Leaving is hell, especially on dreary, dismal days, which only rush the hemorrhaging of bleeding hearts and heighten the tension of departure. “The traveler’s guilty pleasure is staying home,” wrote Paul Theroux, and those words came to me as I stood looking out at the dripping leaves and grey sky of morning. It had been some years since I’d traveled alone, a disquieting thought, but I’d brought it upon myself—asked for it, cleared my schedule, done my work and, as the last act, left my desk orderly in case a combination of steep hills and brake failure finally coincided.
These were dramatic feelings, the kind that flit through the mind on the plank before the jump. Not that I was anywhere dangerous or daring—this was Portugal—but one needn’t be to face their death or even the smaller, non-fatal death that is the leaving of loved ones. The last look at the worried faces of kinfolk as they shrink in the rearview mirror can worm its way under the skin of all but the most hardened wanderers, creating an itch so bad the only cure seems to turn back and go straight to bed. The optimism of planning and the anticipation of leaving can easily swing from “Here I go!” to “What have I done?”
The benefit of leaving atop a motorcycle is one of sensitivity. The same rolling tread of departure that curls back the scared-over tissue of previous journeys also exposes the tender nerves underneath, sensitive to the slightest winds, noises, and bumps in the road. Wending my way along the Douro River out of Porto, the world felt fresh and new. There was a tang of smoldering eucalyptus and cheroot in the air, and the road sheened with fresh rain, glistening with every oncoming set of headlights. Rowers skulled in the green-grey river like slender water beetles, cutting vees that were broken by the chop of rabelo boats making their way to the historic banks of the city to collect their daily fare. The narrow crafts once carried barrels of young port wine from vineyards in the upper Douro Valley to warehouses along the river’s mouth. Now the river is dammed, the rabelos only carry tourists, and the barrels make the downstream journey by road.
I had decided to make my own journey through Portugal, against the flow of that sweet wine. Whenever I talked about traveling to Portugal, people in Canada said, “Oh, the beaches are lovely,” and “Have you tried pastel de nata?” because the very mention of Portugal has become synonymous with quick weekend trips to Lisbon, bronzed sun-goddesses sucking back vinho verde on a strip of Algarve sand, and the football player Ronaldo. It’s Spain for people who are weary of Spain; it’s Morocco for people who are afraid of Africa.
Only it is not those things. It’s a country as deep as it is old—the Romans, Visigoths, and Celts formed it. Later, it was a world-maker, and parts of its culture are present all over the world. The Japanese words tempura and pan, as only a small example, are Nipponized versions of the Portuguese words for seasoning and bread, and the Indian curry vindaloo is a bastardization of Portugal’s carne de vinha d’alho. The country is vast, with snow-capped mountains and green valleys, burning agricultural plains, and dry prairie. It is a place of tradition and deep roots, where it is still possible to meet people who have never seen the sea and who cook over smoky fires in slate-roofed houses.
The idea was to take a motorcycle and, riding off-road where I could, roll my way along the Douro Valley into the highlands, then skirt the Spanish border to the southern coast. I wanted to see the hidden country, the land as far away from the airports and beaches as possible. The country was familiar to me, but heading for parts I’d never before visited, I was reminded of Teolinda Gersão, who wrote that “Places we travel to frequently eventually do start to feel familiar, at least superficially, even when, at a deeper level, almost everything about them makes us feel foreign.” I wanted to travel the edges of the map and buff away some of that foreign feeling, discovering parts of the country that were new to me. I was also doing my best to integrate myself. I had studied the language and carried books by natives José Saramago, Sophia de Mello Breyner Andresen, and Agustina Bessa-Luís in my saddlebags, along with a sleeping bag, a rain sheet, and enough dried figs to last a week. Even the bike was Portuguese, an AJP PR7. An enduro bike in the truest sense, it had the power to handle the highway speeds, with the stability and fuel range to last all day on the trail.
