February is usually a great time to cycle in Portugal, but if you go North, you need to expect some rain and some cold days. The Cycling Rentals crew decided to load up the mountain bikes and find out just how much.
Written by Martin Thompson
Every year we use our own bicycle rental services to go on a team cycle tour holiday - out of season, so we can be back in the office to make sure that your bike holiday goes rolls smoothly when the sun is out! This year we decided to explore the little know Grande Rota do Côa, a European Grand Route that follows the Coa river in northern Portugal from Guarda to Vila Nova de Foz Côa.
The route offers stunning scenery and a glimpse at a vanishing way of life in the very rural interior of northern Portugal. If bucolic wilderness is your think, this is a ride to seriously consider! Most of the route follows the meandering Côa river valley and crosses a various points the river itself and several tributary streams - which as we found out can run pretty deep in the winter!
Guarda to Sabugal - 50 km Road & Trail
The first leg of our journey was a train ride from the Portuguese capital. Leaving Lisbon on the Intercity train to Guarda, we discovered that only certain compositions, running at specific times will take your bike on board (you can find out more about taking your bicycle on a train in Portugal here). Fortunately we had a fine bottle of Irish Whiskey to keep us warm as we waited for the next train and a video shot for a big name fast food brand going on in the streets below.
Once we boarded the right train we made a quick stop in Coimbra, changing trains and grabbing a bite before heading on to Guarda, which is known for being Ugly, Strong and Cold - by the town's own reckoning! While the train ride had been anything but ugly, it was certainly cold on the platform and based on the weather forecast, it was about to get much colder. And wetter.
Cycling out of town was quick and painless and we soon found ourselves on ancient roman cobbles and very glad to be on our 29er mountain bikes as we trundled towards the leaden skies ahead. Although we had enjoyed a break in the frosty weather in Guarda, it was pretty clear that the temperature was dropping as we approached sunset, and the rain was starting to taunt us. It was time for some more whisky, and we could have been on the Scottish highlands for the wind chill on our faces - but the peaty flavour of Ireland soon had us dancing a jig.
Our resolve stiffened by the drink and our cockles aglow, we made it to our hotel by nightfall and were very pleasantly surprised by the glowing warmth and snazzy decor. The fragrance of fresh pine and new varnish were unsurprising as the hotel had been finished only a few moths earlier and on this night, there was only another couple joining us for dinner. But not before a dip in the huge spa pool, where the young couple was treated to the sight of one of the team members soggy boxer shorts as I had failed to pack my speedos... Dinner was fine and ample, as was the bar bill, and an excellent night's sleep was had by all - even as we watched the rain fall ceaselessly, through the panoramic windows.
Why in god's name were we doing this??
Sabugal to Castelo Mendo - 65 km Road, Trail and Cobbles
Having dragged out a fabulous breakfast as long as we possibly could, we agreed that 65 km in the rain weren't going to ride themselves, so with 3 layers of winter gear we rolled out into the gray drizzle. The ride was clearly a beautiful one - as far as we could make out. We rolled over the first on many roman low stone bridges, built of solid granite slabs and made to stand the test of time.
With breakfast still keeping us strong it was becoming apparent that perhaps winter was not the best time of year to undertake this river-side route - as the well prepared literature on the website had made so abundantly clear. But now, wet to the socks and bracing for snow, we were committed - and all roads led to Castelo Mendo - or so we thought. Passing ancient toll bridges and practically uninhabited hamlets, we felt like so many hobbits on a brave but hopeless quest as we reached a frigid village, where we were informed by the only inhabitant in sight, that road ended there as the river had burst it´s banks up ahead.
Following a bracing snack of pilfered breakfast sandwiches, the decision was made to head back to the previous village and take the main road from there to our night's destination. This call was not made lightly as hypothermia was a very real possibility, in fact a guarantee! The powerful wind was blowing icy rain right at us in horizontal sheets as we battled our way back along the darkening landscape of barren fields and boulders.
