Primed in Portugal, Part One: Sintra

An ice cold beer hit the cabana table with a clink. A few droplets of water ran down the Portuguese label, but before they could reach the bottom I hoisted my beverage for a salute and took a long thirsty swig. It had been a long day of riding on the coast and I probably should’ve been rehydrating with some water but at that moment there was simply no beverage in world that could top a cold cerveza. The appies disappeared quickly amongst our crew, and I zoned out for a while watching the waves, fairly unaware of time and schedules. The sun hung on the horizon and, maybe it was the endorphins and alcohol, but it just felt great to be there. And then it occurred to me; if I were at home in Canada right now it would be dark and cold and raining… and Monday morning. Here’s to the mid-winter vacation!

cold beers hot day
Cheap, delicious and plentiful in Portugal.

Portugal has long been a vacation destination for the pasty northerners seeking a brief respite from the cold dreary days and long nights of winter. And it’s easy to see why – stepping off the plane and walking out into warm sunshine and idyllic temperatures is almost immediately rejuvenating, a strong elixir for those winter blues. You’re transported right back to summer, back to the days of dusty sun-baked trails and afternoon rides that gradually slide their way into evening BBQ’s. Shorts, flip-flops, and bikinis. Windows down, music up. It truly cures all that ails ye. Factor in cheaper prices in the off-season, a complete lack of crowds, and a tan to take home for Christmas and you may be asking yourself: why would I not do this?

Sintra cliffside
The Portuguese coastline is littered with singletrack and it’s only a matter of time before multi-day tours are possible.

If you google Sintra, you’ll get a plethora of information on the rich history and architecture that abounds in this UNESCO World Heritage Site just an hour or so west of Lisbon. You can read up on the town’s history as a Moorish outpost, or on the various palaces constructed here in the 15th and 16th centuries. But if you dig a little deeper, you’ll also find that the hills and forests around Sintra are a hub of Portuguese mountain biking, and for good reason. While most of the surrounding farmland is somewhat flat and arid, the rolling hills of Sintra are comfortably cool and dank, with shade trees reaching high above the abandoned palatial gardens and ancient Moorish walls that dot the lush forest. It’s an expansive area too – you’ve got roughly 50 square kilometers of forest that’s criss-crossed by network of paved roads, dirt roads, and singletracks that just beg to be explored on a mountain bike.

The well at Quinta da Regaleira
The well from the Quinta da Regaleira. At every turn, Sintra has little gems like this.
Sintra forest in fog
With such easy access from Lisbon, it’s surprising that more people don’t visit these fantastic forests.

And explore the roads and trails is exactly what we did after I met up with the crew from Cycling-Rentals, led by Martin and Catherine. Although their expertise stems from years of organizing road tours, they are avid mountain bikers and for 2014 they are offering a variety of options for hitting the singletrack, from single day tours to all inclusive packages. So if you want to make the most of your time in Sintra, count on these guys to get you on a bike, get you on the best trails, and get you down to a beachside cabana at the end of the day.

The Cycling-Rentals support van
Their van even matched my bike, now that’s service.

After rolling out of headquarters and bombing down some narrow stairways, we pedalled westward out of town, past the bizarre Quinta da Regaleira, until we reached a dirt double track that led us higher into the hills. On the way up, as we navigated the various turns, Martin and Goncalo pointed out the acacia that is gradually encroaching on the indigenous oak, cork, and pine, despite the best efforts of the forest service. The acacia grows very densely, choking out native species and creating forested areas that are dim and tricky to ride through even in bright midday sunshine.

Sintra trails
You really could spend days exploring Sintra’s trails and not ride the same trail twice.
Bombeiros
Tracked down the fire, called the bombeiros, pretty much saved the day.

When we reached a high point with a long vista of the Portuguese coast, we dropped our saddles and rolled into a nice tight singletrack descent that twisted and turned its way through the loamy forest. With not a lot of rock in the ground, the soft earth provided plenty of cushion on impacts and traction in the turns, reminding me a little of trails back home in coastal BC. Essentially, it’s a grippy mix you get with just the right combination of sun and rain and organic detritus from the forest. And when one trail ended, a short road traverse or climb brought us to another, and another, and another. We spent the morning chasing trails throughout the hills until the call of hunger pulled us westward to the coast where we popped into a cafe for some sammy’s and Cokes.

Lagos coast
I’ve snuck in a shot from Lagos here. The great part about coastal riding is having plenty of scenic beachside options for breaks.

With limited daylight hours – one of the downsides of winter holidays – we decided to shuttle back to the high point of the Sintra forest to save some time and energy. In no time at all, Cat arrived with the van and whisked us back to the trailhead. Like I said, consummate professionals! And in minutes we were once again bombing through grassy forests, with sunlight gently filtering through the canopy. Many of Sintra’s singletracks are built specifically for mountain biking and it’s obvious in how well they ride – corners are nice sweeping arcs, speed is maintained well, and a lack of fall line routing means that you get a lot of bang for your climbing buck. Most of all, they’re swoopy and fast with fun technical sections mixed in just to keep you on your toes.

After our post-ride sunset soirée at the beach we drove back to town and got cleaned up for some dinner. With stomachs grumbling, we ended up taking quite an extensive tour of Sintra before finding a restaurant that was open – another downside to travelling in the off season. Fortunately it was exactly what we were looking for; a typical Portuguese meal of roasted lamb, herbed potatoes, salad, fresh bread, and of course some table wine to wash it all down. Unpretentious, hearty, and served-with-a-smile describes most of my meals in Portugal and this was no exception. The conversation flowed with the vino until it was time to hit the hay and bid adieu to these fantastic folks, Martin and Cat.

The next morning I was a little late, checking out at 9:50 and barely making the 10:00 train. What this highlights though, other than how close everything is in Sintra, is just how easy the Portuguese rail system is to use. Train schedules are reliable and convenient, ticketing is straightforward, and prices are very reasonable. It’s what I’ve come to expect in Europe and, as a visiting North American, it’s always liberating to be able to travel car-free so easily. After 45 minutes of rolling through Portugal’s most densely populated suburban areas, I reached Lisbon. I’ll spare you the Lonely Planet breakdown and just say that Lisbon is a fascinating city, especially if you can find your way off the beaten track and experience the everyday delicacies of the locals. Since it’s usually the port of arrival and/or departure, it’s very worthwhile to spend a day or two here.

Lisbon by night
In the off-season, evening starts early. Not a bad thing though since the streets take on a new character.
Random tile art
With a rich tradition of painting and tile work, Lisbon has art everywhere you look.

Lagos was my destination though and a quick train transfer had me blasting southbound through the countryside at 100kph. Tucked close to the southwest corner of Portugal, Lagos is an old maritime village that has grown into a bustling seaside resort town over the last 50 years, and for good reason. Miles and miles of dramatic coastline stretch in each direction, with tall cliffs towering over broad beaches and secluded coves. The waters along the southern coast tends to be calm – ideal for exploring the amazing sea stacks and marine life by kayak – while a short drive to the west coast brings you to a handful of world class surf breaks. Factor in a healthy tourism industry that can serve up all kinds of adventures and it’s easy to see why Lagos is such a popular destination amongst Portuguese and foreigners alike. In fact, you’d be hard pressed to find another place that offers such a wide variety of ridiculously fun ways to part with your Euros. Did I mention that it’s always sunny and within 3 degrees of perfect?

Stay tuned for Part 2

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