The final two weeks of our tour became significantly easier physically as we left the steep foothills of the mountains and followed the Rio Minho west to the coast and then south to Porto. At the same time, it became increasingly challenging for me emotionally. This always happens as I approach the end of a big adventure, specifically a multi-month international adventure with a primary component of rigorous physical exercise. After our 77-day, 650 mile sea kayak expedition down the coast of Baja, it took me several months to feel balanced emotionally and settled back at home and I had the same experience after trekking in Nepal for two months. Suffice it to say that it’s difficult for me, as it is for countless others, to live in the U.S. these days, and I grieve the peace I feel when traveling in calm and safe countries such as Portugal. As for the physical exercise, I’ve long known that extended time outdoors engaging in physical endeavors contributes to an overall sense of wellbeing and happiness, and I’m looking forward to high country hiking season so I can get back out there and do what keeps me healthy.
We left Ponte da Barca on May 5 for Monçao and the Rio Minho. The Minho would be the 5th of the five major river drainages that we encountered between the Rio Tejo to the south and the northern border of Portugal. On the opposite side of the Minho sits Spain, each side flanked with forts, castles and fortified cities. That ride from Ponte da Barca to Monçao was the last truly demanding ride of our bike tour, taking us up several too-steep-to-ride stretches of country roads until we finally reached a larger, more comfortably graded road that led us 2,400’ up to a ridge overlooking the mist and treetops of the Lima valley far below. Stopping for our typical lunch of peanut butter and banana sandwiches in a bus stop at the apex of the ride, we were joined by a road cyclist coming up from the other side. He was a Portuguese man who lives in the French Alps and returns to his home in Monçao a few times a year. After chatting awhile, he advised us to be “very cautious” on our descent into Monçao. As we left the bus stop and started our coast down, we heard live accordion music coming from a nearby house. Unfortunately, the man playing on his front porch stopped as soon as we approached. We complimented him and encouraged him to keep playing, but he was far too shy and would not play another note until we pedaled away. With the faint sounds of accordion fading in the distance behind us, we headed down, prepared for a challenging descent but, after the multitude of steep descents that we had already safely managed, on a sunny, dry day it was literally a breeze and we soon rolled into Monçao.
So many weeks among the gorgeous, windswept castles of Portugal’s northern aldeias historicas (historic villages) spoiled us a little, and although quite scenic, one day of poking around Monçao was enough and we soon headed out on a lovely paved ecopista following the Rio Minho, next stop Valença. Even though I was already missing the mountains and the rigor of our daily climb-descent, I must admit that it is so pleasant to roll along a paved bicycle path, free of traffic, and have the luxury of relaxing and just enjoying the view.
Valença is one of the biggest fortified cities in Europe, consisting of three rows of walls in two polygonal shapes, separated by what used to be a moat. At each turn of the walls is a bulwark, basically a lookout tower, raised above the height of the walls for unobstructed views across the Rio Minho and to the surrounding countryside. We clambered around the walls, which total about 5km in length, and it was easy to imagine sentries posted in those bulwarks, guns or swords in hand, staring across the river, where the Spanish city of Tui had its own castle and fortified city, each ready to attack and/or defend itself against the other. Had it not been for the busloads of Spanish shoppers overwhelming the streets of the walled city, we would have been content to explore the inner nooks and crannies for hours, but unfortunately, Valença, for whatever reason, is a shopping destination for linens and textiles, and there were hundreds of people streaming in and out of shops, arms laden with bags and bundles. We stuck to the side alleys until we found a quiet cafe off the beaten path, had a glass of wine, and then quickly made our way out of the walls.
After 62 days of riding among mostly un-touristed areas, we arrived in Praias Caminha/Moledo/Ancora, three very small beach towns on the northernmost coast of Portugal along the Via Portugués of the Camino de Santiago. All of a sudden we were among throngs of peregrinos (pilgrims), Camino walkers from all over the world, and greetings of “Bom Caminho” filled the air. In 2020 there were approximately 350,000 registered Camino walkers who made it to Santiago de Compostela, and the Via Portugués is second in popularity among the numerous Caminos, with tens of thousands of walkers each year. It was somewhat of a shock after weeks of hearing little English in the streets and encountering only a few tourists, but peregrinos are generally happy, respectful and relaxed, and we enjoyed the conversations we had with walkers, hearing their stories and seeing the joy they felt in their pilgrimage.
