Mountain Biking Portugal’s Ancient Heartland with a Legend
It’s hot. very hot. Nothing moves on this parched, sun-splashed landscape save a hovering vulture, a scurrying gecko and the flaxen dirt disturbed by our circumvolving tires and falling beads of sweat. Pedro’s GPS delivers the somber news: the mercury is pushing 40 degrees. Many more pedal strokes will be needed to reach the apogee of this section of trail. Salt stains have turned my once blue throughout jersey into a harsh display. It’s well past malodorous. Our afternoon repast and the long, hairy downhill out of Castelo Rodrigo, which bounced me around as if I was in a steel-cage match with Hulk Hogan, is now a distant, cherished memory.
Ahead, under a forceful sun, another downward slope mercifully appears. Pedro screams down with bravado as if the tract is clear of clutter. Crossing several valleys, today’s ride is no different than most here – oscillating between ascents and slavering descents.
There’s barely a moment to shake out my hands and bellow out a ‘wahoo’ at the bottom when the climbing begins again lethargically. Dirt has given way to ill-matched cobblestone. Plagued by dehydration and a world-class case of saddle sore, I’m moving about as fast as a tortoise with nowhere to be. "Are you sure they’re at the top," I sullenly quiz Paulo whose a few bike lengths closer to the crest, well aware that a trend has occurred: rides start and end at the castle. And, as defenders of land and dwellings, castles such as the one here in the Centro de Portuguese village of Marialva were built way up for a reason. To make conquest a more difficult undertaking for both the sword-wielding and, unbeknownst to the Roman’s, the spandex clad sect. Here, within a complete circuit of twelfth century walls, I’ve resolved that I’m taking part in one serious ride.
The Great Route
The European Union sponsored 335-mile contiguous Grande Rota das Aldeias Históricas (The Grand Route of Historical Villages) was routed in 2000. The route uses a series of farm dirt roads, roman cobblestone paths, and thorny foot trails to connect twelve 12th century historical villages in rugged central Portugal. Call it an attempt to draw some of the adventure minded away from country’s well trodden natural (and human cluttered) emblem – its southern beaches. I’ve been invited here to Portugal’s cultural heartland by local Grand Rota experts Pedro Pedrosa and Pedro Carvalho. The sole purpose being to experience for myself why there are rumblings that this circuit is destined to become one of Europe’s epic multi-day mountain bike adventures.
A few hours of riding from our launch point of Castelo Novo, we came upon a small village adorned by granite two-story houses and winding mazy avenues. A local, where the seasoned denizens clap as we race by. I’m rapidly becoming smitten by Europe’s most western nation. Fresh picked figs and blackberries are quelling my hunger pangs, the tract is generally flat sprinkled with the occasional kamikaze downhill and oak and cork trees which provide relief from the humming sun. Portugal produces about half the world output of commercial cork and, although it can be harvested every nine years, it takes up to 40 for the bark to become commercially viable. Needless to say, this is not a get rich quick scheme.
"That bridge has a two thousand year warranty," jocular Pedro P. proclaims as I finish pedaling over a bumpy Roman bridge heading out of Idanha-a-Velha, a remote former Roman stronghold. Founded one century before Christ, pleasantly set amongst olive groves and parched plains and once unceremoniously vacated due to a plague of rats. He then makes a pronunciamento: "The climb into Monsanto is perhaps the route’s most arduous."
I only get a few pedal strokes into this 200-meter clamber before I’m shamelessly off the bike. Someone with an abnormal sense of humor has decided the best route up to Monsanto is this long forgotten, near vertical, rocky Roman path that lends itself to almost no momentum. Daniel Marques, a powerfully built and seemingly indefatigable Portuguese rider and Shannon Mominee, a 34-year-old musician from Pittsburg testing out a new 29er mountain bike, are fairing better. "Shit, what the hell was that?" a breathless Shannon inquires as I make it up, a skosh slow and dour faced, to where they’re standing looking back down at our first big Grande Rota demand. Several minutes later the legend himself Gary Fisher, invited on this ride to lend the historic route some celebrity muscle, arrives, carrying himself like this is just another day at the office. For him, it is.
