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A good friend’s wedding invitation arrived and the event was to be held in Porto, Portugal. And if that’s not a good excuse to jump on a plane to Europe in the middle of Melbourne’s winter, then I don’t know what is. So what do you do when you’ve got four mates who all love riding, together in a foreign country to celebrate love and romance? You rent a bunch of bikes and hit up the incredible ‘Route de Romantico’ of course.

 

The Luis Bridge, spanning the Douro River in Porto

Turns out it isn’t so straightforward to rent a bike in Porto, let alone four. Google spits out a promising list of potential results, but digging a little deeper proved that very few of the rental companies were actually based in Porto. It took me nearly a week to organise four bikes and I had to get them from two different companies. Being 1150GS owners of course Drew and I were keen to jump on a pair of water cooled 1200GSs to see what all the fuss was about. These we acquired from Hertz car rental of all places, who were nothing short of useless. Being a car rental company, there wasn’t a single piece of riding gear available other than the helmets the bikes had been delivered with. Less than ideal.

By contrast, we picked up two 700GSs for Tom and Al (neither of whom own bikes back home) from Northroads, a specialist bike rental company who were fantastic. We were met by Thiago, a bike enthusiast who’s only goal for the morning was to put smiles on our riding dials. He sorted us out with all the riding gear that Hertz was never fit to, as well as giving us plenty of great suggestions for the day’s route. He assured us that there’d be plenty of twisties to enjoy, and with that we were satisfied and set off to find out just how romantic the routes were.

 

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Engine or not, two wheels look good on the streets of Porto

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Dirt bikes are a common site in Porto, we suspected to smooth out all the cobbled streets

Just 10kms from the heart of Porto we met the Douro River, which we followed up the spectacular Douro Valley for almost 200kms. Old Mate Thiago had sent us straight to the ‘Route de Romantico’ and I suspect the chap who named the road must have assessed its qualities on a bike, as it was an absolute ball tearer! My oh my how sensational the twisties were. The longest stretch of road without a corner would not have been more than 500 metres for the entire journey. Picture perfect vineyards lined the steep river banks on either side making for breathtaking vistas after every corner, of which incidentally there were far too many to count.

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Stunning vineyard-vistas as far as the eye can see along the Douro Valley. What this photo doesn’t show is somebody thrashing the life out of a 700GS whilst trying to get it to stand on one wheel

It’s from these vineyards that grapes are picked and then shipped down the river to Porto where they make Port, of all things. Yep, it’s no coincidence that the name of the town sounds like the wine – the wine was infact born here. And the heritage of the area certainly shows as you’re riding along it; old brick farmhouses complete with stone fences dot the hillside as you tip your motorcycle from side to side. We were careful not to ride at Isle Of Man speeds, as there were occasional tractors and farm animals that would pull out onto the road to keep us on our toes. It really did feel like we’d stepped back in time a couple of decades.

We were stopped at a particularly picturesque bend enjoying the sentiments of the ‘60s when Drew busied himself trying to get one of the 700s onto one wheel. He zipped up and down an inclined driveway for a good 10 minutes and was visibly disappointed that he couldn’t get it to stay on one wheel. We suspected it might’ve been a case of the tradesman blaming his tools.

This was my first proper introduction to the new water cooled 1200 having only done a 30 minute test ride in the pouring rain two years earlier. The power output bears very little semblance to the 1150s Drew and I are so familiar with; damn these machines are fast. And all that extra power is matched by refinements to the other aspects of rider input – I was amazed at how light and responsive the throttle was, and the gear lever needed far less of a kick than we were accustomed to – of course, everyone has something to say about the boxer’s boxes, but being so familiar with the quirky Bavarian box, I had no issues.

I was however initially put off by the feel of the suspension; it was much softer than I was used to. This was fixed when Drew called to me whilst we were stopped for roadworks:

“Have you tried the different electronic riding modes?”

“What?”, I replied as if I was being spoken to in Portuguese

“You can change the riding mode using the switch on the handlebar.”

“Oh”, I replied like an idiot.

Of course you can change the riding mode. But my 12-year-old-bike-owner’s brain didn’t even consider this as part of the experience. Whilst waiting for the temporary traffic light to turn green I quickly changed from Road to Enduro, and instantly felt the back end of the bike lift between my legs.

And when the lights did turn green I shot off feeling like I was on an 1150 on steroids; this was what I was used to – firm suspension, and much more even throttle output throughout the rev range. The smile widened.

Honestly, the riding was that good I would’ve been happy if we had to call it a day there and then. We’d put about 100kms behind us in around two hours which just goes to show how twistie the roads were. We’d been riding as close to flat out as our testicles would allow us and we were getting hungry. We arrived in Peso De Regua thankful we’d spent the morning’s precious kms on the quieter side of the river, because the town’s traffic was painful and we pulled up at the first cafe that looked promising.

At lunch in Regua

After a quick bite and animated conversation about just how incredible it was to find ourselves in such a situation we were back on the road gagging for more and heading for the historic town of Pinhao. Disappointingly, the road from Peso De Regua to Pinhao was mind-numbingly straight compared with our morning’s efforts; but at least the views were just as stunning.

It was on one of these comparatively straighter roads that we lost Tom. We stopped under some shade on the river’s edge and after a solid 15 minutes Tom arrived terribly apologetic. He explained he’d been stopped by a police motorcade whilst a Portuguese boy band were shooting a film clip. If it was good enough scenery for a film clip, then it was sure good enough for us!

Pinhao

Pinhao is a popular tourist town; it’s had very little infrastructure development, the roads are all cobbled and the houses look like they’ve been plucked straight from a period film. All this within a day trip’s distance from Porto mean people flock there in droves but thankfully for us most of them come up the river. Alas we weren’t there to look at houses, and certainly not to ride up and down cobblestone streets, so we topped up the bikes with a few drops of fuel and turned around to do it all again. It did occur to me that we could push on to the Spanish border before turning around, but that would mean riding home in the dark, and the rest of the lads decided that wasn’t really ideal. Probably fair enough.

 

Not sure if Tom is smiling about the bike, the roads or the ‘service’ being put back into the service station

Back in Porto several hours later it was time to return the bikes to their rental homes. Whilst stopped at traffic lights Drew was again fiddling with the electronics. And when the lights turned green he shot off on one wheel. It was whilst on one wheel that he rode straight past a Police car. We hastily turned a corner or two to get out of sight in the hope that we’d not been noticed. With a huge smile he revealed that he was sure the reason he’d not been able to get the 700 onto it’s hind leg was because the traction control was left on, as this is what he’d been fiddling with at the lights. Perhaps he was a better tradesman than we’d suspected. And it was certainly a capable tool.

I can honestly say that a day’s riding along the Douro River has to be on par with some of the best sealed-road riding I’ve ever done. Hands down better than Victoria’s Great Ocean Road, and given the eye-popping scenery you’d be hard pressed to swap it for a day in the Snowy’s. So if you too get invited for a wedding Porto, you’d be a fool to not to let the inner romantic in you out on two wheels for the day!