Seeing Portugal from the Seat of a Bicycle



Close enough to the landscape that you can smell the lavender.

This past April, I found myself bicycling down a quiet lane in Portugal’s agricultural Alentejo region, through a landscape of olive and cork trees and fields carpeted with poppies and golden wildflowers. A divine scent of orange blossoms washed over me, signaling an orange orchard down the road, and I thought: Yes, this is why I’ve been touring by bike since my first trip more than 40 years ago.

Cycling along a quiet road in the Alentejo countryside.
Cycling along a quiet road in the Alentejo countryside.

On that trip, I pedaled for two weeks along the Dordogne River in southern France with a friend, carrying all my luggage on the bike and charting each day’s route on a paper map. We had mishaps, but they often became our most memorable moments.

We had chosen the Dordogne to explore the tenth- and eleventh-century fortresses that dot the valley. The towns were 30 miles apart — easily bikeable. Inauspiciously, on our first night we arrived at our destination near dinnertime to find that every hotel room in town was booked. The local tourist bureau suggested a farm that took in vacationers, so we presented ourselves, tired and sweaty, to the farmer’s wife. At first,  she told us her guest rooms were already taken by a family from Paris, but then, taking pity on us, she said we could stay in her teenage daughter’s tent in the front yard, fitted out with a double mattress.

That night we were welcomed to a family dinner that included rabbit with lots of garlic and a tart made with plums from the farmer’s own trees. I watched wide-eyed as the farmer poured red wine into his soup bowl and drank from the rim — a tradition among the paysans of that Périgord region, he explained to me. 

The farmer’s wife took a maternal interest in us hapless young Americans,  serving us fresh rolls with café au lait in the morning and advising us on which local sights to see. 

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Continuing our journey, we spent each day climbing a challenging grade to a castle, where sweeping views and a café awaited, then descending to the river valley, where we cooled off in the Dordogne’s shallow waters.

Our routes along paved roads were so quiet that we could pedal for an hour without seeing a car. Yet there was always a village after about ten miles, just in time for a mid-morning bica (Portugal’s version of espresso).

These days, I’m more likely to travel with a cycle company that handles all the planning of routes and accommodations.  And now, GPS devices on the handlebars make it unlikely that I’ll end up on a muddy cow path, as I sometimes did while traveling in Europe with a London cycle club I joined when we were living there. A volunteer club member typically mapped the routes without having biked them, and we were sometimes taken unawares by unmarked changes in the road.  Also, whereas on the London club trips we had no choice but to bicycle in pouring rain to reach the next town (as happened the first time we biked through Holland), the outfitting companies I use these days offer the option of riding in their support van, which also carries all our luggage.  

My Portugal orange blossom epiphany occurred on the first day of a six-day bicycle trip organized by Backroads, based in Berkeley, California — one of many companies now offering cycle tours. The itinerary covered two regions: the rolling Alentejo countryside, famous for its olive oil, cork products and wine; and the southern Algarve coast, whose beach resorts are popular with British and Northern European tourists.

The Alentejo region feels like a throwback in time, having escaped the tourists who swarm Lisbon (a two-hour drive away) and the frenzied building of hotels and apartment buildings along the Algarve coast. Our routes along paved roads were so quiet that we could pedal for an hour without seeing a car. Yet there was always a village after about ten miles, just in time for a mid-morning bica (Portugal’s version of espresso), and then another in time for lunch.

Donkey cart and driver  on the road in the central Algarve region near the village of Silves.
Donkey cart and driver in the central Algarve region near the village of Silves.

After shuttling us by bus from Lisbon, our trip leaders welcomed us to the Alentejo with a traditional lunch in a converted olive mill — fresh tomato soup with cheese, followed by salad and fresh cod. (“Ride to Eat; Eat to Ride,” a slogan I once saw on a cycle tour van, remains a favorite motto of mine, a reminder that the calories burned on a cycle trip allow guilt-free eating.) 

