Saturday 2 July … Belmonte to Monsanto

WOW, WOW, WOW …

We immediately found our climbing legs and gears on the bikes.

A beautiful ride on backroads and lanes with rolling hills and lots of tiny villages. A few road cyclists not much traffic. Grape vines, peach orchards, cherry trees, cattle, sheep, goats are all in the mix today, not to mention those sweet smelling pines and plantations of gum trees.

The little villages with the locals on the corner having a coffee and beer; the lady wiping her outside table as her husband is enjoying a beer at 11am … I say, ‘Bon Dai’ John shouts “we are from Australia”. I’m sure tour cyclists don’t venture here. The very little old lady walking down the street we say ‘hi’ to her and stop, she is talking in Portugese, we tell her we are off to Monsanto, she holds my arm … probably telling me it’s a lot of hills and it’s going to be hot.

No end of surprises today, every steep hill ends with amazing scenery. A coffee stop in a village, it’s the local watering hole, a man-made pool in the river and a Cafe, I’m tempted to join the group of kids diving in and cooling off, they look like they have been playing sport.

A sound of cheering and a horn blows, as we are directed by a stadium, the local soccer game has just finished.

It’s after noon, we are only 16km from the Spanish border, the temperature is topping 41.3C and the hills are getting to 7-10% just outside of Monsanto. The last few kms have to be walked, it’s too hot and too steep to ride, John cussing.

We are sooo high, view of the plain below and mountains are breathtaking. The hotel room is frosty cold, the air-conditioning is on. We venture to the castle in the heat … we have come this far … giant granite boulders as we weave in the steep streets. We still ask ourselves, ‘how did they build these houses and castles?’

An amazing night out at a restaurant built into the granite rocks … chatting to people from USA and Wales.

Friday 1 July … Guarda to Belmonte

The down starts here says the man at reception …

Mapping the ride today … 610m descent and 70m ascent.  You never know how it pans out however it looked good but there is always a twist; we are on the old national road; the freeway and highway out of our sights.  I can hear John thinking … at any minute we will end up on a gravel track.

It was such a surprise, sunny, lovely road, shaded by tall trees, at times the sweet scent of pines and the most spectacular views of the Zezere Valley and the Serra da Estrela mountains on the other side. It was a short 22km ride and we only worked the pedals for about 3km.

A 2km very steep walk to the old town of Belmonte, today was a history lesson in this medieval town.

  • The 13th century granite castle is the birthplace of Pedro Alvares Cabral in 1467, who at 32 years old lead a fleet of 13 ships and discovered Brazil;
  • The well preserved Jewish Quarter, and a trip to the Jewish museum to learn how the Jews were banned from practising their faith but did so in secret.

The streets are interesting with shops selling local handmade produce.  A few restaurants in the tiny streets with tables and chairs under large shady trees. A lovely place to visit.

The weather is heating up again and a lovely dip in the hotel pool.

We have timed our visit to the centre of Portugal well … it is very quiet and not full of tourists … where are they all? No doubt at the coastal towns soaking up the sun at the beach. Or are they victims of the airport strikes that has hit the UK?

Thursday 30 June … Almeida to Guarda

A carbon copy to yesterday, I wonder if the younger generation would understand ‘carbon copy’ it’s a little obsolete. Anyway quick down cross the bridge over the Coa River then a very slow up.

Lovely weather if not a little chilly first up at 9am, however the hills soon got us warm. We only have 46km today, skirting around and up and down hills on some back roads. Rocky outcrops, vineyards, cherry trees. You have to love the dry rock walls. Little villages along the way. At times our lovely downhills were returned with 11-12% climbs … thanks so much!!!

We are in the real Portugal and the touring I like when …

  • the tiny village is soooo old and the ladies are out sweeping their front path trying to talk to us as we say ‘Bon Dia’;
  • the goats are in the bush and we see dogs by them … the dogs start barking when they see us; the shepherd appears … was ‘he under a haystack fast asleep’;
  • a little village didn’t have a Cafe but the bakery van was pulled up and the 20 something driver is swamped with old ladies buying their daily bread products. We join the queue and have the best and freshest croissant we have had in Portugal, but not before we said no plastic bag we will eat now, a lady went into her house and appeared with paper towel for our purchase. The driver apologised that he couldn’t speak English. He must get more daily gossip than a hairdresser. Off we go and the driver through the village hooting his horn for more sales, he passes us 2 times later on the main road.

Guarda city is at the highest altitude of Portugal. We are staying in the old city, the main square just 100m away, tiny alleys through the town. A fiest for the photographer. It’s exam time and we were lucky to see a group of nursing students in their black capes who were happy to pose for a pic. Those who are Harry Potter fans can relate to the dress. BTW, the dress code came well before Harry Potter, it started at Coimbre University.

A lovely meal tonight. We have wine from the area where we had lunch yesterday. Surprisingly the old town is very quiet and quite cool as we wander back to out dig for tonight.

