Off Roading: Portugal
Right in the south west corner of Europe sits a beautiful, traditional country with a huge network of rural gravel roads connecting the hilly interior and famous sandy beaches. We send Max & Simon to the Algarve over a hot week in May to discover a different side to Portugal away from the golf courses & tourist resorts…
Just north of the perfect beaches and picturesque towns is a relatively unexplored part of Portugal. It turns out the rural Algarve is a gravel cyclists paradise and fortunately we had four days to explore as much of it as we could.
After a night’s stay in a lovely travelodge outside of Luton we began our journey to Faro airport. We arrived at around midday and were soon greeted by our host for the week. We had a quick bite to eat in the cobbled streets of Tavira and spoke briefly about the week ahead, excited to hear more but apprehensive that it was already 2pm and we had 95 km to ride today. We built up our bikes, got into our kit and hit the road.
Stage One: Tavira to Alcoutim
The first 25k was mainly flat following the coastline heading east, a mixture of smooth gravel tracks and quiet back lanes, we were making quick progress. Although we had ended up setting off at 3pm we were confident we could make it back before dark.
It wasn’t long before we started our journey north to our finish in Alcoutim, the first noticeable change was just how rural it became, not far away from the coast the Algarve is very sparsely populated. Winding through small farms, tiny villages and remote tracks we truly had entered the untouched area of Portugal we had come to see.
The second half of the route featured more longer steady climbs, whilst hard work they all granted excellent views of the countryside. We soon noticed the sun was beginning to set and after a little bit of maths realised how tight our arrival was going to be, just before the sun sets is probably my favourite time to ride and with stunning views and perfect gravel tracks I was having a fantastic time.
Full of morale, we didn’t take any shortcuts and soon enough the sun had set and we were riding in the dark, with 10k left we soldiered on. Finishing the ride in the moonlight, whilst slightly dangerous, was also really special and we arrived at our hotel on a massive high. The smile on our face was soon wiped out when we realised the hotel had stopped serving food, luckily there was one small restaurant in town still open and we had a big meal to prepare ourselves for the day ahead.
Stage Two: Alcoutim to São Brás de Alportel
The next day we set out to tackle some of the Via Algarviana, a long distance trail running across the whole Algarve, starting in Alcoutim and finishing in Cabo de São Vicente the western most tip of the region. The whole trail is 300km, and has its origins in an old religious route followed by pilgrims heading for the Sagres promontory. Within a couple of kilometres of leaving the hotel we had already joined the trail, whilst officially a walking trail the first 30k seemed to be built perfectly for gravel bikes. Whilst we were making quick progress and ticking off some great scenery it wasn’t long until the hills arrived, it turns out this area of the Algarve was home to some spicy climbs.
The slow progress continued when we came across a pretty large river crossing, not to be deterred we whipped our shoes off and made our way through. A nervous crossing for Simon with his brand new camera but we made it across safe and sound and thankfully dry. The next part of the ride would be similarly slow going, with plenty of hills and very little contact with the outside world. Our only interaction for the next few hours was coming through a tiny little village where Simon was accosted by a local who was determined to find out what we were doing here (that’s what we assume anyway, as she was only speaking in Portuguese).
At breakfast we had been looking at the weather forecast and had seen a little bit of rain forecast for the late afternoon, quickly assured that it ‘doesn’t rain in the Algarve’ we had put the thought to the back of our heads. It was soon front and centre of my mind though as some dark clouds started to gather as the day drew on, it was going to rain. By god did it rain, when the heavens opened we were suddenly soaked and the sky started to grumble. Luckily we quickly found a bus shelter to hide under and see if we could get a lift back for the last 20km. On the phone we weren’t believed that it was even raining (as lightning struck around us), it was completely dry at the finish hotel! Luckily we were soon scooped up and secretly happy to spare our legs of the last 20km of riding.
Stage Three: São Brás de Alportel to Moncique
Day three was upon as and we were mainly going to focus on filming today, that meant Simon was going to be shooting out the back of the car and I would be doubling back on myself. Fortunately the views today made it very much worth it. The first half of the ride was a little more built up, passing through picturesque villages connected by quiet country lanes and dusty gravel tracks. Past the halfway point was my favourite though, we had a tough climb but were rewarded with one of the best ridgeline I’d ever ridden. Luckily Simon managed to capture it on the drone and got easily the best shot of the trip.
We arrived at our hotel in Monchique early evening and were quite excited to see that it was a 5* hotel, upon checking in we were told this hotel is a little bit of a maze and were given some convoluted instructions for reaching our room. After seemingly five lifts and walking the entire length of the hotel we found our room. Seeing that we had a double bed and a sofa bed, a game of rock/paper/scissors followed and I was very pleased to be sleeping in the king size bed tonight. After a quick swim in the pool and an attempt to get in the spa for free (unsuccessful), we were off to dinner.
Stage Four: Moncique to Sagres
The next day arrived and the sun was shining, one day of riding remained. We were heading to the western most tip of the Algarve, less hills today and with the weather gods shining down upon us we were excited to get on the bikes. This wasn’t before breakfast and one of the funniest interactions I’d ever had with a waiter, I will preface this with the fact that the humour could very much be lost in the blog setting but I believe it’s worth mentioning anyhow. Simon went to order a coffee along with breakfast and the waiter mentioned that we would have to pay extra for the coffee and continued with ‘It is what it is bro’ with a face like it was his very last day on the job. On the rest of our recon trips whenever there was the slightest inconvenience it would be met with ‘it is what it is bro’. Anyway, after finishing our breakfast we set off for our very last day riding across the Algarve.
Straight out of the gate we were riding uphill, fortunately it was a pretty gentle road climb and once at the top it would be ‘downhill’ all the way to the coast. Once we hit the first gravel section it was perfect, wide, smooth tracks and we started ticking off the kilometres. We also picked up a lovely tailwind which we would have all day, a real morale boost. The first half of the ride flew by and before long our legs were feeling the previous three days riding and we made ourselves to a shop for the obligatory ‘roadmans cafe’.
The rest of the ride was characterised by wind farms and our arrival to the coast. Seeing the colossal blades and the power of the ocean as the huge waves battering the coast made us feel a little insignificant.
The Algarve had truly blown us away, finishing on the coastline felt a fitting end to our traverse across the region. A few months before the trip I hadn’t even realised there was much gravel in the area and now it’s one place I’d recommend for any keen gravel cyclist to check out. If you’re looking for an exciting new destination which is just being discovered, look no further and get yourself to the Algarve!