Day 18 – Torre da Serra da Estrela
Starting Point: Covilhã
Ending Point: Monteigas
Today’s Distance: 43 km
Total Distance: 1,169 km
My ears were attentive before my eyes fluttered open — not a raindrop to be heard. This morning I had to decide if I was going to attempt cycling up Serra da Estrela, the highest mountain in mainland Portugal. I had researched this endeavor extensively – blogs, websites, other’s accounts, and anything else I could get my hands on – and I knew this was going to be far from easy. From the very onset of this trip, making it up Serra da Estrela was always a goal, but it was one that I kept mostly to myself. Given how strenuous the ride is, and with the added uncertainty of the weather, I wanted to wait to make the go/no go decision until I was there. And now I was there.
With a clear morning and no rain, things felt promising. I ate a quick breakfast of leftovers from the night before (with my trusty chopsticks) and ventured out to a café just a couple of flights of stairs above my hotel, in search of a coffee and to check the weather. Huffing and puffing after carrying Shaka and my gear up just the two stories, I thought to myself, “Am I really going to try to scale a mountain today after breathing so hard from just this?” With my coffee finished, it was time to go.
The road out of Covilhã immediately started uphill. Slowly I made my way out of the city and the first two kilometres felt pretty tough. The road was steep, and starting the day with a hill climb is never easy; my muscles were tight, and there was the mental challenge of accepting that this was merely the beginning. Before long I could see my breath and knew it was going to be a cold day. Despite the cold, I regularly stopped to remove layers as my body warmed up, directly in contrast to the temperature going down.
It was about four kilometres in that I passed a campsite. Most people talk about having an angel on one shoulder and a devil on the other. For me, I have Motivation on one side and Laziness on the other, and Laziness kept telling me about how lovely that campsite must be and surely we should stop this climbing nonsense and go check it out. “Hey! Doesn’t that look nice?” he whispered in my ear, “We could start a new life here!” I kept my head down, did my best to only listen to Motivation, and passed the campsite by.
My motivation picked up when I passed my first sign giving the elevation: 1,200 m. After starting my day at roughly 500 m, I was gaining elevation and my spirits lifted. While my goal was all the way up at 1,993 m (almost 800 m left to go), all of this exertion was translating into progress. I pulled off the road and had the first of the energy gels I purchased back in Tavira. Silently I thanked myself for my foresight 11 days ago when I bought these gels in the bike shop. Happily I slurped up the strawberry gel and got back on my way.
With motivation from the progress and the boost from the nourishment, I found myself stopping less and getting into a solid rhythm, weaving my way up the mountainside. My legs knew what they had to do and they no longer complained about the task at hand. I passed a jogger who I greeted with a, “Bom dia!” and he replied with a, “Bom dia!” of his own, with, “Força! Força!” / “Strength! Strength!” tacked onto the end. I smiled and shouted, “Obrigada!” / “Thank you!” as I passed.
Making my way farther up the mountain, I entered a boulder field and passed a sign for Pedra do Urso, a popular bouldering and rock climbing spot. It made me miss climbing; thanks to Covid-19, I haven’t been able to visit my indoor climbing gym back in Lisbon in quite a long time. Leaving the boulders behind, I soon passed another sign, this one announcing that I had reached an altitude of 1,400 m. I was entering into the clouds as I put more and more elevation behind me.
My pace steadied even farther, and my morale was high. The climbing was hard work, there was no escaping that, but I felt confident on the bike and, more importantly, confident in my decision to attempt this ride. No longer was I stopping for the quick breaks like I was at the beginning of the day. Now I was focused, driven, and getting it done. I soon saw a street sign for Torre, the name of Serra da Estrela’s peak, and an even larger wave of energy and excitement flowed through me.
Around 1,700 m I started to see signs warning of snow an ice, quite the rarity in this almost entirely temperate country. Right before a small tunnel, I almost ran over what looked to be a small children’s toy. Out of pure curiosity, I stopped to see what it was and discovered a brightly colored lizard, stiff in the cold weather.
