November 13, 2016
There’s nothing about the ferry from Tangier to Tarifa that seems complicated. Exiting Morocco is, by far, the easiest border we’ve dealt with. There’s the usual lines and, when the gate opens, a crush of people swarming towards the booths. Rather than waiting on the bikes, I simply walk up to the immigration booth and wait my turn to hand in the green pieces of paper we’ve been carrying with us since entry. Nita’s quite relaxed while she watches the bikes and, soon enough, I get a chance to have a conversation with a lovely young woman who’s officiating the release of people and goods through the port.
“What do you do?”
“I’m a writer. My wife is a photographer.”
There’s that question again. “No, not journalists. Tourists.” I deliver the truth with a smile; there’s something about these conversations that is beginning to be enjoyable. They have a job to do and we’re not doing anything wrong, so there isn’t any stress in it.
She smiles widely. “Did you like Morocco?”
“Absolutely loved it.”
Seeing Nita on her bike, she shines a look of astonishment and, with a quick impression of riding a motorcycle, delivers a smile of approval. The bang of the stamp clears our paperwork and passports for Spain and, just like that, we’re sent to the far end of the dock toward the front of the line to wait for the next ferry.
The port here is so completely different from Melilla that it’s hard to wrap our heads around it. It’s relatively quiet, there are no fixers, and the taut mayhem that seems to thrive at North African borders is all but absent. We find a step in the shade by a number of Moroccan men enjoying a lazy conversation and wait for the ship to arrive.
While we wait we’re kept company by a stray cat who has an unhealthy affection for rubber and an older man with the most incredible white hair. He also seems to have perfect teeth and glasses whose depth would surely focus the suns rays into some kind of super-weapon in the battle against bugs. As the ferry arrives we see him offering tours to the departing crowds and decide that he’d make a great guide. Grinning, Nita mentions that the smiling man somehow reminds her of Papa Smurf and that a day spent touring with him would be an opportunity she couldn’t pass up. She’s not wrong – there’s something very smurf-like about his demeanour and he does seem genuinely kind. As the crowds begin to dwindle, the man finds work with a group of seven Brits who seem quite interested in what he has to offer. As they begin to head toward immigration, he shoots us smile before leading his new clients away.
The ships between Tangier and Tarifa are much smaller than we’re used to but they have a stark advantage: they’re fast. And frequent. Arriving almost every hour during the day, the total trip takes about thirty-five minutes. We load our bikes onto the lower-deck and the ship-hand has us parking our bikes sideways on a declining ramp, a position that wont allow me to sit the bike on it’s stand without it falling over. I try to explain the situation but this seems to be the only spot in his mind – even though there are plenty of great spots on the nearly empty deck. Rather than having us move, he steadies our bikes while I hop off and we center-stand the bikes at a wacky angle instead. While I’m sure they’ll make the journey without toppling over, it all seems unnecessarily risky.
Finally, the bikes are loaded and we find ourselves sitting in a rather plush setting for the journey. There’s a haze toward southern Spain and the waters are full of chop. As we pull out of the port, the boat rocks uneasily for about fifteen minutes before the open waters allow the captain to steadily increase the speed. It’s a fairly bumpy journey but we’ve been on much, much worse and the comfortable seats, café and bar all make it feel quite luxurious. There’s also the fact that it’s short, we don’t have to sleep on the deck, and the washrooms aren’t a minefield of human waste – that also helps.
In what seems like a blink of an eye we feel the ship begin to slow and the port in Tarifa fills our windows. Suddenly we’re awash in emotion; it’s hard to believe but our time in Africa is over – at least for the moment. In the lower deck we find the bikes have made the short journey without fuss though unstrapping them becomes a two-person job due to the angle. Soon, though, we emerge from the darkness of the hold into the bright daylight of Tarifa and it’s glorious. That moment – where the rider emerges from the hold of a ferry back onto land – is one of my absolute favourites. There’s such excitement in that moment.
We have to go through Customs and Immigration here as we’re re-entering the EU and the Schengen Area. Descending the ramp toward processing it feels like something is wrong with my rear wheel and I stop briefly to take a look, though it seems fine. Starting again I feel a shimmy in the front and then the rear and I realize that it’s the wind! The wind is so strong here today it’s unbelievable. Even the immigration officers are struggling; grabbing our passports to stamp them, the wind blows the pages over just as his hand drops leaving three-quarters of a stamp on one page and the rest on the next.
The customs agent waves us through with a big smile and a thumbs up for the bikes. Just like that, we’re back in the EU.
To be honest, we’re excited to be back in a world of predictable drivers and excellent roads. Nita’s heart has been fairly stable and we know that excellent care is available should we need it. We’re also certain that we’ll miss the lunacy of North Africa in no time – but for now this is what we need. Sam Roberts has a lyric that I often think of – “…there’s no road that ain’t a hard road to travel on” and I believe in that idea completely. Travelling like this for a long time produces its own struggles, even when the conditions are perfect.
