Motorcycle Riding in Northern Portugal with Motocadia Tours
The road rose out of the valley with smooth turns built into the ascending hillsides, climbing, climbing, climbing, the motorcycles leaning gracefully left, right, left, right. The lightly wooded slopes had the occasional pile of cut logs neatly stacked beside the two-lane byway, waiting for a truck to come and collect. The asphalt surface was unblemished, no potholes, no cracks, no dark splotches of spilled oil or diesel fuel, and the only thing to slow me down was my desire to savor the long views. A caped shepherd leaned on his crook and watched us pass, his large dog more interested in making sure none of the flock of grazing woolies wandered off. We crested a rise, and there in the distance was the white of snow-covered mountains.
Snow? In Portugal? Well, this was, after all, the middle of winter, and southern Europe was having a serious cold spell. But we were layered up and tough, three helmeted riders out to ride a few hundred miles of twisty byways over hills and through dales, wander around half-a-dozen ancient towns that give a real up-front meaning to history, and eat some seriously good food. Not to mention copious samplings of the local wines, especially that known as port.
We, being Julian the tour master, Andy the Brit and fields, through eucalyptus plantations and groves of fir trees, and then soar higher into the hills…if Route N2361 was any indication of the roads to follow, we were in for a very good time.
Portugal? Who thinks of going to Portugal…unless one is a wine merchant? Until the call came through telling me that one Julian Cade was running moto-tours in that country and he thought that Americans might like to know more about the place; send me a ticket. I quickly read up on the country in my world almanac.
Portugal is about the size of the state of Maine, covering some 35,000 square miles and with 500 miles of Atlantic coastline. The country established itself as a kingdom around 1200, staying a monarchy until 1910, when a small revolution sent the king off into exile and a republic was declared. Population is about 10 million, with 4 million living around greater Lisbon, the capital, and another 2 million in the area of the northern seaport of Porto. Just to get you straight on this name, Porto, as well as Portugal, is derived from a Roman town called Portus Cale that was settled thereabouts 2,000 years ago. With 60 percent of the population in the two big cities, that leaves a lot of the countryside with few people, which provides a suitable background for fine motorcycling.
I signed up for one of Motocadia’s seven day tours; Julian’s regular touring season does not begin until April, but he put together this late February ride in the hopes of getting a little publicity in Rider in time for the 2005 summer season. Andy had a mid-winter break from work and was looking for a way to have fun, and he came along as a regular client. I arrived a full day late, thanks to Lufthansa canceling my flight out of San Francisco; Julian still picked me up at the airport and drove me 40 miles north to Obidos, Motocadia HQ, where Andy and I were handsomely set up in one of Portugal’s “manor houses.” Many large old homes that might have crumbled due to lack of money and maintenance have been saved by this program. The government helps the owners fix them up as sophisticated B&Bs. The key to the success of the program is that these are not so much commercial enterprises as a way for the family to preserve its house. Señor Fernando’s Casa d’Obido was certainly a good way to begin, with big tubs in the bathrooms, a billiards parlor and a killer breakfast.
Julian’s first full season was 2004, and he likes small groups. Which is why he eschews a baggage vehicle. The basic plan does a big 900-mile loop north of Lisbon, carrying what we will need for three nights on the road. Of course a chase can be arranged, but he has found that his clients rather enjoy the feeling of independence—those riders who cannot live without more than they can carry on the bikes might be better suited elsewhere.
We stopped in a café at Lousa for lunch. We three were all of accord—with a big breakfast and a big dinner, a light lunch would be in order. Grilled ham and cheese sandwiches and a large cup of milky coffee would do fine. The weather being sunny and arctically cold we did some serious bundling-up for the afternoon, as we were headed over the highest road in the country, 6,500 feet, in the Serra da Estrala (Mountains of the Stars). First we ran up the valley of the Alva River, and through the brown and bleak landscape I could imagine the colors of soon-to-be springtime, with white almond-tree flowers, the pink of cherry blossoms and the rich green of fresh grass and vineyards.
Going through the little town of Seia we saw skis for rent, and a broken (due to freezing?) water pipe had covered half the street with ice. We went up past the 6,000-foot mark, with gusts of wind blowing at probably 50 mph or better, and snow beginning to appear all around. The road was well cleared…until we rounded a corner and found that the constant blowing had swept a foot of snow onto a hundred yards of pavement. We approached the snow gingerly, immediately lost traction, turned around, and contemplated the future. With a little backtracking, said Julian, we could take another road to our destination, Manteigna—which we did.
