Idanha-a-Nova – Day 1
After leaving Benquerença, we first headed south west to the large town of Fundão, to seek out a good cycle shop we had heard whispers of, in order to have the chain replaced on Aaron’s bike. We also hoped to find a laundrette, so initially had written this day off as a transitional ‘jobs’ day. By good fortune we found the recommended cycle shop, a supermarket and a self-service external laundry depot all within 100m of each other, so spent the best part of the morning placing loads of washing into machines, completing a grocery shop and having a new chain fitted, leaving us all good to go.
We had considered heading further south as the weather forecast wasn’t looking too special, but we also had a map of a possible cycle ride a little way south east of where we were which was purported to be an especially beautiful route, so we cut back that way with the hope of a weather window, and headed to a campsite set on the shores of a lake near the town of Idanha-a-Nova. We arrived mid-afternoon and drove into the campsite, but after discussion with the reception staff, we turned and left, instead parking up directly outside the fence near the entrance on an area retained as a free aire. We could have paid the €9/night to be inside the park, but the swimming pool was closed down for the winter, and the dusty earth campsites were not particularly level. We didn’t see what we’d gain from paying, so being frugal travellers we decided to stay two nights in the free aire, with it all entirely to ourselves and with better views of the lake. We could still pick up the camp’s free wifi from outside the fence, so that was a nice bonus too.
We had a quick walk around a part of the reservoir lake, down chalky paths and across rocky areas that are obviously underwater at certain times of year, but were completely dry during our visit. The calm water and sky, moody red with a setting sun, made the whole area look and feel a little magical, but up close the water’s edge was infested with large flies and flying ants so we backed right away from the swarms and this made thoughts of a sneaky swim disappear. We wandered a little following the shoreline at a safe distance, with small islands in the water to our right and abandoned cabins in the woods to our left. It was a pretty, calm and quiet spot to spend a few nights, and all for our favourite price.
Idanha-a-Nova – Day 2
The next morning, after a very decent sleep, we readied ourselves for the proposed cycle. The weather was looking good; clearing skies with a hint of blue and not too cold. We sensed it was going to be a decent weather day, so on with plenty of sun screen for the first time in weeks. The proposed ride was a bumpy 60+km loop taking in Idanha-a-Velha, Monsanto, Medelim, Proença-a-Velha and back to base through Idanha-a-Nova.
Leaving the village, we saw jet black sheep, like shadows, wandering between the blood red tree trunks, on a background of burnt yellow grass; a rural scene with such a limited, simplistic colour palette it was reminiscent more of Rothko than Constable. Rows of cork oak trees stood with their bark removed to just above a man’s head height, their inner trunk exposed like a skinned rabbit, raw and red. We saw evidence of localised bush fires, natural or controlled, with deeply blackened trunks, stalks and grass interspersed with the lime green of new growth, spread all across the hills. The air held a constant smell of curry plant and wild garlic, mingling with the scent of pine and eucalyptus trees. There were patches of intensity where we could almost taste it, waxing and waning in depth as we passed along the road.
The small settlement of Idhana-a-Velha was first visible from above, on a nice descent towards the town. It was beautifully framed with a mountain behind. Little did we know that the craggy top of this distant peak was on our route – if we had, we might have turned back. Idhana-a-Velha, once called Egitania, was a Roman town of some significance, and much of the original walls were still visible, along with various other towers and ruins. We explored the ruins on foot, learning a little of the history, from it being the birthplace of 7th century Visigoth Kings and the seat of powerful bishops, to its desertion due to a plague of rats in the 15th century.
Today, a small community of locals still live between the ruins and Roman remains, no doubt in a similar, rural manner to many previous generations. We saw old, bent double ladies dressed in black hanging out washing amidst the ruins, whilst weather-beaten men with flat caps sat still in the shade and contemplated the day. The only modern change would be the recent injection of historical tourism, but as we were the only visitors on this hot, sticky day, perhaps that has not made an appreciable difference to the everyday lives of the locals. It may be very different in peak season.
