Back in February, winter in Finland seemed to never end. So, with a conveniently sized gap between projects, I jumped at a cheap Lufthansa offer and went for a week-long bike tour around the Algarve, the southernmost part of Portugal.
Travelling from one corner of Europe to the other fully delivered on what I had been hoping for: sun, flowers, green trees (some with lemons and oranges), and most importantly wonderful weather for bike touring. Let’s face it: Finnish midsummer has seen worse than what you get in Southern Portugal in early March!
The trip to the airport went fine, and to my happy surprise me initially forgetting to deflate my tires didn’t cause a major repack: I was able to reach both valves by just opening the suitcase. A passing-by toddler could just not believe there was a bicycle in my suitcase – and neither did his father; the random conversations this bike triggers just keep amusing me. Check-in went smoothly, and then I had to wait an extra hour for the delayed departure (heavy snowfall in Munich, so aircraft came in late).
After a pleasant six-hour stopover in Munich, the Bavarian security officer made me unpack my entire carry-on, as they wanted to separately see all electronic devices (it was only then I grasped how many little gadgets I tend to carry). Also my allen keys caught their interest, but despite curious inspection I got to keep them.
I reassembled El Brommito at the airport and filled the tires at a gas station I had pre-scouted on the Internet, then rolled to the nearby Lisbon Cozy Hostel to get a few hours of sleep!
Day 1: From Lisbon to Santa Clara to Monchique (30 km)
I had a most wonderful first morning in Portugal. Hostel staff and breakfast were lovely, and I got my big bicycle suitcase safely stored at their office. Topped up the tires at another gas station, bought some snacks (and a Sumol, the Portuguese pop I have had an addiction of ever since my first visit to the country) and then sat on an 80s style Intercity train for 2.5 hours. Pro tip: pre-booking your train ticket online gets you to the Algarve for just about EUR 12.
As I have stated before, the Brompton really is an awesome little climbing machine! Admittedly, I felt somewhat overconfident with this plan at first, but getting off the train in the middle of nowhere at “Santa Clara – Sabóia” and starting the 2016 cycling season with a rather ambitious “mountain stage” turned out to be great (as a matter of fact, I had redesigned my itinerary just a few days before, based on the weather – and most importantly – wind forecast).
After enjoying a delicious lunch of grilled pork with the first 12 km of a flat country road behind, the workout part began. From here on, it was a 20 km long more-or-less constant ascent, covering some 400 m in height. The landscape was at first mostly forest, then more and more sunny – and with stunning views on the mountain range around. A lot of the forest seemed to be for wood farming, as an unfortunate amount of slopes had completely been stripped of all trees recently.
In the end, the climb went so well that I arrived 2.5 h earlier than I had anticipated. And that is despite climbing about a third of the Stelvio’s ascent – which almost exactly 6 months ago was pretty much the last real cycling I had done. And oh, did I miss it! I felt like a cow on spring turnout – being let out from the stables and jumping around wildly.
Click to view video from YouTube
Early-March Portugal literally was more summery than Finland at midsummer! This may be hard to understand for somebody who hasn’t lived through a Finnish winter, but even just walking over green grass when crossing a busy road first thing in the morning was almost overwhelmingly wonderful.
After a slightly restless dormitory the previous night (some people just do not have any sense of courtesy, and digital devices only seem to make that even more common), I checked in at “Miradouro de Serra” in Monchique: a private room, at EUR 30 slightly at the upper end of my self-induced budget, but the only affordable option in town.
Day 2: Up to the Fóia and down to Aljezur at the coast (40 km)
While it may sound almost too easy, the 30 km on day one of course were hard work and some muscles were aching (to my surprise, mainly the arms!) as I looked at a beautiful sunrise from my balcony. Still, I could not wait for the next exciting leg.
Day two of my Algarve adventure saw another significant ascent in the morning, as I intended to summit the Fóia, at 909 m highest mountain in Southern Portugal, by noon. It was a sweaty ride (starting at 470 m) and more challenging than yesterday’s ascent. More steep parts and crazy winds; I rode most of the distance, but a few short stretches I simply pushed the bike. Then again, absolutely stunning views compensated for the effort!
