Downhill Across Portugal?

When your bike trip starts in Portugal’s highest city and ends at the seaside, it must be all downhill, right?

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Following the Mondego down to Coimbra

As I’ve mentioned before, Portugal may be wonderful but it is definitely not flat. Our latest bike trip across the country – which we finished on Friday – was a research trip for guided tours we’re planning on running next year.

The ride came about after a group of friends who met doing a couple of our other guided tours said they would like to come back in 2020…but they wanted me to put together a new trip, preferably somewhere more to the north.

They also wanted a tour that provided a similar level of challenge to our Border Castles and Southern Explorer trips. I also had a long standing request from my wife, Carolyn, to incorporate Portugal’s best and longest (I think) off-road cycle path – the Ecopista do Dão – into one of our tours.

I love maps so it wasn’t too much of a hardship to sit down and try to put some plans together. The starting point was to try and create a tour with 8-9 days of cycling, covering 45-65km a day (give or take) and with some climbing but not so much as to turn the trip into a major ordeal.

We also then had another group of returning customers – this time from the Edmonton Bike Club – enquiring about the chances of another tour in May 2020.

I started off trying to create a circuit in the Beira region around Viseu and Guarda, trying to avoid any overlap with our Eastern Frontier tour but visiting some other favourite spots like Belmonte. But, yet again, I soon found myself either running into mountain ranges or deep river valleys that sent the daily climb figures soaring.

Next, I started looking at the Minho and Lima valleys right up in the north, a gorgeous region with some stunning scenery. Problem is, though, that while a few days cycling in either valley was fairly straightforward to work out that was about it – turn out of either valley and the terrain soon starts going decidedly upwards!

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Heavy traffic on the road to Trancoso in the Beira Alta

So, I went back to Guarda as a starting point but this time set my sights on going south and west. Slowly, the route started to come together. Three days exploring the boulder-strewn granite landscape between Guarda and Viseu. After a rest day in Viseu, we would set off on the ecopista and spend a couple of days following the Mondego valley down to Coimbra.

From there, we had a chance to visit the Roman ruins of Conimbriga, before continuing south – roughly following the inland pilgrimage routes between Santiago and Fatima – before arriving at Tomar, once the seat of the Knights Templar and home to the stunning Convento de Cristo fortress-cum-abbey.

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The central church at the Convento de Cristo in Tomar

Ending at the seaside seemed like a good idea so inititally I plotted a route from Tomar to Batalha, due west out to the coast and then south to end in Nazaré.

For all of our tours, Carolyn and I like to ride the route before we ask any of our riders to sign up for a trip and part with their cash. It means we’ve checked out the scenery, tackled the hills and felt the bumps in the road before we ask anyone else to do the same.

It also gives us an opportunity to check out hotels and restaurants, trying to find the best places to take our riders when we do the tours for real. I mean, it’s a tough job but someone’s got to do the research and find out where to find the cold beers at the end of the day…

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A very necessary cold beer

So, having just finished a custom tour of the Algarve for a group of hockey players from Ontario, we had a few days break and hopped on the train up to Guarda.

It was a long haul getting there, with delays at Lisbon, and we were a couple of hours late arriving in Guarda on Monday 13th May but our bikes – booked through our friends at Cycling Rentals – were already at the hotel waiting for us.

And first thing the next morning we were off.

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Heading north – day one

I’ve always loved the landscapes of the Beira Alta – wild hillsides covered with huge boulders, terraces studded with vines, cabbage and maize, stone-built villages that look as though they haven’t changed for centuries, and views that seem to stretch away forever.

We had lived for two years in Viseu and this was the part of Portugal we first got to really know – exploring it by foot, bike and car on our weekends and days off.

It was a real pleasure being back on our bikes as we headed off for our first stop in Trancoso. Unlike on our tours, though, there was no support van and I began to regret having put so much stuff in my panniers when I went to change into a lower gear and found I didn’t have any left.

But the skies were blue, the hillsides were blazing with yellow broom flowers, the birds were singing… etc. etc.

Over the next nine days, we were only foiled once on our route – sadly because part of the Ecopista do Dão was closed for resurfacing. I had to quickly plot a new section of ride on the fly that day but hopefully that was a temporary blip and we’ll be able to ride the whole thing with next year’s tours.

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Ancient olive tree behind village church

After looking at the maps in more detail – aided by satellite and Street View – I also decided to change the last day of the tour as the original section going out to the coast from Batalha looked too built up and a bit dull after some of the simply beautiful areas we’d ridden through earlier in the trip.

Instead, I took us on a rural, cross-country route going pretty much directly south-west to São Martinho do Porto, which I’d also decided would be a prettier and slightly more chilled out place to finish the tour than Nazaré. Plus it’s a safer place for a swim.

A fair bit of the tour involved places we’d been to before but it was also a real pleasure to explore some back roads in areas I didn’t know quite so well.

Apart from having a chance to renew my love of the north-east Beira Alta region and catch up with some old friends in Viseu, I really enjoyed getting to ride some of the limestone country to the north and south of Tomar. There’s some very pretty scenery in this area and the wildflowers were still looking beautiful when we went through.

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Limestone country between Coimbra and Tomar

I did fail on one front. Overall, the days aren’t generally any longer than those on our Border Castles and Southern Explorer tours. But it is a bit tougher. Apart maybe from our cruise of a ride down the Mondego to Coimbra last Sunday, none of the days were exactly easy.

On the other hand, in nearly 500km there were very few sections – even coming in and out of big towns like Viseu and Coimbra – where we were on busy roads for any distance. And the scenery? Well, just take a look at the pictures.

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The end of the ride – Sao Martinho do Porto

There was a definite feeling of accomplishment when we got to São Martinho – but there’s also a part of me that would happily turn round and do it again. Although maybe without the panniers?

Next year we plan on riding the route at least twice. First of all in April with the group of friends who’d set me the task of coming up with a new route. Then again in May – as our Historic Heartland tour. That trip is already fully booked but I’m confident this will prove a route worth repeating – possibly later in 2020. If not, definitely in 2021.

For further details – including dates, prices and availability – please take a look at our guided tours page.

 

 

2 thoughts on “Downhill Across Portugal?

  1. Thank you so much Huw and Caroline for your enthusiasm in researching and organising this new tour – it looks like it is going to be heaps of fun.

    • Definitely will be. I think it’s got the greatest variety of landscapes of any of our tours so far.
      Really looking forward to riding with you and Brett again next year.

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