Heading even further north and rising up into the heart of the Montezinho Natural Park, the terrain and geology were not dissimilar to the Algarve. It was a little less hilly perhaps, but featured the same loose gravel tracks surrounded by ‘cistas’ (a woody sticky-leaved weed) which gave way to occasional eucalyptus forest.
Within an hour the trail arrived at a perfectly preserved and bus shelter-sized chapel surrounded by the derelict remnants of a small community. Unfortunately the track out of the village was as long-gone as the inhabitants. After much head-scratching and GPS double-checking we concluded that the trail headed off down the hillside, even though there was no sign of a track at all. The long grass and tough shrubs provided cover for the loose rock and shale under-wheel. Paddling halfway down we stopped and laid the bikes on their sides before continuing on foot to confirm there was a way through. Thankfully it turned out to be the right way, and a couple of miles riding alongside a small river took us to a crossing point and back to a more recognisable trail.
Every ten minutes we were riding through different terrain: scrub, oak forest, meadow grass, eucalyptus forest, fast open trails, tight technical singletrack, it just went on and on, all the time in glorious sunshine and with not a person to be seen anywhere, even in the many little villages we passed through.
Later in the day, just as we thought it couldn’t get any more interesting, we descended a loose challenging track to an old granite bridge. The track up the other side bore a vague resemblance to the pack horse roads in the Pennines except that this was much more technical, with huge boulders forming steps and edges reminiscent of a trials section. Excellent…
Apart from my supposition that we should double the daily mileage of the mountain bikers and therefore be sure of finding a hotel, we’d made no accommodation arrangements whatsoever. It became obvious that this wasn’t going to happen and despite it being daylight until around 20:30 if we didn’t find somewhere to stay around 6-ish then we may not find anywhere at all.
We rumbled into Freixo de Espada a Cinta via the cobbled narrow streets of the old town, across the open square in front of the church and straight up to the police station where two of Portugal’s’ finest were enjoying a cigarette. I thought it best to speak to them before they spoke to us and they directed us through town to the petrol station, where I was able to re-seat the bead of my front tyre which had caused me some concern earlier in the day. The search for some accommodation rewarded us with a delightful self-catering apartment built into the hillside, within a stone’s throw of the Douro River and looking out over Spain on the opposite bank.