When a friend suggested a cycling jaunt in Portugal, I initially scoffed. While I don’t mind riding to the market on a Saturday, piling the basket high with fresh produce, then riding the 10 minutes home again, cycling for a holiday seemed quite beyond my pedal power.
Cycling is undoubtedly the sport du jour. Whether you live in Hong Kong, Sydney or Seattle, you’ve no doubt eyeballed the packs of lycra-clad cyclists speeding around your neighbourhood. For some, lycra is a vehicle for their midlife crisis (you know who I mean) but for others, cycling is a more relaxing pursuit.
After a little research, though, I began to think that not only could I tackle such a holiday, I might also enjoy it. The allure of picturesque landscapes and exceptional food and wine, with some exercise thrown in, didn’t seem like a bad idea at all.
Self-guided cycling holidays are having their moment in the sun. An organised, active holiday where you don’t have to endure the pain of a big tour group can make for a rewarding trip. The other beauty of this kind of travel is its flexibility. The key is to work with a tour company that can create an itinerary to suit your needs. In our case, those were to enjoy some fairly easy cycling while also having time to explore.
Portugal is an ideal country if you’re looking for somewhere away from the tourist hordes. What particularly appealed to us about the Northern Portugal itinerary we chose was the opportunity to see Porto and the Douro Valley. We’d be enjoying a vibrant European city break and also experiencing some spectacular nature.
The winding Douro River is the vein of life that pulses through the Douro Valley. It has been the major transport route for wine into and out of this area for centuries. Pinhão, our first stop, is one of the more popular towns along the river. Our accommodation at the aptly named Vintage House had views stretching for miles along the impressive watercourse. During our autumn visit, the vines were changing from the vibrant green of summer to a rusty orange in preparation for falling from the vine.
With river scenes and terraced vineyards filling every square inch, the Douro is one of the most picturesque wine regions you could visit. I may have been a little nervous about our cycling, but I was looking forward to seeing these views with my own eyes.
For our self-guided tour, we had the option of moving accommodation each day, or doing a ride that brought us back each day to our starting hotel. Our first day was spent cycling high up into the hills around Pinhão, after which we returned to Vintage House. The scenery was breathtaking; and, while clear skies eluded us, we were happy to have the cloud cover keep the temperature down.
Our hybrid bikes easily negotiated the steep stretches, patches of cobblestones and bitumen roads. Handily, they come equipped with small baskets or bags for you to pack all the little essentials in: phone, food, a cheeky bottle of wine and a jacket or poncho.
After packing our bags on Day Two, we stepped on the pedals to cover a distance of 37km to our next hotel. No going back this time! Conveniently, our luggage was moved for us, so the riding was free and easy. What’s more, we were welcomed by beautiful, clear skies that set the scene for what was to come. We lapped up every moment of the undulating hills, the coffee stops in little villages, eating a packed lunch at the edge of a vineyard, and the quiet, traffic-free roads we’d been guided through.
A highlight of a cycling trip is the feeling of satisfaction and achievement after each day’s ride. While there’s some hard work involved, the joy of pedalling towards a picturesque hotel surrounded by rolling vineyards is something special.
Food, wine and more
I’m a keen foodie, so one of my greatest holiday pleasures is to experience the eating and drinking culture of a country. Portugal is famous mostly for its port, but the Douro Valley also produces excellent wine. Part of the appeal of this holiday was the prospect of enjoying both food and wine at the end of a hard day’s cycling.
Each afternoon as we approached our destination, we’d imagine the culinary delights that were in store. And we were never disappointed. From the petiscos (Portuguese tapas) served with our evening drink to hearty stews and chocolatey desserts, we devoured everything. The good thing about cycling all day is that you can gorge at every mealtime, completely guilt-free.
The best times for a cycling holiday in Portugal are spring and autumn, when cooler temperatures make things more comfortable. We chose autumn and were treated to mixed weather that included spectacular days of sunshine, some cloud cover and a little rain.
Exploring the Douro is only one must-do in Portugal’s north; it’s well worth adding a few days to your itinerary to explore the cobbled streets of Porto. That’s where you’ll find the port houses that the region is famous for; Taylor’s, Sandeman and Ferreira, among others, line the banks of the river and beckon not just with their port, but also their food and other wine.
Self-guided tour operators
We chose tour operator We Love Small Hotels for our trip; it provides a range of self-guided tours – ours included door-to-door service, return transfers from the airport, bed and breakfast plus some lunches, luggage transfers each day, bikes, GPS units with detailed bike tracks, and friendly service. The company operates across all of Portugal – north and south, coastal and inland. Tours include walking, cycling and, a recent addition, surfing.
Mediterras also offers private biking tours that are strongly oriented to cultural and gastronomic experiences; every tour is customised according to your interests, so you get maximum enjoyment from it.
On all these tours, guides will set up your bikes for you and take you through everything you need to know. They also run through the personalised tracks that have been created for your journey. These tracks were our lifeline each day, as they showed our progress and position.
Another upside of working with a local tour operator is that it can build an itinerary for a group that has differing requirements. If your group includes a mix of cycling levels, let’s say, separate tracks can be created to suit each member of the group. For example, if you’ve cycled 30km together and there are keen riders hankering for more, they can zoom off and do another 30 or 40km, or whatever their crazy hearts desire.
The rest can stay back and get stuck into the difficult task of sitting around and sampling a few more of those fine wines.
This article first appeared in the June/July edition of Expat Living magazine. Subscribe now so you never miss an issue!
Want to know more about Portugal? Check out our story on 10 holiday hotspots for 2017