An active week in Sintra, Portugal

Monday 19 May 2014 05.27 PM

I had a great time in Portugal last week, getting a comprehensive hands-on introduction to the many activities on offer in the cool green hills of Sintra, just northwest of Lisbon.

 
I had a great time in Portugal last week, getting a comprehensive hands-on introduction to the many activities on offer in the cool green hills of Sintra, just northwest of Lisbon.

I've spent the weekend recovering, as it was a pretty full-on schedule; rock climbing / abseiling and zip-wiring on Tuesday; hiking then surfing Wednesday; an energy-sapping mountain bike ride in 30-degree heat on Thursday, leaving just enough time for some trail running on Friday to ensure total exhaustion before flying home.

With its cool microclimate and views to die for, Sintra has long been popular with those wishing to escape the travails of the capital. Ever since King Don Fernando II created his summer palace up here in the mid-19th century, it's been a playground for the Portuguese aristocracy.
 
Pena Palace
Opulent mansions are strewn across the landscape, but the above-average concentration of extreme wealth doesn’t mean this verdant paradise is off-limits to the rest of us. Former royal properties and other grandiose piles are open to the public, with UNESCO World Heritage status ensuring they remain that way. And walking the local trails with Virpi Oliveira from Active Lisbon Coast, it quickly becomes apparent that there’s an abundance of well-maintained forestry tracks and smaller paths to explore.

In fact, under the sparkling May sunshine, with the wildflowers and birdsong, I found it all utterly delightful. What's more, it's a hub for activity tourism par excellence. Here are some of the highlights I encountered:

• Hiking: walk through fragrant forests of pine and eucalyptus. Above Sintra, ascend to one of several rocky outcrops and you’ll see the Atlantic, around half a kilometre down and 12km west – an excellent longer route. Follow the trail to Adraga and enjoy lunch or dinner at the fantastic fish restaurant by the beach for not very much at all. Combine a Sintra forest walk with a visit to Pena Palace, at the highest point of the mountain, and the old Moorish Castle next door, both surrounded by lush gardens. And stop by at the eccentric, mystical, confoundingly symbolic Regaleira Estate, complete with yet more exotic horticulture.
 
Mountain bike trail to the coast
• Mountain biking and road biking: the mountain biking is exceptional. I did a full day’s ride with locally-based Cycling Rentals (part of cycle touring company Cycling Through the Centuries), who know these trails better than I know my own back garden. We followed winding forest paths that opened up to grand views, and then progressed onto an exhilarating single-track descending through wildflower-coloured meadows to the pounding surf of the coast around the Cabo da Roca (it's mainland Europe’s most westerly point, fact fans). Factor in the glorious weather and the lack of crowds - this was the perfect day's ride.

There’s plenty of smooth tarmac for the road-riders too - in fact the swooping switchback descent back to Sintra later in the day was almost as much fun as the rocky single-track (and a whole lot easier). Cycling Rentals can sort you out with practically any kind of bike you can think of, including battery powered e-bikes: given the gradients in these parts, these are an eminently sensible (and enjoyable) way to head up to the castle and Pena Palace.
This is definitely not as easy as it looks
• Rock-climbing and bouldering. There are various locations on the coast (limestone and sandstone) and on the mountain itself (granite). I did the latter, with the expert help of Francisco and Juan of Sintra Climbing Tours.
They were great, but it was still bloody scary – if you have read my blog you will know I’m new to this sport and not exactly over-endowed with confidence. Fifty metres of cliff, complete with an overhang. I’ll do a blog post on this soon. If you’re into climbing, it’s a truly outstanding spot. If you’re like me, let’s just say the views are fantastic and it was wonderful to abseil back down. Bouldering is pretty big here, too – there is an enormous number of big granite and sandstone / basalt boulders scattered about the wooded slopes south of Sintra.

• Surfing. It’s getting massively popular in Portugal – most famously north of here in Peniche and Nazare (where you can pit your wits against the world’s biggest waves . . ), but there are great surf beaches at Praia das Maças, Adraga and many others just minutes from Sintra. The swell thunders in from clear across the Atlantic, and it’s a thrilling place to get all surfed out on those bombin’ waves. Another new sport for me: Hugo from the SurfAt Surf School managed to get me standing up on the board (at one point even moving in the same direction as the wave!): I’d love to do more of this!

• Trail running. The dozens of forest and coastal hiking trails are perfect for runners, too – and there are some seriously demanding events through the year. Feeling a bit wiped out from the previous days exertions plus the heat, I met up with local marathon- and trail-runner Peter Cooper for the final activity of my trip - and asked him to go easy. Peter provides a knowledgeable commentary on the forest, the mountain and local history while you’re on the move, which had me gasping acknowledgement whilst trying to keep up with him as we ascended the steep mountainside.
 
Zipping through the treetops at Sintra Canopy
• Zip-wiring, coasteering, other stuff… If all that’s not enough, there’s zip-wiring at the Sintra Canopy, through the forest directly below the Moorish Castle: exhilarating fun. 4X4 tours in old Portuguese army jeeps are a good way to explore the byways. Also coasteering around the Cabo da Roca and points south of there, plus various watersports. The seas on the south coast between Cascais and Lisbon are sheltered from the main Atlantic swell and therefore the water is calmer and a lot warmer; it's certainly less dramatic but ideal for swimming, paddle-boarding and, when the west coast waves are too big (and they are usually over one metre), Carcavelos is the best place for surfing novices. 
 
The beautiful village of Mata Pequena
The lesser-known rural area to the north of Sintra is lovely, too. Rolling hills and a smattering of ancient villages – none more beautiful than the restored 500-year-old hamlet of Mata Pequena near Mafra. It’s great walking and cycling country – always with the added attraction of the Atlantic beaches within easy reach.
 
Thanks to Virpi Oliveira at Active Lisbon Coast for making the trip possible, and for putting me up at her lovely B&B, Casa do Valle. Thanks also to TAP for flying me out there, to the City of Sintra tourist office for their help with the cultural visits. Finally I'm grateful to Diogo Batalha for my stay at Mata Pequena, his beautifully restored 16th-century village, and to Elizabeth at Quinta dos Bons Cheiros for some fantastic Portuguese home-cooking.

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