After months of Covid-lockdown, Bev and I were happy to accept an invitation from Marco and Patricia, to join them on a mini-tour of northern Portugal. The country is slowly, and cautiously, emerging from government restrictions. Hotels and restaurants are following the government guidelines, taking appropriate measures to provide safe distancing and hygiene. Whilst we are not personally ready to venture into airports and airplanes, a bike trip within Portugal seemed like a good way to take a safe break.
The trip was planned to coincide with a couple of public holidays in June – Portugal Day and Corpus Christi. Whilst initially intended to run for four days and three nights, we reduced the duration by a day, due to Patricia’s work commitments. Over the three days, we were able to enjoy some scenic and historic villages along with gorgeous landscapes.
We met Marco and Patricia at a rendezvous point near to Amarante, from where we rode together to our first hotel in the town of Bragança. We were able to check-in early and disconnect our trailers, before heading back out on the bikes. Marco had arranged for a small group of friends to meet us, so we headed to the village of Caravela to eat at the Restaurante Rustico, where the meats are cooked on an open grill.
After a very enjoyable lunch, we all set off for a scenic drive through the Parque Natural de Montesinho. The highlight of the afternoon was a stop at the village of Rio de Onor, said to be the most emblematic village of the Bragança municipality. The village straddles the river (of the same name), and is nestled alongside the Spanish border, with its sister-town on Rihonor de Castilla just over the border. The villagers still practice a form of communal collective farming, whereby the community jointly owns the fields, the mills and the herds. The Casa do Touro Museum is located in the building that once housed the village bull – hence the name. It provides information on the history of the village and its communal system.
The village is an idyllic place, where the river gurgles over a small weir and an old mill, before passing under a lovely old, arched stone bridge. As villagers worked in the fields, fishermen tried their luck in the shallow waters. A small village shop/bar provides cool liquid refreshment. It’s a peaceful, relaxing place to visit.
Leaving the village behind, we continued our ride through the natural park and made our way to Bragança Castle, that sits inside a historic walled citadel perched on a hill above the town. The castle dates back to the 12th century and was enhanced in the 15th century, but may have been pre-dated by forts as far back as Roman times. It includes a large keep tower and a smaller Tower of the Princess, surrounded by thick walls and turrets. The castle opens to visitors but had closed by the time we got there, but we took some time to walk around the outside and on top of the citadel walls.
Another notable building within the citadel is Domus Municipalis (Municipal Council). The structure is unique within the Iberian peninsula and is believed to have been built in the early 15th century – perhaps around the time of the additional work on the castle. The building has two levels – a cistern water tank on the lower level and a fenestrated meeting hall above it.
The day continued into the night, with a group dinner in a Brazilian rodizio restaurant, followed by some after-dinner drinks.
Despite the late night, we were ready for day two at the appointed time and set off to enjoy some beautiful vistas along the Douro River. Our first stop was Mirador São João das Arribas – a viewpoint that is near to Aldeia Nova in the Douro International Natural Park. It provides a view of the Douro River as it passes through steep cliffs, with Portugal on one side and Spain on the other. However, the last 500 metres or so of the route is a hilly and dusty dirt-road. Manageable in a car, but we had concerns about taking Goldwings with trailers down that track. Wisely, we parked the bikes and hiked the rest of the way in. At the end of the track is a small chapel dedicated to São João (St. John) and the viewpoint. Poppies and other wild flowers added some colour to the scenery. The location is also frequented by birds of prey, including the Egyptian vulture (Neophron percnopterus), Bonelli’s eagle (Aquila fasciata), Cinereous vulture (Aegypius monachus), and the Red Kite (Milvus milvus). After enjoying the view, we had an uphill walk to get back to the bikes!
After our little hike, we headed into the historic town of Miranda do Douro. It gave Marco an opportunity to enjoy a coffee with friends from the area, whilst I wandered around taking photos. It is a quaint and charming little town, with narrow lanes and old buildings. In its early years, it was settled by the Romans and the Moors. By the 12th century, its strategic location prompted Portugal’s first king, D. Afonso Henriques, to build a castle and town walls, parts of which are still present. The town is also home to a grand Cathedral and a church.
Next up was another viewpoint over the Douro. This one is located in Picote and features a glass viewing platform. It is also home to the same birds of prey noted previously, as well as the griffon vulture (Gyps fulvus), with a wingspan up to 2.8 metres. There is a bend in the river at this location, providing an interesting perspective. Again, Spain is on the opposite side of the river.
After a break for lunch, we continued to motor south until we reached Praia Fluvial da Congida – a river beach on the Douro. Our previous viewpoints were high above the Douro, looking down, but here we were at river-level. Despite it being a public holiday, there were not many people at the venue. But several of those who were present were braving the cool water to have a swim. We were content to take a few photos and move on!
We left the beach and followed a twisty section of the N221, as it followed the Douro towards Barca D’Alva, enjoying more views of the river along the way. Once we reached Barca D’Alva, we took the bikes down onto the quay for a few photos.
With evening closing in on us, we pushed on to our final destination for the day – the fortified historic village of Almeida. There are indications that Bronze and Iron Age forts were located here, but the settlement became more structured in the medieval period. The current bastioned fortifications were built in the 19th century and take the shape of a 12-pointed star, surrounded by a moat. Access into the old village is via gates in the fortified walls, that don’t appear to have changed much since they were built. Within the walls are narrow cobbled roads, serving houses ands restaurants. We had a walk around, took some photos and then headed to our hotel, located outside the walls. It had been a long and busy day, so we were ready to check-in, eat some dinner and get some sleep.
Day three got underway with a 30-minute ride from Almeida to Figueira de Castelo Rodrigo, the first of a number of villages on our agenda for the day. The village’s history goes back to at least 500BC, when the site was occupied by he Turduli. It was subsequently occupied by the Romans and the Moors. It was fortified in the beginning of the 13th century with the construction of a wall that incorporated 13 towers and three doors/gates. The castle was built in 1590 and became a palace belonging to Portugal’s viceroy, Dom Cristóvão de Moura. Currently, the ruins of the castle remain, along with segments of the wall. A medieval cistern also remains, a remnant from the Moorish occupation. The old village is still occupied by 50 residents.
Unfortunately, within minutes of arriving at the village, rain began to pour down. We managed to walk around the village during a short break in the rain, but it was clear that substantial rain would remain in the area for some time. After a short discussion, we agreed that it was pointless to attempt to visit the other villages on our list, due to the weather conditions. Sadly, we decided that our best course of action was to head for home via the motorway. The only stop that we made was in Viseu, to get some lunch.
Whilst we didn’t get to complete our itinerary for day three, it was an enjoyable trip. It was good to be able to get out to see more of Portugal with our friends. Perhaps we’ll return another time to see villages such as Pinhel and Troncoso.