“You will be spending time outdoors, in the mountains, near water,” is what the fortune cookie promised. It was right — a few months later, we found ourselves discovering hidden waterfalls and slicing through the jagged landscape of northern Portugal. But it missed one thing: the butt-puckeringly serpentine road leading up to the peak.
Putting you at 829 metres into the sky Miradouro da Pedra Bela is a lookout nestled in the southern fringes of the Peneda-Gerês National Park. The view is absolutely breathtaking, overlooking the Cavado River and the rolling hills (and small-town tourist traps) surrounding it.
Accessing it is simple enough; a six-kilometre climb up the N308, followed by a secondary access road, should take just under 20 minutes from the village of Gerês. The collection of hairpins, kinks, and switchbacks leading up to the sweet spot should’ve been the icing on the cake — an enthusiast’s dream, especially when you’re armed with a Mazda MX-5 Miata.
At least, that’s what my phone promised. My better half, who is no stranger to Portugal and its roads, warned me about this the night before. I was blinded by the idea of tearing up twisty, European mountain roads. We don’t have much in terms of “fun” roads at home in southern Ontario.
“You’re going to regret it,” she cautioned, no doubt quietly questioning my sanity — and likely her own, having accepted a certain piece of jewellery for her left ring finger a few days prior. Bless her heart.
The journey to Gerês started off innocently enough. We kept the top stowed for the morning and stayed off major highways, partly to take in more sights through small towns and villages, but mostly to save on road tolls. The little sports car didn’t skip a beat on the occasional mountain pass we encountered slicing-and-dicing through various small towns and villages.
After trekking down to Cascata Tahiti, a gorgeous little waterfall accessed via a hike that tests your sanity and stamina, and a frankly underwhelming lunch in Gerês, we set off for Pedra Bela. This is it, I foolishly thought as we turned off the N308 and began our ascent up the access road. Time for the little Miata to shine!
Boy, was I wrong!
Up the mountain
This should’ve been a piece of cake. Mazda’s bite-sized two-seater cemented a reputation over 30 years for carving roads like these. It wants you to go on a drive with no particular destination in mind — and if there is a destination, it wants you to take the long way. It wants you to push yourself, to challenge your limits, to make you a better driver. And if you’ve pushed too hard, its forgiving nature means you can easily bring the car back in line. But all of that goes out the window when the road, while paved and technically allows for two-way traffic, is barely wide enough for one car. And you’re crawling up a 25, maybe 30-degree incline in first gear, blind corner after blind corner. And there’s dense brush on your left, and unforgiving rock on your right. Talk about being between a rock and a hard place.
The Mercedes-Benz Sprinter a few cars up ahead — once a bright red work van, now a sun-kissed converted camper carrying a twenty-something German couple, their puppy, and loaded to the brim with their belongings — with its rear wheels fighting for traction, struggling to round the corner and ultimately stalling, certainly didn’t help matters much. At this point, I’d pretty much given up trying to salvage this rip up the mountain, but I certainly wasn’t expecting a bumper-to-bumper traffic jam in the sky. My palms were sweaty as I gripped the leather steering wheel and shift knob. I pictured the Sprinter rolling back because the driver couldn’t catch the clutch on time, creating a chain of smacks that’d eventually meet the MX-5’s nose and push us into the Renault Megane behind us. My girlfriend — oops, fiancée — broke the silence.
“Told you.” She was right. Mercifully, we reached the peak unscathed. My elevated heartbeat, sweaty palms, and splitting headache from the heat were extremely worth it.
Down the mountain
Knowing what to expect, the trip down was far less sketchy. Our nerves were considerably less frazzled after a brief stop in Seara, walking through an absolute mammoth of a church, then an outdoor bazaar — or feira, as the Portuguese call it — across the street. But I just couldn’t shake the feeling that, until now, our adventure simply didn’t do the little Miata justice. So, evidently having not learned my lesson, I mapped out the route to our home-away-from-home: we could take the more direct route and save 20 minutes, or we could take the fun, twisty route.
Five minutes later, we’re chasing the sunset and giving the MX-5 a proper workout on the long way home along the properly wide and serpentine N304 and N307 b-roads, before merging onto the wider but still respectably fun N205-3. Everyone loves to fawn over the N222 along the Douro near Porto as one of the most, if not the most beautiful drive in the country — and, to their credit, they’re right. The views are breathtaking, but the 304 and 307 outside of Gerês are underrated — and, given the lack of traffic, a relatively hidden gem.
Fully making up for the sweaty-palmed, white-knuckled climb earlier in the day, the Miata comes alive on roads like these. After somewhat losing the plot with the previous-generation NC, the latest, fourth-generation ND is a return to form with a smaller footprint and less weight. Corner after corner, the Miata’s sprightly reflexes, quick steering, and tight shifter make easy work of roads like these, making you want to pull a U-turn and lather, rinse, and repeat. And to think, all this character is from a modern car with an infotainment system and nannies like anti-lock brakes and stability control.
Ah, but this wasn’t just any ND Miata. While the interior and ergonomics are virtually identical, right down to the hilariously impractical cupholders and infotainment controller your elbow always bumps into, this one’s a bit different. See, while North Americans are spoiled by big displacement and equally big horsepower — our NDs put out 181 horsepower across the board from a revvy 2.0-litre SkyActiv four-cylinder — the entry-level engine in markets like Europe and Japan is a tiny-by-comparison 1.5L four-pot.
Putting out “only” 129 horsepower and 110 pound-feet of torque, I’ll fully admit the 1.5 carries a not-insignificant deficiency in straight-line acceleration relative to our revised (and now thoroughly excellent) 2.0. But I wouldn’t call it underpowered — it’s actually not that far off the NA Miata, which put out 116 horsepower and 100 lb.-ft. of torque in its heyday. With less weight up front and a higher redline than the 2.0 in the 2016-18 models, the lowly base engine is an absolute treat. Consider it a modern-day NA, minus the pop-ups.
Quite frankly, the Miata lives for moments like these — discovering hidden gems, exploring the road less travelled, and yes, even anchoring the occasional hair-raising climb up a mountain. We capped off our time in Portugal carving even more backroads, going for nighttime rips with the top down and no particular destination in mind, and chasing sunrises and sunsets in the two-seater. There are faster, more practical cars out there, but few are as magical as Mazda’s little convertible.
Copyright PostMedia Network, 2020