Jose Mousetrap

James Porteous

Saturday, 19 September 2009

Day 6 Azenha do Mar and Odeceixe

Last day! A pity. Today's ride is a loop northwest to Azenha do Mar then south to Odeceixe and back. I have a lie in and set off about 11, slightly worried that I will be cycling in the full glare of the noonday sun, but I feel much stronger and fitter compared to yesterday and eat up the kilometres.

The route goes back through the local village then turns left through large industrial-looking farms growing lettuce and berries under plastic awnings. It doesn't take long to get to Azenha do Mar, a small fishing port. A steep hill leads down to the harbour and I foolishly go down on the bike instead of leaving it at the top then have to wrestle it back up on foot.

The next 10K or so is a flat stroll past more farms on a near deserted road, a pleasant breeze and the shade of roadside eucalyptus making for an attractive ride. When the route reaches the main road again there is a long downhill of about 2.5k to Odeceixe, great fun albeit with the nagging worry that I'm going to have go back up it at some point.

I park the bike for a walk round the narrow cobbled streets of Odeceixe, which seems to be asleep. Perched on a hillside with an old windmill at the top and plenty of flowers around the whitewashed houses, it is an attractive spot.

I go on to the beach, which lies a couple of kilometres away, most of it uphill unfortunately. Again, the chain pops off in low gear, but I just about manage to unclip and not fall. It'll be good to get on my own bikes next week, which don't have this problem.

Flogging it uphill I arrive at the beach. The village is apparently popular with German, French and Portuguese tourists in high season but now there are barely a hundred people enjoying the sun. Perhaps 20 surfers are doing their best, but the waves are pretty small.

I start to go down to the beach for a swim but then consider the likely discomfort of being damp and sandy for the trip back and decide against it. Also, my bib shorts have a certain 'mankini' look about them which would probably not be appreciated. Instead I go back to the clifftop and eat the sandwiches I made earlier, watching the handful of surfers and their camper vans.

There is a one-way system on the road here presumably to reduce summer traffic. Annoyingly for me, it means a good climb then a roll downhill just to get back to where I was. The largely downhill ride from the sea along the river Seixe (it marks the border between Algarve and Alentejo) is another enjoyable section before I go through the village to tackle the 2.5km climb. It's a long slog, but a constant incline rather than a short sharp shock and I get back to the Azenha do Mar junction with little fuss, tired but energised at the top.

There is supposed to be a back road to the guesthouse, but what I assume is it looks like little more than a sheep track, so I just go back the way I came, adding a few k to an enjoyable wind-down route.

Tomorrow, it's the train from Funcheira to Faro and the plane back home. I have greatly enjoyed the week and will certainly be back to the region. Thanks again to Headwater Travel who organised it.

Friday, 18 September 2009

Day 5 Hotel Tres Marias to Cerro dos Fontinhas

Today's route takes us to the last accommodation of the trip. Ricardo from Alentejo Adventures picks us up in the morning and takes us to Almograve, a town with a splendid beach attached. The beaches along this coast seem superb, unspoilt and almost untouched by tourism. You get the feeling this is perhaps an area where some Portuguese come on holiday, but few others.

The route goes through Almograve past green fields of crops, the irrigation machines like the skeletons of iron dinosaurs. The road is flat and straight and I enjoy getting on to the big ring and building up a head of speed.

At Cabo Sardao there is an unusual lighthouse. Excuse the quality of the picture, I took it while riding the bike. I say unusual in that it is quite far removed from the sea and any rocks, which I rather would have thought was the point.

Next to it is this football pitch, which is even more bizarre. One strong shot wide of the far goal, or a misplaced pass on a gusty day, would have the ball in the Atlantic.

There is a track here of sand and rock that hugs the coastline, dipping and winding round bays and promontories, the smell and sight and sound of the Atlantic never far. It is hugely enjoyable, both for the setting and for the cycling, the undulating, bumpy rock-strewn track forcing you to keep your wits about you even as you try to take in the view. The route notes promise storks nesting on the cliffs below, but I never see any. Perhaps wrong season.

Meanwhile, a commenter on a previous entry from the Alentejo claims that the reason for the blue paint on the houses is that flies won't cross the blue. He admits himself this may be an old wives' tale. Ricardo, earlier, told us the council mandates the colours: whitewash and blue trim, or perhaps the dark yellow you see less frequently.

