Bespoke emotion on an e-bike exploration in Portugal

In the mood for a gently active break, Harriet O'Brien sets off from an intriguingly named hotel to explore Estremadura's monasteries, orchards and surf spots

Dark clouds were gathering as we reached the Emotional Hotel and, in the increasingly sultry conditions, the moss-draped oak trees around us were infused with a mood of brooding fantasy. Entering the modern, cube building, I marvelled at its surreal atmosphere, heightened by insect-shaped wall lamps and dramatic views from floor-to-ceiling windows.

With my bags deposited in a flower-and-chandelier embellished bedroom, I put on an apron and started to cook dinner.

The Emotional Hotel takes top marks for engaging eccentricity. It is beautifully set in western Portugal's Parque Serras de Aire e Candeeiros and makes "Cooking and Nature" its focus. The idea is that guests not only unwind in a striking location, they also have the option of joining the chef in making dinner and, in the process, learning how to whip up a couple of modern Portuguese dishes. During an early evening session, we produced a Portuguese version of risotto with negro and smoked linguica sausages and savoy cabbage, and baked a honey and pear cake that we ate with salted caramel sauce.

Yet to be honest, our culinary skills were not enormously challenged, for all the preparatory hard work had been done by chef Eduardo. We simply stirred and tasted.

I wondered, too, about the name of the hotel. Eduardo explained how "emotional" is intended to imply "inspirational": so much is lost in translation.

A group of seven, we were at the start of a cycling break, the trip part of the portfolio of gently active breaks devised by Headwater Holidays, neatly tailored to take in three magnificent monasteries – all World Heritage sites – as well as a hilly hinterland and spectacular seascapes.

We had visited the Convento de Cristo in Tomar on the way to the hotel, arriving as this monastic fortress almost at closing time. We whistled around cloisters (there are eight), chapter house, refectory, octagonal church and more, learning how the mighty complex was built for the Knights Templar around 1160 and was much enriched in early 16th-century Manueline style that reflects the era of Portugal's great voyages of discovery.

We didn't do the place justice. Nevertheless it was thrilling. And then onwards we went, to the Emotional Hotel, set in rural tranquillity nearby. It was from there, the next morning, that our two-wheeled journey was to begin.

Our route was along Portugal's mid-western Estremadura province, just above Lisbon. One of the chief attractions here is that while this rolling landscape is off-radar to foreign tourists, it's a region much loved by Lisboans who come for days out and weekends, so it exudes both genuine local colour and a holiday spirit. I was enticed, too, by the bike options of the trip: you can choose to pedal a 21-speed lightweight machine or you can give yourself an easier ride on an e-bike.

While electric bikes have been around for some time, over the past few years their once-clunky mechanics have been vastly improved and their battery life greatly extended. And they've been revolutionising the concept of cycling holidays. A small engine gives four levels of added oomph as you pedal along – "eco" for laid-back progress, usually on level terrain, up to "turbo" for maximum power, which is a godsend for the less fit when negotiating steep hills. You still have to put in some effort (indeed the harder you pedal the more power your little engine produces), but you don't have to be a Lycra-clad enthusiast to enjoy several days in the saddle of these useful machines.

I took to my silver Moustache e-bike almost instantly, and besides, the idea of riding through Portugal on a Moustache matched the surreal mood set by the hotel.

We started off in a protected park area of limestone country, riddled with caves and karsts, the surface patchworked into fields divided by drystone walls. It was the hilliest day of our trip, yet on my e-bike I swooshed up steep gradients to enjoy terrific views.

Traffic at first was disappointingly lumbering and we cycled narrow roads with the occasional lorry at our heels, but thankfully we turned down a dedicated bike-and-foot-path that took us 13km along a flower-filled former mountain railway.

