|Statue of Henry the Navigator - Tomar.|
Many of my friends are quite mystified as to why I don’t ride with a GPS tightly strapped to my handlebars, especially when travelling long distances through foreign countries. Never having bothered with one, even when driving a car, I’m nevertheless convinced that it would make each day’s journey a more direct and speedy alternative. But cycling, like life itself, isn’t necessarily about speed and reaching one’s destination by the shortest route. We live in our busy worlds, within even busier times, all the more reason to, at least every now and then, take the road less travelled and see what we discover.
Although a bicycle provides a significant mechanical advantage of its own, it won’t travel anywhere, except downhill of course, unless propelled by human exertion. Therein lays the enjoyment of riding a bike, relying solely on yourself, your map when required, and your machine underneath. The same can be said for any problems that occur along the way. While becoming temporarily lost or having to travel further than originally planned can be exasperating, mingling with the local inhabitants in search of assistance is one of the most interesting and memorable aspects of any long cycling journey.
Two such instances occurred in Coimbra itself. Finding its lower town sprawl along the banks of the Mondego River was relatively easy, as coming into any new place usually is, but locating the right road to take out the other side, became a more difficult prospect.
|Typical cobblestone lane in Portugal: Tomar|
Once beyond the outskirts of the city, along what was at present an unmarked road, I’d only travelled a few kilometres before beginning to doubt the direction I was heading. With the seemingly endless tarmac and a dry desolate landscape the only views on offer, I decided to stop on a bend by the side of the road and mull over my map. The lack of cars that passed by in the time I was there suggested that it wasn’t the most popular route to Tomar, my overnight destination, if indeed it was in the right direction at all.
Very much to my surprise, two young cyclists suddenly appeared from around the bend, though not quickly enough to miss my frenetic map-waving call for help. Obviously local riders, who knew the area well, they spoke with as much alacrity as they rode their bicycles. Not understanding a word of what they were trying so hard to explain, I could only look upon the situation bemusedly. Eventually realising themselves, the futility of their well-intended effort, they somehow made me understand that I should return to Coimbra and ask someone else for advice. In what was a kind gesture, in addition to their painstaking attempts to make me understand their directions, they gave me an energy bar as we bid each other a fond farewell.
Half an hour later, and feeling rather despondent that all I was doing was retracing my steps, and to where, I wasn’t sure, I veered off the road and into a service-station. In front of me was a couple on a motor scooter who had stopped to fill up with petrol. A father and his daughter, who I soon learned attended Coimbra University, each spoke impeccable English. Interested as much in my own country and what brought me to Portugal, as in helping me on my way, our three-way conversation drifted in many directions before the father finally re-fuelled and asked me to follow them. Like a missing jigsaw piece that was hidden under a table, the road I sought wasn’t far away at all. I just needed one particular segment to connect it all together.
|Aqueduto de Pegoes: near Tomar|
Relieved, I stopped to thank the kind-hearted duo for their help. In the interim, their directions would enable me to reach Tomar by at least late afternoon. But the nature and course of our chance meeting left a more indelible memory. It was yet another reminder that the most insignificant things we do, even for perfect strangers, can make a difference, to their lives and our own.
The difficult to discover but easily navigable N110, between Coimbra and Tomar, was the most direct section of bitumen I’d cycled along since crossing the border into Portugal. Furthermore, unlike the previous two days of riding, the altitude never crept above 400 metres, as testified by the number of recreational cyclists I passed coming the other way. With nature’s forces at work, I was now travelling with the wind at my back and finally in the right direction. For the next 60 kilometres I had little to contemplate other than the sweeping views along the way and what our new destination had in store.