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Racing Vacation in Portugal - 2009 ISDE

Tuesday, April 27, 2010
Racing Vacation in Portugal - 2009 ISDE
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.

Racing Vacation in Portugal - 2009 ISDE
Chilly made the trip as part of Team USA's club-rider effort.
“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.
Racing Vacation in Portugal - 2009 ISDERacing Vacation in Portugal - 2009 ISDERacing Vacation in Portugal - 2009 ISDE
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.

Racing Vacation in Portugal - 2009 ISDE
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.

Racing Vacation in Portugal - 2009 ISDE
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
Racing Vacation in Portugal - 2009 ISDE
Ultimately the trip was about racing the ISDE, but Portugal offered so much more.
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.
Portugal ISDE Vacation Photo Gallery
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Chilly White's 2009 Portugal ISDE Blog
2009 ISDE Blog - Final Entry from Portugal
The 2009 Portugal ISDE is finally over and Day 6 again proved to be a challenging one. I got through it without incident but some other riders weren't so lucky.
Figuiera Da Foz, Portugal Information
Racing Vacation in Portugal - 2009 ISDE
Currency: Euro
Travel: American Motorcyclist Association ISDE info (amateamusa.com)
Airports
Lisbon: 170km via toll way
Porto: 120km via toll way
All major car rentals available at each location
Lodging
This area is a huge seasonal tourist beach destination. During our off-season visit rooms were plentiful and cheap, averaging 50-60 Euro for a modest room on the beach with spectacular views and continental breakfast included. There are a large number of apartments and vacation rentals in the area also and would make a good choice for an extended stay. (VBRO.com)
Outside of the traditional tourist and business areas hotels can be difficult to find. For overnight travel I would recommend doing some Web research first..
Dining
In the larger towns food is plentiful and reasonably priced. In the rural areas it sometimes takes a good nose to point the way. Remember that a “Café” typically only serves coffee, pastries and alcohol, so for real food look for a restaurant sign. The local hangouts can be the most rewarding to get the true flavor of the area. 
A good bottle of table wine can be found in restaurants for as little as 3-5 Euros. The area that lies between Coimbra and Aveiro is a famous wine-making region of Bairrada. As one of Europe’s greatest traditional wine countries it is at the forefront of some of the industry. Many meals, even in fast food type shops are priced to include wine or beer.
Pork and seafood are the national staples, and both are served in ample portions and very well salted. Look for the plate of the day displayed on a board outside the door and be adventurous in ordering. Typical lunches range from 5-7 Euros and dinner for 7-10. We also found a pretty decent selection of inexpensive tasty meals at the local mall, not the greatest ambiance, but surprisingly good food and packed with locals.
Many meals will include a selection of appetizer plates such as regional cheeses, olives and fresh-baked bread. These will be added to the bill at about 1 Euro per plate. Apparently it’s ok to refuse this service, but we never did. Nearly every meal is served with fresh-cut French fries.
Driving
Portugal went through a large highway renovation to bring everything up to EU standards. On all the major highways and most secondary roads things are very well marked and easy to follow once you understand the signs. Most directional signs are EU standard symbols.
Built to encourage Spanish tourism, the toll way system is a great way to get places in a hurry. The 120km speed limit appears to be merely a suggestion and our rental car could hardly keep pace with the flow. The tolls are spendy, about $17 for the Lisbon to Fig. jaunt, but this keeps the traffic down to nearly nothing in the off season.

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Comments
Tuga -You're always welcome!  April 28, 2010 03:57 AM
Portuguese reader and motorcyclist here, come again any time, there's plenty more to see and enjoy!
JC -RE: thewall  April 27, 2010 11:06 PM
We have one, it's called MotoUSA Magazine! Order a subscription, or keep taking advantage of our free content by checking out the online version. We feature all kinds of cool travel stories in the print rag. In fact, this Portugal story was supposed to be one, but the pages filled up quickly and poor Chilly got left out in the cold (pun intended). Here's a link where you can see the digital version or find subscription info, but I promise, you can't appreciate it fully without holding one in your hands.

http://www.motorcycle-usa.com/232/Motorcycles/MotoUSA-Magazine.aspx
thewall -Portugal rocks  April 27, 2010 12:32 PM
I spent 10 days there a couple years ago and it was awesome. We drove from side to side and top to bottom. Just a great place and great people. My favorite European vacation to date. Nice write up. Chilly and MUSA might want to consider a travel site spin off.
Amalgamated Joe -Portugal is a perfect venue  April 27, 2010 07:13 AM
It's a bit off the beaten path for most main stream travelogues, but Portugal is a perfect venue for riding (especially on dual sport) and taking in the local sights, sounds and people.