Tag Archives: Portugal

Bikepacking Portugal (Part Three)

After a day of cycling through Lisbon from Cascais and taking a ferry south across the Tagus River we reached Parque Natural da Arrábida. The quiet preserve consists of two main forested peaks and cliffs overlooking the Atlantic Ocean, a pleasant surprise so close to the city. We set up out tent in the cozy wooded Picheleiros Campground which was home for two nights and relaxed with a barbecue and settled in to the first day off from cycling (yay). Although some stretches of the ride so far have been through nature, those sections have been uncommon. The bikes are always on a paved road and the sounds of traffic and daily life are usually around. Inside the park was the first chance to really get away for a meaningful amount of time. It felt great to put down our things, rest our legs and just stop carrying things. A hike up to the Nook Arrábida for a view of the sea was enough for me.

Flowers on the cliffs of Parque Natural da Arrábida.

After two nights and a full rest day we rode downhill from Parque Natural da Arrábida to Setúbal and took another ferry over the Rio Sado and adjacent marshes. A ticket for the ferry is just over three Euros and bikes are allowed for free. After boarding I was struck by how many cyclists were on our connection. The riders seemed to have come from all sorts of places and ranged from day trippers from the Lisbon metro area to long distance travels who had cycled from across Europe.

From the landing in Troia we followed a flat highway road for almost 50 kilometers. Not having stop to check the map for so long took away a lot of stress and freed up my mind to wander and take  in the landscape. To our right sand dunes reflected the afternoon sun and the noise of the sea crashing against cliffs droned on. To our left a patchwork of agricultural plots layered in front of inland hills. I loved the scenery and found it more relaxing and beautiful than the constant string of resort towns between Porto and Lisbon.

Colorful spring fields lined the route.

Our day of travel ended at a campsite near Reserva Natural das Lagoas de Santo André e Sancha. Known for the various birds that call it home the lagoon is a beautiful contrast to the wild sea and I made an evening visit at low tide and wandered around in the ankle deep warm water. Just as I was headed back to the campsite it started to rain and the absence of the sun made me feel suddenly cold. Since it being mid April and very much still low season, the little town was near empty and there wasn’t any place to get food. The last grocery stop had been made just before reaching the Arrábida reserve two nights ago. Fortunately the campsite had a modest cafe and bar with a mock living room set up. The place was full of mostly British retirees who spend the winters living in caravans at the grounds and everyone was happy to be sitting inside enjoying a pint with a book or watching the football game on the TV.  We had been very lucky over the last week or so and hadn’t experienced much rain so I couldn’t be upset about the weather turning.

Zambujeira do Mar

Preservation areas like Southwest Alentejo and Vincentine Coast Nature Park protect the shoreline from development. This also means the bike route occasionally intersects both the Rota Vincentina and Fisherman’s Trail. I saw traveler(s) many days in a row as we passed each other on our respective journeys.

The rocky coast just north of Zambujeira do Mar was stunning in both hard evening rain and the following morning’s sunshine.

Springtime weather in southwest Portugal is mixed and changes quickly. Everyday had an hour or two of both hard rain and strong, full sunshine. Sometimes wind was strong enough to push the bike around while other times very still. It was tricky to figure out how to dress for more than a few hours at a time and the back end of the bike always had discarded clothing pieces strapped down, flapping wildly as I went along. Mornings usually began with a dread of leaving the warm tent and stepping into cold or rain but I got used to it and learned to laze around a little waiting for the late morning burst of sun and temperatures as high as 23/74.

Looking down at Aljezur from within the old castle walls. Monchique hills in background. I especially liked visiting the cliffs and beaches at Zambujeira do Mar and climbing to the 700-year-old castle ruins in Aljezur.

After ten days following along 650 kilometers of the Atlantic coast it was time to cut inland towards Lagos on the southern coast for a long break in the Algarve region. I’m excited to tell you about it soon.

Thank you for reading!

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Bikepacking Portugal (Part Two)

Our fourth day of cycling started in Nazaré, a delightful resort town with scenic cliffs and huge breaking waves. In the late morning we rode to the old Nazaré Lighthouse (Farol da Nazaré) where visitors can view the cliffs and both Praia do Norte and Praia da Nazaré. The weather was inspiring and the sky clear, so we sat and observed the beaches and the waves while eating breakfast. This part of  Nazaré has some historical buildings, a square with vendors and people wearing traditional clothing from the area and just felt like it had a lot going on. We decided to stay the whole morning, walking our bikes through the little streets and stopping for coffee.

