Whenever I mention my upcoming trip to Portugal, one question never fails to appear in the conversation, and that is ‘What route will you take?’.
This question always makes me smile. If there is one aspect of the trip I’ve never given much thought to, it is this one, route planning. Early on in my research, I found out that maps of Portugal are notoriously bad and tend to leave out a fair amount of roads. I am still on the lookout for decent maps, but I am not overly worried about it.
Portugal is not a vast country. It is only 39,672 square miles (in comparison the UK is 93,278 square miles) with its eastern border with Spain just over 520 miles and the northern one just over 200 miles. According to my calculations, I can circumnavigate the country in less than two months without any hurry. And I have three months. So I figure, I won’t need to rush anywhere. If I really want to go somewhere, I can catch a train, a local bus or hitchhike my way around. I do not have a fixed rule for this trip that bounds me to the bike from beginning to end. This journey is about exploration. And the best way I know to do this, is not to plan and follow my instincts.
There are of course regions of the world where this is impossible due to climate, or visa. I wouldn’t dream of going in the middle of the Sahara and just meander. But Portugal is not a desert and even though inland regions are less populated than coastal ones, they are not completely desolate either and the climate will never be so harsh as to force me to be more careful in my route planning.
But more than this, I am going for the unexpected, for the unknown. Dervla Murphy recently remarked in the Telegraph that ‘The internet has brought a change in the very concept of travel as a process taking one away from the familiar into the unknown. Now the familiar is not left behind and the unknown has become familiar before one leaves home.‘ People are able to plan a trip down to the last detail and check every roads on Google Earth. I am not interested in doing this. The wonder of discovery would be lost. In fact I rarely look up my destinations when travelling. I read novels by local authors or set in the area, I brush up on local myths and legends, but I do not open a guide-book to get a taste of what to expect. I prefer to be surprised and discover places for myself, trusting to serendipity and local recommendations. Doing otherwise feels like seeing a painting in a museum after having seen it online. It gains physicality and I am then able to appropriate it to myself but it is also already familiar, known before I even reached it. The full effect the artist intended is lost, and the first conversation with the art eroded by prior knowledge.
And why am I travelling for if not to be surprised and discover new places?
So the answer to the question I am so often asked is that I do not know wich route I will take. I will trust to the twists and turns of the roads that I will choose on a whim to carry me around Portugal.
Pedalling Portugal will begin in March 2016. For more information about this upcoming trip, visit this page.