Benquerença – Day 1
The drive from Belmonte to Benquerença, if taken direct, was a short distance, through rural backwaters lined with olive trees and eucalyptus. But we decided on a detour first, into the Serra da Estrela. We thought it necessary when passing to visit mainland Portugal’s highest point – Torre, 1993m above sea level.
We had hoped to walk to this point, build in a decent day’s hike and earn the summit, but no one had information or maps available regarding any paths or climbs. So, in the end, we did what all other tourists and visitors do – drove all the way to the top. First we headed to Manteigas, but the whole village looked closed. We walked around but could see little sign of life. When the weather is poor, tourism drops dramatically and the shops close. So it was on to the Torre, ever upwards.
It was an incredible road, winding steeply and narrowly up the rugged mountain side with hairpin after hairpin, but we were in dense cloud and slim visibility the whole time, so had little opportunity to enjoy the views. We just may have picked the single worst day of the year to visit the highest point, but as we were passing just once, we decided to keep on going on. We passed loose cows on the road, only seeing them when mere metres away.
The top trig point, built seven metres high on the order of Portuguese royalty to make the highest point an even 2000m (not that it does as it’s a built structure, and there are other adjacent higher built structures) was a monstrosity, set in the centre of a roundabout. There was parking for hundreds of cars and buses, today all empty except for three other cars, staff most likely. Beside this was a large, tacky souvenir store selling mostly trinkets and cheese, and a weather station. In all, the highest point in Portugal was an utter fail in all possible ways, and perhaps it was for the best that we could barely see it. Lovely road to drive, but best experienced when traffic free.
We descended the mountain an alternative way, to the town of Covilhã, before cutting cross-country on tiny roads to our destination of Benquerença, where we hoped to spend a few relaxing days. We arrived at the well signed site to find only one other motorhome, driven by a Dutch couple, on the large site that could accommodate 50. Perfect.
We picked a nice spot, away from overhanging trees to avoid drips if it rained, and settled in. Later we had a short walk around the site and back into the village centre. It was deceptively large, sprawling place with several small shops and a busy café in the centre that had local traffic constantly arriving and leaving, with lots of small vans and cars parked near it at any angle or position, barely leaving the road available for any others; an interesting dynamic. The small, neat church was nearby, adding a sense of community.
Benquerença – Day 2
After a delayed start to be sure of the weather, we headed out for our planned cycle ride to Sabugal. Leaving the aire we first passed through the village then out on tiny but beautifully smooth local roads, empty of all traffic, perfect for cyclists. We passed private vegetable patches with huge cabbages and dead-looking sweetcorn, autumnal vineyards and barking dogs. The roads got steadily steeper as we went, with no respite, and we started to question the wisdom of the route we’d chosen. We were based 10km or so from the cycle route map we had, and this tail to join the route was an entire uphill slog, but at least our slow pace gave us time to warm up and to fully take in our surroundings.
Arriving at the small crossroads village of Santo Estêvão, we joined the main road to Sabugal, right where it kicked up again and kept rising as it followed the contours of the mountain up, and up. In total we had covered 18km of uphill before a nice 6km long downhill portion ran us joyously into the heart of Sabugal town. We noted the castle on its domineering location as we approached from the valley, and headed there first on steep cobbled lanes. The adjacent squares were quiet, with only us and one local present. The castle walls housed a small Tourismo office at the entrance where we left our bikes whilst we explored the castle.
An intact and a formidable fortress, we were impressed with the height and unique sloping nature of the boundary walls, with long flights of narrow stone stairs leading to the ramparts. It would have been an unenviable task to attempt to penetrate and overcome any defence set here. We’ve seen many castles in recent weeks, each with their own uniquely impressive features. We walked around the top of the castle walls on slippy, narrow stone paths with long falls on each side; no Health and Safety considerations in place. We then climbed up several steep timber stairs internally through three floors to the roof of the keep, to enjoy panoramic views over the town; an impressive sight.
We had lunch under a pergola on a platform overlooking the river from a high vantage point before heading back out of town in the direction of Sortelha. The road climbed sharply out of Sabugal before levelling off and providing a smooth, rolling route of gentle bumps that we made good progress on. The terrain changed again as we progressed into the hills, with a much more rugged, rocky and patchy look, more scrub moorland like Dartmoor than anything we had seen previously. The hills were also lined with large wind turbines, half hidden by the low cloud and looking elegant and ethereal as they slowly turned, like thin, mechanical giants. The combination of the turbine blades, the moorland and the low-lying cloud really added a mystical quality to the landscape. Or it could have been exhaustion.
On the way down the final hill into Sortelha we stopped to admire the town’s setting and castles, before descending the final run. At the bottom of the hill we had a downhill right turn, then an immediate left to head up a steep cobbled portion to the castle. It was here a poorly timed, or attempted but non-existent, gear change and too much power in too high a gear conspired to create a large snap and to leave Aaron with a broken chain. School-boy error. We didn’t look around the town too much, just a short walk to partially see the castle, as our minds were now a little preoccupied of how we would get home. We were 37km into the cycle, around halfway, with only one working chain between us. We carry puncture repair, pump and various allen keys, but had no tools with us to fix a snapped chain. With it being extremely unlikely that the town we were in or any nearby village would have a cycle shop, it was up to us to suck it up and work it back as best we could.
We checked our map and chose a more direct route back to base, rather than continuing the originally proposed route. We knew from our extensive efforts so far that a large part of the journey home would be downhill, so we started on our combination journey of ‘free wheel, tow, then walk’ to get back.
The first two kilometres out of Sortelha town were steeply uphill and consisted of a lot of walking for me, even a little jogging, whilst pushing the broken bike along. Difficult work in SPDs. On the more gentle or level parts Nicky was able to provide a tow, hand in hand, to keep up momentum and progress us both quicker to the next downhill stretch. Nicky would then sit up and recover on the downhill stretches, then try to time coming up beside me at a matching speed, just as the road’s incline was beginning to slow my descent, so that we could grasp hands again, sustain my forward motion and provide a tow to the next downhill. Sometimes an uphill walk was inevitable, as for Nicky to pedal hard enough to propel both bikes uphill was too exhausting, but the downhills were all the more special for this.
Most of the downhill stretches didn’t require braking and were long, wide and sustained, so we tucked in and really enjoyed covering the ground home quickly. To our surprise and relief, the journey back was a lot less arduous than our minds had originally thought it would be when the chain first snapped, and our shortcut route ended up only a little over 18km back, with maybe 12km of this being quality descending. It was still a reasonably tough 55km day of cycling, with Nicky additionally exhausted from the efforts of towing, so we enjoyed a very good dinner with lots of red wine to help replace the spent calories.