We passed through limestone tunnels and wound through small village lanes to arrive at Batalha. This small town is dominated by a tremendous monastery and abbey that remains a seminal monument today. Founded to celebrate Portugal's victorious Battle of Aljubarrota in 1385, Mosteiro da Batalha is emblematic both of the country's independence and of the start of the remarkable Avis dynasty. King Joao I is buried here, along with his redoubtable wife Philippa of Lancaster (daughter of England's John of Gaunt). Their sons, too: Prince Henry the Navigator and King Duarte (interred in a fabulously decorated, if unfinished, chapel).

We took a tour of the rooftop, newly open to visitors, then wandered through superb carved cloisters to Portugal's Tomb of the Unknown Warrior, which is guarded with dignity and formality by two soldiers.

Thereafter the bike route lay near or beside the sea. Following a night at Batalha it's possible to take a transfer a short way to Monte Real village (it's not cheating, it simply cuts out a tedious and busy stretch of road) and from there you ride beside the River Lis to the coast and on to the resort town of Sao Pedro de Moel and the chic Hotel Mar e Sol. There's more sea scenery the next day as you head further south.

Indeed, beyond the smooth sands of Paredes Beach, the waves become the stuff of legend. We stopped by the lighthouse at Praia do Norte to watch the surf pummelling the rocks. It was spectacular but, we gathered, tame by comparison to winter shows. A combination of currents and a huge underwater canyon can result in waves 30m high and the area duly attracts the most adventurous surfers.

We cycled about a kilometre to Nazare, a picturesque and stoically unspoilt fishing town that has a long beach and a clutch of good, if inexpensive, seafood restaurants, particularly A Celeste, situated on the waterfront.

Our hotel, named Praia, sat not so much opposite the beach, as the name might imply, but across the road from the municipal market, which proved a great bonus. The next morning we made a bee-line for the pastry stalls and browsed long rows of abundantly heaped vegetables, moving among traditionally dressed women in above-the-knee gathered skirts, aprons and long woolly socks.

Back on our bikes we set off through the Alcoa Valley on a glorious trail beside apple and pear orchards to Alcobaca Monastery.

What a place: this is the largest church in Portugal, some 105m long and 20m high. It was founded in 1153 and given to the Cistercian order, so many parts of it are suitably austere, heightening the monumental feel of the building. We walked, ant-like, down the nave then visited the elegant cloisters, the refectory and dormitories and the huge kitchen added in the 18th century (it's said that eight oxen could be spit-roasted simultaneously here).

There was another architectural treat in store, for the next day the final destination of our trip was the medieval walled town of Obidos.

The route here took us past the shimmering lagoon of Foz de Arelho and along quiet country lanes awash with wildflowers, with Obidos suddenly appearing at the top of the hill as if it had just escaped the pages of a fairy tale.

The one drawback of coming to such a pretty place is that many other people want to visit, too. Having ambled the tiny main street, my chief aim was to dodge the crowds and at least in part rediscover the peace I'd enjoyed over the past few days. Happily, this proved perfectly possible. I simply climbed the steepish steps to the top of the walls and perambulated the thinly peopled walkway above the town.

The views were fabulous. And as I gazed back across the landscape that I had travelled through on my silver Moustache, I felt almost emotional.

Getting there

Harriet O’Brien travelled with Headwater (0845 527 7027; headwater.com) whose selfguided, eight-night Contrasts of Coastal Portugal holiday costs from £1,237pp. The price includes accommodation with breakfast, one evening meal, bike hire (rental of an e-bike is £50 extra), a GPS device between two people, notes and maps, luggage transfers and back-up services. Flights are extra.

The recommended gateway is Lisbon, which is served by TAP Portugal (0845 601 0932; flytap.com) from Heathrow, Gatwick and Manchester; BA (0844 493 0787; ba.com) from Heathrow; easyJet (0843 104 5000; easyjet.com) from Gatwick, Edinburgh, Liverpool, Bristol and Luton; and Ryanair (0871 246 0000; ryanair.com) from Stansted and Manchester.

