Cycling Portugal: An Opposing Experience

How could riding a bike on one side of an imaginary line differ much from the other? Same continent, similar language, familiar eats. This is where my hopes, expectations, rest as I cycle along the cruisy coast from Vigo towards the Portuguese border.

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Following the coast from Vigo (Spain) to the border. Vigo is the natural starting point for cycling the Portuguese coast.

You hop the ferry at the border, and keep on spinning. It’s tempting to speak Spanish in the gaps of your Portuguese, but you will get a hard, confused look in return. Aside from the language, those initial expectations are realized. Things haven’t really changed.

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First night. Spectacular camp.

But then, they do. The air is clean, but open burning fills sections of roadside with smoke. The water isn’t drinkable by local’s standards. Sharing the road with traffic seems much harder.

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Vibrancy found all around this old port in North Portugal.

I’ve written previously in a long form, journal format, which felt natural when the going was good. Most days held something great to share; a section of beautiful country road, a friendly encounter, an incredible viewpoint to pitch a tent and watch the waves roll in.

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Bike lanes and board walks make up most of the coastal cycling route through North Portugal.

But I can’t showcase this country in the same way. Cycling through Portugal was, at times, very enjoyable. But the sentiments that the country left with me are less than positive. Consecutive days of a soggy, physically drained, and demoralized existence have tinted my view into a darker light.

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Beautiful tiling found exploring Porto at night – A UNESCO world heritage city.

Visiting in an unseasonably rainy/stormy fall was a huge amplifier; sunshine makes good days better or hard days more tolerable, but bad cycling conditions and harsh weather can turns things bleak. Shorter daylight hours mean less time for gear to dry out, too.

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Wrong bike for this route, in this weather.

My unique experiences and weather complications aside – I’m conflicted. When trying to generalize the country, everything and it’s exact opposite seems to hold true. Portugal is a contradiction. People are very rich, and very poor. Some incredibly friendly, others not so much. The roads and infrastructure for biking is incredible in certain regions, and terrible in others. There is long periods of world-class surfing, and stretches of windblown mush.

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Thorny cacti along a beautiful section riding through a natural preserve.

Cycling with traffic sucks, but there isn’t much of it.

In Spain, it’s the law to give a 1.5 metres of passing breadth between your vehicle and the outer cyclist. Vehicles have to slow and wait for a safe opportunity to pass, even while riding double wide.

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Cork trees lining the scenic Algarve route

You shouldn’t expect the same courtesy in Portugal. Time to get your money’s worth out of that bike mirror. Right out of the gate it was obvious that little care or consideration is given to other users of the road.

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Cruising on the seaside thanks to some beautifully constructed boardwalks

But given that most of the route is on dedicated bike path, trail, or secondary roadway, your time spent at risk of drivers is minimized. However, some sections of riding with traffic are mandatory and one must heed caution.

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No traffic here.

The best route, and the worst.

Eurovelo, an associated network of cycling routes in Europe, has established the coastal Portuguese route and provides great, turn-by-turn, detail about the duration and length of riding segments, sightseeing and destinations along the way.

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The safety of a bike lane leaves your attention to the surroundings

In the North, the route magnificently sticks to paved, dedicated bike lane for a majority of the riding, including unique sections of boardwalk riding, connected by a few short and bumpy cobblestone bits. Some days were spent never having to interact with traffic.

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They start you off small

When you hit Peniche, things change greatly. The bike lanes are sparse and poorly implemented. Secondary highways or roads have no shoulder. Some sections, where there is an absence of a safe roadway, it seems as if the route just follows logging roads, some in very poor condition, and some even active.

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For the big stuff that comes later. (Off-route)

Riding on hardpack dirt can be quite enjoyable, but the quality of these roads varies greatly. Smooth, cruisy hardpack es bueno. Rutted, washed out, and thick mud no es bueno.

30 kilometers of teeth chattering not-so-goodness in Dunas de Mira park.

Accommodation

Affordable accommodation outside of the city centers can be difficult to find. Portugal, despite having the lowest minimum wage in all of the European Union, has adjusted it’s pricing to better reflect the budgets of visiting tourists. AirBnB is still the ultimate tool for finding an abode on the fly, but I came to expect that they would cost about 50% more than the going rate in North Spain. There are campsites along the route, however most of them looked super run down and dingy, and a majority of them close after the summer season is over.

