Coimbra, Portugal
University of Coimbra library
Sintra market
Iberian ham & sheep milk cheese at the market
Succulent scallops
Chocolate cups with liqueur
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One distinctively different destination at a time

It’s usually a matter of being short of time.

The average traveller visits Paris for a weekend, thinks they know France or London, and believes they’ve seen England. Of course, they couldn’t be further from the truth. Therefore, anyone who only visits Lisbon and thinks they’ve seen Portugal needs an extraordinary litany of amazingly diverse experiences.

Driving is the only way to do it right and have a taste of the many towns and cities. And we were fortunate to happily find enough time to do it right – three glorious weeks.

Cascais

Our first stop after Lisbon, just twenty minutes or so northwest, lies the once-busy fishing village of the now popular seafront town of Cascais.

Cascais is a favourite holiday destination as well as a haven for upscale Lisboans to have their weekend getaway beach houses. An old and beautiful fort commands pride of place at one end, a busy marina is nearby, and dozens of excellent seafood restaurants are scattered throughout the village.

Too many years ago to put in print, I nearly bought a stunningly converted windmill overlooking the Atlantic, with the original grindstone used as the dining table, for just US$ 7,000. My parents never heard of Cascais and thought I was out of my mind, so I succumbed to their forceful opinions. Alas, no windmill and a big mistake I’m still regretting. It taught me a major life lesson I’ve lived by ever since: you’ve got to follow your heart and instincts.

On this visit we listened to an article we read in a travel magazine and booked a room at the chic, sophisticated, art-filled, five-star Pestana Citadela. Built right into the heart of the steeped-in-history Fortaleza de Luz, within the protective walls of the Citadela de Cascais, this architecturally stunning, yet ultra-comfy hotel is THE place to stay in Cascais.

Adjoining Cascais is Estoril. This exclusive enclave is where classy Lisboans play polo, gamble, and indulge in the high life for a day… or two or more… if they can.

Sintra

A short drive away from Cascais (and Estoril) is Sintra, the mountaintop home of the weird and wonderful storybookish Pena Palace, a flamboyant hodge-podge of diverse architectural styles and creative whimsy added to and embellished over the centuries by a trio of monarchs with very different tastes, but with the power (and resources) to express them. The Pena Palace has been a tourist darling and an exceptionally popular photo-op ever since cameras had film. We thought we had been everywhere and seen it all until we visited this mountaintop fantasy. But even more unusual and rather spectacular in their way are the extensive rambling gardens known as Pena Park. The drive around the gardens is a maze of twisty-turns and narrow roads that lead up, up, up to the palace.

But while the one-of-a-kind Palace (with dozens of dramatically differently designed rooms) certainly deserves a detour, we also very much enjoyed the dizzying drive through the greenery.

Sintra’s attractions run from the ostentatious to the scrumptious

Sintra’s colourful weekend market was an unexpected treat. It gave us an opportunity to mingle with the locals, sample their homemade sheep’s milk cheeses and sip their fruity, easy-to-drink local wine. But the best experience was munching on the weekend’s favourite lunchtime speciality: the hot-from-the-forno (oven) tasty sandwich, baked with a whole spicy chorizo sausage in its middle. Yum yum.

We walked off the hearty lunch with a pleasant stroll through town, passing rows of early nineteenth-century houses and storefronts. There is no doubt about it: Sintra is a must-see stop en route north, especially at farmer’s market time.

And then it was on to Nazare.

Nazare

We made a brief stop en route north at this sleepy beach town, home of the world-famous mobster waves. The name Nazare alone makes a surfer’s heart beat faster, where upwards of seventy-foot plus towering mountains of surf draw men and women with their trusty boards from the four corners of the globe.

Cliff used to surf in Bondi, in his hometown of Sydney, Australia. But his dream was to one day see the place of these “death-defying, gut-wrenching, back-breaking, epic waves.” And so we made the pilgrimage to a surfer’s Mount Everest. We were there in May, and this iconic occurrence only happens during Portugal’s winter months.

The reason for this freak of nature cannot be seen. It is an underwater trench, three miles deeper than the Grand Canyon and about 140 miles long. The turbulent ocean flows into this trench with enormous force. It then hits a ledge near the beach at full speed, and voila! – a towering wave of monstrous proportions, the biggest, highest, and most ferocious on earth. But in springtime, this phenomenon can only be seen on a screen in the museum. So, Cliff spent a long time in the salt spray, gazing out at the sea, drinking in the atmosphere and then in the Surf Museum looking at all the photos, the specially made surfboards and the bios of the handful of daredevils who had the guts and talent to ride these back-breaking waves, before we moved on.

Obidos

I named it the movie-set perfect town that time forgot, a place with little, white-washed houses adorned with flower boxes. When I first came here over forty years ago, it was a quiet little village with a couple of speciality shops selling homemade jams, handbags fashioned entirely of cork, an incredibly well-stocked bookstore/library and a very local mom-and-pop restaurant or two. There wasn’t a single souvenir shop – just lots of lovely gnarled and wall-hugging wisteria. We hope the crowds inching their way through the narrow cobblestone streets were due to the fact it was Easter week and not an everyday occurrence. Then it would be understandable, as this tiny little town has four exceptional, very old and beautiful churches.

A delicious local tradition is still delighting tourists who line up for wee cups made of chocolate and filled with a local liqueur.

Coimbra

I was anxious to come here not only because it’s home to a highly respected world-class university with its colossal and gorgeous library but because I love fado (the iconic Portuguese type of singing). Unfortunately, as I discovered to my dismay, it was not my kind of fado, the soulful, mostly female kind, but as it turned out, an upbeat, all-male style of fado. So much for the fado. But we did enjoy our stay at the brand new Sapientia Hotel (still going through final finishing touches) right in the heart of the University district and a block away from the awesome library. Coimbra is also where we had our bouncy but speedy ride in the Portuguese version of a Thai tuk-tuk.

There is much more to come about the iconic land of port and wine in our next feature on Portugal.

Text by Sandi Butchkiss / Photos by Cliff Shaffran