Why in god's name were we doing this?? The hardest part of the retreat came on the last little downhill into town, when we realized that our hands were no more useful on the brakes than a clutch of frozen mackerel. Jamming my wrists atop the brake levers did the trick and we were soon shivering our way into the village social club. This was the only café for miles - and was clearly the most popular place in town: all 8 inhabitants were there for the afternoon coffee.
In keeping with northern spirit, heating is reserved only for cold days. So the balmy 10 degrees inside the little building were cozy enough that the locals only needed a single outdoor coat - but only marginally better than the 3 degrees outside, and not enough to bring 5 hypothermic cyclists back from the brink!
Through rigid lips I managed to inquire if there was any wood to fuel the cast iron stove in the middle of the room and in no time the locals had a healthy little fire going. In the mean time, Nuno was working the bar and had produced a lava-hot galão for each of us. In the mean time, a rather feisty widow had taken a keen eye to him and suggested her place might be warmer than the frigid little social club - and for some reason I can only ascribe to his hypothermic condition, he agreed!
By the time Nuno returned, even colder than when he left, the stove was doing its job and our digits were starting to move again, enough to get dialing the phone number of the only local taxi service - which served all the surrounding villages! As luck that favors only fools would have it, the taxi was in fact a large 9 seater van, not unlike our own, and able to comfortably take us to our nights destination... 25 km away. John put up a brave fight to suggest we MTFU, brace ourselves and head out into the now subsiding rain, but was swiftly voted down by all, including the amorous widow.
A shot of peaty whiskey sealed the deal and before we knew it we were unloaded at a newly restored village, featuring its own cooking school and spanking new sauna. The boys made haste and finished of the rest of the tipple, as they broiled away inside the sauna, before an exquisite dinner of local delights, served with bread of made by our own, now more dexterous hands! Superb.
Castelo Mendo to Foz Côa - 70 km road, trail and vertical climbing!
The freeze and thaw of the previous day safely behind us, and sparkling sunlight streaming through the landscape window of the breakfast room had our morale a peak levels! And we were going to need it! The ride out was on splendidly flowing tarmac all the way down to the Côa river valley and was only cut short once we found the trail-head. Overgrown and somewhat under water... But it was a beautiful little trail that meandered along the river edge, through fields of early blossoming almond trees and over ancient stone slab bridges - until it abruptly ended in a freezing melt-water stream.
After much deliberation, I decided the only thing to do was jump on John's back and get carried across the icy water. He is a bigger man than I by most dimensions and his piggy back that day will never be forgotten! Ralph jeered me on, but was relieved when John waded back over the floes once again and with Francis's help brought him over to dry land as well!
The rest of the ride had us zig-zagging over single track bridges and scenery that in spring or summer would be so grand that we all vowed to return despite the horrors we had suffered along our way. Eventually the flat Côa valley riding gave way to the steep sides behind the Douro valley, at the foot of the frontier town of Foz Côa, and the only way was up. Up the steepest cobbled road in Portugal, a road so steep and so cobbled that the wonder was how the cobbles hadn't all rolled into the river below!
The only thing that kept us going up that final climb, was the biting cold that had descended with the setting sun. Fortunately the pagan traditions of northern Portugal were in full swing and the town fair was on, ensuring piping hot, deep fried dough churros for all, as we cycled down the main avenue to our nights destination. After a fantastic dinner, irrigated with excellent local wines, the evening ended with a midnight raid of my room, by my dear friends who were clearly missing their wives at that point...
Foz Côa back to Lisbon - 300 km of train travel
A hearty breakfast served in the generous Portuguese fashion of old (3 times more fresh eggs, toast and cake than we could ever eat!), banish any hard feelings from the bedroom raid of the previous night and readied us for the inevitable return back to our homes, offices and the grind of daily life...
But not before one of the most spectacular train journeys in Europe, chugging right along the bank of the stunning Douro river valley, all the way to Porto. From Porto, we had a few moments to gather our wits and luggage before boarding the slick and quiet Alfa train back down to the frenetic buzz of Lisbon. What a ride!
You can find more details on the official Grande Rota do Coa and the official interactive map right here.