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Passing a donkey cart on the road to Linhares - photos by Matthew Kadey
Passing a donkey cart on the road to Linhares - photos by Matthew Kadey

Biking Portugal's Heartland: The Grand Route of Historical Villages

By Matthew Kadey  

It’s hot. Very hot. Nothing moves on this parched, sunsplashed landscape save a hovering vulture, a scurrying gecko and the flaxen dirt disturbed by our circumvolving tires and falling beads of sweat.

Pedro’s GPS delivers the somber news: the mercury is pushing 40 degrees C (104F)and many more pedal strokes will be needed to reach the apogee of this section of trail. Salt stains have turned my once-blue jersey into a harsh display. It’s well past malodorous.

The long, hairy downhill out of Castelo Rodrigo, after our afternoon repast, which bounced me around as if I was in a steel-cage match with Hulk Hogan, is now a distant, cherished memory.

Fifteen punishing minutes later, under a forceful sun, another downward slope mercifully appears. Pedro screams down with bravado as if the tract is clear of clutter. Crossing several valleys, today’s ride is no different than most here – oscillating between ascents and slavering descents.

There’s barely a moment to shake out my hands and bellow out a ‘wahoo’ at the bottom when the climbing begins again lethargically. Dirt has given way to ill-matched cobblestone.

Plagued by dehydration and a world-class case of saddle sore, I’m moving about as fast as a tortoise with nowhere to be.

The castle at Marialva
The castle at Marialva

“Are you sure they’re at the top,” I sullenly quiz Paulo, who's a few bike lengths closer to the crest, well aware that a trend has occurred: rides start and end at the castle. And, as defenders of land and dwellings, castles such as the one here in the Centro de Portuguese village of Marialva were built way up for a reason. To make conquest a more difficult undertaking for both the sword-wielding and, unbeknownst to the Romans, the spandex clad sect.

Here, within a complete circuit of twelfth century walls, I’ve resolved that I’m taking part in one serious ride.

The Great Route

The European Union-sponsored 335-mile contiguous Grande Rota das Aldeias Históricas (The Grande Route of Historical Villages) was routed in 2000 using a series of farm dirt roads, roman cobblestone paths and thorny foot trails to connect twelve 12th century historical villages in rugged central Portugal.

Call it an attempt to draw some of the adventure-minded away from country’s well trodden natural (and human-cluttered) emblem – its southern beaches.

The Village of Castelo Novo
The Village of Castelo Novo

I’ve been invited here to Portugal’s cultural heartland by local Grand Rota experts Pedro Pedrosa and Pedro Carvalho to experience for myself why there are rumblings that this circuit is destined to become one of Europe’s epic multi-day mountain bike adventures.

A few hours of riding from our launch point, Castelo Novo –- a small village adorned by granite two-story houses and winding mazy avenues where the seasoned denizens clap as we race by -- and I’m rapidly becoming smitten by Europe’s most western nation.

Fresh-picked figs and blackberries are quelling my hunger pangs, the tract is generally flat, sprinkled with the occasional kamikaze downhill, and oak and cork trees provide relief from the humming sun.

The bridge at Idanha-a-Vehlha
The bridge at Idanha-a-Vehlha

Portugal produces about half the world's output of commercial cork and, although it can be harvested every nine years, it takes up to 40 for the bark to become commercially viable. Needless to say, this is not a get-rich-quick scheme.

“That bridge has a two thousand year warranty,” jocular Pedro P. proclaims as I finish pedaling over a bumpy Roman bridge heading out of Idanha-a-Velha, a remote former Roman stronghold founded one century before Christ that’s pleasantly set amongst olive groves and parched plains and once unceremoniously vacated due to a plague of rats.

He then makes a pronunciamento: “The climb into Monsanto is perhaps the route's most arduous.”

I only get a few pedal strokes into this 200-meter (656-ft) clamber before I’m shamelessly off the bike. Someone with an abnormal sense of humor has decided the best route up to Monsanto is this long-forgotten, near-vertical rocky Roman path that lends itself to almost no momentum.

The castle at Sortelha
The castle at Sortelha

Daniel Marques, a powerfully built and seemingly indefatigable Portuguese rider and Shannon Mominee, a 34-year-old musician from Pittsburg testing out a new 29er mountain bike, are fairing better.

“Shit, what the hell was that?” a breathless Shannon inquires as I make it up, a skosh slow and dour faced, to where they’re standing looking back down at our first big Grand Rota demand. Several minutes later the legend himself, Gary Fisher, invited on this ride to lend the historic route some celebrity muscle, arrives, carrying himself like this is just another day at the office. For him, it is.   

The Legend

Me, and anyone who has ever taken their two-wheeler to where cars can’t, descended thousands of break-searing vertical feet or zipped along the tightest of singletrack nestled between swales of verdant grass owe Gary Fisher. Big time!

Yearning to explore the hills surrounding his abode in Marin County California in the late ‘60s, Fisher blended road bike and motorcycle parts onto a patriarchal Schwinn and spit out the inaugural mountain bike. A few years later he brought to life a company aptly dubbed Mountain Bikes and the rest is free riding (slash) endo (slash) pinch flat (slash) chain sucking history.

The ride to Monsanto
The ride to Monsanto

Now 57 years young and the father of four, Gary still has an elephantine love for the fat tire and content as ever gabbing about bikes, refining bikes and riding bikes.

“The bicycle is the best way to enter into a location in a non-invasive manner. Using it, I want to experience the land of Portugal and hear the stories of the people who occupy it.”

Luckily for Gary, Monsanto is storybook Portugal. After catching my breath and loving every sip of a few cold beers shared with the mountain bike encyclopedia, I spend the next moments exploring the medieval village with a rep as Portugal’s oldest and most traditional settlement.

I wander among houses built into the mountain rock; pinched gray alleyways bring me to elderly women enthusiastically conversing perched on their steps and the outcome of a craggy path is a boulder-littered castle with views of the ubiquitous red roofs of the dwellings below and the vast surrounding undulating rockscape resembling worn molars of a shepherd that we'll tackle one rotation at a time.

Next Page


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