I made it well before noon and enjoyed a breathtaking (yes, I had some left) panorama over the entire south-western Algarve. Had a plate of fries and then embarked on the fun half of the day: apart from a few rolling hills, cashing in all the height from the day before and the morning and sometimes zooming, sometimes cruising west towards the coast. Particularly memorable: the first kilometres with up to 50 km/h, and the final steep descent into Aljezur, a seemingly never ending 10% downhill on asphalt as smooth as a baby’s bottom!
The only problem I was facing was a positive one: I was 1.5h early for checking in at the Amazigh Design Hostel (dorm EUR 12e; and no, the name is not a typo, it refers to a local tribe of Arabs formerly inhabiting the area). So, obviously, I secured myself a sunny table at the Café da Ponte, ordered – what else – a Sumol and Pastel de Nata and spent the time watching ducks mate on the river under the bridge and just generally enjoying the outburst of nature around me. Such a contrast to the muted, dull greyness of February in Helsinki!
The area is most obviously expat county – a lot of English and German to be heard. And of the very few cars I saw on the streets, there was quite a mix of nationalities, plus an apparent good share of rentals; at this time of the year either driven by elderly couples or young surfers.
Aljezur is a quiet little town with an interesting history. After dropping my luggage, I went for a walk up to the old Arab castle which provided a comprehensive overview of the region.
Day 3: Aljezur – Sagres (65 km)
The hostel at Aljezur turned out to be an absolutely brilliant choice. It is run by some laid back surfer guys and the atmosphere was very welcoming.
We were only five guests, all in the same dorm, and in the evening we sat in the common area for many hours chatting. Really sweet people, and funny enough all with some kind of connection to Germany.
On this third morning, I took it easy: sleeping in and enjoying a relaxed self-catering breakfast.
I then biked 50km with rolling hills and a prevailing tailwind, though I faced a few steep patches and some headwind in between as well.
I stopped for a picnic with some locally bought bread and cheese from Carrapateira at the impressive Amado beach on the Atlantic ocean. There were not many surfers out, but sitting on the sandy beach and looking out to where America lies behind the ocean was the perfect setting for a mid-day break.
Later, I stopped for a Pastel de Nata – this time with a mint tea – in the small town of Vila do Bispo on the way. Later, again way early for check-in, I killed some time hanging around on the cliffs in Sagres for a while.
As the day approached its end, I biked some 7 km straight into the wind (the adjective “fierce” would be an understatement) to visit Europe’s most south-western end at Cabo de Sao Vicente; a sign even declared it “the end of Europe”. I was now officially at pretty much the opposite end of Europe from home.
Having just barely dodged the only rain shower of the day by a few seconds, I hung around the cape until sunset, which was rather pretty, then zoomed back – 35 km/h without any pedalling – to check in at my BnB.
I got another warm welcome at the PuraVida Divehouse, where for EUR 20 I had a dorm, or actually an entire house, to myself tonight. First I took a really hot shower to warm up and then cooked myself a pile of pasta again, having an interesting dinner conversation with an entrepreneurial young woman from Poland. Then, headed pretty much straight to bed as my body was seriously craving some rest.
Day 4: Sagres – Lagos (41 km)
I had a rather easy day on day 4. As the distance from Sagres to Lagos is only 32km, I was hoping for a less exhausting day after two mountain stages and one 65km day so far. And it seemed the wind gods at least partially agreed to that. Thinking of the head wind out to the lighthouse the night before, I feared I might not be able to keep up that pace forever this early in the season.
I enjoyed a slow breakfast in good company on the terrace and then embarked on the first 10km of full-on headwind. At the Lidl in Vila do Bispo I ran into one of the Germans from two nights ago. And I was blown away by the discovery that Lidl is carrying Sumol here! Un-be-lievable.
The rest of the trip was mainly on the big main road with a wide shoulder, rolling hills and mostly a 70% tailwind. Comfortable.
I had now arrived in the much more “touristy” area (and this was likely to get worse the further east I’d proceed), lots of older folks from Germany and the UK on the roads, and some restaurants don’t even have a menu out in Portuguese! Drivers are mainly courteous, except for the random eldermen from England who obviously don’t have much experience with driving on the right side. Or then, actually more likely, they just don’t bother.
I did two small detours to check out some beaches; clocking up 41 km in total.