I wanted to actively avoid the highways. The braided devil’s knot of freeway that runs along the Atlantic coast only serves as a reminder that whatever the nation, once on an eight-lane, half the population becomes rampaging executioners behind the wheel. Luckily, Portugal is a country full of backroads and dirt lanes, what in Canada are called turkey trails—paths fit only for the bobbing stubbornness of feral birds. Off-roading in Portugal is nothing strange, and the backroads are full of engines whining like irritating mosquitoes. Every autumn, the Lés a Lés Off-Road rally tears across the country in four days (they also run a summer on-road version). The country has also produced its share of champions: the late Paulo Gonçalves, Henrique Nogueira, Luís Lorenço, and António Pinto, who turned from his riding career to manufacturing with AJP Motorcycles, the country’s top off-road bikes.
One needn’t be a racer to enjoy the dirt, however. For myself, the pleasure lies in being forced to a slow, almost calculating speed while crunching on gravel and squelching through mud. Crossing a troubling mile thick with weeds and ruts is infinitely more fulfilling than gobbling up a hundred mind-numbing highway ones. The Portuguese portion of the Trans Euro Trail is here for that, spanning the country north-south in some 600 miles of trail over a combination of farming roads, foresting tracks, and trails shared with the Camino de Santiago. In going slowly, there is too the benefit of making small nations like Portugal expand and engulf the entire world. Saramago knew this, writing that “every traveler has the right to invent their own geographies. If you don’t, consider yourself a mere travel apprentice, still very attached to the lesson’s handwriting and the teacher’s hand.”
The first day, riding from Bragança to Miranda do Douro gave me a lesson in the true size of Portugal—what could have been done in one hour on the highway took me six off-road. There, the Trans-Euro follows exactly the Portugal-Spain border, what in Portuguese is called a Raia, or the Stripe. The soft-bottomed lumber road, cut through a forest of eucalyptus, hugs the spine of a ridgeback, with Spain on one slope, Portugal on the other. On the top of Serra da Luz, a mountain long and subtle enough to have no defined beginning or ending, two monuments signify the one-time importance of the line: a stone demarcation tower, hidden amongst the eucalyptus, and an abandoned watchtower rusting in the drizzle.
The feeling of isolation can be palpable. Generations have trickled out of Portugal’s rural areas for better pay in the coastal cities and elsewhere in Europe. The villages, all granite and slate and looking as though they were hewn from the ground, feel mediaeval and isolated. Signs reading Vende-Se (For Sale) and, more ambitiously, Aluga-Se (For Rent) are common. Pulling out of one, I came across a man. He might have stepped out of an oil painting. He was grizzled, the skin of his jaw loose and grey, and he wore the flat cap and woolen vest seen on almost every man north of the Douro. Hooked over one thin shoulder was an umbrella; on the other, he balanced a mattock, his thick hand resting softly on the smooth wood of the handle. A few hundred yards ahead were a half-dozen honey-coloured cattle, their hides glowing in the afternoon sun.‘Buenos dias,’ he shouted as I pulled alongside, his voice made smooth as much by his Transmontan accent as his toothless mouth.
‘You speak Spanish?’ I asked him in Portuguese, confused as to which side of the border I had slipped onto.
‘Here, we speak everything,’ he said, swiveling his head as a way of giving directions. ‘Castilian, Portuguese, French…’
We talked about his cattle and living so close to the border. He had lived nearby, in the town of Paradela, all his life. The town was as antiquated as he looked—there, I’d watched an old woman pitch hay from the loft of a stone barn and passed a man yoking a cart to a donkey. What other countries create theme parks around as homage, Portugal was still living through.
The border was nothing to the cattleman. He had crossed it all his life for his work, even when there had been guards to contend with. In the northern mountains, smuggling was commonplace, and houses along the border housed smugglers and hid contraband in secret alcoves called secretas.
The farmer’s herd had walked on ahead, as calm and sedately as though they were flanked by 10 herdsmen, and the dissonant tune of their bells was fading. To slip away, I asked the way to the next town along.
‘This,’ he said, ‘is a rural road. From here, you can go anywhere.’