Todays challenge remains the wind. One hour into our ride and Nita’s hands begin to tingle with numbness. At our first gas stop and I can sense her growing concern as she starts to shake out her hands; she’s not sure if the cause is from gripping too tightly to her handlebars while fighting the strong gusts, or if she’s experiencing the seizing in her extremities that led to her day in the ER a month earlier. Taking a deep breath, she remembers the doctors advice to stay calm and relaxed. Challenging words for today.
The wind is so strong that the gusts unsettle the bikes and push us around the road at will. Add to it the incredible heatwave that’s engulfed southern Spain and this “Easy” road that we’ve been looking forward to is yielding little joy. Which is a shame. The views here are spectacular. At the station we meet Christian, a young man from Germany who’s riding his bike home and who continually looks at our bikes, shakes his head and mutters “Crazy” every now and then. From here, he estimates his travels to take another three months – a journey that ends not far from where we need to be in two weeks! From our motorized vantage point, his travels seem far crazier. Though the chances of us meeting again are unlikely, he offers us a room at his house if we should happen to be there at the same time. Just lovely.
Our destination for the night is just outside of Seville, the capital city of Andalusia and our route takes us along golden fields of wheat, vineyards and solar farms – all beautifully set in the gently rolling hills of the region. About thirty minutes from our home for the night I notice and orange light on my dash. According to the R1200GS tire-pressure sensors I have a flat – which is surprising since I’d have thought I’d notice! Having just passed a gas station, we pull a quick u-turn and head in to do a quick once-over. A manual check shows the pressure is fine but I look for any shrapnel lodged in the tire. Nothing.
With everything checking out, we head back onto the road and watch as the sensor light disappears. About twenty minutes later it pops back on again and I put it down to the heat. The temperature is in the mid-forties and I can only imagine how much heat is getting absorbed into the carcass of my tires. I think to myself that every newer vehicle suffers from a serious issue these days: too many sensors!
It’s not long before we arrive at Hotel Vereda Real, an off-season deal that’s Nita’s found and whose price at this time of year makes it possible to stay. Unloading the bikes leaves us drenched in sweat. The heat is well into the forties and, somewhat secretly, there’s a tinge of worry in me that Nita’s heart will begin to complain again if it keeps up during our next few days on the road. Inside, we welcome the cool air and comfy seats; this place is going to be a great spot to unwind. The hotel is mostly empty and, after a shower and a moment of laying completely still, we find a welcoming bar with an ice-cold drink waiting for us. Dinner is quiet but impressive – the regional food is delicious and prepared with a cultivated care. Staying true to her nickname Meat-a, Nita orders the biggest steak on the menu in an attempt to overdose on B12, something she’s been seriously lacking since entering Italy and North Africa. From the smile on her face, something tells me she’ll be getting stronger from this point on!
After an incredibly good sleep, we make our way into the nearby town of Gines to stock up on B12 supplements for Nita’s heart and some cash – something we’ve fallen short on. We find what appears to be the only free parking spot in town, in front of a building that looks suspiciously like a police or military station. It turns out to be military. A guard emerges from a doorway waving furiously and, for some reason, I feign ignorance and continue to the bank machine leaving Nita to explain that we’ll be moving along right away. It all seems to work though our friend with large epaulets does not seem impressed by our coup. At all.
When I return, we smile in that overly-friendly way a person does when they know they’ve done something wrong but have done it anyways, then head down the road to the pharmacist. Karma greets us at the parking spot in front of the store – a steep, short drop that’s covered in the worlds most slippery tile. Jumping the curb I immediately realize that tires are meaningless on this surface. What I don’t immediately realize is that boots are also meaningless and, after gently bringing the bike to a stop, I nearly drop everything while performing the splits. These tiles are definitely a form before function decision.
I manage to get out of the parking lot without crashing (though I do leave a short black rubber streak from trying to get up the ramp) and soon all thoughts of a day spent riding have melted away from the heat. It’s one in the afternoon and the temperature is marching steadily towards 50C. In shorts it would be unbearable. In full gear? No thanks. If we had to we would, but here, in this beautiful area, we don’t. We return to the hotel café and watch the tarmac bubble and melt from the air-conditioned lobby.
We decide to leave earlier the next morning to put some distance between us and the heat. By the time we’ve eaten and packed the bikes it’s 10am and already 35C – though, after yesterday, even that feels quite nice. The wind that met us on our first day back on the continent is, thankfully, gone and soon we find ourselves motoring toward Portugal along pin-straight roads that remind us of Canada’s prairies. Crops of canola, wheat fields and sunflowers line the first hour of our route on what should be a fairly humdrum stretch of road. However, the views and the easy riding are a welcome relief and we easily settle into the days travels.