Anyway, the track leaves the coast to join the main road and a conveniently located restaurant. Some locals who are surely farm hands or labourers are having lunch. They have some crabs to start then a huge platter of presumably different crabs for a main. One man has four or five teeth. I should go for some crabs or shellfish but don't, because it is priced by weight and I have a stupid aversion to buying things priced by weight which I should overcome. Instead I have fried fish and chips and read the paper. Reports of the main football teams, Sporting and Benfica, in the Europa League are the cover story and 2nd and 3rd spreads in this paper, which I find amusing.

After lunch I feel heavy and slow. The route goes steeply down to a beach then up, and I falter on the uphill because my bike won't go into the bottom ring and I am trying to drag it up in middle gear. Eventually I give up and push, exhausted.

A few K further, the exact same situation: steep downhill, attractive little beach, steep uphill on road made of figure-eight shaped blocks that trap sand and are a nuisance to ride on. Again, I give up the climb two-thirds of the way up.

Onwards, I flog away, head down, before realising I have surely gone too far. I read and re-read the route notes and am sure I've gone too far. I decide to go on until the end of a stretch of trees, then finally admit I've gone too far and turn back. It doesn't help that the road is a rutted mess of sand and rocks. Eventually I get on the right route and the last 10K or so to Cerro dos Fontinhas is a slog. For some reason I am exhausted today, a combination of a couple of steep ascents and the sun perhaps.

Miguel runs this place, self-catering cottages that were a ruined farm (of course) when he bought it in 1999. He is Portuguese, went travelling for 15 years as a younger man then returned here and fixed up the ruin. The cottages are the converted farmhouse and auxiliary buildings, made of earth in traditional style. Some of Miguel's furniture features in some of the rooms. He has a small lake -- I would say pond -- which he refills in summer by pumping millions of litres of water from a neighbour's farm, ultimately from the local dam. This doesn't seem environmentally sound to me, but I say nothing.

Miguel's wife is a potter and she works on the grounds making attractive pieces. Miguel has a new restaurant in the village (Brejao) which he offers to drive us to later. When we get there, the table is not ready, so why not go across the road to his wife's pottery shop to have a look round? Why not indeed. The two women buy small pieces. Her work is genuinely good, to be fair, and I might have bought some were it not for Ryanair's ridiculous baggage policies. The meal -- salty big pork cutlets -- is also good, and it is a relief to be able to avoid the multiple courses curse that has left me feeling bloated the last few nights.

Tomorrow, a loop round the Odexeice region, then home

Thursday, 17 September 2009

Day 4 Porto Covos

Today's ride goes north to the little fishing town of Porto Covos. The sand track that leads from Hotel Tres Marias is a seriously enervating way to start and finish the day and it doesn't get much better when I'm on the main road. Apart from the traffic whizzing by about a foot away, my chain pops off the cogs at the back going up a steep hill and I don't unclip my foot from the pedals in time to avoid falling over. No harm done except to my pride. I spend the next five minutes cursing at the bike and getting my hands covered in oil while cars honk at me. Pushing the bike up to the brow of the hill, a Danish couple who were staying at the house last night drive by and shout 'Have fun' or something. Now they think I wasn't fit enough to make it up the hill.

Back in action, I soon get to Forte Ilha, a 15th-century fort overlooking an island called Ilha des Pesseguieros and an attractive beach. I can't be bothered stopping and the fort doesn't sound too exciting, so press on to Porto Covos.

The track is another annoyingly sandy affair along the coastline and I nearly fall off again in a drift but manage to unclip in time. On a couple of occasions it's too sandy to move and I have to get off and push. The descent to the village is major steep and rutted, with big rocks and pot holes. The trip notes recommend getting off and walking but I say screw that until it gets really steep and I remember what a piece of shit the bike is and lose my nerve. So push down the hill, pass this attractive harbour, then up an equally steep hill to the village. It strikes me that I've spent almost as much time pushing the bike as riding it today.

I must try and discover what the reason for the uniform blue and white colour scheme of the villages is.

I order choco frito in Porto Covos for lunch thinking it is something I have had before. Turns out it is cuttlefish/squid, which I don't mind - just perhaps not a whole one. Onwards, I get chased by a mean-looking dog; looking forward, there is a sharp downhill to a junction with the main road and I start weighing up the pros and cons of being savaged by a dog or hit by a car. Fortunately, he stops when I leave 'his' territory.

I pass through wheat fields and quiet roads and decide not to go straight back to Tres Marias but head further south to the Praia Malhao beach. It is wide and beautiful, but also quite far below the cliff edge, so I settle for looking at it from above rather than climb up and down, quite tired now after about 35km.

