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On old tracks through a terrific landscape

Like so many other exciting natural landscapes, the low mountain range Serra de São Mamede is located in the sparsely populated border region with Spain, in the very north of Alentejo and just south of the Tagus, which, coming from Spain, now reaches Portugal and is slowly widening. However, this Alentejo region is not as flat, hot and dry as the others, but has built up a humid microclimate through its function as a natural barrier for condensation, which in turn has led to lush plant growth and a species-rich animal world.

An old railway line winds its way through this beautiful landscape, connecting Madrid and Lisbon not so long ago. And it seems to me that during my first visit to Lisbon in the 1990s, I travelled by Interrail right through this beautiful landscape, spending the nights with open windows through which hot air blew in and experiencing long stops at border stations, barbecue concerts, and border police. I was probably even right here in Beirã, where the trains stop no longer, and none even passes through, but where you can still pedal along the old tracks towards Lisbon. 

Susana Torgal and Lenny Macleode, the former operators of the very pretty Cafe Tati in the centre of Lisbon, have put 6 self-constructed rail bikes on the tracks for this purpose and have been offering guided smaller and larger tours through the Serra since 2018. You leisurely pedal through small gorges and over numerous bridges, past abandoned railway stations to Castelo de Vide, a beautiful medieval town with an almost-Mediterranean flair.

Tânia, our very nice guide who is also from Lisbon, stopped at the few roads that cross the railway line, the tractors chugging by every now and then, and had a lot to tell us about the country and its people along the way. She showed us the round stone houses, called chafurdões, which could probably date back to the early Middle Ages and are built entirely of stone, without using mortar or anything similar. Even the roofs were only constructed with loose stones, so that each of these houses has a small dome. From the outside, the Chafurdão was sealed with earth and often grass even grew on its roof. To this day, it is not known exactly who built them, when, what they were actually used for, whether they were once used as dwellings, animal sheds, places of worship or burial chambers. However, the local shepherds have saved them throughout the ages up to modern times.

Our little tour ended after 7.5 kilometres on a 30-metre high bridge over the Ribeira de Vide. The station of Castelo de Vide was still so many kilometres away, and to be honest, we were glad that we only booked the small tour, because our older daughter and I still had difficulties following the other rail bikers, who seemed to race through the landscape with two adults on the pedals. We enjoyed the silence, cycled past sheep and cows, imagined how years ago people were waiting at the small platforms we passed by, and finally, happy and a little exhausted, we returned to the beautiful train station of Beirã. 

Here, we marveled at the many azuleijo motifs from another time, which were able to show the travellers the possible destinations even before their departure, a stork nesting high above all roofs with a TV reception, the Cais Coberto Bar, which reminded us a little bit of the old cafe Tati and which invited us to exciting jam sessions, and the pretty Train Spot Guesthouse, where we would have liked to stay for a few days. But instead, we continued to the beautiful Castelo de Vide and spent the afternoon and evening there, enchanted by the medieval alleys that stretch up the castle hill. Our children enthusiastically climbed along the rocks that support the old houses.

The rail biking tour is ideal for active families who enjoy exercise and love nature. Small children can ride in a child seat, but our eight-year-old daughter was already able to pedal hard.

Info:
Website: www.railbikemarvao.com
Facebook: www.facebook.com/Rail-Bike-Marv%C3%A3o-343464179716734/
Phone: +351 912 987 639

GPS: 39.449685, -7.367981

Small tour:
15 km – 2 hours – 20 € per person

Grand Tour:
32 km – 4 hours – 45 € per person

There are usually two tours per day, one in the morning and one in the afternoon. On very hot days, the morning tour starts at 7:30 am and the evening tour does not start until 6:30 pm.

You should definitely call in advance and make your reservation directly, as a maximum of 11 people can take part in each tour.

Bring along:
A picnic and sufficient water for the journey is highly recommended, as well as warm clothing, or sun cream and sun protection in summer.

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