As many of our supporters will know, Cyclist.ie is part of a terrific European Commission funded Erasmus+ project with themes of climate action, cycling promotion, social inclusion and intergenerational relationships. The project involves connecting schools and non-profit cycling advocacy organisations from across Europe through carefully curated cultural exchange programmes.
Following recent “Learning, Teaching and Training” (LTT) trips to Corella (in the North of Spain) and to Waterford, in this article we share our experiences from our recent trip to the town of Azambuja in Portugal.
Cyclist.ie’s ambassadors on this trip were Úna Morrison and Phil Murray (Dublin Cycling Campaign), Rory Maguire (Navan Cycling Initiative), Eoghan O’Leary Fitzpatrick (Galway Cycling Campaign) and Cyclist.ie’s National Cycling Coordinator, Dr. Damien Ó Tuama. In this article Eoghan, Rory, Phil and Úna each share their reflections on one of the four days of the trip, with Damien adding some further insights at the end.
Note that the featured image above shows Úna from Dublin Cycling Campaign / Cyclist.ie and Cristina from Biciclistas de Corella (and with the photo kindly provided by Biciclistas de C).
L-R: Phil, Úna, Rory, Eoghan and Damien in Lisbon
Day #1 – Friday 13th October – Eoghan
Our journey began at the Secondary School in Azambuja, a meeting point for all participants in this Erasmus+ project. As we mingled and chatted in the school’s courtyard, we eventually made our way to the school’s hall.
Artwork depicting the countries involved in this Erasmus+ project
We all sat down in a circle in the hall, as one of the school’s English teachers welcomed us and introduced us to “Ubuntu,” a group within the school. Some of the students sported black t-shirts bearing the word Ubuntu alongside Nelson Mandela’s prisoner number. The teacher told us the meaning of the word Ubuntu and why it is important to her and her students. It literally translates to “I am because you are” but its greater meaning is that of connection and unity across humanity, and this was an important theme across our Erasmus+ project as we learned about our shared values across our different cultures and backgrounds.
Principal of the school welcoming us all
Following on from this, we began our icebreakers, starting with each participant sharing their name and a little about themselves. Icebreaker games, such as the “stand forward if” challenge, allowed us to see how much we had in common as relative strangers. We moved onto the “Colour Game” with coloured stickers on our foreheads, and we faced the challenge of forming groups based on colour (red, blue, orange, green, purple) without uttering a word – a slightly chaotic but fun exercise in communication beyond words.
After the school introductions, we cycled through the town, making our way to the heart of Azambuja, the Town Hall. Here, we were greeted by the town’s Mayor, who extended a warm welcome. He shared stories about Azambuja, providing a brief background of its history and its place in Portuguese culture.
Our adventure continued as we cycled to the Palácio das Obras Novas situated beside a channel of the Tagus River. We had our picnic here, followed by a few outdoor games like limbo.
Rory and Phil making their way to the Palácio
The highlight of the day awaited us — a mesmerizing boat tour of the Tagus River. Along the riverbanks, we had a chance encounter with wild horses, showcasing the region’s natural beauty. As the boat cruised through the water, we explored the area’s geological history with Annabelle, a Professor in Geology, which was both truly fascinating and informative. All topped off by a local song performed on the boat by one of the boat workers! All in all, it was a great kick off to what was to be an outstanding trip!
Annabelle detailing the Tagus during the Ice Age
Day #2 – Sat 14th October – Rory’s perspective
After landing into the centre of Lisbon, we climb the hills around Alafama and immerse ourselves in rich architecture from as far back as the 12th century. They have managed to squeeze tram tracks into very challenging nooks and crannies all over the city. Somehow brazen car drivers still make their way through hoards of people on the same tracks visibly annoying and slowing everyone as they pass. I’m not sure what would possess someone to drive through the heart of this narrow city, but there is a very tangible difference between the emotion of the tram users and the stressed drivers navigating this very challenging obstacle course. I bask in thoughts of what this beautiful place felt like before cars existed. The silver lining to old cities like these are that numerous hurdles have restricted people to owning much smaller, more humble cars which are more efficient and less dangerous than the SUVs currently dominating the car market.
As we make our way up the steep cobbled hills towards the Castelo de St. Jorge, we pass musicians and artists seeking refuge in the shade between buildings which amplify their talent for the passers by. There is an incredible hum of music which beats its way up the city walls. It is surreal once we reach the castle which truly feels like the heart of Lisboa.
