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Portugal:    April - June, 2010


Trying to Decide Between Portugal & Spain?

The people are friendly in both countries, though Spanish is much easier to understand and speak than Portuguese.

The condition of the roads and the manners of the drivers are much, much better in Spain than Portugal.
            We don't recommend Portugal for the fainthearted--by bike or by car.

Portugal is much greener and much more scenic than large expanses of Spain.

The lodging value is better than most of Europe in both countries, with Portugal being a bit cheaper of the 2.

The Portuguese keep more sensible hours than the Spanish by our standards: lunch closures are an hour-long if at all instead of 3-5 hours; more supermarkets are open on Sundays; and things tended to quiet-down in Portugal by the time we go to bed whereas in Spain some bars opened up an hour or 2 after we tuck ourselves in for the night.


Top Picks in Portugal

Porto is a city we've made note of if we need a place to hang-out for awhile, like during an air traffic shut-down caused by the Icelandic volcano or during general strikes or as our next destination for jet lag recovery. Porto is one of those cities that I could happily wander around in for days. It has my favorite eye candy--art deco architecture;  steep hills that provide both conditioning and visual interest; and a long, handsome waterfront for rewarding walking and lingering. Its old-city sites are much more compressed than Lisbon's, making it a more satisfying place to be a tourist.

Citânai de Briteiros (CB) is hands-down our favorite ancient history site in Portugal. CB has a nicely presented Celtic fortress roughly 15 km north of Guimarães (which is 50+ km north of Porto). It made a satisfying unloaded day ride for us from Guimarães though our search of back roads had us riding farther and accumulating over 500m in elevation gain.

The Celtic steam bath at the low end of the fortress site.

We've visited a number of Celtic sites in Europe and CB is a superior site. The pair of reconstructed buildings are obviously flawed, but the many stone walls and remains of dry masonry buildings give a real sense of this village that housed about 2,000 people. Take time to see the nearby little museum in S. Salvador de Briteiros before you visit the site. Once at the museum, especially note the large carved granite piece at the end of the exhibit that was a wall in a steam bath. It's described on the last page of the English handout available from the clerk and also look to the left of the stone for an explanatory diagram. You'll see a similar stone in place at the lower end of the CB site itself. The associated archeology museum in Guimarães is also worth a spin through if you love archeology.



Oh my, but Portuguese sounded more Slavic than Iberian to our ears.  Written, it looks like a blend of Spanish and Italian, so we thought we'd be OK, but the spoken word was totally unrecognizable. In addition, generally simple things like the days of the week were eye-popping as Monday through Friday are numbered the 2nd through the 6th days, though Saturday and Sunday are recognizable through Spanish or Italian eyes. And depending upon whether the sign you read in Portuguese is all in Portuguese or not, "No" may mean "no" or "in." So, don't leave home without a good phrase book and dictionary. Even at the town of Vila Real Santo Antonio bordering Spain, not all of the clerks spoke Spanish and only a few people we interacted with spoke English. However, like in Spain, their eagerness to communicate was a huge help. As we ventured further into the country we found that most front desk staff in the hotels spoke English.


Time & Business Hours

At least part of the year, the clocks in Portugal are set one hour earlier than Spain, which makes the daylight hours in the spring feel 'right', unlike across the border in western Spain. In April, that put us on GMT +1 or Greenwich Mean Time plus 1 hour for daylight saving time.

Unlike Spain, businesses in Portugal usually only close for one hour for lunch, often from 1:00 to 2:00. Traditionally, businesses are closed Saturday afternoon and Sunday though the all-important-to-us supermarkets were often open 7 days a week, from roughly 9:00 am to 9:00 pm. For Lidl supermarket fans, they are abundant in Portugal and unlike elsewhere, are usually open on Sundays.


Spring & Early Summer Holidays

Like in Spain, Easter (Semana da Pãscoa) tends to be about a 10 day celebration that brackets Palm Sunday to Easter Sunday. Republic Day is April 25th and May 1st is also a holiday. Lodging may be tight or the prices may be higher at these times and supermarkets may be closed.

June is tricky for the traveler to Portugal. Both June 3 and 10th are official holidays with most businesses being closed those days. We noticed that for 2010 June 24th is a holiday for the train system. In addition, June is the month that every community has its own special holiday and there is little opportunity to learn of these in advance, except that Lisbon's is June 13th. The Pingo Doce and Lidl supermarkets do seem to maintain regular business hours on most of these holidays and the "hipermarkets" like Continente will often close at 1:00 pm on the holidays.