While we were leaving the city, I realized a pattern emerging; navigating though large towns and cities presented the biggest challenges so far. These places are crowded, complicated and safety becomes a concern. Turning left is really hard and we have to take care to both make it through traffic lights and keep to our distance from the cyclists biggest frenemy, buses. In cities it’s not easy to just stop and check for directions and sometimes the road we had planned to follow looked too chaotic for cycling and we had to change course. It reminded me a bit of hitchhiking, where it’s almost better to avoid a city and take a ride around it then taking your chances of smoothly going in and exiting. During our morning break we decided to make an effort to go around cities unless there was a special reason for visiting.

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Protecting myself from the sun, salty wind and chilly temps.

Out of Nazaré we followed a small road coast-side of Hwy 242. In the afternoon the wind really picked up and a sprinkling of showers fell- the first of the trip – although gentle enough to still enjoy the winding path along the Silver Coast. I actually enjoyed the rain to a degree. The rugged coast really seemed to come alive and command respect and attention. It’s so easy to think of a beach as a place for watching sunsets and digging toes into sand and not as the wild and dynamic place that it is.

Before reaching the Óbidos Lagoon we headed inland and spotted the famous castle from almost 10 kilometers away. I found this really exciting and loved the classic medieval architecture; when I imagine a castle, something exactly like the shape the of the Óbidos Castle comes to mind. We rode up the curving road past the almost thousand year old complex and stopped at a cafe to enjoy the view and rest our legs. Thinking about all the history surrounding us was a really powerful experience. Not just the millennia of human activity but also the slow processes nature; seeing the rugged coast slowly shaped by wind and waves provokes you to really think about time.

That evening we found a campsite south Peniche and picnicked on fruit we bought from a roadside stand. Although we were in the mood for something more substantial, it was a Sunday and markets and many cafes were closed. It was the only night we really didn’t get a nice dinner but it was still fun and filling with all the fruits and the last of the bottle of port we picked up in Porto.

My favorite sights were the small beaches of Santa Cruz and São Lourenço with layered and colorful rock formations where the sea and land come together. Eventually the route wandered away from the coast and passed through orchards, vineyards and around castles, really completing the picture of this beautiful country.

A view from a nice resting point on the Silver Coast.

It only took me five days to get lost. Trying to follow a network of different trails and routes is exhausting. In an effort to save time on the way to Sintra, we turned onto highway N9 – not at all scenic but it allowed us to move quickly and not worry about navigation. I followed the road until I was able to see Castelo dos Mouros, the 9th century Moorish castle of Sintra looming high, appearing very detailed and imposing, and much closer than it actually was. Assuming I was very near Sintra, and with my travel partner far ahead of me I turned off of N9 and planned to follow whatever little roads seem to head towards to the castle (I usually have a great sense of direction). This approach actually took a few hours and instead of spending the day off the bike, trekking deep into the nature park, I arrived to Sintra at about 6 PM. pretty grumpy, tired and too late to check into almost any accommodation in the area. After some running around, I found The Blue House, a very cute and wonderful hostel. The owner was really cool about letting me keep my bike on the second floor patio and gave me some great ideas for dinner and wines to try while I recovered from the long day. My cycling partner ended up in a different place that night and I was able to meet other travelers and have time to myself and it was a really lovely evening. I hadn’t realized how tired and stressed I had become the preceding days. Cycle touring is very fun but having to deal with all the little things of planning your own cross country tour builds up a lot of stress. It was great to be shaken back into a nice mental space.

Sunny Sao Lourenço Beach.

Today, on day number six, I have a flat and easy ride from Sintra to Lisbon via Cascais and it will have a lot of snack (and also wine) stops. Aside from a few infrastructure and navigation issues, things are actually going really well. My bottom is finally getting used cycling (thank goodness). I’ve seen a few other bike travelers and a handful of what looks like long distance hikers. It’s encouraging to see these people and enjoy a chat with them; there is a magic in seeing other regular people doing challenging things too and makes me feel a bit more sane about just deciding to bike across a foreign country.

Thank you for reading!