Later at dinner - another excellent meal - I learn more about Balt. He is Swiss born to a Portuguese mother and Swiss father. He was an electrician in Basle, with 15 men working for him. When that became too stressful, about 12 years ago, he moved to this region of Portugal. First he ran an ostrich-breeding farm - he expounds at length about 'imprinting' and how a baby ostrich will take as its 'mother' the first form it sees, whether that be human or bird-shaped, and how that affects fertility rates. He also expounds at length about wine and the excellent Alentejo wines, which are hardly exported, and insists on his guests trying many samples, which is no great hardship.

A keen astronomer, I get a glimpse of Jupiter through his telescope but it is a cloudy night and not ideal viewing. After bird flu hit the news, demand for ostrich meat slumped and he turned his farm into a restaurant and now his guest house. Business seems to be going well. His mother, he tells me, was/is from an important wine family in the north, which perhaps explains his passion for grapes.

Tomorrow, it is on to the Odeseixe region.

Wednesday, 16 September 2009

Day 3 Hotel Verdemar to Hotel Tres Marias

Today's trip is the 37km journey to the second hotel. The start goes back up the finish of yesterday's route, past the Barragem de Campilhas dam and Salazar's cock-shaped monument to himself. It's quite steep and in bottom gear I roll past the other couple who are on the trip pushing their bikes up. Again, it's not much of a boast since they're both about 60 and not exactly svelte.

The land here seems more fertile, or at least there seems to be more of a variety of crops. Presumably the irrigation from the dams helps. The road is entirely deserted, I am passed by a handful of cars all day, and the only sound is bird cheeps, mournful cowbell, and the clicking of my bike's dodgy chainset.

The Cerros da Cercal hills are visible to the south; if I were doing one of these trips with my own money I might look for one that took in a bit more adventurous terrain. But these trips seem designed for the retiree market, so flat roads are a must. Ian and Julie, the couple who I overtook earlier, seem to have been on a cycling trip to almost every country in Europe. Every day they take a bottle of wine in their pannier bags to have with their picnic.

I pass gigantic wind turbines, which make for an incongruous sight next to crumbling farm buildings. For some reason, I always thought they would make noise, but these ones at least are silent.

In front of the village of Sonega some gypsies are camped. They appear still to be using horse-drawn carriages and have three large plastic tents erected in a field. I want to take a photo but am vaguely fearful of offending them, which is probably racist of me, so don't.

In the village I park the bike at the first cafe, say bom dia to the barman, farmer and widow who are inside and have a beer and some crisps at a pavement table. The village simpleton greets me and signals that I am cycling, to which I agree. It seems he can't talk. After we agree that I came from down there and will be going over there, he proceeds happily on his way.

Nearly all the houses I've passed over the last three days share the same colour scheme: ochre roof tiles, bright whitewashed walls and rich blue highlights around door and window frames. It does look good but I wonder why nobody tries anything different?

Further along I spy the perfect spot for a picnic, a giant cork oak that stands alone in its field. I try to climb up, but my cycling shoes are no use and I can't be bothered taking them off. Nothing passes on the road for the 30 minutes or so I spend eating my sandwiches.

The track to Hotel Tres Marias is sandy and annoying, the bike sticking and skidding. When I arrive at the hotel I take my eyes off the ground and steer straight into a large clump of sand, bringing my bike to an immediate halt; since I'm clipped to the pedals, I fall over almost in slow motion. Luckily, only a couple of donkeys are there to witness it, but unaccountably miss the perfect opportunity to let loose a loud 'Hee-haw'.

Hotel Tres Marias is run by a guy called Balt who comes along later to introduce himself. I'll get the full story later on, but apparently it used to be an ostrich farm, presumably before Balt realised that was madness. The rooms are modern and quite stylish in a simple way, floors and walls made of poured concrete. And even better, you get a phone signal here, which allows me to post this.

Day 2 Casas Novas northern circuit

Today's route is the longest of the trip at 46km, a wide loop north of the hotel through rice paddy fields, more farms, abandoned and not, and past a couple of dams.

The cycling is easy going, on tarmac roads almost free of traffic. For the second day in a row I overtake another couple who are on the trip, Sandra and Michael, despite them having set off half an hour before. I might feel good about this if they weren't pensioners.

Black, acorn-fed pigs line the start of the route. Their reaction to my approach is universal: look up from snuffling for acorns, examine the strange creature suspiciously for a few seconds, then decide it is dangerous, snort and runaway.