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Porto

On a trip of this nature, you’re usually looking for more nature. With large stretches of park and unoccupied shorefront (it’s all slowly eroding!), the free-camping scene is incredible. I used an app called park4night to scout options ahead, but as you cruise along many non established options will present themselves – many of them only suitable for two wheels. It is difficult for us creatures to give up the travel itinerary, but you’ll be greatly rewarded if you stock up on water and supplies and just see where you end up.

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A gem just north of the popular surfing town of Peniche.

Beautiful urban centres; a challenge by bike.

The cities of Porto and Lisbon are must-visit destinations in Portugal, but are not well suited to cyclists. The streets heading into Porto quickly narrow and busy with traffic, and even Eurovelo recommends taking the commuter train to access Lisbon from the west.

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Lisboa

This might not be a huge detail with a small touring rig, but my setup resulted in a pretty embarrassing encounter with a handicap turnstile at the metro station. Compared to riding in cities like Bilbao or Barcelona, Portugal’s city riding was very stressful.

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This thing is kinda heavy

Surfing; World class, or nada.

In my fourteen days of cycling down the coast, I did not catch a wave. The country is at the mercy of whatever the Atlantic offers, and during my time there it was wind, rain, and no good surf. There are exceptional spots near Sintra/Peniche centrally, and Sagres in the south, where multiple orientations of beachfront mean options for different wind and swell directions. The rest of the coast is extremely exposed, so good conditions are left up to chance.

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Twenty surfers compete for the peak in the Algarve

People are well off, and not so much.

Manicured lawns and tin shacks. Maserati’s and clunkers. Golf resorts and roadside garbage dumps. There are stark contrasts everywhere. Some beachfront locations have been built up with brand new condos at one end of the street, with completely neglected structures on the other side.

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Beauty, to some.

It seems that the areas touched by potential tourists have received the majority of any funding. We’ve heard the pitch before – new resort brings jobs, stability, money to a region. But with the strong arm of developers, potential corruption, and poor municipal planning, this scheme leaves communities without the appropriate funds to improve infrastructure for the people who actually live there. You see this impact in both rural and urban areas.

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A fisherman overlooks the bluffs north of Sagres.

Would I go back to Portugal for a bike tour? The North: yes. The South… maybe not. The raw beauty, structured pathways, and culture of the north is definitely enticing. The touristy vibe, poor cycling conditions, and sheer number of golf resorts in the south doesn’t draw me to return.

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Hitching a ferry ride back to Spain

Biking Logistics

  • Public access to water or showers is limited, and it’s drink-ability is questionable. Be prepared to buy and haul bottled water.
  • Free camping is the way to go, but beware of the season.
  • Vehicle theft is common at most parking, and especially surfing areas – you’ll get good at stashing your gear out of sight. I had to politely ask someone to not go into my tent while I was standing thirty feet away.
  • Dining out on the road can be challenging with a siesta from 2:30 to 7:00 at most establishments.
  • Downloadable files for the route can be found on Eurovelo
  • Google Maps Summary:  900 KM/5,100M
  • Recommended number of days is 18 by Eurovelo, not including rest. I think this is reasonable given the type of terrain you will be riding.

Came for the photos? I’ll leave these here…

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8 replies
  1. John
    John says:

    I think my favourite photo is the last one. Can someone say Gymnast?
    Very interesting write up about a country of contradictions – the beauty and challenges you encountered during your trip.
    Welcome back to North America dude

    Reply
  2. Dakota
    Dakota says:

    Great writeup! I’m officially skipping the southern coastal part of Portugal on my tour this spring, thank you very much.

    My fav photo is you pondering life, ferries, and a lack of good bread. 🙂 I kid, I kid. So many great artistic shots in here. Great eye, Sean! Stoked to talk with you about the trip.

    Reply
    • Sean
      Sean says:

      Are you sure man? I mean, if you packed a set of clubs, one could probably fit a back nine most afternoons! Talk with you v soon 🙂

      Reply
    • Sean
      Sean says:

      Hey Tyler! Thanks for the comment. Hope it comes in handy as you plan your own trip. My friend Dakota just turned me on to the “Transandaucia” route, which is in southern Spain. A nice alternative to biking in southern Portugal. Google it!

      Reply

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