As we bumped down the cobbled streets of Porto and wound our way past the decaying port wine warehouses that line the Douro river estuary, we felt a frisson of excitement for the open road ahead wrapped in a blanket of familiarity.
Back on our bikes. The weight of our panniers. A salty breeze in our faces.
As we all know, it’s been a tough 18 months for many people across the world since COVID-19 raised it’s ugly head. A world of lockdowns, restrictions, cancellations, social distance, travel plans on hold. A world of severe illness and loss.
Many, many people have suffered far more badly than we have. After all, cancelled bike tours are hardly the worst impact of a global pandemic.
But here we are at last. Back on our bikes and armed with vaccination passports, lateral flow tests and passenger locator forms.
It felt like a little bit of normal.
Our original plan was to cycle down the East Coast of the United States from Boston to Miami. But the American government are not yet welcoming vaccinated Brits to their shores so that will need to wait for another time.
We’ve come to Portugal instead, seeking warm air and warm hospitality. Our plan is simply to cycle south from Porto and see where it takes us. Mainly following Eurovelo 1 (EV1) down the coast but wiggling inland whenever there is something interesting to see. Hopefully into Spain as well.
EV1, the Eurovelo Atlantic Coast Route, is part of a network of cycle paths that criss-cross Europe and runs from Norway to Portugal. We’ve cycled bits of it before, as it includes the Wild Atlantic Way in Ireland.
Porto (literally port or harbour) is a spectacular city that twists its way up from the mouth of the Douro river in a maze of medieval streets, colourful houses and ornate churches.
Some of the food is as unique as the city itself.
We enjoyed the port wine (of course), the Pastel de Nata (deliciously light custard and cinnamon tarts that are a one-a-day treat for many) but were not so sure about the Francesinha (literally little Frenchie, as it was adapted to local Porto tastes from the Croque Monsieur sandwich in the 1950’s).
A steak, some fresh sausage, cured sausage and cured ham are all stuffed inside two slices of bread and covered with melted cheese and an optional fried egg. It’s then doused in a hot thick spicy tomato and beer sauce and served with chips and a large beer.
Enough calories to fuel any bike ride!
But not enough for a ride into the steep hills of the Douro Valley.
Haunted by memories of long, hilly days at the beginning of past trips we decided to take a tour instead. As we drove up yet another sharp ridge it felt like a smart decision … and gave us more time for wine tasting!
The Douro valley is stunning. Terraced vineyards, built behind ancient dry stone walls climb precipitously away from the river as far the eye can see, their whitewashed quintas (wine estates) glistening in the sunshine. Many with names that remember the end of a good dinner … Sandeman, Dow, Taylor’s, Graham’s, Croft.
The first few days of this bicycle adventure have been spent gently pedalling down the coast on flat roads, cycle paths and board walks. Through pretty little beach towns and across salt marshes that attract a variety of migratory birds … herons, egrets, even some flamingoes.
A striking part of this area are azulejos, decorative tiles that adorn many buildings. In a tradition dating back to the 13th century these hand painted tiles help keep houses cool and beautiful.
Ovar, our first overnight stop, is a ‘living museum’ of azulejos with many fine examples from the 19th and 20th century.
From Ovar we cycled onto Aveiro, a city that grew rich from salt but now relies on tourism as the self styled ‘Venice of Portugal’. It’s not quite as grand as the Queen of the Adriatic … although a gondola ride makes for a pleasant diversion, passing under many bridges adorned with thousands of brightly coloured ribbons.
Our young guide giggled as she encouraged us to join in … “you can tie a ribbon on the bridge for everlasting love and friendship … ooh-la-la!”
Sadly the ribbon shop was closed for lunch.
The next day, we were reminded that bicycle touring is not all about easy cycle paths, boat rides and pretty coastal views. A fierce headwind blew up and it poured with rain as we struggled into Praia de Mira, sodden and a little weary.
It almost felt like cycling in England.
But not quite. We’re in Portugal. Back on our bikes.
Clare and Andy