Once fitted to our bikes, the 21 cyclists on the tour took off in small groups or, like me, on their own. The day was hot, with temperatures in the high 80s.  At one daunting uphill grade, I dismounted to walk my bike up. An elderly woman in a long skirt and a wooden staff was slowly crossing the road,  looking straight out of a Bruegel painting. I explained somewhat jokingly that this hill for me was a mountain. I used the Italian word “montagna,” which turned out to be close enough to the Portuguese “montanha” that she gave me a wide toothless smile, indicating with her arms the ups and downs of the local terrain.

Using my bike’s GPS, I eventually arrived at a village just outside the medieval castle town of Monsaraz, paved in bumpy cobblestones, and wound up in a dead-end alley populated by stray cats.

Using my bike’s GPS, I eventually arrived at a village just outside the medieval castle town of Monsaraz, paved in bumpy cobblestones, and wound up in a dead-end alley populated by stray cats. The GPS was clearly confused by an intersection with five possible roads to choose from. After trying all five, I finally found the one that didn’t terminate in a dead end and arrived, hot and tired, at our hotel, having logged a few extra miles.

We had dinner at our hotel under a vine-covered trellis, after our group, which hailed from both the East and West coasts of the U.S. and Canada, had introduced ourselves at a welcome reception with local white wine. I hadn’t been warned to pace myself: The filling pea soup, fava beans and chicken pies turned out to be just the appetizers and were followed by a main course of roast chicken, grilled vegetables and fresh fruit (I was too full to eat the apple tart). 

Toward the end of our meal, a dozen sturdy-looking, mostly older men arrived to sing the local folk music known as Cante Alentejano, starting with a song about yearning for rain clouds in the dry, sun-baked terrain — an appropriate theme, as the region had been suffering from historic droughts.

We were staying at Sāo Laurenço do Barrocal, a former agrarian estate and farming village-turned luxury hotel, with its own vineyards. The large bedroom assigned to me was part of a complex of former farm buildings looking out over hills and olive groves. 

The next day, realizing that some chronic back and hip problems were making hill-climbing unusually painful, I switched to an e-bike (luckily, the leaders had brought along a spare). About half of our group had opted for e-bikes — an increasingly common offering by outfitting companies. 

Using an e-bike allowed me to spend more time stopping to photograph the lavender and poppies along the road, as well as a bull who reminded me of Ferdinand in the children’s story about a Spanish bull who prefers smelling the flowers under the cork trees to fighting other bulls.

That evening, we had a guided tour of nearby Monsaraz, a medieval hill town with an imposing 14th century castle whose grounds are now used for bullfights (speaking of Ferdinand). The village, with its narrow stone streets lined with white houses, feels like a ghost town, with only about 80 inhabitants and a solitary child we saw kicking around a soccer ball. But the town once had a thriving population, including a Jewish quarter in which our guide pointed to shops and houses once occupied by Jewish families. The population of the Jewish quarter expanded after Jews were expelled from Spain in 1492 during the Inquisition, then dwindled after they were expelled from Portugal in 1496.  

Wildflowers growing in profusion in the Alentejo region.
Wildflowers grow in profusion in the Alentejo region.

The following day we rode to a private farm for lunch, where our local guide described how the region’s olives and cork were harvested, asserting that Portuguese olive oil was better than Italian. Explaining the half-denuded cork trees we had been cycling past, he told us that the cork in the bark of these trees is harvested about every seven years. 

He also told us that droughts in recent years have had a devastating effect on farms in the Alentejo, known as Portugal’s bread basket. The cloudless sunny days we were enjoying in April should traditionally have been a much-needed rainy season in Portugal’s driest region.

Last year, when all of Portugal was suffering from drought, meteorologists declared May the country’s hottest, driest May in ninety-two years. Dry periods have become increasingly common over the last twenty years as a result of climate change.

In what seems an inadvisable move, large-scale producers have in recent years begun intensively planting olive trees — small ones that we saw crowded close together like a hedge — that are dependent on water from irrigation. (In contrast, the traditional groves of widely spaced trees I had admired from my bike can produce olives for up to 100 years without irrigation.) Intensive production of almonds, another notorious water hog, has also skyrocketed in the region since 2015, and small farmers and environmentalists worry that the high water demands of intensive farming by agribusiness are putting a further toll on the region’s water supply. Groundwater supplies have become so depleted during droughts that fire brigades have taken to trucking water to local towns to fill their cisterns, our guide told us.