Anywhere yes, but not all roads lead to the same Rome. Dead reckoning is difficult here. There is no shortage of options—they extend out from towns like snarls of wire—but without a local’s knowledge, a confident start can lead to a day of endless gates and retracing of steps. Roads through public land are meant to be open, but many are not, and I still have the barked hands to prove it. After a few hours of carousing through pastures, I was glad for my years of experience with barbed wire, baling twine, and fencing staples on my father’s cattle ranch.
I wanted to put the drizzle of Trás-os-Montes behind me and made for the distant line where the grey sheet of cloud broke apart into pieces of white cotton over the bouldered plains of Beira. Here the countryside opens in beautiful splendor. One can proceed slowly along any number of paths, TET and otherwise, following the length of the tumbling Côa river (Saramago traveled this way in 1979 just for the scenery).
I was camping in this open country, and too late, began looking for a place to sleep. Night fell quickly, like a theatre dimming its lights. Dusk anywhere is venomous, but in the cold granite towns of Portugal, it can be tragic. Bumping along a disappearing country road was much more comforting, where throwing down anywhere, although in theory illegal, was possible. Like rural places all over the world, politeness and curiosity in Portugal get you further than the law would ever allow.
Riding along another changeling trail—from moment to moment, it changed from slick rock to spongy moss to flooded over—I encountered a fire. It was small but spread across the path and burned with a flicker that cut through the trees with a primordial orange bluntness. Portugal is a country with a history of devastating wildfires, and encountering a haphazard fire is enough to get anyone’s hackles up. Each year, fires burn across the country, chewing through the bone-dry eucalyptus that covers the country. In 2017, the worst year on record, 45,000 hectares burned, and 66 people were killed.
There was no way for me to extinguish the flames myself, so I rode through, pulling into the first farmyard I encountered a short distance away. The farmer hailed me with a large yell as I pulled into his barn and waved me off when I mentioned the fire. He had lit it, he said, as a controlled burn, a preemptive measure that could save his cattle yard.
“I’m watching it,” he said, derisively. Countrymen, especially the pyromaniacal ones, despise instructions, so I left it and changed the subject to camping.
“You can stay in my house,” he said, lifting my spirits. “You’ll have it to yourself.”
It was obvious why. The farmer’s house was a gimcrack cinderblock building set in the middle of a pasture. Although it was impossible to tell whether it was in the process of construction or destruction, it was, in any case, devoid of anything. There were no windows or doors or furniture; each room was an empty chamber of chalky dust, old leaves, and exposed wires poking from the cement. Before turning in, I walked across the pasture to a stone water tank. The water was still and scuzzy with moss. Boulders dotting the landscape resembled the granite knuckles of giants’ hands breaking through the earth. I thought of my Penelope, and of Odysseus fleeing the cyclops Polyphemos who rained down stones such as these upon his ship.
Even in sunny Portugal, there is cold. After the talk of wildfire, I was too cautious to build my own, and so I spent the night shivering inside my sleeping bag, fighting a bone-cracking cold that produced vivid, horrifying dreams and, in the morning, loose teeth and frozen toes. But that too was Homer: “A man who has been through bitter experiences and travelled far enjoys even his sufferings after a time.” In the dawn, I awoke to the faintest tolling of a distant bell, so shadowy a sound that it was impossible to tell from which direction it came. It reminded me I wasn’t alone.
Each morning in the highlands, the world was inundated with a milky fog that filled the river valleys and borderland plains. Riding through it was like having a grey cheesecloth pressed onto my face. A promise had sent me pointlessly and dangerously onto the main roads up to the mountaintop town of Marvão. From the town’s famous hilltop, Saramago noted, “it is possible to see everything,” but I saw nothing at all through the opaque cloud.
Aeroplane pilots have a name for the act of flying through a grey murk of clouds without the clarifying benefit of dashboard instruments: “178 seconds to live.” With nothing to gauge their relation to the earth or the perspective to the horizon, the concept of level flight becomes distorted, meaning that slightly less than three minutes separate flying over from flying into. Motorcycle riders will know the feeling well—plowing through a cold, clammy fog, there is nothing on a bike to help predict what lies ahead on the road. On the narrow country roads, there was little to risk except running into a cow or a herd of sheep. But on the road, there were bullish cars and demon tail lights that appeared with such little notice my heart stopped faster than my brakes.
I fled back onto the protection of the dirt. South of Portalegre, into the fields of Baixo Alentejo, there is a distinct change in the countryside. Rolling over the golden, sugary roads along the thatch-work of an olive grove, I thought of Agustina Bessa-Luís, for whom a motorcycle was “a buzzing machine, whose chrome flashed like a bright comet set alight by the burning air itself,” even if, for the rider, it “offered more in terms of respectability than comfort.” The sun was out, and the grandeur of the mountains was gone, replaced with the endless geometry of olive and cork plantations. Snatchable oranges and lemons lined the roads, their branches sagged over fence lines, staining the road with sugary slashes of juice from squished fruit drop.
Alentejo is Portugal’s breadbasket and a stronghold of the Portuguese Communist Party since the 1975 post-dictatorial elections. Although the unity amongst these agriculturalists is strong, the young still largely forsake working on farms. The lack of labour has turned the farmers of Alentejo into sponsors. Workers are brought from as far away as Nepal and India to pick blueberries, olives, and grapes on estates. Riding past these itinerant workers, bent and bowed in the shadow of a ruined castle, was like witnessing a living Paul Kuczynski painting, an image of history and the present twisted and turned on its head, so distorted by fate itself, that I could only think “the more things change, the more they stay the same.”
There is a myriad of castles and forts all along the border, but they largely sit dormant and silent. Once the ultimate deterrents to invading Moors and Castilians, they now act in direct antithesis to their original purpose and encourage Spaniards and French to run rampant through their keeps and behind the thick, unscalable walls.
In the Algarve, the number of foreigners reaches a fever pitch. Historical relics are largely ditched in favor of soaking up the sun on a crowded beach. Saramago bemoaned about the place as early as the 1970s, calling it “the honeypot that all the ants aim for” and a place where “Portuguese is held in such low esteem” that “she is not spoken.” I wanted none of that and kept to the mountains, spending a terrifying day riding through the Serra do Caldeirão on steep roads plied with scree and infested with crazed, snapping dogs. I was nearly outdone by these wild beasts. Portugal is rife with these mongrel curs that lay around blind corners and bite the air with a ferocity that had me thinking, “If I fall, I die.” That was not the arrival I had wanted at the end of my journey, but at least it was as far as possible from the cramped campervan parks of the beaches only a few miles to the south. I could be happy with that, dog bitten or not.
On my last night in the wilds, I was once again puttering through the descending dusk looking for a suitable spot in the scrubby, thorny outback that covers the Algarve. Seeing a farmer rolling irrigation tubes beside his alfalfa field, I nerved myself and asked for a place to stay. He swung his arm around to encompass the entire country. “Anywhere,” he said.
We talked about his crop, the lack of rain, and wild boars—I had been warned against them by an expatriate Kiwi who had a house nearby. She had lived in the Algarve for 10 years and had only visited half of her sprawling hillside property. “I don’t know where you’ll find a place to camp,” she said, with the acidity émigrés reserve for others traveling through their adopted homeland. “I own all the land around here,” she said, thinking, no doubt, “Bugger off, I got here first.”
The farmer waived off the warning of the boars. “They’re just pigs,” he said. “You’ll be fine.”
“There are a lot of bifes here,” I said, using the colloquial Portuguese word for foreigners. He only smiled and continued rolling his tubing. I was windblown and dirty, my bike crusted with a thousand miles of Portuguese dust. I could name a dozen towns in the middle of nowhere. My mind was tired from weeks of translating. None of it was enough to become Portuguese, of course. I still felt foreign but as close to Portugal as ever after five years of visits. Before he left for the night, the farmer extended his hand. I took it, and in a soft voice, he said, “Welcome to Portugal.”