Like so often it seemed like a good idea at the time.
I was more than fed up with cycling in the Dutch cold and grey wintry conditions and needed to de-stress from work related issues. My son Daniel was meant to join but he needed his time to study. Or so he said, perhaps suspect of my intentions.
Browsing Skyscanner in my search for a last minute flight to the sun I found a good flight to Lisbon, Portugal. I had been with the family to the Algarve in the south, I opted to go north. In the far north of Spain’s Galicia region is Santiago de Compostela. It’s known as the culmination of the Camino de Santiago pilgrimage route, and the alleged burial site of the apostle St.James.
There are two routes: the coastal route and the mountainous route. In both cases I was keen to take a train for the first part as to make sure I would not run out of time on my way back. After all, I only had one week and who knows how my legs and tyres would perform? I would not reach Compostela but more about that later.
Day 1, (Dec 27) Lisbon
On landing in Lisbon at 15:35 I took the metro to my hostel and from there explored the Alfama district by foot. It is a delightful maze of narrow cobbled streets and ancient houses which lead up the steep hill from the waterfront to the Castelo de São Jorge.
Day 2, (Dec 28) Guarda
The next morning, I went to the small shop of Lisbon Bike Rentals to collect my Canyon Endurace CF SL DISC 7.0. After some adjustments, they gave me a larger frame size and off I went.
At the Santa Apolónia railway station, I looked at the large display and decided to take the first train north. It was the intercity to Guarda. Cycles are free on the trains, if booked, but not allowed on the many high speed trains. I still had to wait for over an hour and the journey itself would take 4.5 hours.
As the name implies, Guarda, has its origins as a fortress town guarding the frontier of Portugal from approach from Spain’s Castille region. It is also the highest city in continental Portugal. On arrival in Guarda I cycled the 5km odd distance to the old centre located at an elevation of 1056 metre. A bit sweaty and out of breath I reached the well located Hotel Santos.
Guarda is a lovely old town. My hotel was just around the corder from the Sé da Guarda, the city’s cathedral. I walked around the Judaria, the old Jewish quarter located within the city walls and next to the Porta D’El Rei.
The Jewish community in Guarda was for a long period one of the country’s most important and oldest Jewish communities. As a condition of the marriage between King Manuel of Portugal and Isabella of Spain, the Spanish royal family insisted that Portugal expel her Jews. King Manuel agreed reluctantly. In the end, only 8 Portuguese Jews were expelled and most were forcibly converted to Christianity on pain of death.
After learning that unsavoury bit of history I walked quickly to Guido’s Point, a cute place under the old watch tower, for dinner. It was bitterly cold outside and my cycle jersey was definitely not enough. I selected therefore a table in the corner closest to the black wood stove. I was nibbling on my starter when a loud noise broke the peace and glass shattered all over the stone floor around me. A small child upstairs had kicked over a glass and it had just not landed on my head. The father of the child rushed down to apologize profusely in Portuguese waiving his arms as if I had not understood where the glass had come from. I got the gist and showed him the Google translate app on my mobile: todas as coisas boas vêm de cima (all good things come from above) adding that I also have children. One that I was missing a lot on my ride.
Day 3, (Dec 29) Mirandela
D-day, my first proper ride. I had studied the map over breakfast and in an optimistic frame of mind had booked a hotel in Mirandela. According to Google it was some 134km away and thus doable. In no time I lost my way and found myself off-roading on small tracts passing several quintas, small farms, with barking dogs. Even though it was only 2km, I lost valuable time trying to navigate my way out of the area. I continued along the N102 which more or less runs parallel to the highway. I would be crossing it a number of times. At one point I had been cycling up a mountain only to realise that I had taken a wrong turn 6km earlier. After that fiasco I became a bit paranoid and frequently stopped during my rides to check Google Maps. Scared to run out of power I would turn my GPS and data on only for the time I would check my position. That worked really well. My Garmin Edge 820 hardly had enough battery power to keep track of me during the day let alone if I would use it for navigation.
