Travels in Portugal (Part 2): The Beiras

The second of five posts of our adventures through Portugal. To read Part 1-our time in Lisbon click here.

The Beiras: Hilltop castles & sleepy villages

Lots of hills, sun and castles; the beginning of our cycling trip in Portugal.

Our first taste of cycling in Portugal began in the Beiras.  Located north and central in the country it’s a land of high mountains, quiet stone villages clinging to hillsides, crumbling castles mixed with rolling valleys of cork forests and olive trees.                                              But our first challenge was just getting out of Lisbon with 2 bikes and 4 panniers each. Our plan: to get 4 hours northeast of Lisbon, away from the city and the hot surrounding area of the Alentejo. The ticket agents at the train station told us we would have to completely dismantle our bikes to take the fast IC train to Guarda (our starting point) and still, if the train was busy, we may not be allowed on. Or we could take the slow milk run Regional trains that at the moment were having intermittent strikes, meaning it could take days to get to Guarda-approximately 300km away. The bus companies? Flat out refused to take bikes, even packaged bikes. A shuttle, even one operated by a bike tour company? Nope, they wouldn’t drive that far. We even asked at a well-known bike rental and tour company in Lisbon (which will remain unnamed!) how most cycle tourists get out of Lisbon-they’re answer…They ride!                                                                                                                          In the end we decided to take our chances with packaging up our bikes in our CTC plastic bags and cramming all our panniers and gear into two surf bags. In the early morning, a week after we arrived in Lisbon, we carried our bikes on our shoulders and lugged our surf bags, with 50lbs of gear each, on our backs to the Metro and made our way to the Oriente train station.

Bikes bagged and panniers packed. (Nervously) waiting for the train.

In the end our worries were unfounded and we made it unscathed to Guarda. For the next 8 days we cycled a loop through the Beira Alta (Upper Beira) and Beira Baixa (Lower Beira). Our initial plan was to follow the GR22 Historical Villages route, an off-road track that winds its way through 10 historical stone villages. We cycled out of Guarda our first day, lighthearted and excited. We pedaled through the small stone villages of Trinta and Videmonte as we made our way into the steep hills and mountains of the Parque Natural Da Serra Da Estrela.

At the top of a steep pass on the edge of the Parque Natural Da Serra Da Estrela

The roads became much steeper-we would fly down into the valley and with barely any noticeable section of flat we would start grunting our way back up again, over and over. Following the right road also proved to be somewhat of a challenge as signage in the area was minimal.  Even with our 3 mapping devices-a GPS, paper maps and an iPad (using Google Maps) we were still having trouble finding the right small road that would lead us onto the GR 22 and eventually our campsite. In Videmonte we stopped for an espresso, while seeking out some friendly villagers for help.  Most had never heard of the campsite we were headed towards and while wishing us luck also seemed unconvinced with our direction of travel.

The electronic dashboard-bike computer, GPS, Dahon Reecharge

Map reading-an ominous sign of things to come!

As sunlight was waning, our road, with numerous unnamed and unsigned dirt tracks leading off it, came to a deadend. In a foreign country, on our first day, we had essentially lost our way to our destination. We definitely didn’t want to be cycling in the dark so we found a small patch of field off the farm road, set up camp, drowned out our worries in a jar of Nutella and decided to tackle the problem in the morning.

The sun rising over our wild camp spot.

Leaving our wild campsite the next morning, heading back the way we came, rule #1 of the trip was established: No following roads that weren’t on our paper maps. We were quickly discovering the GPS had an immense amount of unnamed tracks to get lost on and the iPad could be spotty with service so the paper maps seemed the most reliable. Our new plan: Abandon the GR 22 route, follow small highways and see as many medieval villages and castles we could on our way. We sheepishly cycled back through Videmonte and south towards Valhelhas, Belmonte  and Sortelha.

