Friday, November 20, 2009

Little Talbot Island

I just recently completed a trip up the east coast of Florida from St. Augustine to Little Talbot Island, which is north of Jacksonville. The riding on AIA was incredibly beautiful through the Guana Tolomato Matanzas Reserve. The sight of coastal dunes, wind-gnarled oak trees and glimpses of the Atlantic Ocean were uplifting. Later, I had an entertaining conversation with a veteran motorcyclist as we crossed the St. Johns River by ferry at Mayport. The man, probably in his late-60s, ambled across the ferry deck to get a closer look at my bike. He revealed that a friend of his from Archer had one like it. The man told me he had been riding for over 40 years and keeps a Road Glide and a Valkyrie in his garage in Maryland. He and his wife travel in their motorhome, logging thousands of miles annually - true warriors of the road. They were visiting their son in Fort George. As a backroads traveler, I enjoy encounters like this. They create a sense of harmony with life. It is a sense that is all too frequently missing from modern living but I think it is just within our grasp if we are open to it. I also believe that when your heart is fully in any pursuit, the pursuit gives back by speaking to your heart in a language that it understands.

Monday, July 21, 2008

Obidos to Manteigas

Portugal could easily be called "The Land of the Infinitely Variable Sky". It seems that Portugal's coastal weather can transform the upper atmosphere from a robin's egg blue to battleship blue-gray and back again in just a few hours. Just watching the cumuli roll and tumble into ever changing shapes is entertaining. The sky itself is a character-giving element of the landscape, lending a variety of shifting moods to the countryside that uncannily match its features. A case in point were the gloomy low clouds sulking over the gray granite wall of the ancient city of Obidos on the day of departure for our tour of Portugal.

The clouds and light mist in the air failed to suppress our excitement. Weeks before, I had checked internet weather reports and learned that northern Portugal is rainy in the spring, so the threat of daily showers really didn't surprise me. We packed waterproof jackets and pants, rubber gloves, and wool socks for the inevitable soaking rains.  With our gear stowed into a pair of saddlebags and a topcase, we saddled up the British racing green Triumph Sprint RS. Our guide Ken, a tall, amiable South African  with a penchant for adventure (he also owns a small herd of horses and pasture land near Obidos) looked back and gave us the thumbs up just before starting off on an identical green Triumph. I slipped the clutch and we slowly set off down the wet, gravelly road to the main road leading out of town, bidding our stately manor house, Casa D'Obidos, goodbye. 

A few miles north of pastoral Obidos, we entered the Motorway, the A1, and continue northerly toward the "Mountains of the Stars", the Serra da Estrelas. The pavement was immaculately smooth and the sweeping banked curves made for some entertaining cornering against an inspiring backdrop of carefully tended orchards and vineyards arrayed on the adjoining hillsides. The Triumph's triple cylinder engine provided a pleasing soundtrack from its single exhaust, starting with a low bass rumble just off idle to something similar to a jet engine whine as I ran up through the gears. This was going to be a great trip, I thought to myself. By mid-morning, we pulled off the A1 and onto a curvy two-lane to begin our climb to the mountains. 

After about 50 miles or so, Ken led us to a gas station for some coffee and pastry, which exposed us to a bit of the real Portugal that lies outside the tourist cities. To our surprise (but not Ken's), the "gas station" housed a small and scrupulously clean cafe that served fresh bread, pastry, and coffee that left us envious of Portuguese roadside hospitality. Ken ordered for us, in Portuguese of course; coffee, bread, and butter, and hinted that we could eat like this just about anywhere on our itinerary. It should be noted that Portuguese bread impresses for both its fresh, floury taste and slightly crusty texture; add butter and jam and it's transcendent. When I excused myself to use the cafe's bathroom, I was amazed to find its standard of hygiene easily surpassed that of a typical gas station in the States. I am willing to bet it was even cleaner than bathrooms in most American households, including my own. It seems that fastidiously clean restrooms (and prodigious water pressure from their fixtures) were pretty much universal on our trip.

Back on the road, we climbed higher into the foothills, taking in the pastures and orchards. The roads were much more curvy and tree-lined. The sky remained gray. At our lunch stop, a small roadside restaurant overlooking a large stream and clad in dark brown wood, we ordered the wonderful bread and homemade vegetable soup. We all agreed that the "less is more" approach to lunch was an ideal strategy. On the way back to the bikes, we heard a siren rapidly approaching from our left on the uphill side of the road. Moments later, a small official-looking sedan, lights flashing and siren wailing, emerged from around the bend at full lean, drifting sideways with all four tires screeching. The cop car from hell plummeted down the narrow two-lane and out of sight around the next corner. I braced for the sound of the impending collision with, I imagined, some doomed tourist bus, a supernova of flying metal and glass bits. By some stroke of luck it never came. Ken just shrugged. He's seen it all on these roads.

