Cycling Portugal, General, Reports, Rides & Routes

A Portuguese Love Affair – Part II

Just over six years ago, I began work on the Pedal Portugal website. This post continues the story of how it all came about.

Part I explained how my wife Carolyn and I arrived in the county for the first time in 2005 as part of a year-long tandem trip – and how we fell in love with the country that now feels like our second home.

Having ridden across the Algarve, we turned north up the coast and then inland into the Alentejo. Our journey then continued towards Evora, Lisbon and onwards. 

Heading north from Beja, in early February we had one of our few damp days – cold rain and hail pinging of our cycle helmets.

By the time we reached Évora, though, the sun was out again and we stopped for a couple of nights in a little guesthouse filled with slightly ramshackle but pretty painted furniture.

Chestnut seller in the main square in Evora – February 2005

We were impressed by Évora’s wealth of World Heritage-status architecture but we also loved the street corner vendors selling hot chestnuts and the macabre Chapel of Bones with its walls and arches built out of human bones and skulls.

Turning east back towards the coast we took a detour to visit the Os Almendres stone circle – the largest prehistoric site on the Iberian peninsula. We knew there was a bit of off-road involved to get there and set off up a dirt track on our tandem, towing our trailer behind.

If I’d known how far it was (about 4.5km each way) we might not have bothered as the track was very rough and climbed reasonably gently but steadily away from the village of Guadelupe. We decided it was worth the journey, though. The site is in a clearing set on a hillside among cork oak with marvelous views. We were also the only people there and took our time wandering among the ancient stones before taking the track back down to Guadelupe.

Lost among the stones…

As we continued our journey there were a few occasions when we struggled to navigate villages and small towns that were represented just as a dot on the map but turned out to be a maze of little streets. Not surprisingly, we got lost a number of times. Our Portuguese was minimal and even when we could speak a few words, understanding the answer when we asked for directions was another matter.

But the locals were always happy to help where they could, pointing us out of town towards the road we were after. We also learnt that generally speaking, a church spire represented the centre of town and that was the most likely place to find a signpost indicating which direction to take.

Fishermen in the evening glow over the Atlantic from the waterfront at Setubal

After getting back to the coast, we stopped overnight in ‘shabby chic’ Setubal before tackling the Arrábida coast. This is one of the prettiest little sections of coast anywhere in Portugal, with some gorgeous beaches set below rugged hills. Although climbing up those hills proved a real challenge and was one of the few times we had to get off and walk.

Looking west along the Arrabida coast
Our room in downtown Lisbon

On the other side of the hills we had to navigate some pretty ugly urban sprawl before crossing the Tejo on a small ferry to arrive in Lisbon for a couple of days sightseeing and relaxing.

Leaving our tandem parked in a small guesthouse just off the waterfront, we stretched some different muscles as we wandered the city and got a feel for the Portuguese capital.

Following our short city break, we escaped the city first thing on a Sunday morning. Setting off after an early breakfast there was, as we hoped, very little traffic on the roads. 

But we did almost cause a pile-up – albeit inadvertently – when the occupants of a car were so taken by our tandem-and-trailer combo that they swerved around us to take a picture and nearly took out another vehicle.

We made it out to Cascais before having to stop to fix a puncture by the harbour then we continued out to the mouth of the Tejo estuary and up north to Cabo da Rocha, Sintra, Ericeira and Peniche.

Cabo da Rocha – most westerly point of the European mainland – on one of our few grey days

From Peniche, we went inland for a while, visiting historic old towns like Batalha and Coimbra before going back to the coast again and up to Aveiro – where we celebrated clocking up 5,000 miles (8,000km) on our trip.

Chilling out on the rocks at Ericeira

Continuing up the coast north of the capital was when we really discovered just how relentless those northerly winds could be.

With a tailwind, or even no wind, we’d have sailed along. Instead, we plodded our way up the coastal strip with only the occasional stand of small trees or huddled village to give us a bit of shelter.