Soon, we cut north across the Rio Tinto and it’s red waters that look like rivers of sherry running along the valley floor. The undulating landscape begins to transform from lush fields of crops to arid hills dotted with olive and cork trees. The temperature continues to climb as we stop for gas and some relief in the shade. 45C. Again. We cool off under the station canopy and try to right an over-turned beetle who seems to have fried any sense at all in the days heat. Just as we’re about to leave, the lovely woman who attends the station comes out with a handful of sweets for us to enjoy along the way. We are the grateful recipients of little kindnesses more often that we’d have ever expected, something that must frustrate the cynics out there endlessly.
We pass the signpost letting us know we’re entering Portugal and immediately the roads change. The glass-like surface of Spains tarmac is replaced with a patchwork of asphalt that lays as a gray blanket over the landscape. It all feels less new, and somehow it comes as a bit of a relief. The memory of highways quickly fades into narrow side-roads which have replaced large silhouettes of bulls with the occasional dilapidated building. There’s no run-off, there’s long sections of washboard that make the bikes feel as if they’re being shaken to pieces and there’s a roughness around the edges that makes us happy to be here. It’s still relatively easy going, but we immediately love Portugal.
Our destination for the next couple of days is the ancient city of Serpa and a family-run bed and breakfast to it’s north called Herdade de Retorta. Owned by Gabriela and Carlos, their house is a labour or love; a nineteenth century farmhouse which has been restored by the couple themselves over the years. Rounding the northern edge of Serpa we begin heading north on a narrow lane before the roof-line of the house appears in the distance guiding us for the last half-kilometre. Cresting a ridge, we can see the vineyards rolling into the distance in all directions. This area is incredibly beautiful.
Coming to a stop in the front yard we’re immediately reminded of the heat and begin the post-ride dance ritual that is “Everything Off NOW!” Realizing how crazy we look, we stop for a moment to see if anyone is watching. That moment costs us about a half-litre of sweat and we quickly continue disrobing. No-one said travelling by motorcycle was graceful – especially when stopped!
We begin looking for an entrance and it’s not long before we see Carlos’ smiling face peering through the window. He’s a lovely man with a broad shy-smile that perfectly compliments his kindness. Due to the heat we’ve ridden almost straight and arrived two hours early without warning. We know that this can be a bit intrusive for a B&B, but if this is the case Carlos doesn’t let on for a moment. He shows us around the house with a bubbling pride that makes us feel incredibly lucky to share it’s walls. Everything about the place is wonderful; it’s large but somehow cheerful and undaunting. The rooms are comfortable, the breakfast area is stunning and there’s even a lounge with a self-serve honour-bar and comfortable chairs that immediately catches Nita’s eye. To make matters even better, it looks like we’re the only ones staying here at the moment, so our room is ready. All in all, Serpa’s looking like a great place to stay.
Gabriela joins us in the lounge while we finish up the paperwork and offers us a both a beer – a welcome treat as we both try to get our temperatures back to normal. It’s the little things that can make such a difference! Just off of the lounge is a patio that offers the most incredible views of the area we could hope for. Framed by the weathered terracotta roof, the gently rolling hills of Serpa’s vineyards stretch outward, bordered only by farmers fields, barren hills and the horizon itself. This place is peace.
The town of Serpa is famous for it’s defensive walls, it’s towering aqueduct and cheese. While a more modern village has grown outside of the ancient walls, the jewel here is what lies within them. Cobblestone streets twist wildly around beautiful worn houses adorned with the days laundry. Excited to see the town, Nita and I make a plan to head in by taxi since we’d like to sample the local wine. When Gabriela hears our plan, she insists that she give us a ride into town and pick us up when we’re done.
“What if we’re a bit late?”
“It doesn’t matter! It’s tooooo hot to sleep anyways.”
She’s not wrong about that. Even in the evening it’s still hovering around 40C and, if I’m honest, it’s nice to know that even the locals are suffering a little with the heat. We walk to a barn and hop into her little Citroën before heading off down the long lane that takes us toward town and it’s not long before we pass through the large gate that delivers us into the ancient city. Gabriela drops us by the main square and the light is already beginning to fade which gives us just enough time for a quick walkabout before returning to the square for dinner.
The narrow roadways are flanked by sparse white walls which, at first, camouflage the business that reside in them. Small plaques sitting door-side are all that distinguishes many of the shops from peoples homes. A well-known spot for watch fans is the Museu do Relógio, a museum founded in 1972 and home to two-thousand pieces dating back to the 1600’s. Unfortunately for us, we arrive a little to late to see it in all it’s glory.
