The hilltop town of Sintra looks its best in the evening light. Standing outside its Palacio Nacional da Pena I could see across terracotta roofs and pastel-painted façades beneath a peak wrapped in pines and topped with a centuries-old castle, Castelo dos Mouros.
But it was the lack of queues that made this end-of-day scene so enjoyable. A few hours before, this whole place – one of Portugal’s most-visited sights, with several million visitors each year – had been heaving with sightseers who’d travelled the 30km or so, or 40 minutes from Lisbon, by tour bus, train or car. It felt overrun, Disney-like and touristy: but Sintra’s magic returns the moment the day trippers depart.
I was using Sintra as a launch pad for a walking holiday, but kicking off with a few nights’ stay meant experiencing it at its most authentic. It also meant I could ease myself striding out through Sintra-Cascais Natural Park, which stretches from the mountains to the Atlantic coast’s cliffs and sands.
At 14,500 hectares, it’s a good-sized chunk of pinewoods and vineyards: and my 66km, week-long route from Sintra to the sea promised to tick off its best bits.
Sintra’s popularity lies in its palaces and gardens that have attracted visitors since Portuguese kings began summering here in the 16th century, seeking cooler conditions than down in the riverside city.
Fashionable counts and courtiers followed, with the result that Sintra sprouted scores of fanciful villas and mansions.
My plan was to visit the grandest examples before hiking down to seaside Cascais, spreading the journey over several days.
I’d booked with Macs Adventure, whose new-this-year, self-guided Sintra itineraries include accommodation, luggage transfers and digital route maps that I could follow via an app (with GPS technology ensuring I couldn’t get lost).
My adventuring got off to a gentle start with a 6km mountain loop walk from Sintra. Setting off from town, I followed paved roads that gave way to cobblestone paths lined with trees whose patterned bark matched the shapes of the stones underfoot.
The climb led up to the moss-covered walls and turrets of the medieval Castelo dos Mouros, then on for another half hour to reach Pena Palace, Sintra’s signature sight.
Transformed from a monastery by King Ferdinand II, it’s a colourful hilltop marvel with Gothic, Islamic and Renaissance elements bright with mustard-yellow walls and hand-painted tiles. It sits within Pena Park’s vast acreage of exuberant gardens and sculptural boulders, which I explored on the loop back to Sintra, arriving as the day’s crowds dispersed.
The next day saw me waving goodbye to my bags as they were whisked to my next destination while I followed on foot. I started with a visit to Monserrate, another palace just outside town, which has whimsical interiors busy with floral motifs and decorative inlays. Matching it in drama were its impressive botanical gardens planted with succulents, cacti, agaves, roses and palms from all over the world.
I could happily have spent all day here taking in every detail – the tropical blooms, the birdsong, the chorus of frogs in the lily-filled ponds – but I had a rendezvous to keep at the end of a 14km hike.
From a trail head opposite Monserrate’s gate, I headed uphill on a path through pinewoods. Checking my progress now and then on the app, I walked in quiet contemplation, revelling in the solitude of there being nobody around yet enjoying the company of lizards and birds who reminded me I was never alone.
A good hour or so from Monserrate, the path began to descend, affording me my first glimpse of the (disconcertingly far-off) sea.
Here the woodland changed to chestnut, oak and strawberry tree interrupted by patches of eucalyptus: an invasive species, but one that nevertheless filled the forest with scent.
By the time I reached Colares, the first of several whitewashed villages, I was flagging: but at least the sea looked considerably closer. Pushing on, I took a break in Almoçageme to refuel on coffee and queijadas, the local cheese-and-cinnamon take on better-known pasteis de nata. After that, I made light work of the final few miles through Portugal’s smallest wine region, admiring vineyards famed for malvasia and ramisco grapes.
Finally, the path met coastal cliffs below which surfers played in Atlantic waves. I paused to watch them before making the final descent to Praia Grande’s sands, the pick-up point for the transfer to my next hotel.
Later, reunited with my luggage, I relaxed in the fruit-filled garden of lovely Quinta do Rio Touro while considering my next few days’ agenda. With Cabo do Roca lighthouse, sandy shores and of course Cascais still to come, there was plenty yet to look forward to – including a swim in the sea at the end. I’d certainly have earned it.
A six-night, self-guided Sintra to Cascais walking holiday with Macs Adventure
costs from £795pp, including B&B accommodation, baggage transfers, detailed maps and back-up assistance. Flights extra.