The Ecopista do Dão wasn’t on the agenda for our trip in Portugal, but we found this gem of a rail to trail in the hinterland of Portugal. Closed for trains in 1988, it is now a paved trail through a lovely, peaceful part of rural Portugal.
We had just arrived at our accomodation in a hamlet about 45 minutes east of Coimbra in Portugal. The owner of the appartment we were staying at had left us a stack of brochures of things to do in the area. One of the brochures jumped out at me: bike rentals at the start of an Ecopista. Portugal has several Ecopistas, and from what I learned they are usually abandoned railway tracks, with the tracks removed: a rail to trail.
Ecopista do Dão
We had mostly planned our visit to the area already before we even left Canada to get maximum use out of the rental car. The old city of Coimbra was on the list, and some of the schist villages around the area we were staying. We also planned to do a hike in the Serra de Estrela, another 45 minutes drive away. But not a bike tour. After learning about the Ecopista do Dão however, we decided to drop the visit to Coimbra and go for the bike ride instead. Coimbra will still be there next year, we told ourselves.
Highly unusual for us, we rented a car for 5 days a few days earlier; normally we take transit in Europe. Some of the places we wanted to see were remote and nearly impossible to visit with transit, unless you have tons of time. Remote is relative though as Portugal is a small country and the population is spread over many small towns, villages and hamlets.
Abelenda bike rental
And so we found ourselves pulling in at the bike rental store owned by Peter and Selinda, two Dutch immigrants who had enough of Utrecht city life a few decades ago and moved to central Portugal. Two years ago they took over Abelenda Bike Rental, a bicycle rental business from a couple that retired from the business.
Abelenda is located in a rural setting and when we turn up, we are greeted by two friendly horses. After a bit of petting we notice Peter and Selinda waiting for us in the door opening of their store a few steps away. It was still early in the season and nice and quiet, but Peter and Selinda knew we were coming and the bikes were waiting already.
Ecopista de Dão follows Dão river
The lovely Ecopista partly follows the river Dão and hence got the name Ecopista do Dão. The only problem is that it is 49 km long. Plus it is somewhat uphill, but never steep as it was a railway track afterall. But the thought of climbing 49 km, albeit gradually, didn’t appeal to us, and it apparently doesn’t to many others either. Therefore Peter and Selinde offer a great service to drop you off at the other end.
From Vizeu to Santa Comba Dao on the Ecopista do Dão
For a fee (29 euro/pp – including a full day bike rental), Peter drove us and the bikes to the town of Vizeu, at the north end of the Ecopista. From there we biked back, gradually downhill. This time, we were only with the two of us, but if he has a group, Peter has a van available that seats more people as well as holds a large number of bikes. If that is still not enough, he asks friends to jump in to bring even more people up. And groups he has: cycling is becoming increasingly popular in Portugal too and people come all the way from Lisbon to inquire about bike rentals. Peter gets phone calls at 3 in the morning.
Year round beans
Starting at around 11 am we left Viseu and biked on a red bidirectional pathway, under a bright blue sky past lemon trees, vineyards, vegetable gardens and olive trees. Old ladies in black clothes were watering their tomatoes and hacking away in the soil. The beans are a meter high and grow year round, as does the kale. For several kilometers we cycled gradually out of town, admiring all the food being grown around us.
Dreams of moving
We remind ourselves that Ottawa is still covered under the last bits of snow in the second week of April. Looking at some empty plots we wished we could grow our own vegetables so early in the season too. We stop and I take yet another picture of an olive tree. Karen zooms in on a grapevine with the grapes being formed already. In some places the lemons are just lying on the ground, not even being consumed. I tried one (from a tree on the edge of a schoolyard no less) and it was delicious. We dream out loud about living here semi permanently.
Use the best tires you can find
Peter’s stable of bikes is growing and as Peter used to be a car mechanic, the bikes are in tip top shape. Nothing is squeeking, the gears are smooth and he told me that he quickly realised that he has to put on the best tires on their bikes as picking up someone 45 km from their rental place becomes a hassle. He does give a bike repair set for every bike that is being rented, just in case. They also rent for a Euro a padded cushion to put on the seat if you are nervous about 50 km on a seat you are not used too.
Food along the Ecopista do Dão
There are many stations along the route, including one with an old locomotive, sadly covered with graffiti now. Several stations have been repurposed as a cafe or restaurant, right along the tracks of course. Karen and I brought our own food and drinks though and enjoyed a picnic along the route at a small church square.
About halfway out, the environment becomes a bit more forest like, although a nasty forest fire came through this area not too long ago. We stopped at a small beach on the Dão river and in minutes a gentleman with binoculars watching Black Kites (a bird, not a kite), walked up to us as he recognised our upright bikes. He is Dutch and used to run a campsite in Portugal until a few years ago, but is now retired and travels through Portugal in his small campervan with his wife and their two dogs.
Housing but no housing
We chatted a bit about life in Portugal, the fabulous April weather, the country’s housing crisis (what else is new?) and the move to urban centres. Many Portugese can only afford a week at the beach as a holiday, we learned, as the salaries are low compared to house prices.
We learned that many youth move to Greater Lisbon or even abroad to find better job opportunties, and the pressure on housing is high, but at the same time there are, according to the government, no less than 700,000 homes available. Having seen a bit of Portugal now I suspect that this is not the type of housing you want to live in anymore. Old housing stock in the wrong place if you are looking for work, albeit in some lovely peaceful locations, where the local owl’s call sounds through the valley at night.
Restored train bridges
We get back on our bikes for the last short stretch along the Dão and are starting to count down the kilometers, which are conveniently mentioned every kilometer on a tiny sign along the trail. We cross the Dão river via a restored train bridge before we end up at Peter and Selinde’s again, whose store is literally along the trail. In fact, in order to get to the store, you have to use the trail. We left the bikes at the store (“If we are not there leave the bikes and send us a text“) and called it a day.
Three segments of the Ecopista do Dão
We enjoyed this trail very much. Peter’s service to drop us off will be a bonus for many. Abelenda does offer a drop off after about 30 km too, if you are not up to the 49 km yet. The trail has different sections: the northern part is more populated, the central part more open and the bottom part has more trees. There are many places to stop for lovely views, for drinks and food or a picnic. It was quiet and I suspect it never really gets busy: all in all we probably saw two dozen other cyclists. Downhill and uphill.
Map and profile
Here are the map and the profile of the route on screenshots from Komoot. The Komoot page I created can be found here: Komoot profile page with GPX file.
Staying closer to home? Check out some easy bike routes in the National Capital Region here. Or read about our second bike ride in Portugal on the Ecopista de Évora. Ready for more cycling in Portugal? Read Kathryn and Bill’s post on a 709 km trip from Lisbon to Santiago in Spain.