Me, and anyone who has ever taken their two-wheeler to where cars can’t, descended thousands of break-searing vertical feet or zipped along the tightest of singletrack nestled between swales of verdant grass owe Gary Fisher. Big time! Yearning to explore the hills surrounding his abode in Marin County California in the late ‘60s, Fisher blended road bike and motorcycle parts onto a patriarchal Schwinn and spit out the inaugural mountain bike. A few years later he brought to life a company aptly dubbed Mountain Bikes and the rest is free riding (slash) endo (slash) pinch flat (slash) chain sucking history. Now 57 years young and the father of four, Gary still has an elephantine love for the fat tire and content as ever gabbing about bikes, refining bikes and riding bikes. "The bicycle is the best way to enter into a location in a non-invasive manner. Using it, I want to experience the land of Portugal and hear the stories of the people who occupy it."
Luckily for Gary, Monsanto is storybook Portugal. After catching my breath and loving every sip of a few cold beers shared with the mountain bike encyclopedia, I spend the next moments exploring the medieval village with a rep as Portugal’s oldest and most traditional settlement. I wander among houses built into the mountain rock. Pinched gray alleyways bring me to elderly women enthusiastically conversing perched on their steps. The outcome of a craggy path is a boulder littered castle with views of the ubiquitous red roofs of the dwellings below and the vast surrounding undulating rockscape resembling worn molars of a shepherd that will tackle one rotation at a time.
Besides an obnoxious sun, ornery dogs and the demanding terrain with more ups and downs than a ‘80s guitar solo, our biggest nemesis are the thorns. There a many, and, in turn, many flats. After his fourth limp tire in just as many hours, Paolo Sangregorio, a 41-year-old angular graphic artist from Sweden, seems keen on tossing his Cannondale over the Meimoa dam on the outskirts of the Serra da Malcata Natural Reserve. Until recently there roamed the exceptionally endangered Iberian Lynx.
In the fifty five miles of dusty track between Sortelha, another fine example of an ancient, castle-adorned hilltop village towering above golden plains and Almeida, I’ve, sigh, caught up to Paola in the flat department. The blackberry bushes that sport the thorns that torment our tires have torn open my arms as I rip by them on my cushy dual suspension Gary Fisher in this generally sere countryside. There’s little pouting and querulous remarks though as the trail is becoming increasingly tantamount to mountain biking utopia. I’m wending through a big, untamed mural dotted with high peaks, lazy rivers, and rock rose and papillon lavender under an omnipresent high, dark blue sky. No vehicles are to be witnessed among the sun-bleached veldt and precarious rocky downhills are taken gung-ho depositing me at the bottom wordlessly. I’m elated to converse with a spirited 92-year-old still attending daily to his grazing livestock in the fields. Too shy to let me capture his weathered complexion on my camera. Neither the steamy bushwhack to find our crossing over the Coa River or this painful incline into Almeida, 15-kilometres from Spain, as the crow flies, can’t break my blithe spirit.
Equally cheerful is Gary, who today, riding like Bugs Bunny on a latte binge, has already crested the summit and been sipping algid Super Brock’s for hours. Breathless with roseate cheeks, I inquire whether he has explored this 18th-century stronghold that’s exceptionally maintained enclosed within towering walls that form of a twelve-point star built to fend off the self-assured Spanish. "Nope, just been chilling," he responds, revealing his relaxed ways that, along with his gregarious personality, is quickly winning over his travel companions and the Portuguese alike.
Up and Down
Advancing to the South en masse, the Grande Rota is now taking us through a central plateau and the rough grounds of Serra da Estrela Natural Park, Home to Iberian wall lizards, Tawny owl’s, and the occasional wolf which mingle in the open air of the countries largest mountain range. Past black oak and juniper, we ride though matter-of-course central Portugal villages like Moreirinhas, Carrapichana, and Venda do Cepo. Finally, after a day with 1300 feet of lose dirt climbing, followed by a 1800 foot mind-blowing descent through the verdant Muxagata valley and another heart-pounding 1300 foot ridiculously vertical ascent of a boulder-strewn Roman path, a weary spandex-clad group pulls into Linhares da Beira. Once again, Gary is already there, ale in hand. The group is one lighter. A busted up ankle the outcome of what is very much an arduous course.
