Head east, don’t die (part 1)

Portugal’s capital, beaches beckon

click to enlarge The Castle of San Jorge overlooks the historic Alfama District of Lisbon.
  • The Castle of San Jorge overlooks the historic Alfama District of Lisbon.

Words and images by Jens Ourom

Bicycle tourists risking death and dismemberment in Sea to Sky Highway traffic, struggling up endless hills with all their worldly belongings strapped to their bikes — as these very belongings drag them right back down again — are a curious sight. Upon glimpsing these cyclists, I always find great solace that I’m not That Guy , whose life consists of getting very sweaty, and very nearly annihilated in traffic day after day.

So where exactly the idea developed that this would be a fun way to spend three entire months, I don’t quite recall. In an area of the world notorious for unforgiving summer heat, no less. Keeping with this trend of making life inexplicably difficult, four countries whose language I did not speak, and one whose language I spoke eloquently enough only to evoke vicious, disapproving glares from creperie restaurateurs, were decided upon. And some say planning truly enjoyable vacations is difficult.

In truth, the “plan” was far from complex. Having secured the companionship of a more-than-game Sean Wilkinson, we set ourselves two goals: bike across southern Europe, and stay alive. After deciding the ideal jumping-off point would be Europe’s most westerly capital city, Lisbon, Portugal, and a fitting terminal destination would be Athens, Greece, our goals were simplified; head east, don’t die.

And 4,507 kilometres, 94 days, five countries, one kingdom and 12 flat tires later we arrived in Athens with barely functional bicycles. But that is getting a little ahead of ourselves.

We arrived in Lisbon with the kind of bleary anticipation that accompanies jet-lagged travelers eager to embark on their adventures. Our excitement was matched only by our angst. Would our bicycles arrive intact? They did. However, any momentum was immediately stalled once we realized how time-consuming it would be to re-assemble the various components we had removed.

Hours later we saddled up our 50 kilos of luggage — including the sleeping bags, tent, and cooking utensils we hoped would make the trip cost-efficient.

Mercifully, Lisbon’s airport was located at the top of a hill, and the descent into the Baixa, the downtown, was well-marked. Unfortunately, we had absolutely no idea how to navigate safely the eight-lane roundabouts with infinite entrances and exits. Our trip was almost over as soon as it began.

Slightly perturbed, we could take comfort in one realization. After waffling back and forth for weeks, we had come to the right decision — mountain bikes over road bikes. Lisbon’s jagged cobblestone streets would have been a nightmare without suspension forks and fat tires. We had enough trouble simply balancing our loads and avoiding the miniature Peugeots zipping around us in every direction.

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