In Portugal our focus was not on cycling. We anticipated beach, food and Fado – a holiday at the end of our travels. Any cycling was considered a bonus. The great fatigue at the end of a long season, and maybe a bit of cycling snobbery, had set in. After having ticked off all the big Passos and Cols in the Dolomites, Alps and Pyrenees, what great cycling could there be in Portugal?
But even without any famous loops or roads on our agenda, we never kept off the bikes for too long. It was inevitable that we would explore some Portuguese roads. Most of our riding in Portugal was flat, scenic stretches along the coast. We had also asked around for cycling tips and had gotten two hints from our friend Martin. The third ride that I chose to write about here, we discovered ourselves.
But before I go into more detail about these three most memorable rides in Portugal, one thing upfront: Expect bad driver behaviour in Portugal and be careful!
Lulled into a false sense of security after riding in Germany, Holland, Belgium and France, cycling on Portuguese roads resembled Australian conditions more than I had anticipated. The Portuguese are wonderfully warm and welcoming people but put behind a steering wheel, they transform from Dr Jekyll into Mr Hide. Drivers are less considered of other road users in general and cyclists seem less respected on Portuguese roads in comparison to other European countries. There were also fewer cyclists seen around.
Portugal may not have the really high mountains of other European cycling nations but there is still a lot to be proud of in Portugal. The first ride came highly recommended by one of our cycling friends. It wasn’t exactly a flat ride.
We drove from Lisbon to Cascais, a scenic one hour drive, and parked our motorhome near the fortaleza de Cascais, the Cascais fortress overlooking the ocean. Cascais and Sintra are to Lisbon what Noosa is to Brisbane – a posh seaside escape for stressed and overworked city dwellers.
The first part of the ride lead us along the coast. The Atlantic ocean to our left; bush, sand dunes and grass land to our left.
It was a sightseeing tour and our first stop was Cabo da Roca, the most Western point of Europe. We sat on the stone wall overlooking the cliffs and the breaking waves of the Atlantic Ocean. Tourists surrounded the little monument rock and we stood in line for the opportunity to take our photograph as well.
This all was quite fun because of the banter with the Germans, who admired our bikes and teased us about the long climb back up to the road. That climb wasn’t a tough one at all with eleven gears, but it certainly would have been for those two German girls who had come all the way from Cascais on hired city bikes with no gears at all.
The fishing village was so charming with it’s fish restaurants and model fishing boats and chefs standing outside waiting for the first lunch guests to come up from the lighthouse.
We continued our ride without a lunch break. It was tempting to stop because the little restaurants looked so rustic and picturesque and I imagined the seafood so fresh and the recipes so age-old. Maybe the fishing village wasn’t quite as authentic anymore as it would have been some hundred years ago but the fruit and vegetable stores along the road were the real thing for sure. Local produce, fresh stuff directly from the farmer’s fields. But we didn’t stop here either.
When we rolled into the old town of Sintra with it’s charming royal retreats, palaces, castles and mansions, I was shocked by the sheer number of people. Cars choked the road, pedestrians filled the side walks, parks and squares, and people spilled out of restaurants and bars and cafés. It was a beautiful place but our plan to have lunch here was thrown out quickly. I would have loved to stay longer and see more than just the National Palace but it was simply too busy and touristy to stay for long.
The road climbed up a bit more through the town and we squeezed pass slow moving or even stationary tourist busses and cars until we decided to turn off, just to get away from the traffic and the beeping horns and stressed people. Mind you, it was still school holidays and summer season. This might have been different, had we been there a week later.
But once we were out of the main drag, all became serene and quiet again. The road started dipping steeply down the mountain side back towards the ocean. I regretted flying so fast down the narrow road because left and right I caught glimpses of majestic mansions amongst the thick forest. Old stone carved gargoyles eyed us from big gates. It was cool and dark under the roof of green leaves. There was no room for a foot path, not even enough room for two cars to pass one another safely between the stone walls on each side. This was my favourite part of the ride and I was disappointed when we – all too soon – popped out on the flat coastal road again. From there it was a smooth ride back to Cascais but not without stopping at a little worker’s milk bar for some well-deserved lunch.