The Casa das Obas was our manor house for the night, an 18th-century fireplace warming the common room, muzzle-loading rifles on the wall, and wide stone stairs. For dinner we walked down a few steep cobble-stoned blocks to a local restaurant, where an extremely hot stone was placed on our table, on which we cooked our own thin strips of excellent beef. And drank good red wine; Portugal has over 40 designated wine regions. I did not get to sample all the varieties as hard as I may have tried.
At 7:30 in the bright and sunny morning I went out to take photos, and the digital thermometer on a local pharmacy read -6.7 Centigrade, which translates to about 8 degrees Fahrenheit. The day warmed and we went off to see several towns which would make the Disneyland designers gasp with envy. One was Monsanto, built on a 2,000-foot peak rising straight out of the valley floor, topped with a Moorish castle a thousand years old. Another was Sortelha, a medieval fortress town; we left the bikes by the gate and hoofed upward, where we had a very pleasant lunch with wonderful views.
Back on the road we went over several ridges, heading north, up and down, swinging around, until we took the final 25-mile wiggly downhill dash to the Douro River and Pinheo. What a ride, with the terraced hills extending as far as we could see. The land is so rugged that it needs to be flattened out a bit with these narrow terraces before it will produce the magnificent grapes that are the heart and taste of port wine. Our manor for the night was on the hill well above the river, and the view was, in a word, astounding. This is why we take guided tours, because the guides know all the best places to see, sleep and eat, as well as the best roads to ride.
Next day we went downstream along the Douro River to Porto, a truly lovely city. The place is split by the river, and on the south side are the wharves and warehouses which have been around since the first port wine was bottled in the 17th century. Port, for those who might be curious as to why it is treated with such reverence, is a fortified (with brandy) wine from grapes of the Douro Valley. White port is usually drunk chilled, before dinner, red port, at room temperature, after the meal. Leaving the motorcycles at our hotel we took a delightful old trolley along the waterfront to get to the tasting rooms; good thing we left the bikes behind.
Our time in Porto was way too short, and the next morning we headed south toward our beach resort. The way Julian figures it, his clients will want a little relaxing time, so two nights on the beach at Nazaré should let them unwind. Where our bags met us.
Since I was a day late (and a dollar short) we only had one night, and then moved on back to Obidos. This is where we left the bikes, as Julian felt that to tempt Lisbon traffic could be damaging to the ego, if not the body and the bike; the city suffers serious traffic congestion. He stuck us in his SUV and took us out to Cabo da Roca, the westernmost point in Europe, and then on a drive along the Estoril back to the city center, and our hotel.
Excellent trip—except I had to get up at 4:30 a.m. to catch my flight out.
Now I’m off to my local wine shop to get a bottle of Sandeman port and relive my trip.
Motocadia Motorcycle Tours
After spending some 20 years in England’s corporate world, in 2003 Julian Cade and his wife decided to move to Portugal, where they had visited a number of times, feeling it was a saner place to raise their child. But what to do to earn a living? He loved motorcycles, and thought that a touring company would be in order…Motocadia came about.
His original intent was to concentrate on the British market, as Lisbon is only an hour’s flight from London, but after some American and Canadian clients had lauded his trip he decided to expand his scope. Julian prefers to run small groups of six to 10 clients, as he feels these are more fun than trying to herd along 15 to 20 people. He is also very happy to customize a tour to the clients’ wishes. Prices are in euros and the exchange rate differs, but in March the one-week trip, with a BMW F650GS and sharing a room, equated to $1,670 U.S.
The price does not include gas, tolls, and lunches. One dinner is included, but the rest are up to the client; Julian feels that this allows more freedom, being able to choose where and what to eat. I like that approach, as I have often been faced with a four-course meal when all I want is something simple and light. Accommodations are quite commendable.
He has BMWs and Yamahas for rent; I rode an R1200GS that the Portuguese BMW importer had loaned him to show what a great bike it would be for the company. By the time you read this he may well have sealed a deal with either BMW or Triumph to provide motorcycles for Motocadia. Cade is also working on an arrangement with the GIVI bag company.
Lots more information is available at www.motocadia.com, or dial 011-351-262-05006…that is a long-distance call, by the way.
(This article Vintage Port was published in the June 2005 issue of Rider.)