The colours are quite different to yesterday's dry brown grass and earth. The paddies are a vibrant yellow-green, not flooded at this time of year. Rice was an import from the Moors, when they ruled Al-Andalus (Andulucia) and Al-Garb Al-Andalus (West of Al-Andalus, the Algarve).

a ruined farmhouse with some odd happy grafitti

The occasional stork's nest sits precariously atop a telegraph pole, but there is no sign of the birds. Have they migrated already? Do they migrate? If I had a decent internet connection I would check.

I pass the first of two dams. Portugal, like Spain, has some serious issues with water shortages. Droughts have only got worse in recent years, presumably because of global warming. Unfortunately for Portugal, their three main rivers have their origin in Spain and, though they have agreements and treaties in place over water sharing, this has been the cause of tension. You could imagine a sci-fi style war over water in the not-too-distant future.

oddly, the graffiti here says 'sweet whore'

After a pitstop at the dam I cycle happily on, wondering why an oncoming car is in my lane before realising that I have started off in the left-hand lane on autopilot. Luckily he's not going fast.

In the village square of Sao Domingos I rest under a narrow ivy-clad trellis which shades eight benches where a couple of elderly gentlemen enjoy their siesta. Outside a cafe opposite 20 or so people are gathered, kissing and hugging a protracted farewell, perhaps an extended family out for lunch. The only child, a girl of about five, is spoilt by the ladies, and occasionally shouted at as she runs heedlessly back and forth across the square, rightly thinking to herself that the traffic-free streets are perfectly safe.

The group's farewell is almost comically long -- after about 20 minutes they have moved 10 metres down from the cafe, and only a handful have actually separated from the group and headed back to their homes or cars.

I go into the cafe for a cake and a strong coffee and when I ask how much in my execrable attempt at Portuguese (slightly slurred Spanish), don't quite comprehend when he replies '1.25'. It's easy to forget how overpriced coffee and cake is at home.

At the second dam there is a large cylindrical monument to Salazar. It is too annoying to walk around and around the cylinder to read the inscription but the gist is about how the dictator's great achievements will transform the country. But the water behind this one is reduced to a trickle and a muddy flood plain.

I get into bottom gear for a couple of decent climbs which lead past two hamlets and back down to the hotel. The descent down a rocky track to Verdemar is fun and has me wishing again for a proper mountain bike. A beautiful day leaves my arms with crisp lines between shoulders and elbows marking where the sun was able to reach and what was covered by unflattering lycra.

Portugal cycling diary

I'm in the Alentejo region of Portugal for a week-long cycling trip courtesy of Headwater Travel. I've been unable to get a phone signal to get online for the first few days but finally have today. No pics until I get a better connection.

After flying into Faro in the Algarve I get the train north to Funcheira. Ricardo, my guide from Alentejo Adventures, has no trouble spotting the confused tourist and soon we're rattling over country roads in his van talking about football. The dark, the speed and Ricardo's polite insistence on maintaining eye contact while talking make for a fun ride.

For the first three nights I'm at Casa Verdemar. Agro-tourism is only just beginning to catch on in Portugal but Christine and Nuno have been running their farmhouse-guesthouse for about 20 years. Nuno, an ebullient man, met Christine in Amsterdam after fleeing conscription under the Salazar regime to study art. Christine, a Dutchwoman, was originally a cabinet maker and furniture designer and their paintings and furniture dictate the look of the five or six self-contained rooms.

Their hotel used to be a village farm and taverna. One year on holiday, the owner suggested Nuno buy it, and he did. Over the next few years they renovated it over the summers, putting up friends and cooking for them in exchange for some manual labour, then returned to Amsterdam in the winters to make money.

"Then we had kids," says Christine -- they have two sons -- ''and had to decide where to settle, Amsterdam or Portugal. One of our friends called to say, 'Are you open at Christmas,' I want to bring 20 people to stay,' -- so we were open.''

Nuno worked in Portuguese restaurants in Amsterdam and does the cooking, all the guests sharing a long table in an attractive conservatory. Christine handles dessert, including a superb peach cobbler made with the fruit from their own garden.

Day 1
Casas Novas to Cercal

The first day's ride is a circle of about 30km to a village to the southwest and back. After replacing the crappy plastic pedals of my clunker of a bike with some clipless ones I brought with me and impressing Christine with my head-to-toe lycra outfit, I'm ready to go.

I'm none too impressed with the bike Alentejo Adventures have provided, although it does have Grip Shift, a gimmicky motorcycle-style way of changing gears that I always wanted on my bike as a 10-year-old. It doesn't take long to find out why Grip Shift never caught on beyond schoolboys.

