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Article by Neil Graham, Editor of Cycle Canada
The flow of Portuguese to the Americas has been so one-sided, so from-there-to-here, that I had never considered trekking to Portugal to reverse the trend, even though for 20 years I've lived in Toronto neighbourhoods where Portuguese is the predominantly spoken language in the streets and bars and coffee shops. The problem - Portuguese tourism would certainly see it as a problem - is that Portugal lacks the condensed cultural clichés to sell the country abroad. Spain is bullfighting and flamenco, France wine and baguette and Italy opera and more wine. All are Hemmingway era stereotypes, but old notions remain captivatingly quixotic to tourists. But what about Portugal?
My knowledge of Portuguese history has an embarrassing lull. I know of Prince Henrique The Navigator, the son of royalty who spurred Portugal's obsession with navigation by discovering (a contentious term, especially for peoples who awoke and found themselves discovered) Madeira in 1418, the Azores in 1427, and Cape Verde in 1444. Then I have a five hundred year chasm until the novels of contemporary writer Jose Saramago. Facilitating my journey to a richer understanding is Julian Cade of Portuguese motorcycle tour operator Motocadia (motocadia.com), who invited me this past June to join one of his guided tours.
After landing in Lisbon, we take a taxi an hour north of the city to the town of Obidos. Travelling with me is Miguel Rebelo of Toronto's Europa Tours. Rebelo, a Canadian of Portuguese ancestry, is Motocadia's authorized representative for Canada (email@example.com, 866-870-1377). Our cab driver lived for a dozen years in Toronto, moving back to his homeland in the early 1980s. While he and Miguel converse in Portuguese, I scan the countryside and catch fragments of their conversation, including Mississauga, the name of the Toronto suburb where the driver's son still lives, and think of the former tenants of my neighbour back home, a young Portuguese couple with an infant son recently deported in the Conservative government's crackdown on expired work visas - a response worthy of the one sided relationship between the US and Mexico.
Obidos, where we spend the night before morning de parture by motorcycle, is a walled town and Miguel and I spend the afternoon traipsing about by foot. Tour buses disgorge a cargo of seniors who wheeze and gasp up the steep cobblestones searching for the castle erected in 1282. The wall that encircles the town has a three-foot-wide ledge and no handrail, with a discrete sign recommending that children have supervision - a scenario unimaginable in litigious North America.
Over dinner with Julian we discuss our route for the next five days. Without knowledge of the destinations he discusses but with a belly full of wine, the names of the villages and roads and castles float and tumble above the table without meaning. But I drift off to bed knowing that in less than a week they may be places hard to forget. After breakfast at the charming Casa D'Obidos, we convene in the parking lot and leave to the north. We have 100 km of motorway to knock off, but as my head is still thick from last evening's wine, this suits me fine. The toll road is an example of the benefits that Portugal has received from its membership in the European Union, but illustrative of a contradiction, too. Relative to its EU neighbors Portugal lags behind economically, so on this national holiday weekend the road is barren. At first I think we've mistakenly entered a section of road closed for construction, but eventually an Audi whizzes past. Julian explains that natives loathe paying tolls and expensive gasoline cur-tails unnecessary trips.