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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
- Guarda: Campismo Municipal da Guarda
- Videmonte: wildcamp spot
- Sortelha: Casas do Campanario: http://www.casasdocampanario.com.pt/
- Penamacor: Freixal Campismo-11km east of Penamacor
- Quadrazais: Casa do Manego: http://www.meiachoina.com
- Vilar Formoso: Residencial Hotel
- Michelin Spain & Portugal Atlas 1:400000
- iPad: Google maps
- GPS: Portugal Openstreet Map
- 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
- Book: Lonely Planet Portugal
- Book: Camping Portugal: Roteiro Campista
- Book: The Portuguese: A Modern History by Barry Hatton
- Web: http://www.everytrail.com/view_trip.php?trip_id=1064572 – A fellow cyclist’s journey on the GR 22
- Web: Historical Villages website: http://www.aldeiashistoricasdeportugal.com/
- Web: http://pedalportugal.wordpress.com/planning/roads-maps/
- Friendly locals