The Tops in Touring: Road Cycling's Best Spots
Despite its low-profile status on the worldwide wine scene, Portugal is the world's seventh-largest wine-making nation. An estimated 15 percent of the population lives by making or selling wine, and in the Alto Minho regionthe cool, damp, hilly grape-growing countryside along the northern border with Spainthe proportion may be half. Okay, so it's not the Napa Valley or the Loire, but that's the whole point. The Minho has an unpretentious 19th-century feel; grapes are grown in small family plots on space-saving high trellises above bean fields or cabbage patches, transported to local wine-making co-ops in oxcarts, and consumed mostly in boisterous local taverns. And yes, grapes are still sometimes stomped by foot.
The Minho's signature wine is vinho verde, whose tart, slightly bubbly character is the result of the grapes being picked not quite ripe and fermented only briefly. One wine critic noted that vinho verde is "all too easy to gulp like beer on a hot day." In other words, it's the perfect wine for long-distance cyclists.
The Minho countryside makes for fine bike riding, with woods, fields, stone walls, river valleys, and quaint villages, although the weak of quadriceps may bemoan the hilly terrain. The back roads (some of them cobblestone) are virtually free of traffica good thing, since Portuguese drivers are among the world's worst. But the big attraction for many cyclists is the network of posh manor homes and castles in the Minho region that welcome overnight guests. An example is the Paco de Calheiros near Ponte de Lima, owned by the same family for more than 600 years. It has a huge stone gateway, a long tree-lined driveway, and stone fountain. The Count of Calheiros welcomes sweaty cyclists personally. Dinner is pheasant (raised on the estate), accompanied by the family's own vintage vinho verde. You get the picture.
As with most long-distance bicycle trips in foreign countries, the logistics of an independent trip can be daunting. The Minho is not heavily frequented by foreign tourists, so there is little infrastructure. Don't expect to hear much English. Accommodations range from campgrounds (many overpriced and even more crowded) to individual rooms in regular private homes to pensionsnone should run more than $100/night, most well under. There is a resort town by the coast, Viana del Castelo (with a great wine festival each summer), that will bump prices up quite a bit. Then there are the above-mentioned manor houses (if you have to ask, you can't afford it). Advance reservations are advisable.
Several U.S. outfitters offer bike tours in the Minho, typically ranging from one to two weeks. Unfortunately for penny-pinchers, most outfitters elect to put up their guests in high-class digs, which boosts prices into the range of $200-$300 per day per person. A few outfitters offer camping or two-star hotel trips in the range of $130-$150 a day.
You should be an experienced cyclist in mid-season form. Although daily mileage runs to only 30-40 in most cases, the hills can be challenging.
Below are two of Europe's major cycling tour operators, but there are loads out there. If you go with a less-reputable outfitter, request a client list and get some opinions from people who've gone, and remember to inquire on their cancellation policies and maximum number of cyclists per group.
Backroads (801 Cedar Street; Berkeley, CA 94710; 1.800.GO.ACTIVE; www.backroads.com) is the Microsoft of bicycle touring. The company has the nicest catalogs, the shiniest vans, and one of the largest tour selections worldwide28 countries in all. If you're looking for a reliable trip that offers high-quality accommodations, easy pedaling, and a top-notch van-shuttle service, Backroads is an obvious choice, but this kind of quality will carry a high price tag. Also, be sure to get a firm quote on the number of people in each group; their popularity means that sometimes the numbers can swell to up to 20 riders.
Euro-Bike & Walking Tours (212 Sycamore Road; Dekalb,IL 60115; 1.800.321.6060; www.eurobike.com) is a bit like a bicycle supermarket: Pick a place in Europe and they can take you there. All guides are multilingual, and they really know their way around. Founded in 1974, Euro-Bike Tours has one of the strongest track records in Europe, with well-chosen itineraries and reasonable prices. Accommodations are very good, but not super-luxurious. The cuisine never disappoints, howeverone reason why Euro-Bike enjoys many repeat customers.
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication