Yesterday marked a milestone in our journey: five weeks and 500 miles since we left Porto. It also marked our departure from the Serra da Estrela and entree to the vast vineyards and olive plantations of the Douro Valley. This is the area called the Tras-os-Montes e Alto Douro (Foothills and Upper Douro) region or just the Alto Douro for its location some 100 km upriver from Porto. Here it is protected from coastal weather by surrounding mountain ranges and is best known for producing Portugal’s famous port wines, although the wineries here also produce fabulous red table wines. In fact, tonight we are sipping a Cadao Douro, whose vineyards we passed on the way down the mountain.
After a screaming 2,700 foot descent from the high vineyards surrounding São João de Pesqueira, we arrived today in Pinhao at the confluence of the Rios Pinhao and Douro, the great “River of Gold.” It is surprisingly invigorating to be in such a different ecosystem after weeks of immersion, albeit glorious, in the mountainous terrain of the Serra. The vineyards here are unlike anything I have ever seen: miles upon miles of terraced hillsides covered in rows upon rows of grapes, now mostly bare except for the plants closest to the river, which are just now sprouting vibrant green spring leaves. To celebrate our arrival we stopped at Quinta das Carvalhas to celebrate with a 10-year old tawny Porto and warm up a bit. We abstained from the 19€ per person wine tasting, in which they set you up with about 10 not-so-small glasses of various wines and ports and leave you with a little bowl of cheese crackers for the next hour or so. Had we done that, it is entirely doubtful that we would have been able to crank even one more rotation of the pedals. We were probably a little underdressed in our grimy cycling attire but, in true Portuguese style, they welcomed us into the elegant salon and we sipped with as much dignity as we could muster before getting back on our bikes to go find a park bench in which to eat leftover salmon beside the river.
I feel like I’ve been in a bit of a bike tourist’s fog these past 12 days since being diagnosed with Covid. Presumably that has something to do with the disease itself, but I think it’s also changed my experience on the tour. Leaving Fundão after nearly a week in isolation, I’ve really allowed myself to take it slowly, look around, listen to the birds and enjoy long periods of solitude as we move at our respective paces, often a good distance apart. It is, admittedly, a little selfish of me to allow the miles to pass without paying much attention to our whereabouts, but with my phone barely processing the oldest of apps anymore, John has had to take on the role of navigator. I gratefully accept the gift to be off the digital map and, instead, make my contribution in the evenings by finding us a restaurant for dinner, a guesthouse for the next night and keeping track of our progress on our ancient, wrinkled, split paper map.
Over the past week we have continued our journey through Portugal’s castle country and medieval villages, exploring Covilha, Belmonte, Sortelha, Guarda and Trancoso. Approaching Covilha we had the steepest ascent of our entire trip thus far, to the very top of the historic part of the town. There was no way either of us could actually ride our bikes up those nearly vertical streets, and as I struggled to push my 75-pound trike while the metal clips of my bike shoes slipped against the cobblestones, a young man ran over and asked if he could help. I gladly accepted his offer and we chatted in Portuguese, as much as I am able to, while making our way. It turns out he is from São Tomé and is a biology student at the university in Covilha. John and I had to admit that we weren’t entirely sure of the exact location of São Tomé, but our new friend didn’t seem that fazed at our embarrassing lack of knowledge of his diminutive country. Ironically, several days later, arriving in Guarda, we came upon an intercultural celebration at the town museum. Several girls dressed in African attire were dancing in the courtyard, so we went inside to check it out. Along with a few other former Portuguese colonies (Brazil, Mozambique, Cape Verde), we discovered that one of the countries represented in the celebration was São Tomé!
As a university town, Covilha has a lively, artsy feel to it and we enjoyed meandering around the narrow alleyways, discovering street art and large murals painted on the walls of many of the buildings.
The next morning, our descent through Covilha began with what felt like a backcountry ski run down an unfamiliar, gnarly slope. Every move, every turn required a concentrated effort to control my speed while not letting my brakes lock, simultaneously counterbalancing my weight against the steep descent and cross angled streets by leaning far out to one side or the other. It took a serious amount of focus, much more than I am accustomed to first thing in the morning, and I found it challenging and exciting. Finally arriving back on the sedate, smoothly paved N road, disappointed in seeing my 10 minutes of thrill so quickly behind me, a woman walking her dog passed us and called out to me “Sim, Senhora, vai!,” which I interpreted as “You go, girl!” as we exchanged thumbs up and big smiles. It was so interesting getting that response from another middle aged woman, as I had just that morning had a conversation with the two female staff members at Casa Muralha about why it is that you don’t see women bike riders in Portugal. I asked if bicycling is considered unfeminine in Portugal and they couldn’t answer me, so I guess the mystery remains. Suffice it to say that in five weeks of riding we have only seen perhaps 2-4 women bicyclists whereas we have seen hordes of Lycra clad men.
