As we rode out of the delightful seaside village of São Pedro de Moel and climbed gently through a wood of maritime pines and huge eucalyptus trees, we were greeted by wide smiles and cheery “Bom dia’s” from every family we passed. Trees make everyone happy.
The air felt crisp and cool, the sun warm on faces. This was bike touring at its best.
Rounding a corner, we suddenly emerged into a starker landscape of charcoal stumps and blackened earth. It was all too familiar.
For several days we’d been cycling through the remains of the vast Leira Pine Forest, planted to build the sailing ships that drove Portugals golden Age of Discovery in the 15th and 16th centuries.
Unfortunately, 86% of the 110 square kilometre forest was destroyed by a huge wildfire in 2017. This small wood near São Pedro is a reminder of how glorious it must have been.
On our route south from Porto to Lisbon, we’ve been alternating coastal rides with diversions inland to visit some of the great historical sites … Coimbra, Batalha, Alcobaça, Óbidos.
This part of Portugal seems ideal for bicycle touring. The distances are manageable (around 50km or 30 miles a day), it’s relatively flat and if you travel north to south you have a good chance of a tail wind to blow you along. We’ve been blessed with many sun filled days and a ‘Goldilocks-just-right’ warmth of around 25°c.
It’s also good value for money, both the accommodation and for eating out. As well as small hotels and Casas (traditional guest houses), we’ve stayed in several self-catering Alojamento Local (local accommodation) which have recently sprung up across the country.
Bike touring in Covid times has been easier than we expected. At the time of writing Portugal has relatively low cases and the highest vaccination rate in Europe … so it feels very safe.
To enter the country we had to show evidence of a negative PCR test or a double vaccination certificate. This is also required for tourist accommodation and, bizarrely, for indoor dining from Friday through Sunday (but not for the rest of the week, when restaurants seem to be just as full!)
We were worried that Brexit might cause us some difficulty as the UK is not yet part of the EU Digital Covid Certificate. This means that hotels and restaurants can’t scan our QR codes for proof of vaccination as they do for everyone else.
But it doesn’t seem to matter.
We say “… sorry, the scan doesn’t work for the UK one …” They then shrug, mutter “Inglês?”, shrug again … and we’re shown to our table.
Here in Portugal people wear masks a lot. They’re mandatory inside and on public transport but plenty of people, young and old, choose to wear masks outside too. We’ve even seen them worn on a deserted beach … just in case!
Masking up at the end of a long ride when we arrive at our accommodation can get tricky. Sorting out the bikes, fumbling about with the panniers, lugging them upstairs, whilst chatting to the owner with steamed up glasses and sweat soaking through the masks can be a challenge!
One reason why Portugal is such a great country for bike touring is that there are so many stunning things to see. A lot of them date from the Age of Discovery in the 15th and 16th centuries, when the Portuguese Kings had more money than they knew what to do with, so splurged it on lavish buildings.
Much of this cash came from a lucrative trade in gold, spices and slaves as the ships built from the wood of the Leira pine forest plundered their way around the world. Whilst it’s impossible today to sympathise with the ethics behind the source of the wealth, it’s difficult not to be staggered by the beauty of the architecture.
The royal palace, library and chapel at the ancient university in Coimbra, Portugal’s first capital.
The castle and maze of well-preserved medieval houses in Óbidos.
But most striking of all, the imposing grandeur of the monasteries at Batalha and Alcobaça.
Batalha, built to commemorate a crucial victory over Castile, took 200 years to complete. Ironically it is the Unfinished Chapels that most astonish visitors, the scale of the pillars and their ornamentation are even more dramatic for being open to the sky.
At the monastery in Alcobaça we came across a tale of two star-crossed lovers to rival Romeo and Juliet.
In 1340 Afonso IV, King of Portugal, married his son and heir Pedro to Costanza of Castile. She was accompanied to the Portuguese court by Inês de Castro (her lady-in-waiting) … “beautiful as a flower, blond as the sun” … and just 15 years old.
Pedro fell in love at first sight … but with the wrong Spanish lady. He and Inês soon began an all-consuming love affair that threatened to rip Portugal and Castile apart, especially when Costanza died a few years later.
Fearing trouble and strife, Afonso refused to let the lovers marry and instead banished Inês. Desperate to be together, they found a way to live together in secret and even had four children.
Eventually the old King could stand it no longer and ordered her death. Three assassins rode to Coimbra and violently decapitated her in front of her small children. Her spirit can still be heard crying at the Fountain of Tears, site of her murder.
As you can imagine, Pedro was not happy about this. When Afonso died 2 years later the new king immediately set about tracking down the assassins. He found two of them, tried them for murder and ripped out their hearts with his bare hands … in revenge for breaking his own.
According to the legend, he then had Inês exhumed, dressed her in queenly robes and made all his courtiers swear allegiance by kissing what was left of her hand. Ugh!
She was reburied in the abbey at Alcobaça where they now lie together ‘até ao fim do mundo’ (until the end of the world). Quite a story!
Cycling down the endless beaches and sand dunes of the Silver Coast (named for the silvery glow of the ocean on sunny days) has been a perfect contrast.
This is a surfers coast, every beach is dotted with human seals waiting for the perfect wave. We stayed at Nazaré, where an offshore canyon famously combines with Atlantic storms to create the biggest waves in the world, towering some 30m above the beach. Andy was tempted to have a go but, sadly, conditions weren’t right on the day of our visit and the waves were a bit small for him.
No bike tour would be the same without some ‘dreadful detours’ and sure enough, Andy’s map reading skills have led Clare up the normal quota of rough stone tracks. But EV1 has been just as guilty, occasionally asking us to canyon around a steep cliff or climb a precipitous rocky path.
To be fair, EV1’s dreadful detours usually ended with a spectacular view. Andy’s just finished in a swamp!
Our next stop is Sintra, a fairytale land of dense forest sprinkled with imposing hilltop castles, mystical gardens and strange mansions. Not a place for getting lost. After all, we don’t want any ghostly tears!
Clare & Andy