Peacocks outside the Castelo de St. Jorge
The tall ancient cork oak, olive and stone pine trees provide a lush green canopy that protects us from the heavy sun, and everybody centres their conversations, relaxation and movement under the trees. This experience contrasts sharply with the car-filled (more tree-less) suburbs which can get cripplingly hot when the sun is out. Perhaps there will be time when the on street parking will need to be sacrificed to tackle the heat island effect which is increasingly noticeable as the summer droughts ease their way into mid October.
The castle material itself contains incredible detail in each slab of stone. Telling the stories of the life and death of the many creatures fossilised inside. While touching these blocks I inadvertently take some of their story away with me on my fingertips.
Finding bikes for 40+ people is not an easy task by any means. Just one of many incredible feats pulled off by Margarida and others involved in this Erasmus programme. A spin down the bank of the Tagus river provides many amazing sights such as the presidential palace, Museum of Art, Architecture and Technology, and the Torre Belém. I would be lying if I said it wasn’t difficult to navigate even some of the simpler routes of the city with 40 kids and a handful of adults; Something which really makes me appreciate the work done by the network of Cycle School Buses in Ireland.
Making our way through the city
Passing under the Ponte 25 de Abril
The route along the Tagus is full of people. It always amazes me the interactions between pedestrians and cyclists. The fluidity and freedom to choose the direction of movement provides for a more relaxed environment with play, relaxation and wonderful food all around. At one of the many parks along the river we stop to enjoy a box of pastéis de nata. They don’t last long as everybody seems to be obsessed with them here. It’s so sweet to see the proud culture here of eating delicacies made by skilled local artisans rather than your standard mars bars and kitkats in corner shops. I learned that the culture of desserts here is based on egg yolks which were a by-product from monasteries using egg whites to starch clothes.
Pasteis de Nata or pasteis de Belém
The day finishes at a beautiful restaurant named Tasca da Ilda in Azambuja. I love how casual the staff in such a fine place are with us. A small thing which I think mirrors the relaxed and inviting culture we experienced throughout the trip. It was also nice to see the level of vegetarian cuisine being served not just in Lisbon but in small towns like Azambuja.
The highlight of the day for me was seeing hundreds of young people wheelying their bikes down the colourful Lisbon coastline. It gave me hope to see the rebellious nature of these kids reclaiming their city from cars in such a playful way. Bikes for them aren’t just a form of transport, but a way of life.
Wheelies in Belém
More wheelies in Belém
Day #3 – Sun 15th October – Phil’s reflections
Taking our complimentary bikes our first port of call was the local secondary school, and from here we were taken by coach to a nature reserve, Paul de Manique, a 30 minute drive north-east of Azambuja. This bio-diverse lake and wetland has a total area of 18 hectares with a bird hide for spotting the 183 species of birds and 44 species of dragonfly amongst the abundance of wildlife found there.
We had two guides – Annabelle who gave us great insights into the geology of the area with her many soil and gravel samples as well as a 3m long core sample of the lake bed; and Paulo who is the main guide for the reserve and a fountain of knowledge of the area and its rich biodiversity.
Annabelle, Rory and Paulo in the dried lake bed
Paulo, described by one of our group as Portugal’s David Attenborough, gave us a fantastic insight into the rich wildlife of the wetland, despite the lake being totally dried up and the season’s first proper rain in months only starting to fall. We were reassured that it would take just two days of rain to fill the lake, and that only just below the crusty dry bed, life was still thriving in ways we couldn’t have imagined. Going by the heavy rain that fell about an hour after our tour, the lake was already beginning its annual transformation which made the timing of our visit all the more special.
Following a quick visit to a local church, which was once a Palace, we headed back to the school in Azambuja for lunch in the canteen. A fine meal was had, prepared by the ladies who ran the school’s well-equipped kitchen. At the school many activities were laid on with an opportunity for the students to get to know each other better, share their experiences and present the work they had been doing back home on raising awareness of climate change resilience in their communities.
Dinner at 8pm took place in the private home of the Deputy Mayor of Azambuja, albeit in a private clubhouse as part of the host’s residence. This big room with double height ceiling, three large tables with bench seating and every inch of wall space covered in bull-fighting paraphernalia was the kind of place only locals get to see. It was also a space where the famous Portuguese traditional music of Fado was performed.