Aboard the Triumphs once again, we passed several small towns with narrow streets and ancient-looking houses crowding the curbs. People stood on narrow strips of concrete between the street and their houses talking to neighbors. A few old women, dressed in black with head scarves, leaned out of windows overlooking the street. I couldn't help thinking how we appeared to them on our loaded motorcycles, a pair of British racing green blurs with oddly-dressed alien invaders aboard.

At Avo, we stopped at an overlook and took in a stunning view of the village tidily nestled in its river valley. The simplicity of the landscape amazed us; no cellphone towers nor condo-sprawl. Just a humble village with white walled houses and red clay tile roofs. We were approaching the Parque Natural da Serra da Estrela, so our elevated vantage point afforded some amazing views of the valley below as well as the surrounding peaks. We arrived at a town called Vide, which means "Life", and true to its moniker, we found a pub, the Bar Fontinha, where some local folks were engaged in some lively beer drinking while a soccer match played on the television. It was a strange, but charming sight, seeing this crowd of people - a few women and kids but mostly middle aged and elderly men - enjoying themselves at this rustic little watering hole. An old man invited us inside and offered us seats. It was beginning to rain so we stayed for coffee and some "conversation". We said we were going to ride to Torre, the highest point in the country at around 6,600 feet above sea level. The temperature was about 50 degrees, but with another couple thousand feet to go, we could expect the temperature to plummet to the mid forties. "You're crazy" one guy said to Ken, laughing at our plan.

Back on the road again, we climbed toward the Serra da Estrela and Torre. We hadn't seen the sun all day except for a few teasingly brief appearances. By now, large trees began to vanish from the landscape until the only plant life in sight was low growing and hardy scrub clinging to the rocky mountainside. At certain points, the lack of trees allowed us views to the horizon, revealing the vast, rugged beauty of these mountains. Ken said that this area, with its scenery and absence of people, is popular with hikers from northern Europe and it was easy to see why. 

Without much warning, visibility started to dwindle. We'd expected rain, wind, sun and heat from Portugal's mercurial spring weather but fog caught us by surprise. It's something that you just can't do much about except park your bike. Back home, a foggy morning meant waiting it out before hitting the road, but here with a schedule to meet, stopping was not an option. The fact that visibility dropped to about 30 feet (the distance from me at which Ken's tail light vanished) worried me as I had no idea what the road was doing. We slowed to about 25 miles per hour.  I could only make out the faint, red glow of the Triumph's tail light in front of me about half the time. Without the red glow to follow, I felt completely disoriented in the white out. Unable to see the horizon or the roadside passing by, it was impossible for me to detect any sense of movement. It was a strange feeling, sensing the mechanical sounds and pulses of the Triumph but with no visual cues indicating any kind of progress. I wondered how Ellen felt while all this was going on. I also wondered if Ken was going to stop.

We pressed on, finally sloshing our way to Torre, where the fog eased somewhat. It was really cold. To our astonishment, frozen rain began ricocheting off the Triumph's windscreen. Then within moments, big fluffy snowflakes floated down, melting into the puddles in the parking lot. After some more coffee (and a brief thawing) inside the snack bar we headed back down the road toward the Vale de Zezere, the longest glacially formed valley in Europe.

Thankfully, the fog lifted in time to grant us views of the Vale. The roads hugged the contours of the mountainside, which were cloaked in the same shrubby greenery and boulder fields we saw on the way up to Torre. In places, purple and yellow flowers bloomed in pleasing drifts among the rocks along the road. Above, the sky again was in flux, with blocky slate blue clouds lumbering into view. On the valley floor, we saw a scattering of stone houses with thatched or wood roofs. A man, who appeared to be a farmer, walked along the narrow shoulder. The roads were a mix of tight turns and gradual sweepers. The Triumph seemed unfazed by the burdens of carrying rider, passenger, and luggage on rain slicked pavement and seemed to be just as happy at 40 miles per hour as it was howling on the A1 at 80. The feeling of excitement was palpable as we finessed the Triumph into and out of the wonderful turns carved by some unknown roadway engineer from this rugged and ancient landscape. I reached back with my left hand and squeezed Ellen's knee - a signal we started using back home to say "I'm having a blast! You too?"

