In between lockdown restrictions last summer, we escaped the radius of the previous five months of our lives and drove beyond the local Pingo Doce supermarket... All the way to the far north-east of the country. There, within the abundant embrace of the Lima Valley, we arrived in Arcos de Valdevez on the cusp of the Peneda-Gerês National Park. In the dazzling warmth of the late afternoon, sunlight tripped and sparked off the surface of the River Vez as it drifted, eyes closed, ankles crossed, hands behind its head, through the centre of the pretty town, its banks buzzing with locals swimming, sunbathing and picnicking. And just like that, we had stepped through the wardrobe of pandemic and emerged into sweet, sun-soaked normality. We breathed deeply, donned face masks and strolled into the handsome Hotel Ribeira Collection to check in.
Banks of the River Vez
Photogenically poised on the winsome footbridge that spans the river, the Ribeira Collection has been serving hypnotic river views and salt cod to guests since the early twentieth century when Uncle Vicente's name stood proudly above the front door. Today it still bestows those beguiling vistas from its bedrooms, along with a large riverside terrace, indoor swimming pool, whirlpool and sauna.
The next day, we cycled past the magnificent bronze, mounted knights of the Recontro Monument and turned our steel steeds towards the river and the ecovia pedestrian and cycle path that would be our highway all the way to the ocean. Joining the sun-stippled path, we cycled the banks of the River Vez northwards towards its source in the Serra do Peneda. A river of two halves, the Vez comes crashing down from the mountains like a bull who's ploughed through the gate of his field, racing over rocks and drops as it gallops towards the River Lima. By the time it gets through Sistelo, its pace has quieted, its clear, cold water providing a playground for trout, salmon and eel while its banks play host to cormorants, kingfishers and herons. It's an easy out-and-back ride to the medieval bridge at Vilela where a small gravel beach affords a delicious dip of hot toes in the river before returning to Arcos for a leisurely afternoon by the river.
By the Lima
Returning to the ecovia, the following morning we left behind the buzz of Arcos and headed south, hugging the riverbank on an unhurried and tranquil ride to a spot just north of Ponte de Barca where we bade farewell to the Vez and headed into the charismatic little town to join the banks of the River Lima which would be our companion all the way to Viana do Castelo.
The life blood of this bounteous region, the River Lima has its source close to Ourense in Spain and flows east to west through Portugal to the Atlantic. Coursing through the valley that takes its name, its waters have both formed and witnessed the history that lies along its shores leaving vestiges of ancient civilisations, legends, conflicts, survival and exploration. Through some of Portugal's oldest towns where strong traditions still hold sway and generosity knows no bounds, we follow the ecovia as it weaves its gentle path alongside vineyards and beneath boughs heavy with blossoms, stopping to sit at wooden tables on the river's edge and watch incandescent kingfishers dart across the surface.
In Ponte de Lima, our arrival is trumpeted by a line of centurions alongside the magnificent Roman bridge that spans the river, providing a tableau that is arguably the most beautiful of all Portuguese towns. Beyond the town centre, we leave the river and cycle through the sort of bucolic landscape that has me transported back to my childhood when days were always sunny and the air was forever thick with the scent of flowers and the drone of insects, to reach the vineyards and olive groves of Correlhã and the welcoming embrace of the Quinta da Agra.
Formerly a winery, the 17th-century farmhouse of Quinta da Agra oozes character and history from every wooden window seat and shutter. Set within sweet, rambling gardens with a swimming pool that looks out over rolling rows of vines, Pedro greets us like old friends and fills our heads with the history of his beloved home, and restaurant recommendations for dinner. It's a perfect welcome.
To the ocean
After a leisurely day spent in and around Ponte de Lima, exploring the wetlands of Bertiandos and the town's profusion of gardens, the next day we rejoin the River Lima ecovia and continue our journey westwards. Leaving behind the families and friends who picnic, jog, stroll and play on the banks of the river, we have the Lima largely to ourselves as we travel onwards through the pretty hamlet of Passagem and arrive at São Simão. Briefly leaving the ecovia, we pedal through the cobbled streets of Lomba before returning to the river which, sensing the proximity of the sea, is now fat with the waters of its many tributaries and begins to take on the sight, sound and scent of an estuary.
Our final approach into Viana do Castelo sees us and our bikes boarding a small ferry to cross the Lima estuary. For centuries, small barges plied their trade across this river, transporting people, soldiers and livestock from left bank to right; carrying cargo to the communities that lined its banks, and ferrying pilgrims on their way to Santiago de Compostela. It's nice to see they're still needed. We pay our dues to the ferryman and cycle into the compact city to the Casa Melo Alvim.
An early 15th-century manor house, the Manueline, Baroque and Romantic splendour of the Casa Melo Alvim provides both a stylish welcome and the perfect location from which to explore the architectural treasures of this once-opulent maritime city from whose shores explorers set sail to the Azores, Africa and Brazil, returning laden with sugar, ebony, ivory, gold and diamonds.
On our final full day, we trade the river for the ocean and follow the ecovia north from Viana do Castelo, discovering our own treasure, as mile upon mile of soft, white-sand beaches unfold and a gentle sea breeze keeps the heat of the July morning in check. Arriving into the pretty border town of Caminha, we laze away an hour over lunch in the town square before boarding a train back to Viana do Castelo, like the Lima itself, our journey from mountain to sea complete.