We stayed five days outside of Caminha in a quiet apartment among the eucalyptus trees, taking dips in the small pool in the afternoons, feeding the gentle compound horse, Joaninha, carrots in the evenings and going out before dark to watch the por do sol (sunset) from one of the beaches. Daytimes, we took rides to explore other beach towns, stopping to chat with walkers and even posing one day for photos taken by two GNR officers (Guarda Nacional da Republica: federal police) for their FaceBook page. Pedaling along the paved Ecovia Atlántica in the mornings, we often passed a herd of goats and soon came to recognize the same locals plying the path on their way to a cafe or bar, or just out for their daily ride or ambulation. In the evenings we enjoyed home cooked vegetarian meals and lively games of cribbage, although neither of us can precisely remember the cumulative score of the Portugal Norte Tour de Bicicletas 2022. One afternoon we encountered the only other recumbent trike rider of the entire trip, a paraplegic German man hand cycling the Camino with his wheelchair strapped on the back of his trike, accompanied by four buddies on mountain bikes. We were duly impressed!
Feeling rested after five days in vacation mode, we continued south to Viana do Castelo, where we were finally able to get the tools necessary to access my elastomer and move it to a harder setting so that my trike wouldn’t keep bottoming out with every bump in the road. Feeling much better after that adjustment, we settled into the avant garde, spaceship-like Absoluto Design Hotel, from which we based ourselves for a couple of days of exploration.
For some time, we had been looking forward to riding another paved ecopista from Viana do Castelo to Ponte de Lima and back. At that point we had essentially completed a small loop-de-loop within our larger circle, having left the Rio Lima in Ponte da Barca on May 5, heading north toward the Rio Minho and the Spanish fronteira. In order to complete that smaller circle, we would ride up the Rio Lima, back to Ponte de Lima. Leaving our spaceship, we soon encountered the Eiffel Bridge (designed by Gustave Eiffel), busy with morning traffic. After just a wee bit of strategizing, we navigated the steep, narrow two lane bridge over the Rio Lima with traffic backed up in front of us due to an accident on the other side and behind us due to two annoyingly slow moving cyclists. (Sorry about that, folks!) Jumping into the fracas, my approach was to go as fast as possible. Safely down yet fully ensconced in bumper-to-bumper, multi-lane traffic, we promptly missed the turn to the Rio Lima Ecopista and were some distance down the busy N road before we realized our mistake. We eventually found a small, cobblestone lane that would lead us back to the Ecopista after two slow miles of painstaking maneuvering over large, irregularly placed stones. Despite the challenge, I was grateful to be out of traffic and in the tranquility of the eucalyptus forest and surrounding farmland, listening to recorded salsa far in the distance, having free reign over the entire path and my choice of private places to stop for a pee. Eventually we did find the Ecopista, which turned out to be a 10 mile, bumpy, 2-track mountain bike route along the river, and rather than forcing my heavy trike and John’s hardtail gravel bike over more cobbles, we ended up riding the entire distance (“just a little bit farther”), all the way to Ponte de Lima. The temperature rose steadily through the afternoon and before we left the privacy of the forested path, I took the opportunity to shed all of my clothing and plunged into the cool, murky river.
Later, after cold drinks in the shade, we hightailed it back to Viana do Casteo in 90º heat along the quieter N road on the north side of the river, stopping to watch a rather dignified game of bocce ball in a small town jardím. No playing through the kitchen like on our river trips or throwing balls at Stewy’s expensive river chair in that town! Back in Viana, we found a tiny Venezuelan frango (rotisserie chicken) restaurant where, for the second time that day, we listened to great salsa, this time on a video of the Oscar de Leon band performing at the Curaçao Jazz Festival. Being early in the evening, we were the only customers, and so we were able to relax, take our time and talk with Miguel, the owner, while he proudly shared his love of his country’s music. We were both exhausted by the time we docked at our spaceship, but I was left with a huge sense of accomplishment at having done such a lengthy mountain bike ride on my trike. “If I had a second trike, I could turn this one into a mountain trike!” We’re going to need a tough shed!
Viana do Castelo is home to the Gil Eannes naval hospital ship, which, after WWII, was embedded with the Portuguese cod fishing fleets in northern Europe. Portuguese love their bacalhau (cod), which most commonly refers to dried and salted cod. Quick aside: Bacalhau is probably the most tipico of all Portuguese foods, with supposedly 1,000 different ways of preparing it. I do love bacalhau, but unfortunately the common way of rehydrating it involves cooking it in a veritable bath of olive oil, which can be a bit much to handle. The best bacalhau I had on this trip was in Belmonte, where we sampled some bacalhau ceviche prepared by young chef André. Fantástico! But as for the Gil Eannes ship…fascinating! From the top deck down, we saw command centers, navigation rooms, a barbership, library, galley (my favorite!), wine cellar (because every Portuguese ship must have one!), quarters for officers, doctors, nurses, chaplain, cook and engineer. The ship hospital consisted of pharmacy, exam rooms, surgical wards, xray and developing rooms, and wards for every level of infirmity, including infectious disease. I found myself wondering about the people who lived and worked aboard that ship. It’s easy to fall into a naive glamorization of it, and I’m sure it was interesting and rewarding work, but it can’t have been an easy life.
