There are so many reasons I love Portugal – the range of landscapes, the sunshine, the quiet roads, the history, the (cheap) wine, all those castles, the food etc. etc.
But one of the most important ingredients is the people.
When I first visited the country I thought many of the Portuguese seemed a bit dour. But I soon learnt not to take those severe expressions at face value. Most people have a great sense of humour and, particularly if you take the trouble to learn a few words of their language, are generally very happy to help a stranger.
I’d heard before about people staying for free with the Bombeiros – who are firefighters and first-response paramedics with stations in even the smallest towns.
Although I’ve not tried it myself, I know the bombeiros regularly put up people travelling the many pilgrim routes and I’ve heard of cyclists who have used them for overnight accommodation in all sorts of places. The facilities can be basic – but a toilet, wash basin and a floor to sleep on are still often a big improvement on the roadside!
On Pedal Portugal’s recent Algarve guided tour, our group was staying at a guesthouse several km out of Monchique. We’d already done a huge climb that day and getting to the guesthouse involved several more nasty hills (including a last section that must be a 1:3 gradient). We were also having a day off cycling and then coming back through Monchique so it made sense to leave the bikes in town for a couple of nights and just hop in the support vehicle to get up to our accommodation.
I found the local bombeiros commander chatting to some of his team outside the station. Lieutenant Rui seemed a bit surprised when I asked if I could leave nine bicycles in his care for two nights. But after a bit of thought he just shrugged and said ‘sure’.
When we collected our bikes a couple of mornings later I gave our new friends a crate of beer (it’s worth keeping them happy in case we want a favour again one day). I couldn’t help wondering, though, whether firefighters in other countries would be equally laid-back and helpful?
Going to a bike shop in Portugal can also be a pleasant surprise. Carolyn and I were in Chaves up in the north about 18 months ago and I needed new pads fitted to a disc brake. We found an excellent local shop called Run & Bike. The mechanic spent about 30 mins fitting the pads for me and straightening the disc – then was only going to charge me the price of the pads.
I had a similar experience earlier this month at Litoral Byke near Odemira when we needed a new tyre for one of the bikes. After selecting the tyre it was carefully fitted and the wheel put back in the bike for me. Again no extra charge other than the €11 for the tyre.
That certainly wouldn’t happen at any of the bike shops around where I live in Bournemouth!
While camping in Portugal, there was one attendant who let us have our van on the site for free because we were the last visitors of the season while at another site we got a free bottle of wine and €5 off the price because…er…just because.
Sometimes it’s the little moments that amuse me in Portugal. We were in Mértola in early February – doing a bit of research for another of our guided tours. As it was a lovely sunny day and hot to us, Carolyn was wearing a blouse, skirt and sandals. A passing old lady looked at her and began laughing. “Não e verão, não e verão!”, she kept saying with a big smile.
It took me a couple of moments then I worked out she was saying: ‘it’s not summer!’
I love incidents like the ones above. The wine’s great and there are so many quiet, incredibly scenic roads to explore but it’s also the people who keep bringing me back to Portugal.