High Season

Each hotel with posted seasonal rates seemed to have a slightly difference schedule though many had a half dozen different rates for a given room. It looked like high season for most hotels and B&B's included July and August with at least an intermediate price boost in June and early September.


Issues for Cyclists

Road Safety--A Major Issue

It was telling that when we were in Léon, Spain a few days after leaving Portugal by train, we saw more loaded cyclotourists in an hour than we saw in the course of 2 months in Portugal. Europeans must know what we learned the hard way, which was that we felt significantly less safe on the road as cyclists in Portugal than we generally do in Europe. Our experience made it easy to believe Lonely Planet's comment that Portugal has one of the highest road accident rates in Europe. For this reason alone, I would not recommend Portugal as a first-time cyclo-touring destination and we probably won't be back because of the thoughtless drivers. I wouldn't even recommend driving in Portugal--take the train instead.

The 'extreme sport' feeling on the roads in Portugal was the result of a collision of issues. The road surface conditions varied widely, with great pavement and generous shoulders in a few areas and broken edges on narrow, busy roads more common than not. Sand for shoulders was terrifying on one highway packed with trucks and cobblestones were never fun. We did happen upon a series of unconnected bike routes south of Porto, and here and there on approaches to towns, but in general there is no accommodation of any kind for bikes on the road. 
    Too many of the drivers were really terrible. Commonly motorists would crowd us when theirs was the only car in sight, including police cars. Speeds were often excessive for the conditions and visibility and braking seemed to be a strategy of absolutely last resort.  Normally truckers are very considerate of us as cyclists but many big trucks didn't move towards the center line at all to make room for us. The lack of courtesy was odd, as especially in the south, there were dozens of tourists on rental bikes on the roads and small numbers of racers on robust training rides.

Bill kept steering us on to smaller and smaller roads as they became more available north of Lisbon, but that strategy failed to give us relief from the dangerous feeling on the roads. Our best guess is that road construction hasn't kept up with the increased prosperity since joining the EU and so the traffic, including the trucks, is spilling onto the most unlikely roads. Time and time again Bill used his experience of 9+ years of cyclotouring abroad to select routes that would be guaranteed to be tranquil in any other country and we still encountered heavy, fast traffic.

Elevation gain becomes a major issue in central Portugal as one takes to the back roads. After Peniche we veered inland a bit as we headed north and the potential for elevation gain became astounding. As we were heading towards Fátima, we accumulated 305m or 1000' in gain in a mere 10km or 6 miles. At that rate, a robust cyclist's gain would be 10,000' on a 100km or 60 mile day. Fortunately for us, the rate of gain accumulation slackened and Bill had planned a very short day so as to have time to tour the pilgrimage site. But we frequently accumulated gain at that rate in northern Portugal so he kept our daily mileage short.

The real bug-a-boo with the elevation gain is neither our otherwise nice Rough Guide hardcopy map nor our Garmin GPS map gave a clue as to the elevation potential. Bill is very skilled at reading between the lines on maps and he still had a hard time gauging the difficulty of a route. Racking up over a 100m gain on a single pull up a 10+% grade was a common occurrence.  Add in the potential of the late spring temperatures to pop from the high 60's into the 90's F in the course of a few days and you have the makings of very hard, unpredictable riding challenges.

Grades on the roads were also an issue. My 'inclinometer' uses a carpenter's bubble to reveal grade and 10-15% grades were a daily occurrence in more northern Portugal with several roads exceeding its maximum 20%  mark.

In trying to imagine how one could ride safely in Portugal, the only approach I could see would be with an organized tour with local leaders. We presume the safety on the roads is steadily declining and even 2 or 3 year-old information might be wildly inaccurate in predicting safe roads. It is telling that there is no north-south route through Portugal on the EU's official bike routes of Europe. We also checked BikeLine, a Germany company that publishes books of cyclotouring routes, and none of their 50-100 books includes Portugal. It's such a shame as Portugal is a pretty country to see by bike.

Specific Roads

Avoid the road between Grândola and Alcácar south of Lisbon (IC 1) if at all possible. If not, at least postpone the ride rather than do it in the rain as it is very dangerous for cyclists. It is an intense truck route with a single, narrow lane each way with a long stretch of passing lane. When overtaken by a vehicle, bikes must yield to the shoulder, which is often wide but in terrible, terrible condition. One long section of it was sand, which we came upon without warning. Massive holes and mounds can deviate from the prevailing surface by a foot and the holes may be layered with gravel. Most of the shoulder was asphalt, but not all of it. Sometimes it was like riding a mountain bike single track. We rode with 1 eye on our mirrors most of the time and dodged into the lane when there was no overtaking traffic, but even that was dicey. At intervals, the distorted asphalt formed a 6-8" narrow ridge with the shoulder, making it tricky to quickly move back onto the shoulder when a vehicle challenged us for the roadway. Expect no mercy from the drivers.

The N-6 between Lisbon and Cascais is terrible for cyclists. A fast-paced, 2 or 4 lane highway with curbs instead of shoulders drove us on to the cobblestone sidewalks when they were available.

The N-234 between Coimbra and the coastal village of Mira is also a fast-paced, 2 or 4 lane highway but with usually generous shoulders. Relatively flat for Portugal, it's a quick, easy ride with a minimum of truck traffic.

If traveling to Porto from Aveiro to the south, hug the coast line looking for dedicated bike lanes. Bill plotted a back-roads route using Garmin maps and it had us bumping into new red bike lanes. Unfortunately few have road signs directing you to them, but keep looking towards the ocean for them. They are a lovely relief from the traffic even though they are a series of segments instead of a continuous route. Once in Porto's periphery, we rode the fisherman's elevated, wooden boardwalk much of the way to the steel bridge. After crossing the bridge, look straight ahead to see a funicular, which will take you and your loaded bike to the upper city in style.

When To Go

We cycled in Portugal from mid-April until mid-June in 2010. Our first 2 weeks were peppered by storms, which including heavy downpours, inch-long hail, and sighting a tornado heading our way the day we crossed the border into Portugal from Spain. The daytime temperatures were around 60°F, making it inviting to sit-out the storms rather than press on. We were told that this was the second unusually wet spring in a row and that the weather should have been lovely by mid April. After several days of improving weather, the highs popped up into the low 80's, which was too, warm too fast. But then the temperatures moderated and the winds picked-up. It seemed that it could be hard to get the timing right for a bike trip to Portugal as it was cold and wet when we left in mid-June after some days in the low 90's.

Other Route Planning Considerations

The prevailing winds are north to south though we were more often in crosswinds than full-on headwinds even traveling south to north.

Lodging and supermarkets are frequent and plentiful along the southern coastline of the Algarve. Both suddenly became more scarce when we turned north from Sagres. Lodging was generally easier to find for coastal routes than inland ones.

Hotels & Bikes

Almost all abodes at which we asked accommodated bikes, with 1 exception. Sometimes they were kept outdoors in less than 100% secure spaces but they seemed safe enough (out of sight; low foot traffic). No one ever charged us for stashing them. Here's a phrase for cyclists to write down and show lodging hosts that don't speak English: "Eştamos de bicicleta, tem, por favor, lugar para as podermos guardar, obrigado." I doubt that pronouncing it like the Spanish it appears to be would be understood, so stick with the written version when asking "We have bicycles. Please, do you have a safe place for them? Thank you."


The stray 'townie' Portuguese dogs hardly batted an eye as we rode by but we were charged by estate dogs several times in southern Portugal. Always in more rural areas, these guard dogs charged onto the road from near the family home in pursuit of us with little warning. Our usual defense of yelling and growling in loud, low tones and brandishing our walking sticks slowed them down a bit. Fortunately, the road grades gave us the advantage each time we were under siege.

In Search of Shade

We are avid lunchtime picnicker's and quickly discovered that we needed to time our lunch with being in a village when in the Algarve (in the south) as it was hard to find a place out on the road to stop for a picnic. There often just wasn't any spot far enough off the road to sit for a half an hour to eat. Rarely we'd find a picnic table under trees or some other suitable spot for lunch unless we were in a town. The hot sun had us in search of shade and open spaces under trees with big canopies wasn't a common sight outside of the communities.

The day we turned north from Sagres we did start seeing shaded picnic spots on the road though they weren't at all reliable.

Public Restrooms

The indoor or covered farmer's markets "Mercado Municipal" often have clean and well-supplied, free public toilets during their business hours in the southern half of Portugal. Smaller towns without a public market building would often have free public toilets near a central square or church; one even had a half dozen potted plants decorating it.

Train Hops

Bikes ride for free on Portugal's "Regionale" trains and are not allowed on faster lines. Purchase tickets in advance at a machine or office for yourself. Should you board a train at a station with no ticket sales outlet of any kind, you are allowed to purchase your ticket on board without penalty.