Leaving the ramshackle loveliness behind, we continued back on the main road for a short while before turning right and following a steep road uphill in the direction of Monsanto. The rugged hills were wilder here, less ordered or cultivated than in previous areas. The views were more African Savannah than Europe; wispy yellow grasses and bare earth with sporadic thin trees. We half expected to glimpse elephants hiding in the woodland areas, like back at Cabarceno.
The road continued ever upwards, with a few turns through tiny settlements on the way. As we were on mountain bikes, once we got close to Monsanto we decided to take a shorter, more direct but off-road route to the town. This led up a narrow, bouldered pathway that started reasonably but increased in gradient so much it became impossible for us to overcome the uneven rocks and maintain momentum. We had to dismount and push, or even on occasion carry, our bikes along this stretch, and that effort in the heat of the day drained us. We stopped near the top of the track and enjoyed our packed lunch, sitting on ideally placed rocks with a glorious view through the trees to the expansive valley below.
A few minutes more of pushing our bikes and we suddenly arrived on the outskirts of the village of Monsanto. We could ride again, but only short portions before either the steepness of the paths or a set of stairs defeated us and we had to dismount and push again. After a few more difficult minutes of pushing, we finally decided to abandon the bikes at the side of a small shop, and proceeded up the precipitous cobbles to the mountain top on foot. Nicky decided to abandon her SPDs at this point too, favouring the comfort of socks to the clanging of cleats on stone.
The entire town was built into the rock of the slopes. In several cases, quite literally, as some buildings were fully constructed around large boulders, flashed and weathered to the very mountain rock in-situ. We progressed slowly upwards, the stone path splitting and narrowing as we reached the top, feeding off in various directions. We first went left to inspect the ruins of the chapel buildings, before returning to enter the castle via a stone archway and steps.
Once inside, we immediately climbed narrow stone steps to the top of the ramparts on the castle walls, and followed these around to a large white trig point that was denoting the highest point of the facility. The views from the castle ruins on the very top of the hill, in every direction, were breathtakingly special. We could see for ten miles in each direction, the plains spread out in vivid colours and looking deceptively flat when viewed from above. We could see the lake where we were parked and the village of Idhana-a-Velha we recently left, already so far away. We paused for a while to enjoy the views, then descended back the same path into the village. After returning and recovering our bike, we enjoyed a well-earned ice cream and a sit-down with a view.
The downhill out of Monsanto was a descender’s delight; a fast, steep, winding road with constant stunning views and very little traffic. We swooped down like swallows, leaning into curves and loving the wind in our faces. Within a few giddy moments we were down, back on the flat and heading west.
We had the constant reminder of where we had just been, the mountain town of Monsanto standing tall, now looking far away on the horizon. Each backward glance surprised us with how far we’d moved on from the craggy mountain top, dominating the plains but shrinking further into the distance with each pedal stroke.
We were still not halfway around, but had seen so much. The hour was getting late, so returning home we decided to push on rather than linger as before. We cycled the straight, flat road stretches like a time trial, pushing hard, with continuous plantations of olive groves on our left and barren grasslands on our right. The tall yellow grasses at roadside tickled my outstretched hand as we passed by at speed. The arrow straightness made these long roads seem like they would never end. These long runs were even more tiring than the steep hills as we worked harder for longer to ensure our speedy progress.
We made good time getting back, and the long shallow climbs of the roads into town rewarded us with another all too brief but still quite glorious winding downhill stretch, out of the town of Idhana-a-Nova towards the reservoir lake we were currently calling home. There was one last kilometre-long steep sting in the tail to drag our weary bodies up before arriving back to a stunning vista over our lake; a rewarding finale to a wonderful cycle.
61km in total, but with the long climbs and sharp descents, the exploring on foot and the essential pushing of bikes up roughly bouldered paths and cobbled steps, it all seemed so much longer and involved. But a lovely, satisfying ride that definitely earned us a decent meal and a large glass of red.