After struggling to put together an itinerary for our last week of riding, we decided to go to Braga, which we had intentionally skipped on our pass through Guimaraes some weeks ago. Braga is the ecclesiastical center of Portugal, with hundreds of churches and church-related monuments and sites, and we just weren’t that interested. But, the ride to and from Braga would give us more time in the coastal hills and a sense of focus for our final days. We booked a couple of nights in Barcelos, about 15 miles west of Braga, and planned to go into the city as a day ride. Unfortunately, after weeks of stable weather with lots of sunshine, a three day stretch of rain settled over coastal Portugal on the day we left Viana do Castelo and our ride to Barcelos was one of the few days of the entire trip that we rode in steady drizzle much of entire day. Barcelos itself, which we had no knowledge of prior to getting there, turned out to be a sweet little riverside town on the Rio Cávado, right on the pilgrimage route, with a lot of fun street art and a quiet air about it. Throughout our travels in Portugal, I have often wondered about the preponderance of rooster sculptures, small and large, often on the top of churches. I never took the time to research it, but we finally our answer in Barcelos. It turns out there is a traditional Portuguese story about a man accused of a crime who is sentenced to death by hanging. Before he is taken to the gallows, he appears before the town magistrate to plead his case one final time. The magistrate was just about to begin his roast chicken dinner, and the accused man said to him, “As sure as I am innocent, that cock will rise and crow.” Of course, so it did, and the man was saved from the gallows.
The morning we were to go to Braga, neither of us felt like dealing with a busy city in the rain. Studying the map, I saw a little symbol a few miles shy of Braga and further off into the hills. Looking it up, it turned out to be the São Martinho de Tibães Monastery, situated at the top of a steep hill in the middle of the forest and surrounded by extensive gardens. That sounded perfect, so off we went. Tibães was founded in the 6th century on the remains of a Roman village, rebuilt in 1078 by a local knight, and established in 1567 as the Casa de Mae, or Mother House, of the Benedictine order for all of Portugal and Brazil. The monastery never housed that many monks, only 30-40 at a time, unlike Alcobaça, which had over 1,000 partying monks living the high life there, but as the Casa de Mae, it’s big, ornate and impressive. Tibães receives far lower visitation than Alcobaça, and most of the complex has been renovated and is open to the public. We were able to walk unaccompanied among silent halls, stopping to explore capelas, sleeping quarters, azulejos panels, a large Baroque organ and chorus balcony, the monks’ “necessary room,” and beautifully landscaped gardens.
Things were definitely winding down for us at that point as we continued making our way down the coast toward Porto, riding peaceful, well maintained bike trails. Two days after leaving Barcelos, we rode another beautiful paved rails-to-trail, the Linha Povoa-Famalicao, from the nondescript working town of Famalicao to Vila do Conde, where we took some time the following morning to poke around the Museu da Construçao Naval (naval construction museum) and a refurbished 16th century Portuguese exploration ship. Portugal is generally credited for initiating the Age of Exploration, with the country’s maritime voyages beginning in the middle of the 14th century. Unfortunately, that also marked the start of the Atlantic slave trade, in which Portugal played a huge role for 400 years.
The following day we arrived in Matosinhos, a lively urban beach town just 8 miles north of Porto. We had actually ridden north from Porto to Matosinhos the day before we began our tour 11 weeks earlier, and being back in Matosinhos really felt like the end of the tour. We ate dinner at an outdoor cafe alongside two older American women just starting the Camino and two young Czech women on vacation. The waiter was an older Portuguese man, thoroughly enjoying himself, flirting with all the women and making a good sale. Afterwards, we walked the beach, watching a group of young Portuguese women in far-too-small bikinis taking a very brave plunge into the cold water and a group of beginning surfers in full wetsuits sitting on their boards, waiting for the “big one.”
And so our epic journey came to an end. We rode the final 8 miles into Porto and safely navigated the busy city, on a quest for homemade gluten free, dairy free cookies, which I finally found at a small natural foods store. We spent the entire next day sharing stories with Jose and Sara at Biclas & Triclas and packing up our bikes for the flights home. That was a big project, and once finished we did a bit of sightseeing, including walking back over the pedestrian bridge over the Rio Douro, which we had crossed with our bikes at the very start of our tour. In Mira Gaia on the other side of the Douro, we enjoyed one more riverside port and por do sol before walking up Santa Catarina to our hotel. Jose and Sara transported our bikes to the hotel in their van the night before we left and we took them out to a late night dinner at a sweet locals’ adega (wine house). It felt completely right that we should finish our trip with them, as they played such a big part in the beginning of it. The next morning we began what would be a somewhat stressful 24 hours before landing in the comfort of our own beds. Both bikes arrived unscathed despite the rough handling they endured over two long flights. Our very kind neighbor Gabrielle picked us up in John’s truck and up the mountain we went, back to late spring snow, fires in the wood stove and early spring leaves on the aspens.