As soon as the sun would disappear behind the clouds or the mountains it would become bitterly cold, literally freezing. Desperate to protect myself somewhat I put my woollen socks over my hands and wore my cotton pants on top of my cycling shorts.
I stopped at a road side restaurant for a hot chocolate and to charge my navigator. They did not have chocolate. Spotting a coffee machine I requested a coffee instead. As long as I get a bit warmer I thought. That was not happen though with the tiny espresso the guy served me. After 15min I picked up my small backpack and showed the guy my bank card. He had a dirty look on his face and asked in broken English “Don’t you have real money?” I asked how much it was. “Sixty cents” he said. Bewildered I thought of the last time I paid less than a Euro for something at a restaurant. I could not recollect a single instance.
Luckily my lights were really good and fully charged. I needed that as it had become dark and I still had to cover some 50 odd km. I kept on peddling, corner after corner, slope after slope. It had become very foggy to the extend that I was braking on every descend careful to not lose the road underneath me. Just before Mirandela, a car kept on driving behind me to provide me with ample light for me to speed towards town. When we reached the town border he or she honked once to say goodbye. I was most appreciative of that kind soul.
In the end I reached the Hotel Jorge V at 20:47 after 156km and 2,127m of climbing. My hands were so cold I hardly had any strength in my fingers to lock my cycle. I had a hot shower and walked fast to a nearby restaurant scared it might close for the day.
Day 4, (Dec 30) Vila Pouca de Aguiar
After what turned out to be a daily standard breakfast of bread buns with ham or cheese, I took off in the direction of Valpaços, 30km away. It was again grey and cold. It was so foggy that the bottom of my pants became wet. It made me wonder about the wisdom of pursuing the route to Compostela, still 220km away once I would reach Valpaços. I could do it in two or three days but I was in no mood to be more masochistic. After all I came to Portugal for the sun.
At Valpaços I had made up my mind. By going west instead of north I played it safe. Porto was sunny. I changed the direction of my steering wheel and headed towards Cabeceiras de Basto. After a while it became sunny as I had ascended above the clouds. The area was dotted with pine forest and the scenery was stunning. Luckily the sun had made itself felt and it was a beautiful uneventful ride. By 4pm I descended 200m over 4km into Vila Pouca de Aguiar. I had climbed a total of 1,445m and it was getting cold again. To continue meant climbing a similar distance from the other side of the valley.
With the knowledge of what I had gone through the day prior I thought it wise to call it a day, albeit after only 74km. It jeopardized though my change of reaching Porto for the New Years Eve celebrations. Using Booking.com, I booked a room in the Hotel Europe, located the place, and had a hot well deserved shower.
The only accident that I would have during my trip happened that evening. While walking to a somewhat remote restaurant called Rogerio. I tripped over some pavers that were left there as unfinished business. The knee of my right-hand pant was cut and so was my knee. The restaurant was closed. It was still too early at night for restaurants to open. I returned towards the centre in search of a pharmacy. Christmas music was still being blasted at moderate decibels through the many speakers that decorated the city centre. I managed to get a bottle of Betadine and band aid. It struck me though during my trip how few people speak English in Portugal. Even young and seemingly educated people like the staff in the pharmacy.
Day 5, (Dec 31) Porto
Well rested and having consumed the usual bread and ham for breakfast I prepared myself for the long climb up the mountain. Once I crossed the summit though I was on an incredibly long descend, some 20km. Though it was exciting, I was also chilled to the bone by the time I reached the foot of the mountain. Soon though, I could take off my jersey as I was forced to climb 530m. That pattern repeated a few times to a lesser degree as I was clearly leaving the mountains behind. For a long stretch I followed the scenic Rota do Românico.
By six o’clock it was dark. I have covered 100km but still had some 30km to go. Travel would be slow due to increased traffic and associated number of traffic lights. As basically I had time till midnight, I was not too worried.
It was good to be back in civilization. With the road conditions not being ideal, I had been worried about a flat tyre. As the bike had tubeless tyres and no quick release at the rear I was keen to avoid getting stuck somewhere.
