Attractions: down to earth people, characters, great inexpensive food/meal of the day, Port Wine
Best Time: November to catch the vineyards in full colour
We left behind the drizzling drizzle-fest of Galicia and entered Portugal via a mountain pass melding a frenzy of bronze, gold and copper foliage. After weeks of cycling in the rain, the clouded Celtic curse lifted at the border and the weather seemed to magically improve.
The extra sunshine seemed to make for more smiles, more relaxed people, and a more welcoming atmosphere. During our first moment of indecision at a cross-section in Chaves, a friendly onlooker stopped to offer help. Twenty minutes later our navigational team had expanded to six passerbys, including a stupendously drunk man who offered us the use of his mobile phone.
Beyond the beautiful university city of Vila Real we entered Portugal’s famous wine region on the peaceful M313 (N2 on our Michelin mystery map). In mid-November we were blessed to be cycling through a landscape on fire – vineyards ablaze as far as the eye can see, set into patchworks by borders of silver olive trees. By the time we rolled into Peso da Regua our hearts were soaring and our brake pads worn thin from all of the photographic opportunities.
The tiny local bike shop of Peso da Regua didn’t stock much in the way of fancy things like replacement V-brake pads, but more importantly they offered us complimentary glasses of Port Wine to enjoy on the sidewalk along the Rio Douro. Across the Rio Douro, (which carves its way across the full width of Portugal ending at Porto), we climbed the yellow vine road to pretty Lamego, where another offering of Port Wine awaited us in the tourist office. Life is hard.
As we continued on roads littered with the spiky fruit of the chestnut trees, we realised our days were falling into a familiar pattern: wake up in the dark for a frosty tent pack up… swear at the frosty weather gods for our numb fingered agony… sweat it out on mountain roads… praise the beautiful blue skies and apologise for swearing at the weather gods earlier on… climb up a ridiculously steep hill into a cobblestoned town… say hello to the local stray dogs, and chat to an old man or two on the side of the road… find a bakery to liberate some of our little sugar covered friends… pick up some rolls, cheese and Port Wine for luxury snacking… more mountain road cycling.
Sublime and peaceful mountain scenery took us through Portugal’s highest city is Guarda at 1,056m and continued through Vale de Estrela. Sunshine on bronze forest, enormous boulders, and a horizon of disappearing mountains.
A pack of curious stray dogs greeted us in Belmonte, a town known for its secret Jewish settlement. Dating from at least the 13th century, the Jewish community survived the Inquisition by blending into the local population, pretending to eat pork sausages (really spiced chicken and rabbit), changing the dates of Jewish observances, and adopting Christian names. They were only recently discovered in 1917 by a Polish Jew from Galicia, almost a century after the Inquisition officially ended.
Belmonte’s other claim to fame is being the birthplace of navigator and explorer Pedro Alvares Cabral, claimed to be the first European discoverer of Brazil. Appointed by the King of Portugal to continue the works of Vasco da Gama (introducing Christianity using force if necessary), his voyage to the Indies is said to have been detoured by ocean currents which took him from the Cape of Good Hope to Brazil in 1500.
History aside, grumbling bellies had us at a café guessing some Portuguese words by ordering ‘soupas’ (usually a safe vegetarian meal). Two ‘Super Bock’ beers later we tried again next door at a dark and dingy pub. For 5 Euros each we feasted on a delicious 4-course meal-of-the-day that included coffee, dessert and full glasses of port wine… delicious and one of the bargains of the trip!
We enjoyed a brief stretch of flat before the long climb to Portugal’s highest mainland peak, ‘Torre’, at 1993 metres altitude. Warnings of severe grades, and imminent snow had us doubting our wisdom, especially after a horrendously narrow and busy cobblestoned exit out of Covilha. We camped at 700m among smooth, ghostly gum trees, and intermittent winds rattling our tent throughout the night.
Steep series of switchbacks turned tailwinds, into crosswinds, into headwinds. A 1200 metre rise in 19kms took us past abandoned monasteries, a bowl of glowing trees, gigantic granite boulders, a ski resort, and a huge reservoir – hard work, but extremely rewarding views!
Only stubbornness kept us going as we entered the icy clouds, with visibility limited to oncoming headlights and chunks of ice shattering in front of us. Too cold to feel smug about proving the doubters wrong, we headed straight back down the mountain, stopping constantly to shake some life back into our numb hands. Paco remained buried in his basket, while Jack with his big, fluffy coat seemed to be the only one enjoying the descent.
We left Portugal through plains of chocolate trunked cork trees, sad to leave a beautiful land and its beautiful, generous, down to earth characters.