With only two kilometres left to go to the peak, it suddenly hit me: this is happening — I’m actually going to do this. Shaka and I are going to make it to the top of all of mainland Portugal. A slight downhill section followed, and, as lovely as the break in the climb was, I knew that I had fought hard for all the elevation I was shedding and would have to fight for it back again. Soon I was on the uphill again and I cycled past a sign announcing 1,900 m. Giddy and laughing from being so close to my goal, I pressed onwards into the thickening clouds and increasing wind.
Up to this point the weather had actually been quite manageable. Thick clouds blocked my vision past anything immediately in front of me, but while the air was cold, everything still remained relatively pleasant. For this last stretch though, the wind arrived and it was brutal. Shaka and I were thrown around in the harsh and gusty winds; at one point I thought that I would have to dismount and walk because the winds had grown so violent. I pushed on while trying to keep as low of a profile as possible but when I made the turn to reach the Torre itself, no longer could I stay on the bike. I pushed my way through the insufferable wind in now almost whiteout conditions.
And there, suddenly looming in the thick clouds and mist, was the Torre do Serra da Estrela, the marker signifying the highest point in all of mainland Portugal.
We made it! All of the effort and suffering proved completely worthwhile. When thinking about this moment, I always envisioned taking the classic photo of me on the peak holding Shaka high above my head in victory, but the wind made that completely impossible. Anywhere other than directly behind the small tower, the wind was so fierce that I had to lean into it to stay standing. Visibility at this point had propped to only about 10 metres and all the world seemed enveloped in this hazy gale.
Much to my surprise, out of the fierce clouds came another touring cyclist! My entire day I had been alone on the mountain aside from the jogger I had passed earlier. To find not only another person in these harsh conditions but a touring cyclist at that seemed to be incredible odds. The winds were so strong that I could only shout a quick hello before having to focus on my own situation. With the rush of summiting starting to fade, I suddenly realized that now that I had made it up this mountain, I was going to have to find a way down. The air was freezing, the wind was strong, and I was there on a bicycle.
Next to the peak was a small gift shop which offered much-needed shelter from the conditions. Hoping to find a restaurant or snack bar nearby, I asked the clerk where I could get a coffee and she gladly offered to make me a cup herself. Since there was no seating area in the little gift shop, she offered me a stool to rest and collect my thoughts. Portuguese hospitality strikes again. Next on my agenda was deciding where to go. This was my first day without booking lodgings in advance. With a plan to try and make it to Guarda, I headed back out into the cold.
Just outside the shop, I ran into the other touring cyclist again. Now that we had both warmed up a bit (he had found the actual café as opposed to my cheeky coffee in the gift shop), he told me that his name was Rodrigo. Rodrigo started in Spain and was cycling through Portugal from north to south. The fact that we were traveling in opposite directions made our meeting on the peak all the more coincidental.
The winds had picked up even more, and with wetter roads, less body heat, and tons of braking, the ride down the mountain was not going to be easy. At certain points the wind would funnel through the mountain passes to grow even stronger, forcing me either to slow dramatically or even dismount and push until the force abated. By now I was wearing literally every piece of clothing I had with me, up to and including wrapping my second cycling shirt around my neck as an impromptu scarf, and wearing my Covid facemask just to keep warm. A white van passed me and asked if I needed a ride to the next town, but I smilied and waved him away saying, “Todo bem!” / “Everything is good!” Thinking of that interaction from the driver’s perspective, I can see how he would worry about this mad woman, drenched to the bone, frozen solid, and cycling down a mountain.
Finally I made it beneath the cloud cover and the beauty of the region suddenly hit me. Leaving the clouds also made for less wind and I could appreciate the views more while coming down the glacial valley. The cycling was still quite difficult — I was riding the brakes hard on the wet roads, but the views warmed my heart if not my body.
After what felt like an eternity, I made it to the town of Manteigas. Immediately I pulled into the very first restaurant I could find in desperate need of food and warmth. While refortifying my body, the rain began to fall and without any hesitation I decided to stay the night here in Manteigas instead of trying to push all the way to Guarda. Still chilled to the bone, I booked a hotel right around the corner from where I was eating lunch and finally my cycling came for the day to an end. Mission accomplished.