A five-day cycling adventure through Portugal’s stunning Atlantic coast
One of the first things we stop to see on our Exodus bike trip along the Atlantic coast from Porto to Lisbon was a little white chapel, Capela da Senhor da Pedra, built by the water’s edge in Miramar. It is on this same rock where pagans used to pray for nature, says our guide Alexandre Conceição. “Nature is their god.”
I get how nature can feel like a religious experience. Cycling over five days and about 300 kms — along boardwalks, next to sand dunes, though a pine forest and alongside ocean cliffs certainly did feel like a transcendent experience. Domestic and work stresses fall away. Instead of staring at a computer and phone most of the day, my screen was a moving landscape of blue water and an even bluer sky, beige sand and green trees. I was feeding off endorphins.
Portugal’s Silver Coast, or Costa de Prata is, surprisingly, not very touristed, an enigma given its sheer beauty and accessibility. Beaches go on seemingly forever, and its historic towns and fishing villages are as charming as its people are friendly.
Day 1: I arrive into Porto at noon after a 10-hour overnight flight from Toronto with a couple of hours to roam through the town, before meeting the other participants and our guide. I had always wanted to join a group bike trip, but now, arriving alone, I was, feeling like a kid on the first day of a new school. Would I make friends? My worries were quickly dispelled as people began strolling into the hotel lobby, introducing themselves and shaking hands. Turns out, I was one of 15 fit men and women between the ages of 43 and 70 — some single and some couples — several others also from Canada (B.C., Alberta and Nova Scotia), a couple from California, several from Great Britain and one from Italy. Our local guide Alex gives us a brief orientation to the trip and the next day’s itinerary, and we then head to a port wine cellar for some tastings, followed by dinner back at our hotel.
Day 2: From the banks of the Douro River, we begin a gentle ride along the river to its estuary. Then we follow the coast, mostly on bike paths, but also on a boardwalk, over marshland and past sandy beaches. We stop for a delicious buffet lunch of prawn and fish croquettes, cheese and meats at the Marbelo Praia-Bar, which overlooks the sand dunes in Espinho. In the afternoon, we stop for a stroll at Parque Ambiental do Buçaquinho, a beautiful protected forest area and environmental centre rich in plant life and fauna. We then continue our cycle through a forest of pines. Although we were supposed to stay in the seaside town of Furadouro, due to a hotel mixup (not our guide’s fault), we ended by going back almost 25 kms to Espinho, some of us by bike, others by van. But for that, we get to stay in the 5-star Hotel Solverde Spa & Wellness Center with a killer outdoor pool. That night, several of us take a cab into town for dinner at A Cabana, a classic Portuguese restaurant where my pork loin was enough for a family of four. I drift off easily to sleep that night.
Day 3: For the first 10 kms we cycle along the side of road, following the Aveiro Lagoon and the Reserva Natural das Dunas de São Jacinto, a beautiful coastal marshland rich in sea birds. For lunch, Alex and the van driver Andrei set up a delicious picnic of salads, cheeses, bread and a chorizo that they sear over flames in a clay dish called an assador. We eat at picnic tables next to a group of school kids wearing blue sunhats.
We then take a short ferry across the mouth of the Aveiro Laguna. In the afternoon, we cycle past moliceiros, the traditional fishing boats painted in bright colours with high pointy prows. We soon make another stop, this time at the town of Costa Nova, its houses —once fishing shacks and now mainly vacation homes — painted in colourful vertical stripes.
Getting back on our bikes, we pass people bent over digging up clams and crab in the sand, and later fishermen fishing with long poles and nets. The last 10 kms we cycle along mostly gravel road to Maçarico Beach Hotel on Mira Beach, purportedly one of the finest beaches in the country.
Day 4: In our briefing this morning, Alex talks about psychopaths, dirty roads and bitches. Should we be offended? Hardly. His broken, but well schooled English, is actually referencing cycle paths, gravel roads and beaches! Today we ride along mostly flat and quiet roads through one of the area’s biggest dune systems, close to several lagoons and through pine forest. I say “mostly” flat because there are several kilometres after lunch where we cycle up hill (about a 9% gradient) so tiring. But we are rewarded by a down hill ride along windy roads that end with a stunning view of Figueira da Foz.
Day 5: We ride mainly through a pine forest, its trees planted in the 15th Century used to build naval ships. Many of its trees stand black and skinny, having been ravaged by the wildfires that broke out in 2017. We follow the Atlantic Road or EuroVelo 1, which is one of 15 long distance cycling routes crossing Europe. Clearly we are part of something bigger! Although there are some long flat rides, we have one very big hill, and I am happy when we arrive late afternoon at São Pedro de Moel. I love the dramatic coastline, the rugged cliffs and crashing waves that are a sharp contrast to the long stretches of sand earlier on our trip.
Day 6: Our first stop today is Nazaré. I am smitten. Nazaré is one of the most famous fishing towns in Portugal, where you will still find women wearing the traditional embroidered skirts (apparently seven layers of them). It is also the town renowned for having the largest wave ever surfed. Around the main square, boutiques are crammed with handicrafts and souvenirs. I pick up a cork purse, a rooster-adorned tablecloth and a wood and tile cheese board.
We then get back on our bikes, riding past small farms until we stop for lunch in São Martinha do Porto, where – unlike the waves of Nazaré – there is a calm shell-shaped lagoon and a beautiful boardwalk through the dunes. The restaurant Cima d’Agua is glassed in on three sides and the crème caramel with corn bread for dessert is memorable! Our next stop is the equally beautiful Foz do Arelho, where I renounce an espresso to throw off my shoes and lie down in the warm sand. Although I removed my shoes, I forget to take off my helmet, which made for an awkward sunhat!
After our final short steep uphill, I feel euphoric to sail down the next hill on my bike. The sun is warm but there’s a cool wind and I move quickly through a mottled pattern formed by shadows on the path. We arrive at our destination, the magical Óbidos, with a medieval castle inside its walled town and narrow cobblestone streets. As we come to a final stop on our bikes and dismount, I am hit by a wave of melancholy. Alex opens a bottle of champagne and we all drink a toast to where we have come. It has been the best biking day so far, and I have felt part of a team. I don’t want it to end.
After saying good-bye to our bikes, we enter our last hotel, The Literary Man, which is a former convent with stone arches and walls lined with books – a nod to Óbidos UNESCO designation as a City of Literature. The hotel has a great rustic-chic restaurant and bar. And the rooms are simple but perfect.
Day 7: After breakfast, we drive about an hour to Lisbon, drop our bags at the hotel on, and then go in the van to the city centre. There we are left to explore. I spend most of my time in the Alfama, the oldest part of Lisbon, where you can hear the melancholy and haunting Portuguese music, or Fado, played in cafés and bars, and wander its steep narrow cobblestone streets.
But it is about 10 degrees Celsius hotter here than on the rest of our trip, and I miss my bike, my new friends and the quiet fishing villages of the coast. I hope one day to return.
IF YOU GO
Exodus Travels [exodustravels.com] offers tours through more than a 100 countries: from walking to cycling, to mixed activities, to family trips and seasonal getaways. Besides the family tours, the average age is about 50 and older. And length of tours varies, but tends to be eight to 14 days.
This Porto to Lisbon Atlantic Ride is a 7-night tour, of which five days are cycling. Four-star hotels, all breakfasts and one dinner are included, as are excellent Trek bikes with paniers, a guide and a van that accompanies you on the trip, and takes your luggage.