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But the point is, this was not only our bridge to town, but a bridge to the rivers of memory. You are really going to laugh at this story. Eventually, we really did! Dodie looked at the bridge and said "Waitaminute, we have been here before!".   Ok, I knew of course that we had been in Portugal before - last year in fact. But I thought we had stuck to the west, central, and south bits.  It was the Classens who had come here in the east, and the Andersons, right. Now we were following behind them, copying their good routes. Right? So I said "Naw, after a while all these old fortified towns look the same".

Dodie accepted this for a little bit, until we ascended in the city, and then passed a street dropping off the hill at an amazing slope. "We've seen that before, you took its picture!", exclaimed Dodie. But it was not until we arrived at a blue and white theatre building, and finally the very turn off to our last year's (and this year's) hotel, that the truth could not be denied.

But, how did we get here in 2023? where were we going? I was suddenly not sure (or never was) where in this darn country we really were. "I know, we can ask Cycleblaze", I piped up, "we'll search "Grampies and Mertola", it will surely know". "Just get me last year's darn blog", was Dodie's contribution.

Remembering now that last year's "Mr. Mumble Mumble" - the guy speaking faintly in Portuguese on the hotel's contact phone number, would not be ready to receive us until a couple of hours later, we fetched up at a restaurant. Here we eagerly pulled up last year's blog on the smartphone, and the truth was revealed. We had come up from Faro to Almodvar, hopped across to Mertola, and then carried on to Serpa and Evora!

But the really poignant part was what we had written then. For Day 39 back then, we began  "We are counting on the blog to help us remember this day. It was so much fun, so beautiful and quiet, that we would like to be able to relive it.. One sure way is also to come back another time, and we surely would do that." !!

But there is something else. Much as I seemingly can not remember whole regions or cities from one short year to another, there is a (frightening) permanence to my personality and reactions to things. Looking back to Day 39, I photographed exactly the same things - from the single Rock Rose flower to the clump of Spanish lavender, from the pines, to the road, to the lynx sign, and even to the Caminho sign, showing the Nascente, a route I would have sworn  I had never heard of before yesterday! Yes, on Day 39 you can see the white bridge, the castle, the street in town - we did it all the same.

Some of this is pretty normal, because there are only so many things to see along a route, and we often laugh when different cycle tourers have exactly the same shot.  But on Day 39 I went on at length about what other landscape in the world does this remind me of, concluding that it is unique. I said all this to Dodie, at length, just yesterday. Well at least I am one whole day out of sync with myself!

The street just beyond the really steep one to the left. I think Scott has this shot as well.
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The blue and white building. Whew, I had a slightly different blue building last time.
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The final, telltale, alley to our last year's hotel.
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Yup, that was it!
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Here we are at the restaurant, with Dodie reading aloud the undeniable evidence that we were exactly here last April 9th. We both hung on every word, for a while, it was all news to us!
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Scott AndersonI was really startled by this too. I remembered you’d gone north from Faro to Almadovar because I was sorry you weren’t taking the ride up the river like you had this time. But I’d forgotten you went to Mertola and Serpa afterwards.

What really surprised me though is that you biked from Seville to El Rocio to Huelva last year also! Did you remember you’d been in El Rocio before?
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Steve Miller/GrampiesTo Scott AndersonWe seem to have selective memory loss. Weird what sticks and what gets lost. But yes, we did remember the sand streets of El Rocio. It is really a place like no other.
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Keith ClassenHow can one be expected to remember where you were last year. I can’t remember where I was yesterday. I would only worry about you two if nothing looked familiar. You are good!
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Steve Miller/GrampiesTo Keith ClassenThank you. That is what we tell ourselves daily, if we can remember to do so.
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We got our favourite comfort foods - Dodie: lamb stew and Steve: grilled chicken and fries. We were so shook up, we each got a large Coke.

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This is an interesting dessert idea - layers of biscuits with some sort of filling between,
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In another replay, I fell for ordering a coffee, in Europe, receiving about three ounces of black sludge. Remember this from our Profile:?

A dozen years later, I have still not learned.
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The updated coffee photo. Dodie said "try not look stupid", so we took one more, with not much luck.
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That cup came only about 1/3 full. Never going to fill my Thermos this way!
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Karen PoretLove the extended pinkie for effect, Steve ;)
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Andrea BrownOkay, this isn't the most flattering photo of you, Steve, in fact it makes me wonder just what is IN that little cup besides coffee. A good laugh has been had, at your expense.
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Steve Miller/GrampiesTo Andrea BrownI TOLD him this was not a good shot and to use just the first one, but would he listen? Nnooooo.
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Steve Miller/GrampiesTo Karen PoretGoes with the leering old man look.
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I would like to say these locals at the restaurant were watching us with bemusement, but in fact they totally ignored us.
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Here is tomorrow's bridge from our hotel room. If you don't like this shot, Keith Classen has the exact same one. Even bloody Steve Miller 2023 has it, though he might deny ever being here!
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To see if our thinking has changed at all, have a look at last year's page for Mertola.

FLASH:

There is no way this could be from last year. Portugal has called a snap election for Sunday, following corruption charges against the ruling centre-left party. Maybe the centre-right will take over now. I think they have gone back and forth since the "Carnation Revolution" that ended a dictatorship here 50 years ago. There is also a far right party called Chega (Enough) that has been growing and could end up holding the balance of power this time. They currently hold 12 of 230 seats.

"Change Is In Your Hands" - these are the guys on the outs right now, they currently have 79 seats.
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"More Action" - what does that mean? The PS party here in Portugal currently has 108 of 230 seats, from the 2022 election..
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Today's ride: 38 km (24 miles)
Total: 1,360 km (845 miles)

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