More information

visitportugal.com

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Books should be for everyone, says Els, 8. Publisher Scholastic now agrees
booksAn eight-year-old saw a pirate book was ‘for boys’ and took on the publishers
Life and Style
Mary Beard received abuse after speaking positively on 'Question Time' about immigrant workers: 'When people say ridiculous, untrue and hurtful things, then I think you should call them out'
tech
Life and Style
Most mail-order brides are thought to come from Thailand, the Philippines and Romania
life
News
i100
Life and Style
tech
Voices
Margaret Thatcher, with her director of publicity Sir Gordon Reece, who helped her and the Tory Party to victory in 1979
voicesThe subject is being celebrated by the V&A museum, triggering some happy memories for former PR man DJ Taylor
Travel
ebookHow to enjoy the perfect short break in 20 great cities
Independent Travel Videos
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Amsterdam
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Giverny
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in St John's
Independent Travel Videos
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Travel

    Guru Careers: MI Developer

    £35 - 45k: Guru Careers: An MI Developer is needed to join the leading provide...

    Recruitment Genius: Fitness Manager

    £20000 - £22500 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This leisure organisation manag...

    Recruitment Genius: Visitor Experience Manager

    £25000 - £28000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Delivering an inspiring, engagi...

    Recruitment Genius: Learning Team Administrator

    £17500 - £20500 per annum: Recruitment Genius: They are looking for a great te...

    Day In a Page

    General Election 2015: Chuka Umunna on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband

    Chuka Umunna: A virus of racism runs through Ukip

    The shadow business secretary on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband
    Yemen crisis: This exotic war will soon become Europe's problem

    Yemen's exotic war will soon affect Europe

    Terrorism and boatloads of desperate migrants will be the outcome of the Saudi air campaign, says Patrick Cockburn
    Marginal Streets project aims to document voters in the run-up to the General Election

    Marginal Streets project documents voters

    Independent photographers Joseph Fox and Orlando Gili are uploading two portraits of constituents to their website for each day of the campaign
    Game of Thrones: Visit the real-life kingdom of Westeros to see where violent history ends and telly tourism begins

    The real-life kingdom of Westeros

    Is there something a little uncomfortable about Game of Thrones shooting in Northern Ireland?
    How to survive a social-media mauling, by the tough women of Twitter

    How to survive a Twitter mauling

    Mary Beard, Caroline Criado-Perez, Louise Mensch, Bunny La Roche and Courtney Barrasford reveal how to trounce the trolls
    Gallipoli centenary: At dawn, the young remember the young who perished in one of the First World War's bloodiest battles

    At dawn, the young remember the young

    A century ago, soldiers of the Empire – many no more than boys – spilt on to Gallipoli’s beaches. On this 100th Anzac Day, there are personal, poetic tributes to their sacrifice
    Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves

    Follow the money as never before

    Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves, reports Rupert Cornwell
    Samuel West interview: The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents

    Samuel West interview

    The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents
    General Election 2015: Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

    Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

    Fashion editor, Alexander Fury, on what the leaders' appearances tell us about them
    Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

    Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

    The architect of the HeForShe movement and head of UN Women on the world's failure to combat domestic violence
    Public relations as 'art'? Surely not

    Confessions of a former PR man

    The 'art' of public relations is being celebrated by the V&A museum, triggering some happy memories for DJ Taylor
    Bill Granger recipes: Our chef succumbs to his sugar cravings with super-luxurious sweet treats

    Bill Granger's luxurious sweet treats

    Our chef loves to stop for 30 minutes to catch up on the day's gossip, while nibbling on something sweet
    London Marathon 2015: Paula Radcliffe and the mother of all goodbyes

    The mother of all goodbyes

    Paula Radcliffe's farewell to the London Marathon will be a family affair
    Everton vs Manchester United: Steven Naismith demands 'better' if Toffees are to upset the odds against United

    Steven Naismith: 'We know we must do better'

    The Everton forward explains the reasons behind club's decline this season
    Arsenal vs Chelsea: Praise to Arsene Wenger for having the courage of his convictions

    Michael Calvin's Last Word

    Praise to Wenger for having the courage of his convictions