Cycling the long way across the Tagus river

As I cycled on, the view below my rotating feet remained largely unchanged: miles and miles of undulating asphalt, regularly cut in by long stretches of gravel and the occasional pothole. Above my head there was also not much that could serve as a reference for the passage of time, as sands traveling north from the Sahara desert had given the sky a uniform milky appearance. All around me however, there was much to see. Lisbon’s busy streets had gradually given way to the quieter suburbs. Then, having crossed to the other side of the Tagus river, there was a never ending succession of green and yellow fields, where tractors and other mechanical contraptions incessantly laboured over crops. Far from any tourist hotspots, away from the limestone monuments and the fairy tale palaces, I was enjoying a glimpse into the capital’s backstage.

But let me start at the beginning. Say that you’re in downtown Lisbon and you want to go to Alcochete, a little fishing town on the south bank of the Tagus. The practical thing to do would be to drive through the Vasco da Gama bridge, a fifteen minute affair. But say you want to cycle there: a bit more convoluted, but a scenic thirty minute ferry ride would take you there. But say you’re afraid of water or, like me, not in a terrible hurry. In that case you could first cycle north till you find the first cyclable bridge across the river and then cycle back south to Alcochete. Since a timely arrival is not a priority, you can make it more interesting by using only gravel and back roads. The result? Two hundred and twenty kilometres (140 miles) of exceedingly impractical fun:

Unlike hiking, which is an avid but recent passion, I have been cycling for many years. While I occasionally venture on longer penances, most of my rides are shorter expiations. Recently however I came across the concept of “bikepacking”, a sort of lightweight touring and cycling’s latest fervour. As I have zero resistance to snazzy marketing ploys, I eagerly bought some bikepacking gear to try it out on my long way across the Tagus river.

The bikepacks fitted snugly onto my bike, allowing me to store my camera gear and a few overnight necessities. Anxious to try it out, I woke up early and quickly set off. The first few miles were made in a rush, zig-zagging through traffic instead of enjoying the scenery. Gradually though, I relaxed and settled into a more amenable pace.

As my heartbeat slowed down, the incessant thumping subdued and I could again hear myself think. Perhaps inevitably, my first thought was to compare this trip with the Fishermen’s Trail, where I had spent five days hiking alone.

Cycling is more mechanical and less contemplative than hiking. Instead of merely putting one foot in front of the other, there are gears to shift, brakes to pull, cars to watch out for. It is also harder to be alone, as the distances covered are greater and the routes more crowded. Some may prefer the more mechanical and communal nature of cycling, while others  will be drawn to the contemplative solitude of hiking. Personally, and inspired by the infinite source for contemporary wisdom of Calvin & Hobbes, I enjoy both.

And I surely enjoyed this trip. Cycling through places is very different from driving through them. A car takes me from place A to place B. Everything in the middle turns into a blurry picture. Using a bicycle requires more time, but allows me discover places C, D and E along the way. These places turn into vivid memories, complemented by the smell of the passing trees and the sound of the wind rushing next to my ears.

Most of these places you’ll never find in a guide book. Póvoa de Santa Iria, for instance, is an unsuspecting Lisbon suburb. Yet, not far from its busy main road and rows of similarly looking apartment blocks, there is a wonderful little trail that runs alongside the riverbank. A bit further north, in Vila Franca de Xira, locals cycle and walk next to that same riverbank, enjoying the vastness of the Tagus estuary (the largest in Western Europe).

Coruche, where I spent the night, is best known as the world’s largest producer of cork. The epitome is likely of very little practical significance to most, so this admirable antique little town, part of Portugal since 1166, stands largely unnoticed. Coruche may be small, but its surroundings are not. On my second day, I spent the better part of the morning cycling past row after row of cork trees. These trees can live up to 200 years old, so many of them probably witnessed the early 19th century Portuguese civil war that pitched absolutists against constitutionalists.

As I made my way to Alcochete, the rural settings gave way once more to the suburbs. This once drowsy municipality grew immensely in the 90s, after the Vasco da Gama bridge connected it to Lisbon. Yet Alcochete’s old town hasn’t changed much, and is still home to fishermen and seagulls. As I sat on the dock of the bay, watching the tide roll away, I glanced at the watch and noticed I was about to miss the ferry back to Lisbon. Not a problem, I would catch the next one. I was, after all, in no hurry.

Verne*

83 thoughts on “Cycling the long way across the Tagus river

    1. Thank you! I was surprised too when I saw the footage, I don’t recall actually being that close 🙂 I used a GoPro with various mounts, and then edited the footage on iMovie. Since I use Lightroom/Photoshop for photography, I briefly looked into Adobe Premiere, but it’s way too complex and expensive for a first time videographer! -Verne

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      1. I use iMovie as well when I am brave enough to do video of any kind. You did a great job – I especially loved the comments that popped up. Looking forward to more bikepacking adventures!

