As soon as I collect a hire car from Faro, the freedom of the open road awaits.
For a country that’s geographically quite small, Portugal boasts a plentiful variety of different landscapes ranging from the rocky-cliffed, sandy-beached and balmy-watered coastal features of the Algarve to the lofty snow capped mountains of Serra da Estrela. Then, of course, there are the vast rolling plains of the Alentejo and the Portuguese interior with endless miles of pin-straight roads which slice through golden, sun-parched landscapes that shimmer in the heat haze. It hits 40-plus degrees quite regularly in these parts.
The fertile plains of the Alentejo are perfect for growing bountiful vineyards and vast olive groves. These plantations are often jealously guarded by glowing, whitewashed towns such as Castelo de Vide which are perched imposingly on the top of the hills. These elevated settlements were once ancient fortifications, built on such vantage points to help guard such prized territory.
If Portugal had a garden, surely it would be the Douro Valley? A vineyard-laden terraced garden providing some absolutely unique scenery. The terraces create surreal patterns as they step methodically up lush hillsides as the vine fruit gradually ripen under gin clear summer skies.
The Douro region is itself ripe for us to stop by and sample classic vinho do Porto as well as some of the most celebrated wines of Portugal. Wines that have been lovingly produced in picture-postcard Quintas that overlook the snaking river valley below.
The Douro’s life-giving waters slowly meander on a long trek towards the ancient city of Porto and then on to the open ocean providing a surreal and beautiful backdrop to this busy working environment which produces fabulous, sustainable produce in time-honed fashion.
It’s always a good idea to take it nice and easy when exploring Portugal, stopping off here and there to break up long journeys and take in a little of what each region has to offer. Seldom do I seem to have a set plan as I tour around. It’s become a ‘wherever I lay my hat’ routine.
Whilst travelling northwards, an awful lot of country unfolds between the Algarve and Lisbon but the vast plains of southern Portugal do eventually relent to yield a more urban vista as the sprawling capital gradually comes into view.
With the vineyards and the livestock farms of rural Portugal vanishing in the rear view mirror, it’s great to cross Ponte 25 de Abril to behold the bustling cityscapes of Lisbon. In only 18 more miles, the beautiful leafy town of Sintra with its sun-dappled historic centre and busy tourist trails will soon come into focus.
From Sintra, I often begin a tour of what’s often referred to as the ‘Portuguese Riviera’. I can think of no finer starting point.
Personally, I like to beat the hordes and arrive early whenever I visit Sintra. That way, there’s a fair chance of finding a secure parking space. It can get very busy in this popular tourist hot-spot. Once parked, I just relax and observe the town gradually awaken as it slowly creaks into life.
My first port of call in Sintra is a small cafe and pastelaria located just opposite the quirky railway station. This is a wonderful spot to just sit down and enjoy a morning BICA along with a freshly baked pastel de nata. All this, whilst engaged in the meticulous business of people-watching - also known as being insufferably nosy.
Sintra’s railway station is an absolute hive of activity with regular trains arriving from Lisbon, carrying countless tourists from all over the globe. Every race and creed is represented as they pour off the busy trains, often to just immediately jump onto fleets of waiting coaches which will ferry them from Sintra to Cabo de Roca - the westernmost point of continental Europe. Beyond Cabo de Roca, there’s nothing but the vast expanse of the open Atlantic between them and the good old U.S. of A. Due west from here lies New York City.
Sintra is a town of grand palaces, fine architecture and ornate gardens. These truly magnificent places are as regal as any you’ll find anywhere in Europe. But the one that presides over them all is the brightly painted Palacio de Pena, perched high upon a lush tree-clad hill (part of the Sintra Mountains). It is an impeccable example of a 19th Century Romanticist castle and is still in use today, hosting prestigious Portuguese State occasions. Here we have a bona fide example of one of the Seven Wonders of Portugal and yet another UNESCO world heritage site.
Once the throngs of tourists arrive en masse and the tuk-tuks and taxi cabs start buzzing about, it’s time for me to move on from Sintra. I take the road that largely follows the same route as the Sintra tram (Electrico de Sintra). This tramway connects Sintra with the lovely beach resort of Praia das Maçãs which lies about eight miles to the west. The tramway was built in the 1930’s to link Sintra with the resort and was used to carry both passengers and freight which greatly benefitted the seaside community by linking it with the main railway hub at Sintra.
It is said that Praia das Maçãs gets its name (Beach of the Apples) because the River Colares once ran through some orchards. Some of the fallen apples were swept downstream to the estuary where they eventually washed up onto the sandy beach - bestowing it with its somewhat curious name.
And what a beach! An expansive sandy bay with a choice of trendy beach bars where people while away those balmy Portuguese evenings. Perhaps with a glass of cider in hand? A fitting homage, perhaps, to the fabled apples of Praia das Maçãs.
On the way to Praia das Maçãs, the tramway passes through picturesque villages where there are often some artisan markets set up amidst the abundant shade of gently swaying trees which rustle softly in the warm breeze. With the Colares River babbling alongside, the stall holders are generally local folk who come to peddle a variety of homemade produce, handicraft as well as a few antiques. There are a number of these almost unexpected little places along this route (N247) where people can stop to enjoy a leisurely browse.
The road twists and turns as it makes its way from Praia das Maçãs and the surfing resort of Praia Grande towards Cascais. Along this route, Cabo da Roca is one of those must-see places with its wild waves, imposing cliffs and an obligatory lighthouse. It is quite reminiscent of Cabo St Vicente near Sagres, both favoured locations where thousands congregate to witness the legendary sunsets of Portugal. Then, the road hugs the wild, exposed Atlantic coastline before eventually reaching the visibly affluent and highly fashionable town of Cascais.
But the sun has indeed set on yet another one of our little tastes of Portugal. Cascais and the Estrada Marginal leading back towards Lisbon are another tale altogether. One to be saved for another day perhaps?