For Gillian Thomas, it started with a pre-ride fish supper beside the Duoro river and ended with pasteis de nata and a glass of Roupeiro wine in Coimbra’s Portagem Square. Planned as a cycling holiday in north Portugal, it resulted in gourmet feasting as well.
With our luggage transported from one hotel to the next, I cycled with a friend southwards down the coast from Porto. Averaging a leisurely 20-25 miles a day, we headed first beside the wide Duoro estuary to the coast and ended eight days later inland in the historic old town of Coimbra, Portugal’s first capital.
Bacalhau – a national dish
Overlooking the busy estuary of the River Duoro, a row of small restaurants with wrought-iron balconies and blue and white tiled walls line the Cais da Ribeira waterfront.
Not surprisingly they specialise in fish – and not only bacalhau (dried and salted cod) which is the national dish and reputedly can be served in over 300 different ways.
So this was definitely an appropriate place to begin our ride. The meal, including garlic shrimps and sea bass in a creamy mustard sauce, proved to the first of many memorable feasts that punctuated our route.
Our bikes are delivered
Next morning after a sound night’s sleep in the nearby Carris hotel, our bikes were delivered to us on the broad Ribeira quay.
As part of our Headwater Holidays package , we were provided with a detailed itinerary both on paper and GPS, ensuring there was no excuse for going astray. Accommodation and some meals were also included and on two occasions we got lifts by mini-bus along sections without cycle tracks.
I had opted to have an electric bike, though in the event the route turned out to be flat all the way and was easily manageable, without needing any battery boost to fall back on, even for anyone not used to cycling. Its mini-computer offered a choice of four levels of power.
As soon as our saddles had been adjusted, we were keen to pedal off. We crossed to the river’s south bank on the Ponte Luis I, one of five bridges which soar across the water; one, the wrought-iron Ponte d Maria Pia, was built by Eiffel in 1877.
There we passed a line of port wine cellars with famous names like Sandeman’s and Dow’s. Reluctantly we decided it was too soon to stop for a tasting.
A new cycle path leads to Espinho
A new cycle path leads along the estuary all the way to Espinho, first along a wooden boardwalk where rows of fishermen balance their rods hopefully over the rippling water, then on a purpose-built track beside an expanse of marshland. Gulls and egrets foraged amongst the reeds while the grasses fluttered in the breeze.
Nearing the open sea, dunes fringe sandy coves along the coast around Espinho and with plenty of time in hand, we stopped for refreshment at a small beach bar and dipped our toes in the sea before absorbing a few warm rays on the beach.
From Espinho you can either cycle on to Ovar or take a 10-minute train ride which avoids several miles without a dedicated cycle path.
We stayed at the chic Furadouro Beach boutique hotel which faces a broad promenade fringed by Atlantic rollers and has contemporary white and blue furnishings and a spa.
The menu in its award-winning restaurant featured local grilled fish and pork, creamy sauces and traditional desserts made with egg yolks and sugar. These have curious names like nun’s stomach and monk’s breast and the recipes date back 500 years.
At that time the area grew rich thanks to Portugal’s colonies, prompting many convents to be built. The nuns needed egg whites to starch their habits so the spare yolks were used to make sticky custard puddings.
The Ria de Aveiro sea lagoon
Leaving Furadouro the itinerary next took us a little way inland from the coast and around the Ria de Aveiro, a sea lagoon which stretches south for over 200 kilometres.
On one side of it a track passes through small villages and farmland with distant views to the east of a ridge of mountains. On the other it skirts marshes and mud flats which are home to flamingos and a huge variety of sea birds. There are picnic tables and information boards to encourage cyclists to pause and enjoy the lagoon’s unique features and environment.
That evening, a 15-minute train ride from Estarreja took us on to Aveiro, the area’s main town, on the edge of the lagoon. Portugal’s ‘Venice’, it has a maze of ancient canals that make their way to the nearby Atlantic through an expanse of salt pans.
We were booked into the elegant Moliceiro Hotel, right in the centre, for two nights, giving us plenty of time to explore. With a bustling fish market, a network of narrow cobbled streets and riverside promenades shaded by palm trees, it is an interesting old town.
In Roman times it had a port and thrived on fishing and harvesting salt – which continues today. Near the centre the 15th-century Convento de Jesus, now a museum, with cloisters and gilded carvings has been beautifully restored.
We took a short cruise aboard one of the ‘moliceiros’, flat-bottomed wooden boats which were originally used for collecting seaweed. And of course we also sampled the local specialities which include ‘leitao’ – roast suckling pig- and ‘ovos moles’, almond-shaped sweets made with eggs.
Colourful striped houses
For a change of scene, you can cycle or take the bus to Costa Nova, 10 miles away on the coast.
It has the Atlantic on one side with rough waves for surfing while the other faces the lagoon with calm water for windsurfing.
It’s also the scene for an unusual feature: a line of colourfully striped houses.
Heading south from Aveira towards Mira, it is worth pausing for a tour of the Alegre porcelain factory.
You see all the processes involved in making Portugal’s best-known tableware from moulding the clay to its decoration.
An inspiration for JK Rowling
In Mira there are options of exploring a network of wooded trails or enjoying its superb sandy beach to help recover from all the pedalling.
This is before heading 20 miles inland, courtesy of a mini-bus to Coimbra for the last two nights.
The town’s highlight is its 800-year old university, which stands on a hillside with great views over the red rooftops and narrow alleys to the broad River Mondego.
Iit is Portugal’s oldest and most prestigious and has a library boasting 60,000 antique books. Its ornate chapel is covered in hand-made tiles and has a gilded organ.
It’s no coincidence that the long black cloaks worn by students are just like Hogwarts’ school uniform. Harry Potter’s author J K Rowland once lived in Porto so knew them well.
Headwater Holidays offer eight-day cycling packages between Porto to Coimbra from £1348 including bikes, accommodation, four evening meals and flights. Electric bike supplement £51. www.headwater.com/C07OP