Especially in low and middle season, do not be deterred by the room price posted at the desk. More than once we were offered room prices less than half of the posted price. Sometimes the online price was less than what we were quoted at the desk; sometimes it was more; and sometimes the clerk would offer the internet special price. This is quite different in countries like France where the posted price is the price. In Spain we found that some lodging hosts quoted us the room price without the tax and we only learned of it when checking out and others quoted the room price including tax; in Portugal the quoted price was always the complete cost. Whether or not breakfast was included varied a lot with the breakfast price per person often being 5€ if it was optional. Usually the breakfasts were at least adequate for a cyclist's needs with ham and cheese being common offerings and fresh fruit being less common.


Hotels: Algarve (the south)

We've given-up using The Michelin Red Guide for hotels in France as the several years we used the guide we found their price points to be above ours and their sense of 'charming' didn't fit with our needs for comfort. Though we didn't find a specific guide book for lodging in Portugal to be necessary, we did notice that several of the hotels we were directed to by the local tourist offices which we subsequently stayed at, did have Michelin stickers on their doors, suggesting that their guide would be a better fit for us in Portugal.

Ah....the view from our Albufeira apartment.

We found the value of lodging in Portugal to be excellent and we generally paid 40-65€/night for pleasant rooms in city hotels or B&B's. Our best deal was on the south coast in Albufeira where we landed a quiet, 1 bedroom apartment with a lovely sea view and big balcony for 38€/night: Almar Hotel-Apartamentos; www.HOTELAP-ALMAR.COM; Tel: 289 586 265/6/7. The hotel shows its age but is very clean, well maintained, and centrally located. Ask for an upper floor apartment with a sea view for both the living room and bedroom rather than an apartment with the sea view only for the living room or a studio on the ground floor with a garden view. Our 38€ price was the internet special that they gave us as walk-in's. The posted mid-season price was 80€ and the posted high season price was 162€. 

After a few less-than-idyllic stays, we started avoiding the "Residencial" establishments. In off season they tended to charge about 40€, which was only a little less than some 3 star hotels we stayed in but they were substantially less comfortable. I am sure there are some wonderful ones, but we stayed at 2, looked at a 3rd, and shifted to considering them a place of last resort. They do give one a taste of traditional lodging in Portugal, but tend to be quite dated and are more likely to have mildew on the walls than the hotels. We were total that many Residencial's were upgrading to qualify as hotels, so they may be a dying breed.

We stayed in one hostel, which was 40€ for a private double room with private bath. It met our needs in a town where lodging was scarce, but it was not a good value for Portugal. There was no TV in the very plain room, towels weren't provided but could be rented, and there was no air conditioning system. We would loved to have had air conditioning for the fan option as the mosquitoes required closing all the windows as there were no screens. We enjoyed using the kitchen but it was only big enough for 1 cooking duo at a time. Amusingly, all of the guests we were aware of that night were graying couples in private rooms--it appeared that there were no younger people in any of the dorm rooms.

If you are booking a long holiday at a single hotel or resort in the Algarve, look carefully to see if it has grounds of its own and if you need a car to get to a market, beach, or town. Lovely 4-star hotels can be placed in the middle of gravel parking lots with no landscaping at all and we saw many resorts that were quite isolated and far from any resources or places of interest. We saw many bus stops on the roads between towns but rarely saw any public transit buses so don't make any assumptions about the immediate surroundings.


Hotels: North of the Algarve

The Residencial's north of the Algarve were significantly better than the ones we looked at or stayed in in the Algarve. We stayed in several north of the Algarve that ranged from 30-60€ which were modern, hotel-grade places. "Residencial Neptuno" at Praia da Consolação near Peniche between Porto and Lisbon was an exceptional value at 30€ for 2 per night without breakfast. That was the low season price, with low season running from November 1 - June 1 excluding Christmas and Easter holidays. It was purpose-built in 2003. The SAT TV had several English stations, there was a frig, good beds, a bathtub, and the bikes stayed indoors over night. There is no air conditioning and no screens on the windows, which could be an issue. It was cool while we were there and 1 of 2 nights we had mosquitoes, so we had to button-up the room for the night. They have a swimming pool, free wifi, a computer corner, and breakfast is available. They speak just enough English to manage. Tel: 963 708 840 or 262 757 220. www.residencialneptuno.com. The markets in town are tiny and I made the hour+ walk to Peniche to buy groceries at the larger supermarkets.

Lodging was the most available in the Algarve and once out of that area, we had to be more careful about confirming that lodging was available in our destination town for the night.