I checked in at my hostel at 3pm sharp and had a shower. It was a strange place: I had booked a dorm but it was apparently being renovated, so instead staying in what usually is the “family apartment” – crammed up with six beds. Luckily there was nobody else booked for the night. And it was only EUR 8 for a night, so I am not complaining. And sunny patio and all…
Lagos was the biggest town I had called at so far, and I went out to explore it by foot …to give my bum a rest; all the “old town centres” with their cobblestones started to take their toll. As much as I like to praise my beloved travel machine: tThe 16 inch Brompton is really not ideal for this kind of streets.
Notwithstanding some worthwhile sights, the city generally turned out to be a bit of a tourist trap, and after being offered drugs on every corner I soon left the historic centre (with its British pubs and British tourists) behind.
I hiked all the way out to a little lighthouse with spectacular rock formations, being there all by myself for sunset…
On the way back I stopped for dinner at a Chinese place, the only place that didn’t look like catering just for tourists.
Day 5: Lagos – Albufeira (45 km)
Despite having the entire “dorm” for myself, I got up early and headed out at 9am, picking up breakfast at a grocery store’s deli counter and enjoying it roadside.
Most of the day I followed rather big roads, as they have good shoulders and are safer than the narrow side roads; traffic is quite busy here even off-season – mainly tourists.
I stopped for lunch at the bigger city of Portimão, treating myself to grilled cod, which unfortunately ended up being a disappointment. Bad choice of restaurant, but at least it had a nice view and I was sitting in the half-shade.
It might be due to being on the bike for the fifth day in a row, but somehow the more commercialized the tourist industry became the less I enjoyed myself. I started to miss the calm and beauty of the first three days of my tour, when I experienced what seemed much more authentic to me; that said, I still much preferred being here over my “everyday life” back home, so these were negative vibes with only very minor impact on my overall joy of being out on the bike.
I reached my hostel (single room, EUR 20) by 15:30 and after a shower and a bit of chilling walked down to a nearby beach for a sunset picnic with – the careful reader guessed it already – a bottle of Sumol.
After sunset, I returned to the hostel and watched some German cable TV (obviously!) and went to sleep soon after.
Day 6: Albufeira – Tunes (27 km) and back to Lisbon
My hostel was only 15km away from where my train would leave in the early afternoon and with the weather gods sending a rain shower, a decision had been made on my behalf: an easy-going morning it was to be! By the time I checked out at 11:30, the rain had stopped and the sun was shining again.
I decided to not pursue any touring goals any more as my body and mind were a bit exhausted after so many days on the road. Instead I cruised up and down the coast strip near the hostel’s village (and up and down a decent amount of hills) to visit four different beaches, one nicer – and more empty – than the other…
Then I embarked on the final push inland, to catch my train at 15:30. Despite stiff headwinds and steep ascents, I arrived with an hour to spare, only to find a totally dead little village. So a bun and a thick slice of sausage from the local convenience store had to do for lunch.
The train ride was most comfortable, as I had a soft chair in 1st class – thanks to an online bargain offer. Beautiful landscapes outside, complimentary camomille (!) tea and Portuguese newpapers inside. Very nice train as well!
Back in Lisbon, I quickly checked in at my hostel a short ride away from Oriente station to pick up my bicycle suitcase and then headed straight on to the nearby airport to do the disassembly work on-site. I’m starting to get a good routine with that, as it was a rather smooth and focussed operation. Made it back to the hostel minutes before the local grocery store closed and cooked myself fresh ravioli with a red pepper – dining in nice company by a retired Scotsman, a middle-aged German guy and a young Japanese girl on a walkabout who spoke almost fluent German.
With El Brommito safely stored at the 24/7 left luggage desk, I went to bed knowing I can just walk the 2 km to the airport at 5am to catch my early flight back to Frankfurt (and on to Helsinki).
In retrospective, I look back at a wonderful week under the sun of the south, discovering a brilliant place for cycle touring. I particularly enjoyed the early days in the back country, passing over the mountain ridge and the Fóia, and along the west coast – from Aljezur to Sagres. I found some beautiful landscapes, challenging but manageable cycling terrain and reserved, yet most friendly, people. I also lucked out with the accommodation in Aljezur and Sagres (along with the hostel in Lisbon, not to forget).
The latter part of the loop, with the high-rise hotel complexes, the supercommercialized tourist centres and at times heavy traffic were not to my best liking – but even there I found beaches, back roads and people that added to an overall highly positive spring adventure on the Brompton.