Population: 10.6 million
Food: Fish, sausages
Drink: Vinho verde wine, port
Portugal is our favourite cycling country in Europe.
It has a diverse landscape, mostly quiet roads, great food and very reasonable prices. Its small size means you can cycle beside the sea and the mountains easily in just a week or ten days of touring.
The key to enjoying Portugal is to avoid most of the southern Algarve region. It tends to be overdeveloped with holiday resorts and as a result the roads are busy and not very bike friendly. The only reason you might want to come here is that sometimes you can get cheap flights into cities like Faro but we recommend heading inland as soon as possible. Better to enjoy the sea in another less developed part of the country. Happily, you can easily get away from the urban sprawl of the Algarve by heading north a short distance.
Our route in April 2007 took us first from Monte Gordo on the border with Spain to Faro. From there we turned north towards Beja, Evora, Castelo Branco and Guarda.
Our favourite part of the journey was the Serra da Estrela mountain range and in particular the Zezere glacial valley. The rustic landscape is nothing short of amazing and the roads are a cyclist’s dream. You have to work hard at first with grades of 10 percent as you climb from Covilha but long descents follow on near perfect roads and hardly any traffic. Another highlight was the Unesco world heritage town of Evora with its Roman temple, aquaduct, cathedral and multitude of other historic monuments. Although we didn’t generally like the Algarve, Tavira is a scenic town to visit if you’re in the area.
When you come to Portugal, it’s definitely worth trying the local cuisine. Local family-run restaurants are excellent value for money. We ate many wonderful meals of grilled fish, potatoes, salad, wine and coffee for two and the bill didn’t even reach €20 – a bargain compared with the rest of Europe. A coffee at a local bar in the morning rarely came close to a euro and local beers and wines are also available for pocket change. If you’re on a budget, you can buy local cheeses and sausages and fantastic bread in the supermarkets and farmer’s markets to cook up yourself.
CHEAP CAMPING, FREE INTERNET
Campers are well catered for by Portugal’s wide network of municipal and private campgrounds. The private campgrounds will offer extras like swimming pools, while municipal campgrounds are basic but very cheap, often less than €5 for two people and a tent. We never paid over €10. Whether private or municipal, bring your own toilet paper! Sometimes it’s necessary to wild camp. It’s easy to hide away for the night and often we chose to wild camp because the surrounding scenery was so beautiful. Basic, clean hotels can be found for as little as €30.
Portugal makes it very easy to keep in touch with home with free internet access in nearly every town. Ask at any tourist bureau and you are likely to find a computer on site for your use or be directed to the local library or a youth centre where you can get online for free. Sometimes you have to register but they never mind tourists coming in for a few hours.
You shouldn’t need to pay for water since nearly every town will have a fountain or tap with potable water.
With so many bargains around, we set a budget of €25 per day and had no problem sticking well within it, even though we enjoyed a few meals out, often bought a bottle of wine to have with dinner or stopped in cafes for a morning break. We even splurged on a couple days with friends.
WATCH THE WEATHER AND THE DOGS
We don’t have much negative to say about Portugal but do be prepared for fickle weather outside of high summer. There can be a lot of rain and it can get surprisingly cold. We even experienced a hailstorm in late April in the mountains when it was sunny just a few moments before. Our tarp got a lot of use in Portugal.
The language barrier was an issue for us more so than other European countries. You may struggle to get your point across, even in tourist bureaus and other places where you’d expect to find other languages spoken. Finally, we found dogs more of an issue here than some other places. Most were tied up but relatively often we came across strays who enjoyed barking at us. Thankfully they never gave serious chase, although they did take us by surprise from time to time.