The last 30km into Porto seemed endless. I approached the city from the north-west and finally reached the Rotunda da Boavista. Contrary to the name, due to the darkness, there was hardly a good view of the 45m column in the middle of the rotunda. It stood there to commemorate the victory of the Portuguese against the French troops that invaded Portugal during the Peninsular War. I switched off my Garmin at 19:15 and shivered. I took my mobile and booked myself a hostel in the down town area wherever that was.
My eyes had fallen on the Blue Sock Hostel. It took quite some effort to locate it. The night colour on my Garmin had gone all greenish rendering it virtually useless. As I got closer, cycling became increasingly more difficult due to the large cobble stones. The vibration certainly shook my brains severely. The last hundred meter I just walked trying to locate the hostel while holding my mobile with Google maps in my hand.
It was a modern looking building. Getting in was the next challenge. I saw people inside but no entrance. Confused, I was standing on the corner trying to figure out how people got in. Finally I spotted someone getting out by sliding a complete window panel.
I asked the girl at the reception to recommend a place for dinner. “You want to have dinner?” she asked me as if it was an odd question. She explained that almost all restaurants would be fully booked. She was not wrong.
After a shower I tried my luck. Restaurants were packed. I had already gobbled up a Cachorro Quente, a Portuguese style hotdog, near the venue of the night. Midnight was still a few hours away though. I finally found a sort of hamburger joint where I could sit and eat, and equally important, stay warm.
The largest party in Porto takes place on Avenida dos Aliados. This is where also this year a huge crowd gathered to enjoy the musical entertainment and fireworks. I was standing near an Indian couple who said there were from the UK. I did not enquire further but thought instead of how much I missed beautiful Indian wife. The Portuguese music thrilled the crowd and shortly before midnight the countdown began with a light show displaying the digits on the tower of the adjacent Porto City Hall. A great fireworks display followed.
Day 6, (Jan 1) rest day in Porto
New Years day was my first day off. I was keen to explore Porto, a UNESCO world heritage site, on foot. The beautiful city is made for walking as Porto is one steep hill with the Torre dos Clerigos towering above the city. My hostel was just a hundred metre off the Douro river with the famous double decked Ponte Luis I bridging the north and south banks.
I walked along the famous Cais da Ribeira with its many restaurants to the base of the bridge. From there I made the long climb to the top bridge. The top bridge is exclusive for pedestrians and slow moving metro trains. Across the bridge is the huge Monastery of Serra do Pilar from where one has a stunning vantage point of Porto. It was a beautiful sunny day and I enjoyed every minute of it. I walked around for hours, often wondering how some of the small cars were able to manoeuvre the steep alley ways.
Day 7, (Jan 2) Aveiro
As everything was closed on January 1, I decided to visit the Livraria Lello first thing in the morning. I love book shops and this amazing specially designed book shop dates back to 1906. The large stained glass window bears the bookshop monogram with the motto “Decus in labore” (dignity at work, in Latin). It is so popular that these days one has to buy a Euro 5 book voucher to get in.
Unfortunately, I did not get in to see the stunning interiors. A chap dressed in old fashioned clothes controlling the crowd was at the front of a thirty metre long queue. I did not have the time to wait for that long as I had to reach Aveiro, a short 75km to the south.
At noon I cycled across the lower deck of the Ponte Luis I to Gaia with its many port wine cellars. I had actually intended to tour one but I gave that a miss too as the weather was not great. It was cloudy with a strong wind. Instead, I followed the river to the Atlantic. I cycled along the Cais do Lugan where the council had broadened the road by adding a wooden cycle path which was suspended above the water. It did miss two planks but luckily not in succession.
Continuing along, I followed a broad 20km long cycle path occasionally interrupted by a bit of road which often left me wondering why the council did not bother to place proper road signs. The ocean views were great. At Espinho I left the beach behind and followed the N109 all the way to Aveiro. While it was not the most scenic route, most was semi-industrial, it was the easiest route without much chance to get lost.
