A trip that combines natural beauty with great food and wine is a sure-fire way to enjoy the best of Europe – and, as Victoria Milner discovers, doing it on two wheels can be an especially rewarding option.
Cycling is undoubtedly the sport du jour. Whether you live in Singapore, Sydney or Seattle, you’ve no doubt eyeballed the packs of lycra-clad cyclists speeding around your neighbourhood. When a friend suggested a cycling jaunt in Portugal, I initially scoffed. While I don’t mind riding to the market on a Saturday, piling the basket high with fresh produce, then riding the 10 minutes home again, cycling for a holiday seemed quite beyond my pedal power.
After a little research, though, I began to think that not only could I tackle such a holiday, I might also enjoy it. The allure of picturesque landscapes and exceptional food and wine, with some exercise thrown in, didn’t seem like a bad idea at all.
Self-guided biking holidays are having their moment in the sun. An organised, active holiday where you don’t have to endure the pain of a big tour group can make for a rewarding trip. Portugal is an ideal country if you’re looking for somewhere away from the tourist hordes. What particularly appealed to us about the Northern Portugal itinerary we chose was the opportunity to see Porto and the Douro Valley.
The winding Douro River is the vein of life that pulses through the Douro Valley. Pinhão, our first stop, is one of the more popular towns along the river. Our accommodation at the aptly named Vintage House had views stretching for miles along the impressive watercourse. With river scenes and terraced vineyards filling every square inch, the Douro is one of the most picturesque wine regions you could visit.
Our first day was spent cycling high up into the hills around Pinhão, after which we returned to Vintage House. The scenery was breathtaking; and, while clear skies eluded us, we were happy to have the cloud cover keep the temperature down. Our hybrid bikes easily negotiated the steep stretches, patches of cobblestones and bitumen roads. Handily, they come equipped with small baskets or bags for you to pack all the little essentials in: phone, food, a cheeky bottle of wine and a jacket or poncho.
After packing our bags on Day Two, we stepped on the pedals to cover a distance of 37km to our next hotel. Conveniently, our luggage was moved for us, so the riding was free and easy. We lapped up every moment of the undulating hills, the coffee stops in little villages, eating a packed lunch at the edge of a vineyard, and the quiet, traffic-free roads we’d been guided through.
Food, wine and more
I’m a keen foodie, so one of my greatest holiday pleasures is to experience the eating and drinking culture of a country. Portugal is famous mostly for its port, but the Douro Valley also produces excellent wine. Part of the appeal of this holiday was the prospect of enjoying both food and wine at the end of a hard day’s cycling.
Each afternoon as we approached our destination, we’d imagine the culinary delights that were in store. And we were never disappointed. From the petiscos (Portuguese tapas) served with our evening drink to hearty stews and chocolatey desserts, we devoured everything. The good thing about cycling all day is that you can gorge at every mealtime, completely guilt-free.
Self-guided tour operators
We chose tour operator We Love Small Hotels for our trip; it provides a range of self-guided tours – ours included door-to-door service, return transfers from the airport, bed and breakfast plus some lunches, luggage transfers each day, bikes, GPS units with detailed bike tracks, and friendly service. The company operates across all of Portugal – north and south, coastal and inland.
Mediterras also offers private biking tours that are strongly oriented to cultural and gastronomic experiences; every tour is customised according to your interests, so you get maximum enjoyment from it. On all these tours, guides will set up your bikes for you and take you through everything you need to know.
Another upside of working with a local tour operator is that it can build an itinerary for a group that has differing requirements. If your group includes a mix of cycling levels, let’s say, separate tracks can be created to suit each member of the group.