Around 6 PM we rolled into Manteigas, a charming small town on the banks of the Rio Zezere. We had travelled about 230 miles today. Solid, modestly designed granite buildings trimmed in subtle shades of white lined the cobble stone streets. With so much of the country built out of stone, and with so much of it already very old, this place will still be standing for a few more centuries. A few people walked around carrying umbrellas but the rain had stopped, for the moment at least. We parked the bikes in the courtyard of Casa das Obras, which means "House of Works".  The house was built initially around 1200 with subsequent additions were added over the next 400 years. A work in progress. The stone floors and heavy oak timbers imbued the house with a sense of permanence and majesty. We met our host, Amelia, who's family has owned the Casa since the 16th century. After dropping our gear at our rooms, we met Ken in the warmly lit "living room" for some Portuguese red wine, cheese, and that irresistible bread that seems to be available in every small town cafe. The fire flickered in the fireplace as we shared thoughts of the day's trip surrounded by antiques and centuries-old paintings of Amelia's ancestors.  

Monday, June 30, 2008

Spirit of Portugal

When thinking of great motorcycling destinations, the places that come to mind immediately are like a Hall of Fame list: the Pacific Coast Highway, the Alps, and of course the Blue Ridge Parkway.  They're the Ruth, Cobb, and DiMaggio of motorcycling roads. What these destinations have in common is the stuff of riders' dreams; for instance, they feature in no particular order fantastic scenery, twisty turns, meager traffic, and interesting stops along the way. But mention Portugal among these superstar byways and you're likely to be greeted by bemused expressions.  "Portugal? Is that in Spain?" asked a riding friend upon my description of the country.

Portugal in fact is a sovereign nation about one fifth the size of its tapas and Rioja consuming neighbor to the east.  And, get ready, it has some truly amazing motorcycling country.  This statement is not hyperbole I assure you.
In late May, my wife Ellen and I hired a guide and 2004 Triumph Sprint RS through the British tour operator Motocadia for a week. Motocadia's owner, Julian Cade, promised an adventure consisting of twisty roads, elegant lodging, local food, and desolate motorways of prime Euro-tarmac ripe for enjoyment.  Our guide, Ken McKay, a former bike racer, civil engineer, and diamond merchant kept things lively both in and out of the saddle.  In the following posts, I'll talk about the trip and share some insights about Portugal, a country that never failed to entertain, amaze, and stir our curiosity.  Meanwhile, photos from the trip can be viewed in the Spirit of Portugal gallery.

Saturday, June 28, 2008

Backroads Traveler Launch

It's past midnight and I've finally gotten this blog thing, my first,  set up. Let's have a toast.  It wasn't so easy to find a blog name that fit the idea I had some months ago to start a journal about my backroads motorcycle travels.  Some of the trial balloons I floated were "Asphalt Attitude" and "Beyond the Cage".  Not thoughtful enough I thought.  More head scratching but the muse appeared to be standing me up tonight. "Love and Sprockets"? Already taken, and besides, it really didn't fit anyway.  So I pulled back a bit, thought to myself "simplify...simplify", and soon "Backroads Traveler" emerged. Not bad I thought. Thoughtful? Check.  Memorable? Check. It sort of has a nice ring to it and has enough room for including a range of thoughts and ideas. 

I've been riding motorcycles off and on since I was a lanky 15-year old in southeastern Massachusetts.  Thirty years later, I'm fortunate enough to be riding again and living in north Florida where we are able to ride year 'round. Over the last four years or so since I've re-entered motorcycling, I've explored interesting out-of-the-way places in my own backyard and beyond. Gradually, I started taking my camera on these trips and photographing places, and sometimes people, that had a certain soulful, authentic character about them. Simple weekend trips started evolving into adventures that stretched my skills - both technical and social - as I ventured far afield to such places as the Natchez Trace in Mississippi and the ancient villages of the Serra D'Estrella mountains of central Portugal.  

Traveling on two wheels is worlds different than traveling by car. For one, exposure to the elements is relentless.  You feel temperature changes as the topography rises and dips from ridge to valley.  You also smell the changes in the landscape from forest to coastline.  And people will actually wave hello to you as you pass them.  This has never happened to me in a "cage", motorcyclist slang for a car.  Traveling by motorcycle is one of those things I think if done thoughtfully and with awareness is a tremendously humanizing experience. It awakens my senses, teaches me a few things about myself and life, and reveals mysteries of nature literally at every turn.  I think I've caught on, as Robert Pirsig did when he wrote in Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, that "there are things you learn as you go."