Just before 4pm I reached Aveiro. It is a weird but pretty place. Built on former salt pans, the town is known as “the Portuguese Venice”, due to its system of canals and boats painted gondola-style boats known as moliceiros. On the quay sides in the older part of the city are charming Art Nouveau houses in pastel shades. I stayed in a pastel blue centenary house, the Aveiro Rossio Hostel. It is a stunning hostel with great common areas. I struggled to get hot water but a note indicated that I needed to exert some patience for the solar water to reach. After several minutes I realized that I had to turn the tap the other direction…
Walking around the old town was not much of an effort. It is small. To my delight I spotted a true bicycle cafe called Zé das Bikes. Paulo Ramirez gave me a port wine while he drank a Heineken and his colleague checked the tyres of my bike. Dinner that day consisted of a soup, a light pizza, and a spaghetti Bolognaise at the local Italian restaurant. While planning the next day I realised the guys at the bike shop had been a great source of information, useful for the next stage of my tour: Nazaré, 150km south.
Day 8, (Jan 3) Nazaré
When cycling long distances the main thing to do is to maintain a string of short realistic targets. Never think of the final destination but take one segment at the time.
The first major town for me to reach was Mira. I had done 30km and it would be another 40km for me to reach Figueira da Foz, roughly half way Nazaré. The route was very pretty and thank goodness the sun was breaking through occasionally.
In Figueira da Foz I had a look for reputably the highest surf in the world but the beach was so broad that I couldn’t be bothered. However I did see a statue of an Indian.
Figueira da Foz
Hungry, I continued into town for lunch. For the first time I treated myself to a proper lunch as thus far I had been snacking on energy bars. A friendly lady served me the menu of the day: a soup and what looked like veal with chips. All that for just 6 Euro.
Energized I made my way out of town and crossed the massive bridge by using the pedestrian path. With all the heavy traffic the main road was too scary to consider. Portugal does not have many special bicycle lanes and one normally just cycles on the side of the road.
One exception is the 60km long Atlantic Cycle Route. Typically Portuguese, finding the cycle route was difficult. I looked near Leirosa but nobody knew anything about cycle paths. It looked like all the people living there were employed at the nearby Celbi cellulose plant.
I continued and suddenly saw a sign. I cycled around Fontinha a couple of times getting lost as to my direction but quite quickly I reached the red Atlantic Cycle path. I may be wrong but it did look to me as if the government had needed to burn an EU fund. The 2 metre wide cycle path was right next to a decent road through the national park where hardly a car was passing.
The route was gently undulating and pretty even though the effects of huge bush fires were still clear to see. After my Garmin displayed I had covered around 120km I reached the ocean again. Unfortunately, it was already around 6pm and it was slowly getting dark albeit after a beautiful sunset at times masked by the burned trees.
At São Pedro de Moel the cyle path finished and I happily followed the brown road signs to Nazaré. That turned out a grave mistake. I should have continued to Pedra do Ouro and straight to Nazaré. I now had some extra climbing to do and cycling in the dark became a slow affair.
At each road junction there were two concrete poles blocking cars from going onto the cycle path. Why a car driver would consider that bewildered me somewhat. It also made my ride in the dark a lot more dangerous. The most scary part was when I raced down a hill and suddenly was faced with a heap of sand on the path nearly throwing me of my bike. I skipped a heart beat or two and thought of the never ending words of caution from my lovely wife many miles away.
The last stretch felt like an eternity. I was delighted to finally, after 174km and 1,024 m of climbing, race down the steep hills to the beach of Nazaré. The time was 18:56. I booked myself in the Lab Hostel, right in the middle of a pedestrian only area, and had a hot shower.
The dorm itself was a steam bath as a group of Germans had enjoyed a shower before me and obviously the ventilator was absent or did not work. I had a quick rather lousy meal around the corner and hit the sack. Lisbon was only 130km away. I was on track.
