If you like quiet unspoilt beaches, seafood dinners straight from the sea and watching life roll by at a gentle pace … then the Alentejo is a perfect holiday spot you.
It will transport you back to a simpler, more innocent age where you can sit under a cork tree and gaze out at a beautiful rural landscape that seems unchanged for centuries.
But … perhaps it’s not the best part of the world for independent bicycle touring.
Situated south of Lisbon, the Alentejo is the poorest and least populated part of Portugal. That probably explains why most of the small country roads that criss-cross the cork forests and dusty fields are still made of gravel or sand.
Further north these ripio tracks are an occasional hazard. In the Alentejo, they’re lurking around every corner … rutted, very bumpy and often covered in heavy drifts of sand.
On a mountain bike it would probably be a lot of fun. But our touring bikes just slither from side to side … or grind to a halt.
So we stuck to riding on larger roads instead. Not the big main roads but the secondary roads that connect one idyllic white-washed village to the next. These proved to be very straight, very flat and very narrow … therefore invitingly fast for cars and trucks.
They also contained an alarming number of obstacles at the edge of the road … large potholes, deep cracks, tree roots, drains, manhole covers. For the humble cyclist, riding along them can become a game of chicken. Smash into the tree root that’s looming up ahead? Or avoid it and swerve into the path of the car that’s zooming up behind?
Not a combination that adds up to a pleasant and peaceful bike ride.
Whilst it may not be ideal for a bicycle tour, the Alentejo is a paradise for long distance walkers. The Rota Vincentina offers a network of over 750km of caminos to choose from, including the Fisherman’s Trail down the coast, the Historic Way inland and lots of shorter circular walks.
But cycling wasn’t all bad! Apart from the delightful coastal views and the idyllic seaside villages, one of the best things about riding through the Alentejo was that we enjoyed a tailwind every single day!
Before we knew it, we had been blown to the ‘end of the world’, the name still given to Cabo de São Vicente (Cape of St Vincent), the most south-westerly point of Europe.
With only the brooding Atlantic Ocean beyond, people did indeed think it marked the end of the world, right up until the 14th century. We could kind of see why … it all felt a little unworldly as we cycled out to the cape early one morning before breakfast.
As we reached the lighthouse our odometer passed 1000km cycled in Portugal. This also meant we have now pedalled for more than 10,000km since we embarked on our first bicycle tour from Bath to Barcelona, back in 2016.
On the way to the ‘end of the world’ we had a curious incident. A lady in her car flagged us down, rather flustered and urged us to be careful as there was a loose pack of dogs prowling around ahead. She was right … a dozen forbidding shapes were visible on top of the next ridge.
In rural Portugal every household has a dog. As we cycled past, each one of those dog’s barked as loudly as it could and flung itself violently at the fencing around its home. Perhaps to come and say hi? Perhaps to tear us limb from limb?
Either way … we’re a bit nervous of dogs!
As we reluctantly decided to turn back and go the long way around, a farmer rolled up in his wagon. He stopped, laughed and reversed back up to the dogs, urging us to follow him … which we did with some trepidation. As we reached them, he nuzzled a couple of the pack leaders and the rest immediately became as docile as could be.
We passed by without the slightest bark, not even a growl … in fact not even a flicker of interest!
In the Alentejo we have stayed in lots of AL’s (Alojamento Local or self-catering apartments) often only booking one that comes with the gold-standard-ultimate-travellers-luxury … a washing machine!
But the main pleasure of an AL is that we can cook for ourselves.
Which creates a bit of a challenge as we can hardly carry a larder of groceries around with us in our panniers!
How do we get together a kit of ‘basics’ without repeatedly buying huge quantities and then wasting most of it? Olive oil, for example, rarely comes in anything less than a one litre bottle.
Clare has had to become very creative at collecting bits and pieces whenever she gets the chance.
She washes out the miniature shampoo bottles provided by some hotels and fills them with the olive oil, salt, pepper and vinegar. We carry a few cloves of garlic, some Italian herbs, chilli flakes, cumin and a couple of stock cubes … and bingo, we’ve got everything we need to make a familiar meal.
Every café coffee comes with a sachet of sugar. Every Pastel de Nata (custard tart) comes with a little cinnamon. Together, these combine to create some delicious stewed fruit to spice up our muesli.
The one big grocery item we’ve always got in our panniers is a large onion! But this has nothing to do with cooking.
Clare has taken to rolling around on it as a substitute for a pilates ball … to relieve her aches and pains after a long day in the saddle.
After a few days we usually cook them up … they’re always nice and tender.
Turning east along the Algarve, we treated ourselves to some beach days in Lagos and Carvoeiro. Suddenly we’d arrived in the English Riviera. You could tell this not only from the distinct Yorkshire or Essex accents that floated up from the pavement cafés, but also from the number of Tandoori restaurants that were suddenly available.
Deciding not to cycle through all the pristine golf courses that hug the coast, we headed for the hills instead, passing through the lovely villages of Silves and Alte and endless groves of pomegranates, oranges, lemons and olives.
It meant a lot of climbing … but that felt like a good alternative to headwind that was developing near the sea. After all, you can’t go down a headwind!
The Algarve is only 143km wide so before we knew it we had arrived in Tavira and our last night in Portugal. To celebrate we treated ourselves to a night in a Pousada, an old convent converted into a hotel. It was delightful … so delightful that we even forgot to take away the sachets of sugar!
Marking the border between Portugal and Spain, the river Guadiana is crossed by a long motorway suspension bridge. For foot passengers and cyclists an old, wide bottomed ferry does the job instead.
For only seven Euros we chugged across and passed seamlessly into Spain. No passports, no Covid vaccination certificates, no passenger locator forms. Just masks. It was almost like the old days.
As in any country, Portugal has its own curiosities. Sardines are served to your table still in the can. Cutlery comes in a paper bag to keep off the dust (and more recently the virus). Pastel de Nata are a daily obsession.
But one of the most endearing curiosities is that men and women say thank you slightly differently.
It’s obrigado for men and obrigada for women, regardless of who you’re talking to, although nobody much cares if you get it wrong.
We’ve loved exploring Portugal on bicycles (including the Alentejo!).
So it’s a Muito Obrigada from her and a Muito Obrigado from him. We are both much obliged!
Clare and Andy
Our stats in Portugal …
1,222 kilometres pedalled
11,489 metres climbed
83 hours in the saddle