Looking towards the Serra da Estrela on our way to Belmonte

The hills continued but our hearts were light as we cycled along, comforted now by road signs and directions leading us on our way (not quite our usual adventurous selves in a foreign country!).

The castle at Belmonte. Belmonte is known as one of the Portugal towns that Jewish faith was kept alive in secrecy during the years of the Inquisition, the late 15th century.

We stopped for a picnic lunch in Belmonte. We grunted and groaned up the steep hills to the town centre in the hot midday sun. It was our first visit to a historical village complete with a hilltop castle and we quickly realized that if we planned to visit every hilltop castle we were going to be riding up some very steep hills, with heavy loads! Rule #2: we would save some energy and see some of the castles from the bottom of the hills along the highway.

Looking east from the Belmonte castle

Our first stretch of flat! An empty tree-lined highway heading towards Sortelha.

We made it to Sortelha late in the hot afternoon. The journey up to the town was an adventure in itself. An incredibly steep uphill climb had us on and off of our bikes with the town hidden behind massive granite boulders. But it was all worth it in the end.

The hilly road to Sortelha

The entrance to old Sortelha

A beautifully intact stone village with a complete fortified wall surrounding it, we fell in love with Sortelha. It was exactly how we had imagined a medieval Portuguese town to look like. Best of all-no one was here! Besides a few locals the town was eerily quiet. Our room for the night was an entire house built into the granite rock. The evening was spent covertly snapping pictures of a bride and groom on the castle walls and we were up early the next morning catching the sunrise over the town walls.

Our stone walled bedroom

The narrow lanes of Sortelha

We reluctantly left Sortelha, curiosity of what lay ahead getting the better of us, and continued south towards the infamous Monsanto, named the most Portuguese village in 1938. The small highways remained quiet and were bordered by vines of plump purple grapes, gardens of squash (some as big as our heads!) and rows of cork trees.

We spent two nights at a riverside (mostly empty) campsite south of Penamacor (complete with a snack bar and pool!) and did a day trip to Monsanto. Our campsite neighbours, Paulo and Claudia from Lisbon, poured over our maps pointing out dozens of sights we should see in our 3 weeks of cycling. They also gave us an insight into Portugal’s suffering economy. For young professionals like them, they told us, there were no jobs, no industry and many people were leaving Portugal for countries such as France, Brazil and Angola. This would explain why in many towns we had cycled through the few villagers we did see were at least 50 years or older.

The historical village of Monsanto perched on the hillside.

Monsanto-large granite boulders surround the town and make up many of the walls of the buildings.

Beautiful as Monsanto was, we had been spoiled by the amazing Sortelha.

And so we settled into our rhythm of bike touring. Up early, usually before sunrise to beat the heat, a simple breakfast of museli, yogurt and instant coffee. 90 minutes later we would be packed and on our bikes.

An early morning start-with temperatures reaching the mid 30’s by early afternoon most of our cycling was done in the morning.

Mid morning the search for the ever present plastic chairs and slogan bearing awnings outside a cafe would begin. We would linger over the most amazing espresso while browsing over the maps.

Portuguese espresso has ruined average North American drip coffee for us!

Lunch usually consisted of hearty bread, local cheese, tomatoes, nuts and probably some nutella. A couple hours later, with temperatures soaring, we would start to look for a place to spend the night.

We headed north through Sabugal and had an unexpected stay in the little town of Quadrazais. The day had been long and we had cycled through the hot afternoon sun. We found ourselves in Quadrazais desperate to find a wild camp spot. According to the map there was a forest bordering the town but each time we pedalled along a road in that direction there continued to be farmland and houses. Using our few Portuguese words and hand motions we asked some of the town’s people about a place to stay. Surprisingly they all spoke perfect French. Jenn’s French is rusty but we finally managed to find two friendly men who said “they knew a man” “who had a house” and Houston was whisked away in a car to meet this man. Eventually Houston returned with “the man”, a friendly older gentleman (regretably we did not get his name) who also spoke immpecable French. He was the caretaker of the Casa do Manego, a beautifully restored stone house, part of Portugal’s Turismo Rural.