Dinner with the staff of Azambuja Secondary School and the other Erasmus+ Partners – Photo credit: Biciclistas de Corella
Performing three songs each, our Fado singers, one male, one female and accompanied by two acoustic stringed instruments played by two men captivated us all with theatrically performed songs, sung with intense passion.
It was easily one of the cultural highlights of the trip and reaffirmed the connection that is universally made when humans come together to eat, drink, share stories and sing those stories passed down through generations.
Day 4 – Mon 16th Oct – Úna’s Reflections
Monday was our final day of the trip and the core of the day was to see more of the culture and nature beyond Azambuja. Our first stop was Praia da Bafureira, Bafureira Beach, which is on the outskirts of Lisbon towards Cascais. This area is a Marine Protected Area which prohibits further development and fishing.
We spilt into groups with two pages of marine organisms to identify, including shellfish, seaweed and fish. I joined a group of four Polish students, which was great fun. Some of them had never seen the Atlantic Ocean before and were very unfamiliar with rock pooling. We all really enjoyed the natural treasure hunt and taking time to move slowly in the hunt for our various organisms.
From Bafureira, we moved on to Cabos da Roca, the most westerly point of continental Europe for a quick pit stop. We had an impromptu picnic and enjoyed the windy surroundings.
Úna and Damien on the edge of Continental Europe
Our destination for the afternoon was Sintra, a world famous town in the hills north west of Lisbon. As we travelled there, we noted that the landscape changed, with more lush vegetation, clouds and mist, along with winding roads. We walked towards the Park and Palace of Monserrate, which had a fascinating history. Since 1540 when the estate was founded, there was a succession of different owners, developments and abandonments. The British writers Lord Bryon and William Beckford were amongst the residents there. The palace that currently stands was commissioned by Francis Cook, a British trader and art collector, and it combines Gothic and Indian influences with Moresque accents. Together with the incredible gardens, featuring species from around the world, I found it an inspiring and magical place.
Rory, Eoghan and Úna – Rehydrating en route to the palace!
The valley of ferns was a highlight for me, together with the natural inspired interior architecture – both pictured below.
After walking back from the palace, we spent a very welcome break in Sintra, to explore the shops, sample the ice cream (I had a yoghurt and fig ice cream that was incredible) and enjoy the bustling town.
We returned to Azambuja for our final dinner in the school where we were joined by the principal and had the opportunity to sample some traditional chocolate cake, baked by the mother of one of the students. It was delicious, and an example of how this trip gave us the opportunity to really connect with the people of Azambuja. The students had a quiz and a sing-song and we all received our certificates of participation. And Eoghan from our group played a traditional tune on his feadóg stáin (below). It was an enjoyable end to a hectic but fulfilling trip to Portugal.
For me, the most valuable part of the trip was the chance to talk to and get to know people from other countries. I really enjoyed, for example, talking to Asia, one of the teachers from Poland about their upcoming general election and understanding her point of view. This will give me further depth of understanding when I read or hear about these types of things in the news in the future. I also really enjoyed seeing and exploring parts of the Portuguese landscape that I simply would walk, cycle or drive by if I was a tourist – such as the rewilded wetland and the marine protection area in Bafureira.
Final Reflections – Damien
The third “Learning, Teaching and Training” trip of this Erasmus+ project was another rich, sociable and multi-dimensional experience for our participants. It allowed us to forge stronger relationships with the other partners and learn more about each others’ cultures and customs.
It was also valuable to spend quality time with newer members of Cyclist.ie’s own expanding network of volunteers – and I want to pay a special thanks to Úna, Phil, Eoghan and Rory for their great contributions throughout the trip and for representing Cyclist.ie so well on the international stage!
L-R: Eoghan, Rory, Damien, Úna and Phil
I also want to sincerely thank Margarida Pato from Azambuja High School for organising the full programme, and supported by her colleagues Paula, Edmundo, José and the other staff members. In fact, the programme was so full that we didn’t, unfortunately, as originally planned get to meet up in Lisbon with our cycle campaigning colleagues in MUBi (Associação pela Mobilidade Urbana em Bicicleta), a member group themselves of the European Cyclists’ Federation. Next time!
And thanks, as always, to our Project Coordinator Supremo, Toño Peña, from IES Alhama School in Corella for his ongoing support and unquenchable positive energy!
Finally, you can read more about the project on its official website here – https://www.erasmuscyclingschools.com/ – and you can see more photos from the trip on the Facebook pages of Biciclistas de Corella.