Day 9, (Jan 4) Lisbon The final stage of my tour was tricky for me. The first place for me to reach was Óbidos, 37km away. I had seen that there were trains from there to Lisbon which was tempting but Óbidos was too close. The next place would be Torres Vedras after 70km. That would be the last point to catch a train to Lisbon and be there in time to hand in my cycle. My main concern was the amount of traffic into Lisbon.
Óbidos was a huge pleasant surprise. This little walled fortress town was an absolute gem. The cobble stones were not really inviting, not for my tyres nor for my cycle shoes. I could only walk around as the small roads were too crowded with tourists. Historically, Óbidos was presented to the Queen of Portugal on her wedding day, a tradition that began with Queen Urraca in 1214 and continued until the 19th century.
Once I reached Torres Vedras, the temptation to cycle all the way to Lisbon was too great and traffic was surprisingly little. The last 50km would logically take only some 2 hours. I had not counted on two steep climbs before Lisbon. Especially the one before Odivelas was steep.
In Odivelas, I asked a girl of African descent for the way into Lisbon. I was pleased she spoke good English and but she told me that it was a long way and where exactly did I want to go? I decided that her perception of distance was not mine. There was little point to enlighten her that I had already done over a hundred kilometre that day. I cycled on and in no time spotted the sign indicating that I had reached the Lisbon city limit. Seeing that sign put a smile on my face.
Time was running out if I were to reach the cycle shop before closing time at 18:00. I raced into Lisbon using the empty bus/motorbike lanes to maintain my speed. I passed Campo Grande and followed the road signs saying Centro. I took the Avenida da Liberdade and quickly continued on to the Rua Aurea until I reached the waterfront. I recognised my location and turned left into the Rua do Arsenal and reached the cycle shop. It was 17:51.
The guy at the shop was very friendly offering me to use the shower etc. I was just happy to hand in the bike afraid of possible theft in Lisbon. I happily walked to my hostel passing the impressive government building on the Praça do Comércio, all lit up for the festive season.
The Yes Lisbon Hostel was just 800m away. It was fabulous. Every evening the bar was open and you could join the group dinner at 9pm for just ten bucks. It felt as a warm welcome back.
Day 10, (Jan 5) rest day in Lisbon
The next day was a day of relaxation. It was sunny and the temperature was quite pleasant. In the morning I again walked around the Alfama district. The hill on which São Jorge Castle stands has played an important part in the history of Lisbon, having served as the location of fortifications occupied successively by Phoenicians, Carthaginians, Romans, and Moors, before its conquest by the Portuguese in the 1147 Siege of Lisbon during the Second Crusade.
I strolled along the water front back via Terreiro do Paçoto to the Rua do Arsenal and had a nice lunch at a road site terrace. I enjoyed the warmth of the sun. On Avenida Ribeira das Naus was a large patch of grass overlooking the Tagus river were I joined others to enjoy the last sun of the day.
The hostel was a great place to meet fellow travellers. One of them was a Spanish history of art teacher who seemed to make travel his second profession. We agreed to travel together to Sintra the next day to see the Castelo dos Mouros, the Castle of the Moors.
Day 11, (Jan 6) Sintra and departure
The train ride to Sintra took about an hour. We passed Benfica station, a name that stuck with me since the 1969 football match against Ajax.
In Sintra we decided to walk up to the castle. That was easier said than done as the ruinous castle is situated on the top of the Sintra Mountains. Built by the Moors in the 8th and 9th centuries, it was an important strategic point during the Reconquista and a watchtower to protect Lisbon and its surroundings. These days it is a UNESCO world heritage site.
By the time we covered the several hundred meter in altitude, the back of my T-shirt was distinct moist. The panoramic view of the surroundings was stunning though. We continued to climb the fortifications which by that time nearly killed me. As the short cut down was blocked for safety reasons we hopped on the bus for the ride down to the train station.
Back in Lisbon we had lunch at Rossio square and from there we split up. I took the elevator down to catch my metro to the airport. It had been a fascinating visit.