By the time we’re ready to eat, tables and chairs have made their way outside and the locals are beginning to take their places for the night. We duck into a restaurant that sits atop a café and gives us a great view of nightlife in the town. The food at O Alentejano is wonderful; all of their dishes are regional using locally grown or produced ingredients and, since it caters mostly to locals, the prices are reasonable.
Once we order our meals, the waiter (the owners son) returns to the table with a selection of local cheese, bread and olives. And not a little cheese – it’s a wheel! He explains that every night the type of cheese changes – what’s served is based simply on what’s available that particular day from the producers. I have to admit my complete ignorance to Portuguese cheeses but Nita and I are now both true believers. The cheese in Serpa is simply divine. The meal itself is equally well done and we both finish our meals with a tinge of surprise at how fantastic the food is here.
With a little hesitation, we call Gabriela and she picks us up with a smile. As we leave, the square is beginning to fill with locals and there’s an excited energy filling the air as friends and family begin to greet one another. The evening is losing to the night but people here are just getting started. It’s just a short trip back to our room and, even with the fading heat, we find sleep easily.
The next morning, we awake to the most incredible breakfast we’ve seen. Included in the price, It’s a remarkable spread of fruit, cured meats, jams, breads and sweet tarts made from local cheeses all presented in a way we’d expect from a fine restaurant – but instead of a team of sous chefs and platers, there’s simply Gabriela. Even the juice carafe is decorated with fresh flowers. She delivers each treat to the table with a smile and stays for a little conversation before disappearing once more into the kitchen. The effort makes us feel as though we’re the luckiest people in Portugal.
Once again the heat has made it toward the fifties and we decide to spend the morning enjoying the cool air of the lounge, getting some work done for the site before heading back into town with Gabriela in the late afternoon. The conversation in the car turns to the troubles we’ve had with Nita’s heart in Morocco and, to our surprise, Gabriela tells us about her daughter who also has Wolff-Parkinson-White. Being a fairly rare disorder, we’re always surprised to meet someone who’s even heard of it! She tells us how her daughter underwent the same surgery that Nita’s planning to have in October and how it’s changed her life. To Gabriela the story may have been a point of interest but, when Nita looks at me, I know that it’s helped her feel that the surgery is the right thing to do. Even when we know we’re on the right path, a little nudge can still go a long way.
We spend the early evening exploring more of the sights that Serpa has to offer. The Aqueduct reminds us that the Moors were masters of engineering with it’s many water-carrying arches running high along the cities western perimeter. The defensive wall pulls visitors from the towns main square towards it down a seemingly infinite maze of streets where sun-bleached houses act as a back-drop to local life. We once again visit O Alentejano for dinner and this time we’re presented with a runny cheese that smells incredibly strong. Still, a single bite reveals a silky and smokey flavour that seems to fill every sense at once. Nita enjoys a grilled pork tenderloin that savoury centre is contrasted by a rich citrus crust and I try a regional lamb ragout whose simple flavours seem to fit Serpa so well. A second visit doesn’t disappoint.
In the square there’s a flurry of activity. A stage has been set, riggers are busily setting up lights and a sound man is testing the system using a mix of Katy Perry, Chemical Brothers and Lady Antebellum – a mix that should be horrible – but here it’s simply comical and brings huge smiles to our faces. We make our way down to a street-side table and watch the preparations continue as hundreds of locals make their way to the square. We’re fortunate enough to be here for the celebration of Serpa becoming a city, an annual festival that includes a reenactment of the events that led to its creation.
We sip a drink while we watch people gather at tables and greet each-other with open arms and wide smiles. A particularly confident young woman who’s performing in the play rides her horse through the streets chatting with her friends as if it we’re an everyday activity. Finally, the sky is dark enough for the performance to begin and the large crowd moves toward the stage to get a closer look. We stay for about thirty minutes until watching a play in a language we don’t understand no longer makes sense. We quietly take our leave and enjoy the festive atmosphere while we wait for Gabriela to pick us up. It’s been a fantastic day in Serpa.
The next morning, we wake early and try and leave before the heat becomes too intense but not until we’ve enjoyed one more breakfast here! Astoundingly, the selection of food varies from day to day but is always delivered with the same exquisite care. This morning Gabriela has a little more time to chat and we manage to convince her to pose next to her beautiful creations. When she asks to see the photos she smiles and shakes her head in disapproval but we think she’s absolutely beautiful.
Outside, the views from the patio demand one last look before we make our way downstairs to pack the bikes. Ready to leave, we say our farewells to Carlos and Gabriela and thank them for sharing their lovely home with us. It’s been a beautiful introduction to Portugal and we already feel a tinge of regret for having set aside so few days here. Still, we know this is a place we’ll want to return to.
As the temperature hits 45C again, we make our way down the long gravel road before turning north towards Évora and it’s grim Chapel of Bones.