Wonderful, wonderful riding today: half on one of the best railtrails I’ve ever done; half on beautiful quiet scenic mountain roads; and what felt like half on a terrible forest track I wouldn’t wish on even a Tory MP.
First, that fabulous railway bike path. The Ecopista do Dão was opened in 2011 on the route of the old Santa Comba–Viseu railway, which closed in 1988. At 50km it’s Portugal’s longest, and thanks to being flat, paved and smooth all the way, it’s one of the best in Europe.
The scenery is lovely, there are plenty of refreshment stops en route, it’s car-free of course, and thanks to priority at junctions everywhere (except where it crosses the old N2, once) you can roll along stress-free. Plus there’s a bike wash and a parrot.
The fun started immediately on our departure from Viseu, fuelled up with a hotel breakfast in which coffee and custard tarts featured prominently: delicious pink-orange tarmac sashaying through luscious dark-green hillsides.
[There are three colour-coded sections to the tarmac on the ecopista. First, from Viseu, is ‘red’ (actually pink-orange). Then, in the middle bit through Tondela, comes ‘green’ (actually green). Finally, down to Santa Comba Dão, is ‘dark blue’ (actually a range of unexciting blue/ black/ grey shades familiar to anyone who like me browses Dunelm’s bargain-basement curtain bins).]
With the line being closed too recently to be built on or ‘redeveloped’ like Beeching-era British railway lines (ie ruined by light-industrial estates and cookie-cutter housing developments), it’s a continuous and unbroken delight of tunnels, cuttings, bridges, embankments and views.
We were in good company this glorious, sunny, cloudless Saturday: the path was busy with families, tourers, fast road bike groups, and slow cycle bloggers.
Indeed, I was enjoying myself so much, it wasn’t until we finished that I realised the ‘Dão’ of the ecopista’s title was the region (and river) that gives its name to many superb reds, zingy, plummy, cherryey, nicely-ageing: Portugal’s Burgundy.
The ecopista’s terminus is a bizarre anticlimax – it gives up abruptly outside Santa Comba Dão, blocked by a scruffy metal fence and heap of rubble – and we had to follow our nose to find our way back on to the N2 south.
With a nose like mine that’s not hard.
Lunch was al fresco outside a supermarket, and then it was some good fast road riding along the N2 and some slightly fussy segregated paths.
This is reservoir country, and we did some looping and swooping round and over a few of them.
There’s also a mile or two where the old N2 has been submerged by the new motorway, so – we hope temporarily – the ‘N2 heritage route’ diverts cyclists along rough forest tracks, with one slope long and steep enough to benefit from abseiling down.
Back on tarmac though things improved, and there was more utterly wonderful road riding almost bereft of motor traffic through rich horizon-filling scenery.
We had decided to stay in Coimbra tonight, in fact for two nights, as the old university town is a Portuguese gem often overlooked in the tourist stampede for Lisbon and Porto. To get there involved a diversion of a dozen miles or so west from the N2, along the N110.
This road, along the Mondego valley, turned out to be the nice-surprise of the tour so far: virtually no cars, so we were unmolested by Mondego Man, and a sinuous, evenly-graded, gentle road that slices its down the gorge.
The only frustration was that the enticing river-beach I could see – a Portuguese thing, I was beginning to realise – was on the other side. My trunks will have to wait for their first wetting this trip.
Coimbra’s riverside was a very attractive place to be this sunny Saturday evening. We relaxed with a couple of cold beers at a riverside bar busy with the university town’s vibrant young, though to me anyone under fifty is young.
Our pre-old-town-evening-stroll dinner was chicken and chips in a local restaurant – we were the only English speakers in there – with a fruity bottle of Dão. Something very satisfying about this: you’ve seen the ecopista, now try the wine…
Miles today: 68
Miles since Chaves: 181