Cycling In Paradise: a tour with Portugal Best Cycling
Portugal is seldom seen in peoples top five list of places to visit – which is a shame. Portugal is a beautiful county filled with restaurants that all feel like they are serving their best version of local dishes and national wines, some of the best urban and rural vistas of historic sites ranging from the Neolithic era through the Moorish occupancy up to the modern era, and people that make you welcome no matter where you go.
One of the best ways to experience a county is by bicycle, which gives you more time to encounter the people, the food, the wine and the history that infuses every place you ride. Think I am exaggerating? Try riding thru a small farming town where almost everyone greets you with ‘bom dia’ (good morning in Portuguese), or stopping at a small local café in your riding shorts and shirt and hearing a farmer dressed in sweater and corduroy pants ask your guide “ Where are your friends from, don’t they know it’s not summer yet?”. How about picking a restaurant at random in the World Heritage Site city of Evora for the best grilled sardines (quarter pound each) you have ever had with a locally produced white wine that would win a prize back home. And this was after a morning ride to see the Cromeleque dos Almendres (cromlechs are rocks in an oval formation similar to Stonehenge) dating from 5500 BC which are thought to be the oldest in Europe – older than Stonehenge. We then had a pleasant ride thru a cork tree forest, stopping to see the Anta Grande do Zambujeiro – a dolmen (burial tomb) thought to be the tallest of its kind and dating between 4,000 and 3,000 BC. And that was just getting us thru lunch! After lunch it was the Capela dos Ossos (bone chapel), the Roman Temple, the city squares with their own stories told with a special brand of humor by our guide, and a view of the 16th century aqueduct.
Hopefully by now you get the impression that bicycling in Alentejo (‘Land beyond the Tejo River’) region is as I said, an exceptional and unique way to experience Portugal. The Alentejo lends itself well to travel by bicycle with its rolling hills (and one or two challenging climbs to visit historic Castelo (castle) towns. But our trip was made one of the best we have experienced by the company we did the trip with, and in great part because it is a family run company with the ability to make both employees and guests feel part of the family. We stayed at the farmhouse – which is a dedicated guest house with four guest rooms, a large sitting area with honor bar, dining room, and a kitchen with a guest use refrigerator. The house, which shows the regional Alentejo architecture of thick white exterior walls with blue trim, is made even more comfortable and appealing by the garden setting and orange trees just outside your door. Mentioning the dining room brings to mind the breakfasts. This family run company and its’ wonderfully friendly staff know you need your energy for these bike rides. Think European breakfast with several cheeses, meats, breads, homemade jams – all locally sourced of course – fresh coffee and a big bowl of just picked oranges ready for the juicing machine.
The dining room was also where the three evening meals we scheduled at the farm were served. By the way – that day I described above was the second day in our trip and we were not scheduled for dinner at the farm that night. Frankly, we were too tired that day to go into town and look for a restaurant so we had leftovers from the previous night’s meal – which the hostess let us keep in the guest refrigerator – filled out with some cheese, meat, and bread we had picked up during our ride. Oh – and wine. Have to have wine in a county with a greater variety of wine regions than California. Why were there leftovers? I told you they served generous portions at breakfast – that goes for dinner too. And the dinners were classic dishes of the Alentejo region including fish, pork, cheese and migas. What is migas? You will have to go and find out – just make sure you ask for Migas a Alentejana. Or just migas – it’s all good.
This review is getting a bit long and you can read about the details of the trips they offer at the website (http://www.portugalbestcycling.com/index.php ) but you should have formed the idea that a bicycle visit to Portugal and the Alentejo region as presented by Portugal Best Cycling is an experience not to be missed. You can find other companies that offer bike tours in Portugal but they can not offer the mix of knowledge, service, and friendliness offered by the owners and staff that work there. Each person made their own special contribution to our trip.
Ana Barbosa founded the company and has been an influential force in the tourist industry in Portugal. Ana gave us a guided tour of the property and shared stores of the region and her husband’s collection of antique autos housed on the property. Her daughter, Teresa Vilas Boas has taken over (is taking over?) the business. Teresa sets the tone for the entire staff with a mix of professionalism, knowledge of the history of the region, and just plain friendliness unmatched by any company my wife and I have toured with – and which she has developed in all her staff. Teresa was our guide on two of our rides and I was amazed at her knowledge of the region. It seemed everywhere we stopped she had a story or a bit of history to share. Everything from the story of Queen Saint Isabel of Estremoz turning bread into roses (mid 11th century) to why the local girls still throw stones on top of a cromlech near the town where the door lintels, door steps and even the cobble stones in the streets are all made of white marble.
Our first day ride was guided by Maria Verdasca and Luis Pegado both consummate guides with their own special set of skills that made the day a joy to experience, and something I am still benefiting from. Maria is not only fun to ride with, sharing stories and knowledge of the region, she is also instills in her clients an awareness of what safe riding is about. Her infectious smile and delight in sharing what is special about her country while riding down one of Portugal’s EcoTrails makes you happy to be there. Luis is that special mix of professional knowledge and humor that you look for in a riding buddy. The added benefit is that Luis is an internationally trained bike mechanic that understands how to fit the bike to the body. After watching me ride for just a few minutes he asked if my hand ever went numb while riding. Yes – it does. I thought that was just a part of riding. Luis adjusted my handle bars and I never experienced that numbness the whole time there. And I did the same adjustment when we got home to both our bikes. Luis is another of Portugal’s lovers and he shared this with us with his engaging brand of humor.
Our other guide was Luis Carrapatoso – an architect by education but a bike guide and racer by enthusiasm. Luis was clearly part of the Portugal Best Cycling family making our rides interesting with his stories of the places we visited (ask about the two heads on the Avora city crest) shared with his quite humor. Luis took us to a café fit into our ride between a castelo and a winery that normally does not server tourists because the fare was so plain. Think good thick sausage, local semi-soft white cheese, the think round loaves of Portuguese bread served in a little four table café where the women sit talking about the men and the men talk about sports. Good thing Luis was there to get us into this intriguing slice of Portugal.
Oh – wait – wait – I haven’t mentioned the guest staff. Joana and Manuela took care of us at the ‘farm’ making sure the rooms were just right, the food was served with great cheer and drove us when we needed to cut a few miles off the longer rides.
Portugal is a ‘must’ for your places to visit by bicycle or car. And you could not find a better group to help you find your own unique, never to be forgotten, experience of Portugal.
Phill – 2015