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Pedalling through Portugal


John Lewisohn joins a cycling holiday through northern Portugal, where the local cuisine is every bit as alluring as the scenery

I don't own a bicycle because I live on a steep hill and if truth be told, I have never held much truck with the passionate cycling fraternity with their logoed Lycra and four-figure bikes.

But here I was, clipping along at a bracing 15km an hour, following the cycle path along the River Douro south of Porto, dodging endless fishermen casting for sea-bass and watching the setting sun glint over the estuary. Really, it wasn't so bad. I would have smiled if it had not increased the chances of swallowing a bug.

On arrival in Porto, before making acquaintance with our bikes, we had a beer on the bustling riverfront in full view of the barcos rabelos anchored nearby. These old wooden sailing boats, which give Porto its unique ambience, used to carry the port down to the city from high in the Douro valley. On a neighbouring table, I saw a waiter bring what looked like a croque-monsieur on steroids to an elegant lady.

"Now this is Porto's signature sandwich, a francesinha," said our charming guide, Nuno. "It's basically a cholesterol time-bomb with meat on meat on meat. Each restaurant has its own recipe but normally it's ham, steak, chicken and chorizo between bread smothered in melted cheese and then covered by a sauce made of beer and spicy tomatoes."

burning the carbs

This, I was interested in. I figured I would easily burn enough calories over the next four days to justify a taste of this behemoth of the sandwich world.

What I didn't know at that point was the succession of amazing meals that I would eat during this gentle odyssey. However hard I cycled, occasionally reaching a Wiggoesque 25kmph, I was definitely putting in far more carbs than I was burning, particularly given that our itinerary was classified as 'soft', meaning the cycling was limited to around three hours a day.

Northern Portugal's coastline is ideal for gentle cycling holidays where the emphasis is on enjoying nature and then feasting on its bounty. Our route out of Porto took us towards Ovar and the lustrous Foradouro Hotel overlooking the endless pale sand beaches that characterises this part of the coast. Dinner that night included a wondrously tender octopus skewer followed by rich, meaty pig cheeks accompanied by a cake of herby polenta and some excellent local wines.

The following morning, awoken by the gentle pounding of the waves, I couldn't resist the opportunity for a dip in the ocean. The newly risen sun cast long shadows on the lone fisherman chancing his luck from the surf as I gingerly waded in. Being late in the season, the Atlantic was bracing but invigorating.

That day's cycle ride took us inland to the Aveiro lagoon, 45km long and separated from the ocean by a sand bar. It's a unique environment and pancake-flat, making it perfect for cycling. Dotted along the cycle paths are helpful wooden boards illustrating both the birds and animals native to that particular spot with charming descriptions in both Portuguese and English. It's also the source of fleur de sel, a much-prized local salt that is harvested principally to preserve the national obsession – bacalhau – or salt cod. We had lunch in a small restaurant where cod was literally the only thing on the menu. An amuse bouche of compressed circles of cod's roe and grilled cod heads, which cats must dream about, was followed by a main course of salt cod and potatoes and a ceramic pot filled with cod and bean stew which was delicious soaked up with chunks of the local bread.

portugal's 'little venice'

Lunch on another day started with percebes, goose barnacles, which are an expensive delicacy from the coast of Galicia in Northern Spain down to Portugal. In beauty stakes they are right up there with cod heads but retail at incredible prices due to the difficulty in harvesting them off the rocks in the surf zone.

The next town on our itinerary, Aveiro, is known as Portugal's 'Little Venice' for good reason as the centre is criss-crossed by canals bordered by elegant 19th century townhouses. These we observed in an entertaining journey on a moliceiro, a motorised gondola.

Leaving our bikes, we also visited the ancient university town of Coimbra, where JK Rowling, who lived in northern Portugal teaching English, is rumoured to have found much of her inspiration for Hogwarts. Indeed, in the famous baroque Joanina library, housing precious ancient volumes in gold leaf bookcases, there are two colonies of bats that eat all the insects that would otherwise harm the books.

journey's end

But to the cyclist who having manfully sweated his way up hill and dale, well maybe one dale and half a hill, all of this is surpassed by the desire for his just reward of a francesinha at journey's end. I found one at Porto airport. Some judicious knife work through the middle revealed layers of steak, chicken, ham and chorizo surrounded by molten spicy sauce, bread and melted cheese. It was so good I left my plate squeaky clean. A week later, I still felt full but yearned to return to that beguiling coastline, little known to British visitors, yet so accessible and perfect for travelling around by bicycle.

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