Author: Maria Marrocchino
Date of Trip: May 2014
With so many magnificent places throughout Portugal to go on a biking tour, it’s not easy to select which path will be the best one for you. I chose Evora in the region of Alentejo for my ride and found the serene landscapes and open vistas to be my perfect choice.
Evora is less than two hours southeast from Lisbon and is in the heart of the Alentejo region where one can find lots of traditional heritage with an easy-going ambience.
I booked my trip through Flexitreks based in England; they were helpful in finding something within my price range and what I was looking for culturally. I wanted to have a decent challenging ride but also experience some culture and great sights. Turaventur would be the local cycling tour guide that I would be using.
I arrived the day before my biking excursion and stayed at the Monte do Serrado Baixo, a spacious and charming farm house that has the traditional architecture of the Alentejo region of thick walls with modern rustic features. Each guestroom has it’s own unique style with comfortable beds and private separate entrances that lead to the garden, pool, or many hammocks hung up to lounge around in. I stayed in the wine room which was beautifully decorated in merlot toned colors, exposed brick and hard wood floors. I spent the afternoon walking around the nearly 5 miles of pastured land and later catching some sun by the pool. That night at dinner I met Diane, a German Doctor who was also travelling alone. The staff cooked us a delicious meal of eggplant parmesan with mushroom soufflé. For dessert, 3 different types of chocolate layered pudding. All the meals at Monte do Serrado Baixo are farm to table and cooked right on the spot and Diane and I shared a lovely bottle of local wine. Portugal is a country well known for it’s luscious grapes and many vineyards, where you can find a great bottle of wine for about 5 euros.
Right before I retreated to my room, I met my guide, Ernesto who explained what the 3 day ride would entail. Ernesto had been with Turaventur for a few years now. He was from Lisbon originally but chose to live in Alentejo because he didn’t like the hustle of Lisbon city life.
Day 1 Ride
Todays’ ride would be about 30 miles and Ernesto and I would start out from the farm through an open flower field and ride for about an hour and a half. We were on our way to Arraiolos where the first stop would be a carpet museum. Beautiful carpets hung like Picasso’s ranging from antiques to some that were made less than 6 months ago. I learned about carpet making and watched women weave carpets by hand. Like many parts of rural town Portugal life, Arrajolos doesn’t believe in leaving the creation of masterpieces to machines. And so a sowing circle of 6 women sit around weaving intricate patterns together to make one giant carpet. This is their tradition and while I did not understand Portuguese, these women seem to be enjoying spending the day sharing their lives with each other. And most likely from all the laughter and whispering going on, even a little gossip.
Ernesto and I decide to eat lunch in the charming town of Arraiolos as he wanted me to experience a local traditional Portuguese meal. A Moagem is a sweet and cozy local restaurant where I order the customary “ bacalhau” which is codfish but in a stew. The best part I think is dipping the freshly baked bread in the stewed fish sauce. It’s delicious.
After lunch we ride for another hour and a half on to the Ravasqueira Winery where we meet Tiago who runs the 45 hectares vineyard. Here the grapes are grown on clay-limestone soil resulting in a very rich and luscious grape. Tiego shows us around the winery and then we do a tasting. Ravasqueira makes 22 different blends of bottled wines, overall producing 700,000 bottles. The original owner of the winery, Jose de Mello, had a love for carriages and collected them. There is a special room at the winery that showcases all the carriages, some of them date back to the mid 1800’s.
The ride home was the most arduous and about 2 hours long. There was a long and steady uphill road but the views of the open pastures and cork trees kept me moving. I was happy to soak in a hot bath when I got back to the farm and to my room. Dinner that evening was scrumptious – baked fish with a mix of vegetables and roasted potatoes. The dessert was the famous Portuguese “Pasteis de nata” which is essentially an egg custard tart in filo dough. I would be eating many Pasteis de nata before I left Portugal.
Day 2 Ride
This day was going to be filled with ancient monuments. The 25 mile ride was less strenuous than yesterdays but just as fun. Almendres Cromlech and Menir of Almendres make up most of the Megalithic monuments which are the largest existing group of structures in the Iberian Peninsula. They date back to the 6th millennium BC but only discovered in 1966 by Henrique Leonor Pina. The rock formation is of an oval shape and is a source of mystical powers. We do a stop and go bike run to several more Megalithic monuments, some of which are up on a hill with break-taking views of Evora. We then take a longer ride to Evora city. Evora is a charming city filled with lots of shops and cafes. In the center of the city we visit the famous Chapel of Bones which is next to St Francis church. Built in the 16th century by a monk, the chapel walls were constructed using the bones of all those who died in the town. At first glance, it just looks like piled up rocks but at a close look, you will see heaps of bones and skulls staring back at you.
We stop in The Cork store along on of the many cobblestoned streets. Every item in this store is made entirely out of cork. From wallets to shoes to candle holder to magnets, there’s even a dress made completely out of cork. Cork is a big export for Portugal as there are many cork trees cultivating in the country. Of course the most use is for wine bottles.
After lunch we head back to the Farm where I spend a few hours in the hammock writing in my journal and reading up on Portugal. Another delicious meal that evening of roast chicken with fresh asparagus and whole grain rice. For dessert, a chocolate banana layered cake with dark chocolate frosting.
Day 3 Ride
Today, Gary and Beth from the UK join my ride and we have a 30 mile journey to visit the famous Conquest of Valongo Castle. We ride for about an hour and make a stop to visit a leather factory and speak to Diego who shows us the process of how leather is made. Raw uncut, unwashed leather is hanging everywhere and the smell of the new rawhide is burly and unpleasant. But it’s fascinating to see the intricate process and the lovely end product in their shop where beautiful hand crafted jackets, belts and bags are on display.
We ride for about another hour and a half and stop in another part of Evora to visit the church of S. Vicente do Pigeiro, a famous church known for mystical sightings and miracles. We stop at a little local café to get lunch and decide to take it with us to eat once we arrive at the castle. The ride to the castle is another hour. We stop along the way and Ernesto gives us a formal history lesson on the cork trees and how important they are to Portugal. The trees all have numbers on them displaying when the tree was stripped of cork last. In Portugal, cork trees can only be stripped every 10 years to allow the tree to replenish itself. When we finally arrive at the castle, we park our bikes and walk up. The 11th century surreal castle is built in the middle of nowhere which of course makes it all the more majestic. We sit and eat our lunch over the spectacular view of the countryside. The last stretch or our ride is challenging, it’s along dirt rocky roads with steep hills and I often have to get off and walk my bike. Gary and Beth also walk their bikes, so I don’t feel so bad. We go through an olive grove and then finally to an open steady road. All along taking in the wonderful sites of open flower fields, sheep grazing in the country side and big bright skies.
There are many other options that Portugal can offer as far as cycling from colorful fisherman villages to the vastness of coast lines, whatever you choose, the country side of Portugal won’t let you down.