Sheltering from that northerly wind at Praia da Mira

On the other hand we couldn’t really complain about the weather. For the whole of our time in Portugal we probably had sunshine on nine days out of 10 and although it was cold at night, most of the days were glorious. Blue skies from dusk to dawn – and this was the middle of winter!

Most of the time, the cold nights weren’t a big issue but there were a few exceptions. We didn’t have a very large budget at the time and I remember being delighted when we found a lovely little hostel in a village called Odeceixe on the Alentejo-Algarve where a double room – plus breakfast – was €17.50!

The room was basic but the facilities clean. It was only when night came and the temperature dropped…and kept on dropping that I realised this was one of those occasions when spending a bit more might have been a good idea. Many Portuguese buildings, particularly older ones, simply aren’t built with the cold in mind. Our hostel was completely uninsulated and with the temperature outside falling to freezing we spent the night huddled under blankets in our icebox of a room.

We also only got seriously wet once. We’d arrived in the university town of Coimbra just ahead of the rain but the heavens began to open as we started searching for a place to stay. Now wearing rain gear, we got to a guest house that we’d picked out of our guidebook. The door was open but no one answered the bell.

Ornate Manueline-style palace at Busaco, near Coimbra

Because my Portuguese was marginally better than Carolyn’s, I left her outside holding the tandem while I went to see if anyone was at home. I eventually tracked down the owners in the kitchen. They were very apologetic but explained that the place was currently closed for redecoration. After suggesting an alternative option (back down the hill we’d just plodded up), they very kindly asked if I’d like a cup of tea.

I looked out at the rain now pouring down and thought of Carolyn stood out there in the street, holding our tandem. It was a tempting offer…but I did the decent thing and politely declined.

The rain kept on tipping down the next day and we gave ourselves a rest day in Coimbra – going off to the cinema for the afternoon rather than exploring the city in the wet.

A day later, normal service was resumed with the weather and we continued north through the wooded hills around the spa resort of Luso. Turning north-east, it was a fast descent back to the coast and then north again to the estuary town of Aveiro, where we marked 5,000 miles (8,000km) on the road.

Descriptions of Porto had made it sound a bit of a nightmare for cycling – and in those days there were no online cycle forums to turn to for easy advice – so we decided to do another loop inland to avoid Portugal’s second city.

Coming into a small town called Arouca, we blew our back tyre. Normally we carry a spare but this was the second to go in a relatively short space of time and I’d not replaced the other one.

Unfortunately, the 700C wheels on our Trek tandem were at that time quite unusual – certainly in Portugal. Which meant finding a replacement wasn’t going to be easy.

One thing we’ve learned over the years is that 99% of Portuguese riders fall into two camps. They’re either mountain bikers or lean, mean roadies, with nothing in between. The only touring or hybrid bikes you’ll see in Portugal will be ridden by foreigners. And local bike shops – quite logically – stocked spares to meet Portuguese demand, with only gear from the biggest brands available and in quite a limited range.

Even today it’s very unlikely you’ll find something like a Schwalbe Marathon Plus (my touring tyre of choice) in a Portuguese bike shop. More likely your choice will be Michelin, Michelin or something cheap and Chinese.

Back in 2005, the local bike shop in Arouca was very helpful but explained they would have to order a new tyre and it wouldn’t arrive until the following afternoon, meaning we were going to have an unplanned rest day.

Arouca – spot the icicles hanging inside the fountain

The weather stayed glorious – clear blue skies all day long but really cold at night and the next morning I spotted six-inch icicles hanging from the stone fountain in the centre of town. While waiting for our replacement tyre to arrive, we spent part of the day going walking in the surrounding hills.

By this stage we had ridden around three-quarters of the way north through Portugal and it would not be long until we were heading back to Spain.

Huw Thomas

To be continued…

If anyone is interested in the route we took, have a look at the South-to-North pages of the website’s Touring Routes section. 

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