The last stretch of road is the worst, a steep ascent up a small mountain to Monsaraz, a hill town dominated by a granite Gothic castle. At the end go through an ancient city gate and arrive in a village too perfect to imagine, white buildings fronting narrow streets, surrounded by fortification walls. After exploring we get our reward: a stupendous view of Portuguese olive groves from a restaurant terrace while enjoying local wine, sheep cheese, olives, and warm bread. What started in the fields we passed all day is now on our table.
A week-long cycling trip is a often series of tests and rewards, trying steep stretches mixed with mellow miles of overwhelming beauty. Some consider the whole idea to be ridiculous: "Why do the same activity every day for your whole vacation?" For me it turns a vacation into a real journey, a meandering exploration offering a totally different perspective than whizzing by on something powered by an engine. Individual flowers instead of a blur of them in a passing field. Feeling the cobblestone streets block by block instead of just bumping over them en route to the big attraction.
It doesn't hurt that the tour company transports your luggage, so you arrive at your hotel with bags already in the room. You also feel like you can eat whatever you want when you've just burned off 6,000 calories in one day.
We're touring sunny southern Europe in early May for a Portugal bike tour mixing vineyards with history, wine tastings with stops at castles and palaces. It's a series of mostly leisurely rides through landscapes with few cars. The farmhouse inn where we stay near Alvito is surrounded by wildflower fields and orange trees, my first dinner succulent acorn-fed pork, vegetables picked outside the door, and wine from a few towns over. My wife and supposed-to-be-companion on the trip has thrown her back out though, so she's constantly stretching and trying to arrange a chiropractor visit.
Before cycling off on a 40-kilometer journey the next day alone, I ride past the 15th-century Alvito castle, now a hotel, and visit a 16th-century church filled with murals. A local caretaker explains what the paintings mean, but since the explanation is all in Portuguese, for all I know she could be telling me the figures are aliens from another galaxy who flew in with the recipe for baccalau.
Mellow Roads, Quiet Towns of Alentejo
Soon I'm riding into a land of vineyards, cork trees, and quiet pastures. The lack of cars in the area is great for cycling: if an hour goes by without a vehicle passing me on the country lanes, it's not unusual.
The towns aren't much noisier than the fields. The intense heat of the summer in this part of Portugal has influenced the locals' habits, from the white paint on the houses to a preference for sitting on benches or taking it easy inside the house. They're not exactly a gregarious bunch either. Our tour booklet invites us to visit one particular café in Viana do Alentejo, but warns us about the proprietor: "The lady will not smile at your arrival. You'll have to conquer her heart or live with the cranky face!"
As in many farming communities, there's not all that much to do when it's not planting or harvest time. Most of the churches are empty on a Sunday—perhaps because there are way too many of them for the small populations—but the cafés are filled with drinkers by the time service would let out.
Once you've been traveling for a couple decades, you start putting a premium on novelty and surprise though. The places that show off a different look or give off a unique vibe take up a more prominent position in the travel memories. The Alentejo region of Portugal meets the criteria over and over, from the cork trees with white numbers on their sides to the quiet white-washed towns anchored by grand structures built long before Vasco do Gamo boarded his first ship. This sleepy area is a real "slow food" destination. The bark of the cork oaks stops up bottles of wine made from the fields of grape vines; black pigs eventually served up for dinner eat the trees' acorns; local sheep and cows provide the milk for cheese; every meal has olives and bread from the local olive trees and wheat fields.
Apparently the arrival of snail season is the big food development for early May though. Half the cafés we pass seem to have a "Snails here!" sign in Portuguese and inside are groups huddled around a big bowl of the steaming creatures, the tables filled with beers and bowls of discarded shells.
May is also turns out to be baby time for the local storks. They're seen in nests high atop poles or in trees along the way, flashes of white amongst the green.
From Town to Town with no Luggage to Carry
Our local tour operator on the ground, Turaventur, is a family business based out of a farmhouse near Evora, so we visit for dinner one night a couple days in. Teresa shows us around the grounds, including an aqueduct dating back to the 1500s. You can actually walk a path next to it leading all the way to the city.
She goes above and beyond to make sure the tour goes well, handing us an old cell phone to use to get in touch if needed and setting Donna up with that chiropractor so she can get on the road with me on day 3.
The UNESCO World Heritage city of Evora is the most popular tourist stop in the region and I'm glad we've got two nights there, using it as a base, It's a strange and attractive mish-mash of architectural styles, starting with a Roman temple in the shadow of a Gothic church and extending to Moorish and Manueline styles stretching over centuries.
Wines of Alentejo
After sampling a few wines with dinners in Evora, the end of the next day's bike ride brings us to Casa Agricola José de Sousa winery, where Turaventur has set us up with a private tour. Heritage here goes back more than decades. Some bottles in the tasting room are from the 1870s. The operation still keeps one foot in the traditional past as well. Yes, there are plenty of stainless steel fermentation tanks, but the winery still uses a basket press for grapes and real people still crush grapes for the high-end wines with stomping feet.
Many of their wines are still stored in giant clay vats, near a stone monolith found in one of the vineyard fields that's estimated to be from around 7,000 BC. The vats are so large that in order to clean them out after removing the wine, a man lowers himself inside and scoops out the remaining seeds and peels that have settled to the bottom. We taste one their best premium reds, an extremely well-crafted wine that retails for only around $20.
Books from the Author: