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Winter sun in Portugal's Algarve: cycling's hidden paradise

In-depth
5 Mar 2021
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At Europe’s western reach lies a province of rolling green hills & white sandy beaches. The Algarve is a secluded paradise for cyclists, as Cyclist found back in 2019

Words: Tim Wiggins

When you imagine your warm weather cycling retreat, you likely think of the Mediterranean islands or perhaps the climbs of Gran Canaria.

Most do not know the secret of the Algarve — situated midway between those two; this region of Portugal boasts some of the best climbs, roads, culture and cuisine found anywhere in Europe.

Winter warmth

We are here to explore: tempted by tales of deserted roads through an untouched sierra. It's December, and we have gratefully traded the cold grey of northern Europe for the blue skies and warmth of this more southerly latitude.

Our hotel receptionist has boldly stated to us twice already this morning that 'it is winter now', yet aside from the lack of other guests in our beautiful beachside accommodation, you could be excused for thinking otherwise; we are preparing to ride, dressed contently in just short sleeves.

Our route for the day is a circular tour: from the coast we will ride up the Guadiana river - which forms the border between Portugal and Spain - then head into the interior of the Algarve to explore the hills and rivers that compose the lush green landscape inland of the coast.

We are not aiming for personal records - it is December, after all - instead we are looking forward to café stops in the sunshine, and a leisurely lunch of local delights.

 

Distinctly Portuguese

Heading up the Guadiana, we enjoy the backroads and rolling hills. To our right we can look out over the river to the Spanish territory on the opposite bank; Portugal seems so close to Spain in some ways, and yet it has a distinctly different character: calmer, quieter, and in many ways more welcoming.

A quick coffee stop in Alcoutim. We happily sit on the terrace of a local bar, sampling their homemade Pastel de Nata, and listening to the locals' stories of the smuggling history of this bustling little village.

 

The sun has warmed the air temperature to a blissful 26°C by midday, as we begin our ride inland into the Algarve interior.

The landscape has an almost luminescent green tint in the early winter sun. Thanks to the few weeks of rain the area receives in late autumn, it makes it far less arid and desert-like than might be expected given its proximity to Africa.

We spin past reservoirs, and through friendly and welcoming provinces. The roads and houses are beautifully kept, and traditional in style; characteristic blue shutters reflect the azure coloured sky, and the occasional section of refurbished cobbled road reflects the remains of a Roman occupation in the centuries past.

 

Traditional character

The heat of the sun brings the road side verges to life; smells of wild thyme and rosemary invigorate our senses. With 100 kilometres ridden, we stop for lunch at a local bar.

This inland Algarve retains a beautifully traditional orientation, and we are served brimming platefuls of lamb and chickpea stew, seasoned with the aromatic plants that we had moments before recognised out on the road.

The route shows a 10km climb immediately after our lunch stop; this region may not be mountainous, but there is plenty of scope for gaining vertical metres. This climb, thankfully, is a forgiving one with a gentle gradient allowing us to spin up the early slopes as our lunch settles in our stomachs.

After 5km of switchbacks, we emerge onto the high sierra. The vista opens out to show the hills cascading down to the Atlantic Ocean on the distant horizon.

A panoramic view has been a beautiful distraction for the final few kilometres of the climb; but, by the summit, our well used legs are ready for a descent.

With a strong tailwind, and an almost constant downhill gradient; it is a triumphant plunge to the coast. Sweeping bends and empty roads; you couldn't wipe the smiles from our faces if you tried. We still cannot quite believe it's December in Europe.

For affordable flight to the Algarve, try price comparison site Skyscanner

For accommodation in the area, look at Airbnb for cheap, self-catering options

 

Back to sea level

As the road levels out, we can smell the clean sea air as we click into the final 10km of our route. The road takes us through the charming town of Tavira, and then out onto the salt flats beyond.

This landscape is a great contrast to the farmland of the Algarve interior; it presents a different way of life — one orientated toward the sea. In coming days, we will sample octopus caught by local boats, Bacalhau salted cod fish and Cataplana de Marisco seafood stew — all simple local dishes; inspired and served by the Atlantic.

The sun is setting as we pedal the last few kilometres, and then finally unclip from the pedals at the Forte de Cacela lighthouse. We rest our bikes against the whitewashed walls and look out on the deep blue ocean below.

We came to the Algarve hoping just to escape the cold and grey December days. What we found was so much more: a sun-drenched landscape of unforgettable roads and panoramic backdrops, and a ride of discovery to see, taste and experience the unique offering that this Portuguese region has to offer.