A go-to spot for some of the big, blue marble’s best paragliders, Linhares rests on a slope keeping a watch over the Rio Mondego valley below. "Matt, let’s go," orders Carlos Vitorino, a 26-year-old tenacious Portuguese mountain biking virtuoso. It’s time for him to play and for me to shoot. For the next half hour or so he pedals almost effortlessly around the obstacles leading to the village castle, rambles down concrete steps attached to stone houses and fires off a few wheelies along the restored cobbled alleyways for the camera. "Want me to do more?" His indomitable stamina is maddening. They whole time there is few residents to put up much of a fuss.
In fact, I’ve come to anticipate riding through these aged villages without much fanfare. It seems the young and ambitious have vacated the countryside seeking more prosperous fortunes in the country’s capital. This has left only hard-as-nail seniors in this hardscrabble land to rise against the pace of the modern world. I wonder what will become of Linhares and other hamlets strewn across the central Portugal hills when they pass away. But for now, it’s wonderful to find spots unbent by tourism.
Haggard yet Content
50-miles from Linhares is our terminus for today: Piódão. And, being nestled in the middle of three mountain ranges, there will be more climbing. Indeed, the first 10-kilometres of this atypical leaden skied morning are just that. At times the sand is six inches deep making pedaling exhausting work and other moments it’s just a sick steep grade. I glance down at the GPS and sullenly watch the meters slowly creep by. Linhares is now just a speck on the forest fire ravaged landscape. Passing by wolfram mines employed by the British during the Second World War, I notice even Gary is struggling to keep his tires moving forward. As I alight from my bike to snap a picture of him laggardly riding by, he announces "this is what it’s all about," trying to keep his game face on.
Battle worn and ragged, I roll into the Vale do Rossim dam for lunch and masticate three ubiquitous ham and cheese sandwiches while languidly reclined in a hard plastic chair. We’re encouraged to collect oak tree seeds that will be planted by a local NGO to help offset those that perished during recent forest fires in the mountainous Serre da Estrela region. But, weary, few can muster much more than a feeble attempt to be green.
"It’s pretty much all downhill from here," Pedro C., an affable Lisbon native, briefs me as I slowly relieve a towering oak of some of its brown stringy buds. He wasn’t kidding. The afternoon is spent with Shannon and Paolo inhaling dust as we navigate 4000 feet of descent along tight singletrack dotted with the occasional hair-raising asphalt. "That is about my limit," Paolo confesses after one section of particularly chancy trail. Just more training for the Grande Rota’s final challenge.
Leaving Piódão, a particularly romantic village with brown slate homes meshed into the mountain like a Christmas tree and blushed by the rising sun, I conclude that with 55-miles and 10,000 feet of climbing among ridges and valleys, this will be one of the most epic rides of my thirty-three year existence. A fitful sleep occurred worrying about failed ascents, battered body parts and an unheroic van ride back to the start line. But these concerns do not come to fruition. Somehow, like some sort of medieval fairy tale, I arrive back at Castelo Novo unscathed and pumped to do more. As if pedaling in the dirt among a sea of varicolored misty mountains, giant windmills dormant in the absent breeze and unique heritages never really happened today. While not always the reality during these past eight days, I stand here not with unalloyed relief that it’s over, but heavy-hearted to be unclipping for the last time in this land of gentle ways.
That night while sipping port and sharing harrowing experiences with my new friends, Gary stands and brightly toasts his fellow adventurers. "To those who took on this challenge and kicked it in the ass." Challenge, yes. Kicking it in the ass? Often, it was the other way around.
At the moment A2Z Adventures (http://www.bicyclingworld.com/templates/supplier.aspx?rqSupplierID=605&rqID=-1) are the only company offering supported mountain bike trips along the Grande Rota das Aldeias Históricas. Their short or long nine-day tour (1150 Euro) includes guides, van support, hotel accommodation, food, transfer to and from Lisbon and the use of a GPS system so you can spend more time enjoying the thrilling trails and less time wondering: left or right? They also offer a year round self-supported option (790 Euro) that includes all of the above except for the guides for those looking for a little more independence.
Spring (April-June) and fall (Sept-Oct) are the best months for cycling in central Portugal. The summer months are just too stinking hot.
Portugal remains one of Europe’s biggest bargains. Expect your Euro to go further here than in other nearby countries.