For quiet rolling countryside, delightfully untouristed old towns and an attractive coastline, the Alentejo region of southern Portugal is hard to beat, writes cycling enthusiast Huw Thomas.
The Alentejo covers most of the southern half of Portugal, stretching from the wild breakers of the Atlantic coast to the hilltop castles on the border with Spain. It’s a predominantly agricultural region: lots of rolling pastures, cork oaks and olive trees stretching for miles, and - in the spring - carpets of wildflowers. This is also one of the quietest parts of Portugal and great for cycling, whether you’re doing one-day rides or longer tours. It can be extremely hot in the summer, but makes a wonderful touring destination throughout the rest of the year.
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Huw Thomas first visited Portugal in 2005, when he and his wife, Carolyn, rode the length of the country on a tandem. He subsequently lived in Portugal for three years while working as an English teacher. Huw now runs Pedal Portugal, a website providing free advice and information on cycling within Portugal. In 2011, Huw and Carolyn completed a 10,000-mile tandem ride in aid of the charity...
The Alentejo is one of my favourite regions of Portugal for cycle touring for several reasons. Apart from the scenery - which is a definite plus - there are a number of reasons why I think it’s a destination with huge, mostly untapped, potential for cycling.
One simple fact is there just aren’t that many people. The Alentejo covers around 31,500 square kilometres (about half as big again as Wales) and has a population of just 750,000, giving a density of 24 people per square kilometre. To put that into perspective, Wales has a population density of 148 people per square kilometre.
Of course, for a cyclist what this means is very quiet roads. You don’t get the kind of dense network of country lanes that we’re used to in the UK, but on the other hand you can spend all day riding on ‘main’ roads and hardly see any cars.
Another factor is that the Alentejo isn’t as anything like as rugged as much of the northern half of Portugal. There are enough hills to make a ride interesting, but not so many that touring by bike becomes an endurance challenge.
Spring comes with a wealth of wildflowers, often spread as far as the eye can see, and the region is also excellent for bird life - from storks and eagles to hoopoes and bee-eaters.
As mentioned above, the Alentejo is a big area. However, there are three particular parts of the region that - for my money - offer the best opportunities for cycling.
THE BORDER COUNTRY
First of all - and probably my favourite part - is the area bordering Spain. Stretching from the Sao Mamede hills around Castelo de Vide all the way down towards Serpa and the valley of the Rio Guadiana, I think this area is a treat for riders.
A zigzag route down through the border region would take you through Castelo de Vide, Elvas, Estremoz, Evora, Monsaraz, Moura and Serpa – each with its own delightful ensemble of whitewashed churches, marble façades, crumbling mansions and pavement cafés.
There’s history aplenty, too, and lots of picturesque sights that just ooze Portuguese charm. If you like castles you’ll be spoilt for choice - ranging from Marvão, with its dramatic walls perched on crags way above the surrounding landscape, to Elvas, which boasts some of the largest and most complete 17th-century military fortifications in Europe.
THE CENTRAL ALENTEJO
The second area for touring cyclists would be the central Alentejo, focused on the ancient city of Evora, with its Roman temple, medieval ramparts and old palaces.
There’s plenty of history in the surrounding area, too. The Iberian peninsula’s biggest stone circle is at Os Almendres - although some of the route here is along dirt roads that are pretty rough for a road bike.
A new cycle path is also being created north out of Evora along an old railway line. This is still at a relatively early stage, but makes a pleasant short ride - or a good traffic-free route in or out of town.
One elegant town north of Evora is Arraiolos, featuring lots of whitewashed houses trimmed with pale blue, and an atmospheric old castle.
Using Evora as a base you could also visit Montemor-o-Novo, Viana do Alentejo and Alvito - all attractive small towns with historic centres and, yes, more old castles. If you’re not fed up with castles, a ride to the northeast takes you to Evora Monte, which features one of the oddest-looking castles in Portugal. The setting is dramatic, but the keep looks more like a film set than a military fortification.
THE ATLANTIC COAST
Although there’s no coast road as such, the Alentejo has some of the prettiest and most unspoilt beaches in Portugal.
The northern half of the Alentejo coast is characterised by long, windswept beaches, but from just north of the small town of Vila Nova de Milfontes things become more varied. From here all the way down to Odeceixe, just across the border in the Algarve, the coast is a mix of rugged cliffs, sandy beaches and sparkling fishing coves.
The cycling is hillier here than inland, with some sharp ups and downs - plus some twisting roads. The landscape is a mixture of eucalyptus forest, deep valleys and stretches of flatter pasture.
Notable beauty spots include the pretty seaside village of Zambujeira do Mar and Cabo Sardão, where storks nest on dizzy pinnacles of rock high above the crashing Atlantic surf.
Castelo de Vide
This is one of my favourite places in Portugal - the town itself is full of pretty cobbled streets, plus a classic ruined castle and gorgeous views. To the east is the protected area of hills known as the Serra de São Mamede, and you’re only a short distance from Marvão, which has one of the most dramatic castles in Portugal - and a fascinating chestnut festival in early October. The roads around here are about as quiet as they get.
I never get tired of this spot on the Atlantic coast just north of Zambujeira. The countryside here is very rural, with nice quiet lanes for cycling. There's a small village near the cape (with a couple of cafés) and the road ends at the lighthouse. Just beyond is the cape itself, with drops of a couple of hundred feet to the sea, and storks' nests perched on pinnacles of rock.
Another of my favourite Alentejo spots, Serpa is a small, untouristy town with a pretty, historic centre - complete with ruined castle. It’s also surrounded by quiet, rolling countryside. There aren’t a huge number of roads in these parts, but it’s quite possible to work out a decent ride in any direction of the compass. Serpa is famous for its cheese, and the local pastries are superb.
Whether you’re into military history or just like somewhere with character, Elvas is well worth the detour. The town is surrounded by an intricate complex of walls and forts - said to be some of the best-preserved in Europe, despite being the scene of various sieges and battles over the years. Elvas is in the midst of miles of quiet, rolling countryside - last time I was here, I spotted dozens of exotic-looking bee-eaters perching on telephone wires.
Evora’s population of about 60,000 makes it the largest city in the region and it also gets the most tourists - drawn by a variety of historic monuments spanning the best part of two millennia. It’s well worth the visit and makes an excellent base for cycling trips out into the surrounding countryside and to visit some of the other picturesque towns of the central Alentejo.
Best times to go:
When riding in the Alentejo, it’s very important to factor in the heat. Personally, I wouldn’t advise riding here in the summer months at all - even in the late spring and early autumn temperatures can regularly top 30°C, and in midsummer it often hits 40°C.
At all times of year you’ll need to take plenty of water and provisions, particularly as there can be reasonable distances between towns with nothing else along the way. Wear decent wrap-around sunglasses too - the light this far south can be intense and if you’re riding into the sun all day that can also take its toll.
Portugal has a poor reputation overall for road safety, but I lived in the country for three years and have never had any problem as a cyclist. Most Portuguese are extremely courteous - drivers stop at pedestrian crossings as a rule not an exception!
The main problems touring cyclists will face in Portugal are lack of decent maps, erratic signposting, variable road surfaces and trouble getting hold of spares for anything not mainstream. One other factor to be aware of is cobbles - the centres of many Portuguese towns are paved with granite sets that can be rough on both bike and rider.
But provided you chose your route with care and come prepared, I don’t think there are many places to beat the Alentejo for cycling.
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