Deep in rugged central Portugal, 10 villages with their buildings and castles dating back to the 12th century are linked together using a series of roman cobblestone paths, thorny foot trails and dirt farm roads. Sponsored by the European Union, this 535-kilometre route known as the Grande Rota das Aldeias Históricas (The Grande Route of Historical Villages) was established in 2000. Call it an attempt to draw some of the adventure-minded away from the country’s well trodden southern beaches.
Recently, I was invited to ride the route along with a group of mountain bike junkies including the legendary Gary Fisher. Our hosts were local Grand Rota experts Pedro Pedrosa and Pedro Carvalho, who wanted us to experience why this route deserves to be one of Europe’s must-do multi-day mountain bike adventures.
The epic Grand Rota contains everything a serious mountain biker could dream of. Singletrack and rough dirt roads cut through some of the country’s most jaw-dropping scenery including Serra da Estrela Natural Park. Here, Iberian wall lizards, Tawny owl’s and the occasional wolf mingle in the open air of the Portugal’s largest mountain range. You ride past black oak, olive, cork and juniper trees and lazy rivers on your way to numerous postcard-perfect Portuguese villages and their mazy avenues such as Monsanto, Carrapichana and Venda do Cepo.
After a day with 1,300 feet of lose-dirt climbing, followed by an 1,800 foot mind-blowing descent through the verdant Muxagata valley and another heart-pounding 1,300 foot ridiculously-vertical ascent of a boulder-strewn Roman path, you’re deposited in ancient Linhares da Beira, a go-to spot for some of the big, blue marble’s best paragliders that rests on a slope keeping a watch over the Rio Mondego valley below. In fact, on most days, the rides oscillate between lung-busting ascents and kamikaze descents which can bounce you around as much as a steel-cage match with Hulk Hogan. All of which take part in an ancient landscape that changes from sere to lush based on its mood. Fresh-picked wild figs and blackberries quells hunger pangs, and, at each ride’s end, plenty of exquisite port cheers the mood.
As the trip progresses, you come to anticipate riding through the aged villages without much fanfare. It seems the young and ambitious have vacated the countryside seeking more prosperous pastures in Lisbon and abroad. This has left only hard-as-nail seniors in this hardscrabble land to rise against the pace of the modern world. You’re left wondering what will become of Linhares, Monsanto and other hamlets strewn across the central hills when they pass away. For now, it’s wonderful to find spots unbent by tourism. In these remote villages, don’t expect much in the way of English. Learning some basic Portuguese prior to your trip is a good idea and can result in a more rewarding experience.
The Grande Rota das Aldeias Históricas is marked in many places, but not everywhere, so a local rider who knows the route is an invaluable asset. Small country roads with plenty of ups and downs makes central Portugal a great place for the road bike as well. Even though the Portuguese drivers can be aggressive, if you stick to the side roads you’ll hardly see any of them. Portugal is just starting to get their heads around the idea of promoting adventure travel tourism and Centro Portugal has a number of excellent hiking opportunities as well as top-notch riding. Portugal remains one of Europe’s best bargains. Expect your Euro to go further here than in other nearby countries.
At the moment, A2Z Adventures (www.a2z-adventures.com; 351-919-048-373) is the only company offering supported mountain bike trips along the Grande Rota das Aldeias Históricas. Their spring and fall eight day tour (850 Euro) includes guides, van support, pleasant hotel accommodation, dinners (yes, there is plenty of salted cod) and the use of a GPS system so you can spend more time enjoying the thrilling trails and less time wondering: left or right? They also offer a self-guided option for those looking for more independence.
When to Go
Spring (April-June) and fall (Sept-Oct) are the best months for cycling in central Portugal. The summer months are too hot under the humming sun. I visited the region in September and it was still quite sultry. The physical challenge of the route would make it an excellent spring training program. Spring is also a good time to take in a more lush landscape with a bounty of wildflowers.
Getting There and Around
Flights from Canada will land at the international airport in Lisbon. To get to Castelo Novo, the Grand Rota start and finishing village, you will need to rent a vehicle or arrange transportation with your guides. Portugal is also an excellent country for self-supported cycle touring.
Fitness and Bike
With such an undulating landscape, a certain degree of bike fitness is highly recommended when undertaking a mountain or road bike trip to Portugal. This trip should not be your initiation into mountain biking. There are several technical sections along the route making some bike handling skills a huge plus. A good quality dual-suspension mountain bike is your best bet here. Expect it to get well used, so bring along a good tool kit and plenty of spare tubes in the fall as the berry thorns can unleash their fury on your tires.
Where to Stay
Central Portugal has several authorized campsites. The Roteiro Campista booklet (www.roteiro-campista.pt) lists the country’s campsites. It is available at tourism offices in the bigger cities. Most of the villages the route connects has some roofed accommodation at reasonable prices. Don’t expect five star digs, but also don’t expect things to be unkempt. Estalagem Inatel in Piódão (www.inatel.pt/Turismo/piodao.htm; 235 730 100) is an excellent place to bed down for a night or two. Overlooking the slate homes of Piódão in the Serre da Estrela mountains, it blends the perfect mixture of luxury and romantic charm. The ride from Piódão back to Castelo Novo is 90-kilometres with 10,000 feet of climbing among remote ridges and valleys, so rest up.
What to Eat
Portuguese food is fairly inexpensive by European standards with many of the villages having simple cafes dishing up basic, yet filling meals like toasted ham and cheese sandwiches for around five euros. Most of the hotels used by A2Z Adventures provide buffet-style dinners to help replenish energy stores. Cheap wine and port is everywhere. In the fall, you can expect a bounty of figs and berries next to the trail.
Matthew Kadey is an Ontario-based writer and photographer. Find him at www.mattkadey.ca