Picturesque and quiet back roads, groves of olive trees, UNESCO World Heritage sites, Moorish architecture, Roman ruins—Portugal and Spain have always spoken to me. I was fortunate to visit last year and fell in love with the Iberian Peninsula.
Pedro Martins (shown below), lead guide of the REI Spain/Portugal cycling trip, recently visited REI headquarters in Kent, Wash., and I sat down with him to hear his stories of the Iberian Peninsula and why biking is the best way to explore the area.
REI: Tell us a bit about yourself. How long have you been guiding trips?
I was born in Mozambique in 1965 when it was a part of Portugal, and moved to Portugal when I was 9. Later, I lived in the USA for 3 years for undergraduate studies before moving back to Portugal.
Mixing work and pleasure was an idea I had many years ago. I’ve been guiding since 2008, and with REI since early 2011. Guiding trips allows me to do what I enjoy most: showing my region to visitors on bike or on a hike.
REI: How did you get into cycling?
I began cycling very young. As a kid, cycling represented freedom, since it was the only way I could go places, visit friends’ houses, and be away from home for a while. Later in my twenties and thirties, I did a lot of mountain biking. In my later thirties, I started road biking. It is the best way to get to know a new region.
REI: If there was one reason to visit Portugal and Spain, what would it be?
Iberia [the peninsula that holds Spain and Portugal] is a hidden gem. People think of Italy and France when they think of visiting Europe, but Iberia has a lot of complementary features that make it wonderful. The people are friendly and you can see what life is like there. If you want to go out to party, you can party until it is light. Spain is very alive, and you can feel that. There are a lot of cultural events that are informal and spontaneous—musicians, comedians, and actors performing in the street. Also, it is much less expensive than France or Italy.
REI: What’s your favorite part of the trip you lead for REI?
That is like asking a parent to choose their favorite kid. The diversity is probably the best. It’s so different, in the foods, wines, cycling, and cities. Alentejo (the southern-central region of Portugal) is very beautiful in the spring, with wildflowers everywhere. Andalucía is also nice.
On day 5 we ride from Guadalcanal to Carmona across the Sierra Morena Mountains. We have a picnic lunch, and you ride through mountains and into forests, over bridges and through tunnels. It’s probably the best day of cycling.
REI: Why bike through Portugal and Spain? Why not drive or take the train?
Cycling is the best way to know a country. In a car, you can’t talk to people and really see a town. On a bike, you see a really diverse type of landscape. Each day looks different. You are much closer to life there. You really know the people and land. When you’re riding through oceans of olive trees, you don’t notice you’re pedaling.
Are there any special considerations for cycling in Europe?
In Portugal and Spain, people are very careful and respectful of cyclists, especially in the countryside. There’s a big cycling tradition, so it’s admired and quite safe. In the cities, it’s a little busier but still nice. But wherever you are in Europe, you can’t get away from cobblestone, so it’s best to find a bike that is comfortable.
REI: What’s your favorite city on the route?
Probably Cordoba. The monuments, the mosque, the cathedral, a Roman bridge, flamenco. Really, two days is too little.
REI: What do you like most about leading REI members on these trips?
There’s always interesting people. You make new friends. The best part is that every trip feels new and different because of the great people.
REI: Do you have a best-kept secret that you’re willing to share?
Alentejo. No one knows about it, but it has rolling hills, nice towns, and is great for cycling. In the spring there are wildflowers. But really, it’s a surprise for everyone because no one has heard about it like Andalucía.
REI: OK, let’s get down to what really matters: What’s the best thing to eat in Spain and Portugal?
There are lots of fresh, local vegetables. Everything is very fresh, very local. It’s not industrial. Probably the best thing is the black Iberian pork—especially the acorn-fed pork from oak forests. It really has a different flavor from anything you find in America.
Wine is another hidden secret. It’s made in small quantities, so there’s not enough to import. But it’s inexpensive and good. It’s also very diverse. Even in Portugal there are four regions and each produce different, good wines.
In France, wine culture is about one grape. But in Iberia, the best wine has to be a blend, which allows the winemakers to really get the best out of each grape. It’s a different school of thought, but very good. When my father-in-law comes to visit the first thing he does is go to the store to buy wine. Six or seven bottles because they’re only 4 or 5 euros each, and then we try them all.
We want to make you a fan of Iberian food and wine when you come.
REI: Where’s your favorite place to cycle outside of Iberia?
It might be Aix en Provence in Southern France, or Napa Valley in the USA.
REI: Any final tips for those thinking about traveling to Iberia?
The best vacation mixes a sport such as biking or hiking with good food and wines, along with visits to cultural attractions. Iberia is an ideal vacation spot because it combines a huge variety of these in a small geographic area.
Thanks, Pedro! REI’s Portugal and Spain cycling trip spends 10 days traveling across Iberia—starting in Lisbon, Portugal and finishing at the famous Alhambra in Granada, Spain. Check out this video to see Pedro describe it himself.