Figueira Da Foz hosted the 2009 ISDE, and proved to be a wonderful area for sightseeing and soaking in Europe’s coastal atmosphere.
For a number of years now I have been traveling to the International Six Days Enduro (ISDE), either as a rider or as a team sponsor. Each year the event is held in a different country, typically somewhere off the beaten path where there is plenty of space to stage one of the world’s most prestigious off-road races. This past year I had the fortune of competing in the event, held in Portugal at the central coastal town of Figueira Da Foz, or “Fig” as the locals call it.
The Portuguese are fascinated by motorsports. A few years ago they had to quit holding world rally events because there was simply no way to keep the mass of spectators out of harm’s way. Just one week before the ISDE, the MotoGP boys were at Estoril and the World Superbikes hit the Portimao circuit, where Ben Spies wrapped his first World Championship, the week after we left. These people are serious in their love of turning fuel into noise.
The ISDE was a huge event for the local motorcyclists. I think every dirt bike in Portugal was wandering around somewhere on the course during the event. Representing the home country, Portuguese club rider Tiago Seara Cardoso of Porto talks a little about dirt biking.
“Here in Portugal you can ride anywhere you want except in beach areas, it´s a great feeling to pick up your bike, enter some hill somewhere and drive where you want at any time,” he explains. “I would recommend having the bike plated and with insurance because of the driving on some public roads, but besides that it´s very rare that the local police stop an enduro rider, they understand well the spirit of off-road riding. The ISDE was great experience for me since I only started off-road riding two years ago, and to finish with a bronze medal was a victory for me.”
Our home base of Fig is a centuries-old seaport and resort featuring miles of white sand beaches. During the summer months, particularly August, tourists from all over Europe flock here, but off season things are very quiet, and we felt that we had the town to ourselves. The only thing that kept it from truly being ours was that the ISDE took over much of the town with motorcycle racers from all over the world flooding the beachfront cafes.
We had a fantastic time. The scenery was beautiful. The people were almost universally nice, even when language was a barrier. In fact, once outside the major cities, English is hard to come by. Often in ordering meals we would have to rely on descriptions as simple as “fish or pork,” but locals never seemed too annoyed with us bumbling foreigners. For someone with an understanding of Spanish, the language can be read with some effort, but pronunciation is totally different, so we found it most practical to stick to English and muddle through.
Portugal is a country of fascinating contrasts. It’s hard to believe that with an area roughly the size of Indiana, it was one of the greatest naval powers in the world at one time. Sharing much of its social and political history with Spain, conquerors such as the Iberians, Romans and Moors have left a strong Mediterranean influence that is displayed in the culture, food and language of the region.
Exploring the countryside revealed welcoming locals and amazing architecture, much of which dates back centuries.
With one free day before the race, we set out to explore the countryside. One of the difficulties was that with so much to see, it’s easy to get sidetracked. For example, we stumbled upon the incredibly picturesque Montemor-O-Velho. This strategically placed castle was once the frontier of the “Reconquista,” the southern advances of the Christian princes against the Moorish strongholds of Southern Spain and Portugal. Once inside, it was completely empty and we had the entire castle to ourselves.
Majestic cathedrals were breathtaking. Each village and resting point has something to capture your attention.
Our original destination was Conimbriga – the largest and best-preserved Roman city in Portugal. This amazing site features ruins of many buildings including homes, baths and a forum. There are still a number of fantastic tile mosaic floors, remnants of what were once grand mansions. After a morning of walking, we stopped for lunch in nearby Condeixa at a local’s type restaurant. As lunch is the main meal of the day, the food was plentiful and we found ourselves having to refuse desert and resist the urge to take a nap after such a large meal.
Continuing in a generally eastward direction we passed through Coimbra, proudly considered by locals as the intellectual center of Portugal. The University of Coimbra is Portugal’s oldest and most prestigious university. As with every major city in the region, it is best to explore on foot as driving and parking both begin to feel like futile efforts, so hit the streets to really get the feel of the city.
Ready to leave the bustle of the urban areas we pointed due east and climbed mountains towards Serra Do Acor. What we found were a network of postcard quality villages dotting the mountain roads. To call them sleepy would be an understatement. For lack of employment and opportunity, these regions have been left entirely to the elderly and very young. Here we were treated with a little more curiosity among the villagers, as we were off the typical tourist routes. As always there were plenty of things to see and explore. Traveling this area left me wishing for an adventure bike, the winding and sometimes rough mountain roads become tedious in a car, but beg to be exploited by motorcycle.
Away from the hustle and bustle of city life, the language barrier was more difficult to overcome, but the locals were no less accommodating.
During the week of the ISDE competition our daily routine was pretty busy, so we did not get out very much. Although the race course did lead us through all kinds of interesting places, like the special test that was run around a huge abandoned church complex. In the evenings we hung out at the Internet hot-spot next to the hotel, Café Kaulua, to catch up on the day’s news and scoring online.
We also spent some time searching out some of Figs’ local dives for great food. The MareGrafo seafood house is one of those hip locals bars that serves Tapas-style appetizers and a selection of regional shellfish. For anyone still feeling hungry after the meal, just step next door to the Gelataria Italiana and enjoy one of the rich frozen concoctions, some large enough to be a meal on their own.
After the ISDE we spent another day heading from Fig back south towards Lisbon taking in the sights. The Castles at Leiria and Porto de Mos are both worth a visit. The first has a wonderfully gothic feel, and the second is straight out of a fairy tale – a genuine princess castle. The architectural highlight of the trip had to be the Dominican Monastery Santa
Maria da Vitória in Batalha. It’s Portugal’s greatest example of late Gothic architecture mixed with a distinct Manueline style. Ok, I am not exactly sure what that all means, but it sounds good in the guide book. Regardless, it is an impressive sight.
Our last stop of the day was Nazare. This seaside village has all kinds of cool things, all for the benefit of tourists, including another great beach, fishermen’s widows in traditional black dress, women with seven layers of petticoats, a hillside tram and all manner of trinkets and junk. There’s a story behind each facet of this village and it is certainly worth a visit.
After two weeks of travel and some pretty difficult racing I was glad to be back in Lisbon getting on an airplane and catching up on some sorely needed sleep. I’m not sure if it’s more correct to classify the Six Days as a great excuse to visit an exotic destination, or as a reason to ride a motorcycle. Either way, Portugal was a blast. The 2010 ISDE will be in Morelia, Mexico. The AMA organizes a complete tour package for both riders and spectators, so maybe you can come and join us next year at another great destination and event.