Casa do Manego

The view from the Casa

It was here, at this beautiful Casa, the beauty of Portugal really struck us. So many wonderfully preserved villages, amazing scenery, charming (and cheap ) accomodation, pleasant people and yet everywhere was so quiet. It was like we had stumbled upon Europe’s best kept secret. We were happy to have these places to ourselves and yet we felt a touch of melancholy knowing the Portuguese economy is suffering and the Portuguese people could benefit so much from others seeing these incredible areas.

From Quadrazais we continued on cycling to the border town of Vilar Formoso, with it’s kitschy shops and transient feel that all border towns seem to share. We stepped over the Portugal/Spain border to have a peek and decided we preferred the Portuguese side.

Then it was on through the historical villages of Castelo Mendo, Almeida and Castelo Rodrigo. The roads remained hilly and quiet with the beautiful vistas of hilltop crumbling castles and fortified villages along the way.

From Castelo Rodrigo we continued northwest towards Castelo Melhor and began to see our first glimpses of the magnificant Douro valley.

Particulars:

Accomodation:

Maps

  • Michelin Spain & Portugal Atlas 1:400000
  • iPad: Google maps
  • GPS: Portugal Openstreet Map

Money

  • Train tickets: Lisbon-Guarda IC direct train-21 Euros each
  • Casa: 50-55 Euros including breakfast for 2
  • Campismo: 8 Euros (incl. 2 people, 1 tent, no electricity)
  • Food: Groceries-approx. 20 Euros per day for 2 people
  • Cafe: less than 1 Euro for the best cup of espresso

Resources

About rambleoutyonder

A duo inspired to live life to the fullest.
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8 Responses to Travels in Portugal (Part 2): The Beiras

  1. Fil says:

    nice place, I must go because it seems fantastic. good job

  2. WOW! We have always wanted to tour Portugal. Thanks for the info and resource tips.
    BTW, what was the resistance to pedaling from Lisbon? Time constraints or terrain?

    • Hi! Thanks for checking out our site. We would definitely recommend Portugal for cycling, beautiful, quiet, cheap. As for pedalling from Lisbon, the biggest resistance was time constraints. Having only 3 weeks to cycle we really wanted to see the Historical Villages area, the Douro and the Geres mountains. Cycling from Lisbon would have added ALOT of distance to our trip! Not to mention a bit of a headache with the city traffic. Train travel with the bikes was a little frustrating but we’d do it again.
      We are really enjoying reading through your blog, awesome work on the e-book. We too may be ex-pats soon in Europe and the book now has us definitely dreaming of Warsaw for a cycling trip!

      • Hey- thanks for replying. I agree cycling from city centers has often been the most difficult and time sucking part of many of our trips. Glad to hear it worked out for you. We’re adding Portugal to our list of ‘must-cycle’ places. That list seems to be growing longer all the time.
        Thanks fo the kind words about the blog and book. I’d say Warsaw is not the greatest city to see by bike, but if you’re here then you should check it out. Poland on the whole, however is remarkable to cycle. I have to say when we moved here I was skeptical, but the utter lack of pretense, low cost, plethora of back roads and history has made it a joy.

        ~tyler

  3. Nancy and Paul Wright says:

    Hey guys,
    GREAT blog…OMG, now you have to take Paul and I! We loved Portugal and to cycle it would be a dream. So glad you guys go to live the dream.
    Can’t wait to see you next weekend.
    Love you.
    Nance

  4. Pingback: Travels In Portugal (Part 3): The Douro | rambleoutyonder

  5. Pingback: Travels In Portugal (Part 4): Tras-Os-Montes & Parque Nacional Da Peneda-Geres | rambleoutyonder

  6. Pingback: Travels In Portugal (Part 5): The Atlantic Coast | rambleoutyonder

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