But as we descended through eucalyptus forests, we could feel the cool breezes from the sea, and the temperature dropped by 10 degrees at the coast. That kind of visceral sense of the terrain is one that always stays with me after my cycling trips.

That evening we explored Évora, an ancient walled hill town complete with a Parthenon-style ancient Roman temple in the center. Évora was far more bustling than Monsaraz, largely due to its university, whose students we saw gathering at local bars and restaurants. The influence of the Moors, who ruled the city from the  eighth to the  twelfth century, could still be seen in the Islamic-style geometric ornamentation in the local cathedral.

For the last three days of the trip, our leaders shuttled us by bus several hours south to the Algarve coast. Portimao, the beach town where we stayed, felt much more touristy and built-up with modern hotels than had the rural Alentejo. We passed several “Irish” bars and heard English accents on the street.

Even so, Backroads managed to find us quiet biking routes. Our first day took us through a mountainous region, including an intimidatingly long hill that one leader had dubbed “the wall of death.” But as we descended through eucalyptus forests, we could feel the cool breezes from the sea, and the temperature dropped by 10 degrees at the coast.

Backroads van and bikes parked to begin our ride from the lighthouse point --Farol de Sagres--at the southwest tip of Portugal,  embarkation point for for 15th and 16th century explorers to the New World.
Backroads van and bicyclists prepare for a ride at the lighthouse point, Farol de Sagres, at the southwest tip of Portugal, where 15th and 16th century explorers embarked to the New World.

That kind of visceral sense of the terrain is one that always stays with me after my cycling trips. My first trip with Backroads, a camping/cycling trip in the Canadian Rockies, took us from Banff to Jasper past the turquoise waters of alpine lakes surrounded by soaring peaks. At the end of that cycle trip, I boarded a train to Vancouver, which I had been told was a spectacular way to see the Rockies. But oddly, I felt a sense of mourning as I was separated by a dusty pane of glass from the mountains in which I had immersed myself for a week on my bike.

In the Algarve, our most dramatic start of the day came at the farthest southwest point of Portugal, from the lighthouse on the Ponta de Sagres promontory, famed as the point from which Vasco da Gama and other fifteenth- and sixteenth-century explorers set off for the New World. It was cold and windy on this seaside cliff, so I pedaled off with the first group of hardy souls to warm up. We soon turned inland, where the hills were steep —16 to 20 percent grades — and the temperatures far warmer. At our lunch stop next to the beach, I put my feet in the water—a cold 60 degrees, but refreshing after a hot ride.

On our final day, we set out at 8 am for a short 13-mile circuit through Ferragudo, a small fishing village across the bridge from Portimao. It was surprising to see such a charming sleepy village, with fishing boats at anchor, so close to the glitzy hotels of the Algarve coast.

The tiny fishing village of Ferragudo on the Algarve coast.

That afternoon we bade goodbye to our leaders, then boarded our bus back to Lisbon. The day remained bright and sunny until we approached the city and the rain started—much needed by the farmers in Portugal but probably too little to make up for the unusually hot, dry month. 

Other tourists may remember castles and churches from their travels abroad. Back at my desk at home, what do I remember? Thistles and lavender growing by the side of the road, the heat warming my back on the unshaded Alentejo hills and the surprising coolness from the eucalyptus forest as I descended to the coast. Three rosy-cheeked old men sitting in a shady village square at the summit of a long hill, who waved as I arrived panting and asked to see my route on a map. Just as in France so many years ago, pedaling mile upon mile gave me a feeling of freedom and a way to discover a landscape and its people up close.

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Sarah Glazer
Sarah Glazer
Sarah Glazer is a freelance writer based on Martha’s Vineyard, Massachusetts. She is a Contributing Writer for CQ Researcher, where she recently wrote about endangered species. She started her career covering energy and environmental legislation in Congress. Her articles have also appeared in The New York Times and The Washington Post.
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