While the bike disappoints, the directions I've been given are idiot-proof, as verified by this navigationally-challenged idiot. I only went the wrong way once, flying past a turn-off while enjoying a rare bit of downhill speed.

The route passes along bumpy tracks through farmland, much of it seemingly empty. This is one of the poorest regions in Portugal and you can sense that it's a tough place to earn a living. Even in September the dryness of the land is apparent and it must be arid in summer.

Olive trees, eucalyptus and cork oak trees line the fields. The last is one of the staple products of the region, providing, er, cork. The trees are shaved of their bark to harvest the cork then left to let another layer grow. They have numbers painted on which I assume is the number of years to go until they can be harvested again -- you have to wait nine years to avoid killing the tree.

The only noise is the distant clonging of bells worn by goats and cows and the occasional bark of dogs that surely rarely see bikes. I have to put on the acceleration at one point to escape a couple of particulary yappy little ones, their owner futilely shouting 'ven aca' behind me.

Dona Maria's cheese shop came highly recommended, making local sheep cheeses for three generations. Unfortunately, Dona Maria appears to be on siesta.

I stop for a coke at a roadside cafe that is little more than an elderly woman's kitchen open to the public before heading on to Cercal, a bigger village with its very own roundabout. It's another 10km or so through rolling light-brown fields and past abandoned farmhouses to Casas Novas. And just in time too, because a thunderstorm immediately rolls in.

Tuesday, 25 August 2009

How to repair / restore iPod firmware on linux

I have recently moved to linux and been pleased with the results. So pleased in fact that I decided to port my iPod over to an open-source OS, Rockbox.

The Rockbox OS has a lot of admirers but I found it fiddly, buggy and counter-intuitive. The simple matter that you can't simply select a 'shuffle' equivalent put paid to it for me.

But after uninstalling, I found my iPod buggy. There were clearly some remnants left of the Rockbox OS. I tried deleting everything I could find on the disk to no avail, so took the nuclear option of deleting the drive's partitions, figuring it would be easy to restore the original iPod firmware later. Nope.

Apple, helpfully, no longer supply individual firmware files: you must install iTunes. So I tried installing it in Wine. Nope.

A quick Google should provide the solution right? Nope. Nearly all the posts I found simply said, 'You're screwed, use a friend's Windows machine'.

That wasn't good enough. Eventually, after about two days' trying, I finally figured out what to do and was so pleased I decided to post about it to hopefully help other people.

First, go to this old but useful guide to see how to set up partitions on iPod. Ignore the stuff about HFS unless your iPod was originally formatted under Mac.

These are the relevant commands:

% fdisk /dev/sd*
n [make new partition]
p [primary]
1 [first partition]
[just press enter -- default first sector is 1]
5S [5 sectors -- big enough to hold 32MB]
[on 20GB models, Corrin Lakeland suggests using "+33MB" instead of 5S]

n [make new partition]
p [primary]
2 [second partition]
[just press enter -- default first sector is 6]
[just press enter -- default size uses all remaining space]

t [modify type]
1 [first partition]
0 [first partition has no filesystem; ignore warning]

t [modify type]
2 [second partition]
b [second partition is FAT32]

p [show partition map]

Device Boot Start End Blocks Id System
/dev/sd*1 1 5 40131 0 Empty
/dev/sd*2 6 3647 29254365 b Win95 FAT32

w [commit changes to disk]
* You need to know what the device name of your iPod is. Find out by 'sudo fdisk -l' without it attached then with it attached and note what was added. It will probably be sda, sdb, etc.

This creates two partitions on your iPod, sd*1 for the firmware and sd*2 for storage.

Then download the right firmware for your iPod from this site. Extract it somewhere convenient. Note the name of the firmware file.

To install the firmware type this command 'sudo dd if=FIRMWAREFILENAME of=/dev/sd*1.

BE 100% CERTAIN YOU TYPE THE RIGHT SD*1 NAME! For example, don't do what I did and try to install iPod firmware on your computer hard disk by accidentally typing 'sda1' instead of 'sdb1'. Unless you like reinstalling your operating system.

To format the storage partition type this command: 'mkfs.vfat -F 32 -n "ipod" /dev/sd*2.' This creates a vfat partition of F32 type named "ipod".

Unplug your iPod. Reboot if necessary. You should see a picture on the screen telling you to plug it back in. Do so - hopefully all should be fixed, it will automatically mount and Rhythmbox or whatever iTunes equivalent you use will recognise it. Then you can select 'initialise iPod' to create the directory structure.

Appendix - this site is also useful for editing fstab if your iPod does not automount.