Veneza Hotel in Aveiro along the coast south of Porto was a find. Not far from the Centro Commercial and the river, it is located at Rua Luis Gomes de Carvalho, 23. Our information showed it as the Mercure of the Accor Hotel chain, but it has been sold and undergone a year of renovation. The charming exterior is classical Portugal styling and the rooms are gracious and modern with refrigerators, English on the TV, air conditioning, and bathtubs. In early June we paid 55€ for 2 without breakfast and stashed our bikes in the garage. Wifi is overpriced however at 3€ for 30 minutes and up to 20€/day. The lobby computer terminal is free. www.venezahotel.com; info@venezahotel.com; Tel: +351 234 04 44 00.




Both the Michelin hardcopy of the Algarve and Garmin GPS maps of Portugal we had were frustratingly inadequate. Garmin omitted roads; Michelin omitted small towns, though ones big enough to be significant to cyclists with features like: a market, WC, park, and a soon-to-be-open tourist info office. Despite the inadequacies, we would have done much worse in Portugal without the Garmin maps. Once well past Lisbon and heading north, more roads became available and Garmin was necessary to link the quieter back roads.

Tourist Info Offices

Another toilet seat lid that won't stay up? Insist with 2 plastic bags.

The tourist info offices in the southern Portuguese towns and cities appeared to be in the midst of major upgrades as few were where our maps or guide books, and sometimes their signs, indicated. Several had moved and were not yet open; some were freshly relocated. In smaller towns they may not be open on the weekends. When asking for their location, ask for "Turismo" or "Posto Turismo". Better yet, ask a fellow tourist with a map in hand and perhaps they'll give you theirs.


Mosquitoes were never an issue at full-fledged hotels but did require us closing up our room at a "Residencial"/B&B and at a hostel that were near streams. If you are in an area that looks like mosquitoes might be an issue, select an establishment  with air conditioning so you can at least run the fan if you must seal-up the room for the night. We never had a room with screens on the windows and did plug-in our tiny electronic 'bugger' that disperses toxic fumes from a tablet into the air to subdue the skeeters.


I found Portugal to be a bit too humid for my comfort. Rarely did we see a weather forecast that included humidity but one day's predicted humidity was 94% and that was on a day with 0% chance of rain. Another time that I saw humidity noted in the forecast, it was 40% at its lowest for the day.  I tend to sweat a lot and high humidity slows the evaporation of sweat, increasing the chance of overheating and it definitely makes me feel sticky. Laundry dries more slowly, so think twice about packing slow-drying fabrics like cottons.


Internet via Cell Phone Service & Urban WiFi

Bill bought a USB port modem, known as a "pen" in English to the Portuguese, for our laptop to connect to the internet via cell phone service. When he bought, only the company available to us was tmn, so he purchased their product. With the promotion, 30€ (about $40) paid for the modem and 10 hours of 1 Mbps service on a prepaid card that could be used for 6 months. More time had to be purchased every 6 months to retain the card's life and it could only be used in Portugal. Should we return to Portugal another year, a new SIM card can be purchased (the current price is 15€) to reactive the modem. At the time of purchase, ask the vendor how to register your card online so as to be able to check your account balance on the prepaid account. Interestingly, Portugal has the fastest service available in Europe for contract purchasers, over 20 Mbps depending on the provider, though not on our program.

A number of small towns had free wifi zones in their central square. Each that we saw announced it in multiple languages, often on a person-sized panel. Service was slow but definitely there when we used it to get an address for a hotel.

Many hotels had free wifi though it was often only available in the lobby. As we traveled north, fewer hotels had free wifi and some were bold enough to charge 8-20€/day for the use of theirs. We were very happy to have our own access on those nights.



We were very impressed with the high hygiene standards in Portugal. Free public toilets were available in most villages and cities, though finding them is an art form. Toilet paper and soap were standard. Talk of the H1N1 virus was all but gone in the rest of the world but posters about hand washing and prevention were everywhere in Portugal. We saw the information posted in public restrooms, hotel lobbies, pharmacies, and other public places. Non-soap hand cleaners were still available on hotel counters, on some hotel housekeeping carts, and in one museum.

We came to expect very clean rooms, regardless of the price paid. Dust bunnies were few and far between and for the most part they didn't tolerate mold and mildew on the walls--thank goodness. Bathrooms were usually squeaky clean and we didn't have to beg for toilet paper as in some countries at the same price point.



We generally aren't in situations which require tipping but Lonely Planet noted that 5-10% tips were sufficient at restaurants and weren't necessary when taking a taxi were but appreciated.



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