Wednesday 29 June … Vila Nova de Foz Coa to Almeida

I can see the car disappear’, he said … that is John’s way of guessing we must be at the top of yet another hill.

This is what tour cycling is all about. A great day on the bike, all boxes were ticked, adventure, culture and a much more.

We woke to an amazing view of the valley. I was a little anxious … the route was 5km steep down; 5km steep up then 52km steady up; 950m ascent and 610m descent.

Breakfast was entertaining there was us, Julie from Brazil on bike, Antoine from France on bike and a guy who was going out shooting wild boar, it’s his sport, lovely guy, we were all quivering at his stories and videos of his passion to shoot boar and to sell to butchers … as he lifted a slice of ham at the breakfast table.

Komoot took us on a ‘Cooks tour’ out of town much to John’s displeasure … small cobbled paths and up hills … I thought it was lovely; he was cussing away … haha. Back on the national highway and 7% down to the river, crossing the Còa River with the confluence of the Douro River. It’s quite warm as we start climbing … the Douro River below a glimpse of 2 river boats then more climbing 7-8%. We are blessed as some cloud cover and a little tail wind helped. We are up amongst the vineyards with beautiful views.

We reach the top and plateau with slight inclines and lovely rolling hills. … the landscape also changes … it’s a lot drier with large outcrops of rock. A lovely old village for a coffee … a group of cyclists on a Backroads tour having their scheduled break.

‘Hey John, keep a look out for cork trees’, I say,

‘Oh no … I saw a tree with a number 5 painted on it … it could have been a cork tree’

Further on we find a plantation of trees some with number 6. We laugh and think of how Choo, from Malaysia would be so proud … he was on a hunt for cork trees in Pinhao.

Another lovely town, Figueira de Castelo Rodrigo for lunch then it was smooth slight climbing to Almeida.

A lovely day … lots of changes in the landscape, vineyards, almonds groves, dry rocky outcrops and views of hills. The end result was 1014m elevation gain.

We are very close to the Spanish border. Almeida is a walled fortress in the shape of a star … a quick change and off to explore the old town. Lovely old buildings and view points.

We, on the other hand are staying outside the wall at a very cheap Casa. We are likening it to be a scene from Fawlty Towers.

On arrival the door is open, nobody in sight, keys to rooms all exposed. A phone with a number. We ring; a friend who speaks English says someone will be here soon, the petrol station person next door comes to the rescue and we get the key. After showering and exploring the old city our key doesn’t work. We try the phone and number, leave message, the whole town tries to open door including a 99+yo dear old lady. Finally the owner and his English-speaking mate arrive after an hour. The lock is dodgy but it finally works. All good.

Oh well that’s country Portugal … my mind goes back to the 70’s when you didn’t lock your car or your house … wouldn’t we all love to turn back time.

Tuesday 28 June … Pinhao to Vila Nova de Foz Coa

After a second 2 night stay in the backpacker’s in Pinhao we must move on … we have had such a great time in Pinhao and met some lovely people there, Pedro and Sara are amazing hosts.

Taking it easy today and enjoying another train ride to Pochino hugging the Douro River, it’s very peaceful and relaxing … John nodding off … he’s relaxed. We see 3 riverboats, and some Rabolas … we are approaching the busy tourist season.

Off the train we head towards Vila Nova de Foz Coa, immediately we are climbing, it’s only 8km but the climb is steady and unrelenting. It’s very dry and hot, we stopped for a photo and drink in the shade of a gum tree. There is a village on hills to my right … I’m hoping that is not our destination. Around the hill and we are there. Ummm … it wasn’t exactly taking it easy!

We couldn’t check in to the hostel until 6pm. We drop off panniers and venture into centro … a very clean town and streets, nice gardens in houses. A pedestrian mall with several restaurants and cafes. We rode through the old town … very picturesque.

A claim to fame is the Coa Museum and Rock Art sites of the Coa Valley dating back 20,000 years, and the region is twice a UNESCO listed heritage sites for Pre-Columbian Art history and the Douro Landscape.

Monday 27 June … Pinhao

The river is so small … he said as we climbed a huge hill …

A rush to get out of the door today … we are getting the train from Pinhao to Pochino. Choo,a Malaysian man is with us.  No other bikes on the train … we are safe as only 2 bikes allowed… what a great trip breathtaking scenery of the vineyards and river.  From Tua the landscape changed to more natural bush and large rocks meeting the river.   Pochino is a short 15 minute wait for the return journey … another bike … nice conductor 3 bikes allowed today.  We get off at Tua and ride back … we are going on the route we took a few days ago but not taking a wrong turn this time.  Choo is on foot and confident to do the 20km.

We see where we went wrong before … there is a cobblestone path that leads through the terraced vineyards it’s very steep and we have to walk the bikes for about 3km … the 6km climb had amazing views of the river and vines. Around the hill and to the top is a little village. We are on proper roads now and go through several small villages that look familiar … yes we came by this way before as I remember some more unrelenting climbs before a long descent into Pinhao.

It’s 3pm and we are too late for lunch at a Cafe … a trip to the butcher … ham, bread and cheese, a tomato from the supermarket. Back to the garden on top of the backpackers, sitting under the orange tree looking across a terraced hill with vines, way below is the Pinhao River. What more can I ask for.

Sunday 26 June … Porto to Pinhao

The streets are empty as we leave the hotel at 7.30am … any sign of getting a coffee is in our dreams.  It’s all downhill so we are there in about 10 minutes.

The train strike is over,  at least for today anyway.  More people at stations looking confident.  At the station to get the 8.20am train. There is also a 9.20am train in case there are too many bikes.  Oh no! … another bike on the platform … eeekk!!  The German man is catching the same train.  We are in luck the train has a proper bike area for 12 bikes.  It’s another clear morning, the sun is shining on the hills with terraced vineyards, it’s great to be out of the city.

A lovely train ride to Pinhao, and then off on a hike up the hills through the vineyards with amazing views. I’m so glad we didn’t bring the bikes, some very steep hills. A visit to the Olive Oil Museum for a tour, Tapas and wine, the setting … you guessed it … vineyards and the river … it is so quiet and peaceful. The trek down with a bottle of rosè in my backpack, talking to some French and Norwegian people.

Lovely people at the hostel, a guy from Malaysia and 2 from Germany

Saturday 25 June … Porto

The sun is shining with a few puffy clouds, the city is busy with some tired people around. The Sao Joao Festival celebrations over the last few days have taken it’s toll as the locals party to all hours of the morning. Several restaurants and shops close for a few days … is that why the trains strike?? Nobody wants to miss out!

It is still quite cool here today around 19C a breeze takes the edge off the temperature. A feast for the amateur photographer, many churches, old building, bridges, the river and people what more can you ask for to get a good photo.

Today has no fixed agenda … I did want to see Liveria Lello labelled the most beautiful bookshop in the world, the line way down the road … I will have to be satisfied with pictures on line. But wait it is 5.30pm and it closes at 7pm, off we go for a last chance, the line is not too bad and with a little help from staff with the free wifi we have purchased tickets on line to escalate our entry and are in the doors at 6.30pm. A lovely tiny shop with 2 levels and a pink floored spiral staircase. There is something for everyone as books are available in many languages, as people browse with the intention to buy to get their €5 entrance fee refunded and the shop sticker on the cover.

The narrow house Casa Escondida (hidden house) built between 2 churches was also on my list. An entrance to one of the churches gave you entrance to the house where a couple and their 13 children lived.

Then it was wander time, lunch at an alfresco Cafe with tapas of traditional food, cod fish cakes and some salted cod … both were simply amazing, The streets look very festive as they are still decorated with garlands from the past festivities. A lovely stroll down to the ferry terminal, shops and markets doing a roaring trade, not to mention the restaurants, every vacant area is taken up with tables and chairs. We climbed 221 stairs, John was counting … we carried the bikes down these last week when we were here. Today the bikes are in the hotel garage having a well earned break.

Friday 24 June … Pinhao to Porto

We had a lovely ride from Pinhao to Regua on the N222 … regarded as one of the best touristic roads in the world. We are with Franny who will leave us in Regua and go her merry way. We all agreed our ride yesterday was much better … who are we to decide what is the best road when you are on a bike. River locks amaze me; we stay and watch the process of the river boat going through the lock.

We had a great time in the hostel, 2 German girls left today, they are travelling in an inflatable kayak, today their direction will depend on the wind, we were hoping to see them from the road but we are facing a slight headwinds so our chances are low.

Sipping on a Mateus Rose its all is good. We have had the hassle of the train strike today but managed to get ourselves to Porto with 2 trains. The train ride was beautiful and very scenic. We hope to keep contact with Franny.

Porto was celebrating St Joao yesterday but the celebrations still continue today. I googled 2 traditional restaurants near by and they were closed … the hotel came to the party with a suggestion of a local place which was open … what a great time we had … meal was so so but met some Spanish guys staying at the hotel, some Americans that have migrated here in December … that is quite another story to tell in person.

Thursday 23 June … Pinhao

Not on a train, bus or boat ... on the bike …

Wow factor indeed.  Off on a short 1 hr trip on a rabelo to the river town of Tua with the bikes in tow. A rabelo is a traditional Portugese wooden boat used to transport cargo and people along the Duoro River.

We have Franny with us today, a Belgium girl staying at the same hostel. We are cycling back to Pinhao amongst the vineyards and through the hills and little villages. The views are sensational as we weave through and around the hills with 360° view of vineyards. The vineyards look like patchwork as the rows are planted in different directions. We finish with an amazing downhill back to Pinhao. After 34km of scenery to die for we are back on the river banks of Pinhao. What a wonderful experience.

The train station is a story in itself … tile walls depicting the history of this wine growing village.

A trip to the local butcher for samples before you buy of cured pork, salami and cheese and of course he has fresh bread on offer …