Our sleeping bags kept us nice and cosy throughout the night as the wind blew down the Zêzere valley and past our tent, following on the icy hailstorm the evening before. We’d been told that the weather could be less than reliable this time of year in the Serra da Estrela and now we were experiencing the whims of the mountains first hand. If you are thinking of cycle touring in this area, don’t come without checking the weather forecast and be prepared for a surprise storm to sneak up on you. Even with the cold, we were glad to have made the effort as the gorgeous scenery continued for a second day.
First we poked our heads out of the tent to take in the view of the beautiful stream, gurgling away past our front door, the start of the river Zêzere. After packing up quickly – the colder it is, the faster we move! – we made our way to the road and immediately benefited from all our hard climbing of the day before. A 30km downhill stretch awaited us, first on a narrow, twisty road that ran right along the edge of the Zêzere valley. We kept on stopping to take pictures and were constantly amazed at the work of the glacier. Boulders towered over us on both sides of the steep mountains and waterfalls poured down over moss-covered rocks into the river running along the valley bottom. We also admired the casais, typical houses of the area built from stone and nestled into the river valley, homes for people working the fertile soil left by the glacier. Straw from rye formed a kind of thatched roof on each little home.
Only a few kilometers down into the valley we took a small track which led us beside the river and into the town of Manteigas, where we rushed into the first cafe we saw for a warming drink. It was a funny little place, with its own unique character. You certainly can’t accuse the Portugese of following a standard fashion for their cafes as they are all a little different. This one looked rather like a working man’s club, with a large room filled with simple black tables and chairs and an L-shaped bar running along two walls. A television in the corner blared out music from a concert and a short, plump woman came to take our order. “Cafe con leite,” we said, hesitantly. We still haven’t mastered the pronunciation of the Portugese language, even though we recognise several words. The rest was done with sign language. Big cups please, not small ones. Oh, and two of those, we said, pointing to some tasty looking cupcakes in a display case. Once nourished, we hopped back on the bikes to continue our downhill run all the way to Valhelhas, a village which goes back to pre-historic days, according to our guide book. As we entered the village an elderly lady walked slowly along the edge of the road, dressed head to toe in black, including her black cardigan which was thrown over her head like you might use a scarf. We have noticed many older women dressed entirely in black in recent days and are not sure if they are widows in mourning or if this is just a traditional dress of older people, perhaps something with a religious significance?
From there we turned left and climbed once again up a quiet, curving road, heading for Guarda. Unlike our climb from Covilhã though, the road was gently graded and we were able to cycle the whole way as we rose higher and higher above the valley, stopping in the shade of a cluster of pine trees for lunch. Before long we were riding a ridge at the top of the road, then a few ups and downs and we were in Guarda, a much easier trip than we had expected. The promised cold wind blew stronger as we reached the campsite in Guarda, happily finding it open. We weren’t sure it would be since many we’ve seen recently have been closed and we set up our tent, once again for a very low price compared with the rest of Europe.