In 2005, my wife Carolyn and I arrived in Portugal for the first time after riding our tandem south through France and Spain. Over the course of about two months we cycled across the Algarve and then made our way north.
After leaving Arouca, we continued across the Douro and north towards Spain. But Portugal drew us back… and 12 years on we keep returning.
After our unplanned stop in Arouca, the replacement tyre we’d had to order didn’t arrive until after lunch and it was 3pm before we were able to set off again.
We then only got about 3km before the old inner tube in the back wheel blew and we had to stop while I fitted a new one. Always a time-consuming job when riding a tandem with rear panniers and a trailer attached.
Finally, we were on our way again, heading inland to make a loop around Porto and find some quieter roads. To begin with we climbed steadily through hills covered with eucalyptus plantations.
We then spent a night at a guest house in Castelo de Paiva, a small town that’s never featured in a tourist guide before setting off to cross the Douro river the next day.
I still remember that morning as one of my coldest cycling experiences and in my diary I’d noted: “Bitter cold start – maximum layers, including scarf under helmet.”
There was frost on the ground as we left Castelo de Paiva and I also put plastic bags and waterproof overshoes on top of my normal footwear in a bid to keep warm.
Even on a grey, overcast day the downhill ride into the Douro valley was spectacular. But from leaving our guest house we went for about 9km without hardly having to pedal at all and any remaining warmth in my toes was gone long before we reached the bottom.
It was too cold to admire the view and as we started up the other side of the valley I don’t think I’ve ever been so happy to tackle a hill. As we finally had to start putting some effort into our cycling, the blood slowly began to flow again and eventually I could feel my feet again.
We returned to the coast some way above Porto. The first section wasn’t too inspiring – windswept beaches and some ugly, overdeveloped resorts but the scenery steadily improved as we continued north.
Viana do Castelo was an attractive small port at the mouth of the Lima river and the coast beyond was more varied, with less development and prettier beaches. Finally, we reached the mouth of the Minho valley and the pretty border town of Caminha.
The ferry across the Minho wasn’t running at that time of year and we turned inland for a little way, following the valley until we found the first bridge over the river and back into Spain.
It was March 5th 2005 when we left Portugal and it took us a couple of years before we returned but the country had planted a seed in both of us.
That cycle tour spoilt us for ever settling back down to our careers and by the end of 2007 we were ready for another year out – this time retraining to teach English as a foreign language. Portugal was an obvious choice for us. We did our TEFL training course in Lisbon then got jobs in Viseu, a medium-sized town in the north of the country.
Initially we only intended to stay for one year but that turned into two – and we spent most weekends and a lot of our holidays exploring Portugal, both on foot and on bike.
Our forays took us from the rugged mountains of the far north to the wild border country of the eastern frontier and the more open plains of the Alentejo – which is when I realised that the most beautiful parts of Portugal, including the best cycling, aren’t on the coast. And that there’s a lot more to discover than was shown on my old Michelin map!
Over the next couple of years we started to really discover how much there was to see.
We left Portugal in June 2010 in order to do a 10,000-mile ride on our tandem raising money and awareness for the disaster relief charity ShelterBox.
That journey is another whole story but it did have one really important impact on our lives. The ride took us across 10 different countries and in planning it I realised how hard it was (at the time) to find decent information on cycling in some of those places.
So when we came back to Portugal in 2011 for another year of teaching, I decided to set up a blog for visiting cyclists. My first attempt wasn’t that sophisticated. I put together some ideas for touring routes and day rides, information on the availability (or not) of maps, lists of campsites and that kind of thing.
This time we were based nearer to Lisbon and we continued our explorations of the country. Returning to visit some of our favourite destinations, as well as discovering more of the southern half of the country.
In 2012, Carolyn and I returned to the UK – both our fathers had been unwell and we thought it was time to be a bit closer to family. For a while I completely forgot about my Portugal cycling blog. Then one day I looked at the site’s statistics and realised dozens of people were looking at it every month and the inbox for the email address linked to the site was stuffed with unanswered messages.
I hadn’t really expected anyone to take my site seriously and I got a bit more of a shock when I Googled “cycling in Portugal” and realised my blog was coming up as the top result on the first page!
Feeling extremely embarrassed, I sent very belated replies to all the emails and tried to answer any queries that weren’t months out of date. I also decided to revamp the site and take it a bit more seriously.
That was about five years ago and since then it’s fair to say that Pedal Portugal has taken over my life. The website still consistently comes up on the first page of Google results on searches related to cycling and Portugal. It’s also a lot more comprehensive now and – hopefully – looks a lot more professional.
At the beginning of 2016 I also started running my own guided tours of Portugal. I’d had a list of other companies on the website for a while and looking at them had made me think ‘I can do that’.
We’ve run seven trips so far and must be doing something right as nearly 20% of our riders have so far signed up as repeat customers. And although we’ve gone off on our own cycle trips elsewhere, we still come back to Portugal pretty much whenever we can, normally spending two to three months of the year there.
Funny to think that when we caught that when we arrived in Portugal, catching the ferry across the Guadiana from southern Spain on 7th January 2005, we had no idea how it was going to change our lives. Definitely for the better.
Thank you, Portugal.