By Chloe Greenfield
As I heard my friend’s van drive away, my heart sank. I was totally alone…was this the right thing? I gripped the handlebars of my bike and straightened up; I was feeling the fear, now that I’d been dropped in the middle of this remote national park.
I’d been planning this trip for months, it was going to be great, and I was going to have fun. Be positive, Chloe! I took a deep breath and began to pedal.
Early mornings and sore muscles
Three weeks later and I’d found my rhythm. That morning, my eyes blinked open as the first light filtered through the leaves of the cork oak I’d slept under. As I rolled up my hammock, I waved at a passing woman, who strolled in the early morning sunshine, stick in hand. “Bom dia!” I call. “Bom dia” She replies, smiling. “Estas peregrino?” she asks, watching as I pack my bike bags.
Peregrino means pilgrim, and as the famous pilgrim route, Caminho de Santiago, starts North of here, I can see why she thinks this. We chatted for a while, enjoying being the only ones awake except the birds. She sent me on my way with oranges bulging out of my bike bags – juicy, delicious sustenance for the road ahead.
The whole bike trip had been brushed with magic. The everyday sparkle of little encounters and interactions with strangers. The hushed beauty of golden-hued corn fields at sunset and birds of prey gliding above me.
My bike tour was a spontaneous end to a stint of volunteering in Northern Portugal. My host donated me his old mountain bike and, inspired, I’d decided to take the slow road back to my home in Spain. Solo.
A personal solo cycling challenge
I’d set out on this trip simply to see if I could do it. I’d always loved cycling but had never found the time or courage to go on a long trip alone. Inspired by stories from other cyclists, I felt encouraged and informed. I
’d noticed how strong I was becoming. My pace was improving each day. The Spring sunshine and constant endorphin boost kept me going, even when the roads became relentlessly mountainous.
My solo cycling trip had taken me through numerous starkly different landscapes so far, from the sun-drenched grassy wetlands near Lisbon to the rugged and windy coastline of Alentejo.
The land got noticeably drier as I neared Faro, where I stayed a few days in a community of people living in tipis. The pauses and socializing between the long stints of cycling felt restorative and necessary.
I can’t say I never felt like giving up
Three difficult days on the South West peninsular of Portugal almost drove me to despair. The headwinds were often so strong that I had to get off and push my bike, pausing behind bushes to shelter from the gales and catch my breath. The only thing keeping me going those days was knowing I had to get a little closer to my destination. Stopping just wasn’t an option.
Eventually, I found myself nearing the small town of Vila Real de Santo Antonio, with Spain just a river crossing away. Follow the coast had been my basic mantra for the trip; aside from a few forays into the mountains, I had kept the shoreline to my right, making it generally unnecessary to check a map.
That morning the smell of pine resin and the sounds of my bike crunching over gravel accompanied me. Stork nests perched high in trees and on telephone poles added a surreal Dr. Suess-esque quality to the scene.
I’d cycled 360 miles, and the sense of personal achievement carried me forward. I’m not a practised meditator, but I reached a full state of bliss that morning on the bike. I watched flamingos fly serenely over the lagoons, feeling immensely lucky to experience this silent moment alone in nature.
Spain is in sight!
Later, leaning on my bike on the dock in Santo Antonio, I could see Spain! I could sense my destination, imagining already the flamenco-infused streets of Granada beckoning me home. I chatted with a Scottish couple on the ferry as we crossed the river border.
I love that when you travel by bike, people are so interested and friendly, offering encouraging words and sweet treats. It’s a totally different experience than arriving by bus or plane; I feel so connected to the places I roll through when solo cycling.
Later that week, in Spain, as dusk settles from lavender to inky blue, I string my hammock between two trees. Moments after I’ve gobbled my jarred chickpea dinner, my eyelids feel heavy, and I lie back. Stars filter through the leaves as I’m slowly lulled to sleep.
My last full day on the bike is done; tomorrow, I’ll be home. What a journey it’s been, I think, satisfied. I know this won’t be my last solo cycling trip – it can’t be.
Chloe is an English writer and painter based in Portugal. She loves slow travel and the stories and connections it creates. When she’s not working, she enjoys finding secret and magical locations off the usual tourist trails. Read more of her writing at chloegreenfield.wixsite.com/chloewrites and connect on Instagram @c_greenfield.