X Marks the Spot – Sintra to Belém, Portugal.
Early on a Sunday morning, a red van pulled up to our hostel for the beginning of a 7-hour adventure. The weather was finally beginning to clear up and we had booked ourselves on the “X-Day Trip”, run by an alternative tour company with the best name I’d seen in a long time. Headed by Bruno, a graphic designer turned tour operator, We Hate Tourism Tours was hatched when he noticed that young visitors were leaving Lisbon without having seen many of its best parts.
After meeting Marta, our gregarious driver and local guide, the 9 of us piled into the red van. All across the interior and exterior, the vehicle had been emblazoned with tongue-in-cheek slogans and quirky pictures. Among my favourites:
“I’m a Portuguese Driver. Don’t be scared, it’s normal.”
Within the first 30 seconds, we knew that this little road trip was going to be a lot of fun. Our first destination on the list was Sintra – a place I had promised myself to visit if I was ever in the area.
Driving out of Lisbon, we passed an old stone aqueduct, at which point Marta interjected, “This is almost a gastronomic tour… we are going to eat something every 2 hours.” I turned to see Carys, our resident foodie, and lo and behold, she was wearing a big grin on her face.
Lord Byron, a leading poet of English Romanticism, once wrote that “the village of Cintra in Estramadura is the most beautiful in the world”. Today those words still hold true for the picturesque town nestled within the Serra de Sintra. Home to a jaw-dropping collection of palaces, Sintra was historically a mountain retreat for the royal family and the Portuguese nobility.
Our tour of Sintra began with one of its famous queijadas, a sweet cheese cake widely available from the town’s bakeries and cafés. In the distance we could see the Sintra National Palace with its enormous kitchen chimneys. On the way into town we passed a Moorish fountain by the roadside, and within 15 minutes we had found ourselves in the square fronting the palace. Even if you don’t enter the building it’s possible to get some fantastic views from the other side – just follow the curving ramp to the right of the main façade.
Before going any further, Marta invited us into a small shop to sample some cherry liquor (Ginjinha) taken in little chocolate cups. I could finally put a name to the delicious concoction that we had on the first day.
With our palates revelling in the sweetness of the Ginjinha, we piled back into the van and drove towards one of Sintra’s architectural gems. Built between the years 1898 and 1912, Quinta da Regaleira was the summer residence of the wealthy Carvalho Monteiro family. This magical estate is a great alternative to the more touristed Pena Palace, which can get very crowded in the summer months.
As we pulled up to the front gate Marta gave us a wink. “Imagine it as a 19th century amusement park”, she declared. Once inside the grounds it became clear that we had entered a dreamy, romantic world. Conceived by the Italian architect and set-designer Luigi Manini, the gardens reminded me of Parc Güell in Barcelona, although I felt that this one had more to see.
Walking through Quinta da Regaleira is tantamount to being an 8-year old at Disneyland – we clambered over rocks, stumbled into grottoes, navigated a series of underground tunnels, and discovered a deep well straight out of The Lord of the Rings. The cosy mansion was also a magnificent find, with some beautifully decorated rooms and a library holding a “suspended floor” created with the aid of mirrors and wall-to-wall shelving.
Our next stop was a roadside market on the way to Cabo da Roca. As Marta ordered a batch of freshly baked pão com chouriço – Portuguese bread stuffed with chorizo – we wandered through the fruit and vegetable stalls, wide-eyed at the riot of colours and the sheer size of the sweet pears. After the meat-heavy dishes of Salamanca, this was truly a breath of fresh air.
Situated at the westernmost point of Continental Europe, Cabo da Roca (Cape Roca) was the representative “end of the known world” for Europeans up until 1492. Among the rugged terrain and the ground-hugging vegetation, we sat eating our pão com chouriço out of brown paper bags. Marta poured us each a cup of Portuguese red wine, and we enjoyed our picnic in the windy conditions.
For the next hour or so we wandered around the cape, wary of blowing sand but awestruck by the sheer beauty of what we saw. I missed seeing the sea in Salamanca and this was the perfect place to get reacquainted with its grandeur and power.
After lunch we made a short stop at Guincho Beach, a place popular with all manner of surfers. And it’s easy to see why – the very first thing we noticed as we arrived were the big waves just offshore. I did not know it at the time but this beach was featured in the opening sequence of the James Bond Film On Her Majesty’s Secret Service. The wide expanse of sand before us was a clear invitation to go into the water – which we did, even though it was the cold Atlantic. Here our attempts to do a group picture were foiled when the incoming tide swamped our shoes and socks.
From there we headed down the coast towards Cascais, a trendy seaside resort with a shop selling the best ice cream around Lisbon. Founded in 1949, Santini is an Italian gelato parlour that is well-known up and down Portugal for its array of enticing flavours. The freshness of Santini’s ingredients means that its fruit flavours are beyond compare, so go ahead and order everything between coconut and raspberry. In my 23 years I had never had such amazing mango ice cream.
With our scoops of heaven in hand, we wandered down to a small beach for another group picture, this time with a friendly dog whose owner was relaxing nearby.
As the sun began to edge closer towards the horizon we arrived in the Lisbon district of Belém. With the promise of a surprise at tour’s end, Marta dropped us off at the Padrão dos Descobrimentos, an enormous monument to the Portuguese discoveries. Like the Eiffel Tower, it was conceived as a temporary structure for the 1940 Portuguese World Fair, but the monument’s popularity ensured that it was rebuilt in concrete in 1960. Behind it a fantastic world map had been laid into the paving stones with the dates of Portuguese exploration and discovery – as Marta explained it, this was a gift from South Africa the same year.
More than anywhere else in Iberia I could not help sensing a deep personal connection with what I saw; my grandmother grew up in Macau, which had been a Portuguese colony up until 1999. In 1514 the Portuguese became the first Europeans to find the lucrative trade route to Canton, and 43 years later they were granted the tiny Macanese peninsula as a permanent and official trading post.
As for the monument itself, it was modeled on the padrões that Portuguese explorers erected wherever they went. These were large stone crosses inscribed with the coat of arms to reinforce Portugal’s land claims in Africa and Asia.
The most prominent feature of the padrão is the sculpture of 33 Portuguese personalities lining either side of the central structure. These carvings depict important figures of the Age of Discovery, including explorers, cartographers, artists, missionaries and scientists. At its head stands Prince Henry the Navigator, the grand patron of Portuguese exploration.
Belém was the place where long voyages set off carrying the likes of Bartolomeu Dias and Vasco da Gama, often with their destinations unknown. Before departing for India, da Gama and his men spent the night praying in the Ermida do Rostelo, a hermitage that has since been replaced by the impressive Mosteiro dos Jerónimos (Hieronymites Monastery).
It was here that we ended our tour with Marta’s surprise: one incredible Pastel de Belém for each person, the finest example of a Portuguese egg tart (pastéis de nata) anywhere in the world. Sprinkled with sugar and cinnamon, and contained within a crispy pastry made of paper-thin layers, it’s said that only 3 people know the secret recipe for pastéis de Belém. I had tried similar egg tarts in Brussels and Macau, but this one was simply on another dimension. For a moment I thought I had died and gone to food heaven.
In the light of the setting sun, we arrived back at the front door of the hostel. It was the end of an unforgettable experience and we had Marta to thank for that. No longer was she our driver and our local guide, but within the short space of 7 hours, she had become our friend.