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  1. Great pictures and journal, and I so enjoyed the ride-along video! I too get songs stuck in my head; Bob Dylan and Willie Nelson – very appropriate for the trip. Your blog inspires me to move around more – just tuned up my bike for spring.

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  2. Well that was a sweet little journey to go on from the comfort of my couch. I really enjoyed the video, and you got some fabulous photos. I like to seeing the backroads, getting away from the crowds, in any country.
    Alison

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  3. Wonderful post! My poor bike has been neglected for nearly four years–your post has me thinking it would like to be dusted off and taken out again, though unfortunately nowhere are beautiful as your ride to Alcochete!

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  4. Nice trip – I enjoyed both the stills and the video. I hadn’t heard of bikepacking. I haven’t been on my bike for years, maybe it’s time to see if the rubber is still intact.

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  5. Not sure I could sit on my bike seat that long, but it sounds great otherwise! I keep thinking I’m going to get used to spending long period of time on a tiny, hard triangle, but so far, being on my feet for days on end is preferable. I like the amount of ground you can cover on a bike, though, so I’ll keep working on it. I very much enjoyed your ride!

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    1. I understand your predicament! I started with cycling way before hiking, but still feel that the latter is a much more natural thing to do, one that doesn’t require odd positions and small hard triangles. One piece of encouragement though: the position will always feel awkward, but the triangle gets less and less discomfortable 🙂 -Verne

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  6. Loved this! It makes me long to get back on my bike! Any day now, winter will cooperate and get lost, and spring will be back and the sand & gravel will be swept off the roads (it gets too cold here for salt to melt the roads clear).

    My hubby started riding on his cyclocross bike for the season (to work) yesterday. My Silquey (that’s what I call her) is a bit too delicate to get out there yet. I’m so jealous.

    Loved the video. Loved your sense of humour coming through and your music choices… even if Bob Dylan will be stuck in my head all day now!

    They’re in the middle of contemplating a Banff to Jasper dedicated cycling trail here in our Alberta Rocky Mountains. There’s already one that exists between Canmore and Banff, called The Legacy Trail. Once it’s finished, you should come ride it. It will be spectacular.

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    1. Thank you Sheri! You know, the Rockies was the first place I dreamt on going when I first started cycling, some 25 years ago. The hot brand back then was ‘Rocky Mountain’, and their catalogs were filled with incredible trails from the Rockies (but mostly from the BC side, I think). I still haven’t gone there, but I surely will! Good luck on getting Silquey (a Trek Silque?) on the road, I won’t taunt you by saying we already have 25+ degrees in Lisbon 🙂 -Verne

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      1. I used to mountain bike, but sold it a couple of years ago, when Jules starting complaining about my plethora of bikes. But I will certainly rent one when I go to the Rockies: not doing so would be like going to Paris and not seeing the Eiffel Tower 🙂 -Verne

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  7. Oh, wow, aren’t you a poster boy? 😀 I enjoyed watching the video first and then reading it through along your amazing photos. The impression is that your land is huge with rivers you need days to cross. And we’ve got those pine furries too! One morning we had a bunch of them in our garden. I hear they are not pleasant to touch. But the best thing was your commentary in the video. A funny poster boy! Wishing you many more “light” bikepacking trips like this one.

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    1. Unless by poster boy you mean ‘that weird guy that runs away from people and chases bugs’, you’re being way too nice 🙂 And since you’re so nice, the next post is for you: it took 4+ months, but we’ll be talking about Porto! -Verne

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  8. Lovely post and photos. I have a question about bikepacking and the equipment you said you bought. What was this actually? What’s the difference between that and a couple of pannier bags over the back wheels?

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    1. Thanks Denzil! These bikepacking bags were originally made for frames that didn’t come with mounts for panniers. They carry much less stuff, but they’re lighter and cause less drag (as they’re tucked inside the frame or behind the rider). -Verne

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  9. Pronto! Este está! Qual será o próximo circuito? É muito agradável estar no sofá e ver a bicicleta rolar…até parece que não custa muito e se calhar não custa. Quem corre por gosto, dizem que não cansa :)!

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  10. Que passeio incrível e fotos lindas! Pena que no lugar que vivo atualmente não posso aproveitar a natureza sozinha, pois amo passear, caminhar e ficar horas contemplando a belas paisagens da natureza e até aquelas “artificiais” criada pelo homem.

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