Castelo de Belmonte is a sweet medieval castle complete with its own modern amphitheater constructed within the ancient walls. I could imagine sitting in the moonlight, sipping wine while listening to a fado performance, with the sound filling the confined space and resonating off the castle walls. Belmonte is also interesting for the degree to which ancient and modern Judaic culture is present within the town. Many of the town’s historic buildings have some sort of carving or inscription indicating former Jewish residence, and one house in particular commemorates a woman from Belmonte who, during the Inquisition, saved hundred of Jews from death. There’s also a very modern synagogue and a Radio Judaica.
Sortelha was my favorite castle on the castelo histórico tour, not so much for the brilliant castle and exquisitely preserved walled city, but for the ride there. Sortelha is nestled at the head of an isolated valley approached by a long, steady climb past remote villages tucked in and among the hills. The land is covered with granite outcrops and desert-like plants, including enormous prickly pears as well as wild lavender and purple lupine. The final approach to Sortelha is a steep 2 mile, 1,000 foot climb. The castle itself has an interesting history. It was built in the 12th century and over time it became less important as a defensive outpost as the border moved further east. In the 14th century Sortelha was established as a town for adjudicated people to live in peace, but the town never really developed because of the difficulty of farming in such a harsh environment. I find that concept of creating a place for adjudicated people to live without harassment to be so progressive, especially given the fact that just a few years ago Portugal celebrated the 150th anniversary since their abolishment of the death penalty.
Another gem of our time in Belmonte/Sortelha was the two dinners we ate at Feito ao Bife, which roughly translates Made to the Beef or Done to the Beef. I think it implies steak made to order. Anyway, you all know that I have been “mostly vegetarian” for most of my adult life after having been a vegan for 15 years, so I definitely wasn’t there for the meat. But the chef was an intriguing, passionate, smart and creative young entrepreneur who we just had to support two nights in a row. When we first stepped into the restaurant we were blasted with some true “from the vault” 60s and 70s rock, which alone enticed us to sit down. Then young chef Andre came out and started talking about basic “farm to table” philosophy and we were sold. John had cogumelos silvestres both nights, essentially risotto with wild “forest” mushrooms. It turns out Andre is the founder of Portugal’s main mushroom festival as well as a very outspoken advocate for the legalization of marijuana, having previously owned Portugal’s only grow shop. He shared some of his signature bacalhau ceviche and a 10-year old homemade wine that was sort of a fortified distilled aguardente with fermented grape juice, kind of like a port-liquer-brandy. Our post dinner conversations with Andre covered politics, the state of the environment, Portugal’s penchant for damming and Covid.
Our ride to Trancoso was probably the hardest day we’ve had yet: 34 miles and 2,200 feet of elevation gain in a blistering 68 degrees. I know that doesn’t sound like a lot to serious bicyclists, but being heavily laden with a powerful, gusting crosswind pushing us around on a busy 4-mile downhill is nothing to scoff at. Predictably, that powerful crosswind became an equally powerful headwind as we began our climb. I was about out of water and, as often happens in the afternoon, also out of fuel when two redeeming encounters saved the morale of the day. The first was a large, rowdy group of off road Jeepers out for a hullabaloo and general earth-destroying adventure on Palm Sunday (are you getting a sense of how I feel about off roading?). With sentries holding radios placed at either end of their entourage, they all stopped exactly where they were so we could safely pass them, applauding and cheering us on. The group organizer even videotaped us and offered John a beer. He declined; they might be able to “drink and slog” but we definitely cannot! The second redeeming encounter happened near the top of our climb when we met two teen road cyclists who called to us, “Very goood, very goood!” as they left us in the dust.
Now we are into gentler terrain and a gentler pace for the next several days. We have settled into an apartment for two nights in Pinhao and will then move to a house in Pesa da Regla for three nights over Easter. We had heard from several people in the service industry that Easter weekend is quite busy, so we decided just to park ourselves and enjoy some home cooked meals for a few days. VEGGIES!!
Yesterday we rode through an extensive area of chestnut trees, castanhas, of the genus Castanea, part of the beech family Fagaceae. The nuts are covered in a fierce prickly burr and I was tempted to gather a bunch off the ground but I wasn’t quite sure how to process them without an oven. Apparently early Christians associated castanhas with chastity. That makes a certain amount of sense. If you were wearing an outer shell of sharp spines, you’d probably be fairly chaste, because any potential amour would be unable to get anywhere near you. Until the widespread introduction of potatoes, forest dwelling communities relied on chestnuts as their main form of carbohydrates, eating them in a variety of forms, roasting and grinding the nuts to make a flour. John and I both love hot roasted castanhas and always buy a dozen or more whenever we see someone selling them, usually along the coast in tourist areas.