GREAT TOURS are born at the most unlikely of moments….
….. climbing up Montejunto, in fact the last two kilometres. You know, the bit where you can see the summit but the road decides to kick up to 14%. It’s as if the Mountain thinks you found the previous 40 minutes of climbing too easy and you needed a challenge! That’s where the Iberian Challenge was born.
As the edge of the road plummeted down to the valley below and the horizon stretched out over a patchwork of vineyards, apple orchards and corn fields to the Altlantic Ocean, my vision began to blur.
I glanced down at my heart rate monitor. I had been red lining too long. I could hear my friends above me, waiting at the top, shouting encouragement as I turned the last hairpin, legs screaming, sweat dripping, heart pounding.
Even in October the heat of the Portuguese sun was draining every last ounce of energy as I finally reached the summit to the cheers of my fellow riders.
The summit of Montejunto has an eerie charm about it. The haunting ruins of a 12th Century Convent lie amidst the 21st Century radio pylons and the military radar dishes. There is an air of silence hanging in the gentle breeze, a silence you don’t experience lower down in the valley.
My friends were debating which way to descend and the route home as I recovered my composure, ate an energy bar and downed the last drop of water from my bidon. My legs and the rest of my body were suffering but my head wasn’t listening. It was in overdrive, synapses sparked as my heart pumped oxygen rich blood to my brain.
I caught my breath. “Let’s cycle to Santander” I said in my rough Portuguese. They looked at me amusingly; they frequently didn’t understand me, not in any language. “It’s only 800 kms and I know some great restaurants on the way”.
‘Restaurant’ is understood in any of the Romance languages and it soon found the attention of my Portuguese companions; dining on good food and drinking fine wine is what they live for (and cycling of course).
“Next May?” I said. They murmured to each other. I didn’t know whether they had taken me seriously or were still discussing the route down.
“Okay” they piped.
Oh dear….. I wasn’t expecting anybody to agree!
No tour starts on Day 1!
A tour starts the day before, with a banquet. This time at Gentil’s house. Gentil and his wife like to prepare large, convivial meals. It’s obvious to see; all of their saucepans are huge. Carlos had arrived bearing specialities from the smallholding he keeps out in the country and was followed by other members of our cycling group, each carrying something for the table.
Conversation over lunch was lively, everyone was excited. This tour was different to our previous tours. This was a challenge of endurance, 800 kilometres in 6 days. It won’t be easy. It’s not like climbing a mountain, there’s always a descent after every ascent.
Anyway, we’re lingering, we have to pick up the other riders from England; they’re arriving at the airport in an hour!
Lisbon was hot and Carlos took us through the scenic route. At least that’s what he calls it. We just think he’s rubbish at directions. But the shouting, gesticulations and arguments with other drivers had worked up an appetite and with the new faces on board, we aimed the van at the next stop – dinner.
180 km, 26 kph-ish, 1384 m
The heat lasted through the night and we awoke to glorious sunshine. The omens were good. Today would be a long day heading east out of Lisbon and through the stunningly beautiful Alentejo.
It’s May and the Alentejo is in full bloom. Miles upon miles of flowering pastureland in glorious technicolor. The rolling hills of the Alentejo make for easy cycling and although there are climbs, we designed our route to avoid anything too taxing on the first day. We stopped for lunch under some olive trees and picked our way through an assortment of cured meats, quail eggs, goat’s cheese, omelette and cake.
After a short siesta the last 70 kilometres of the day’s ride drifted by as we rode deep into the countryside and our first night’s stop.
The owner of the farmhouse greeted us like family and had prepared a table on the terrace overflowing with local specialities and regional dishes. And with a few bottles of wine from the local vineyard, we watched the sun go down on the first day.
115 kms, 27 kmh, 463m
We awoke to the sound of rain but the tour continued and the Spanish border had to be crossed. It was a short recovery ride to our next stop in Caceres – an extraordinary medieval town in the heart of Extremadura.
Navigating the narrow cobbled streets that twist and climb among the ancient stone walls of palaces, mansions and churches we found our way to our hotel in the middle of the town’s 16th Century splendour.
Caceres is a worthy gastronomy capital of Spain and dining in the historic Plaza Mayor was an experience worth repeating.
DAY 3…….to be continued
Team Director at Volta Pro Tours