Praias of Portugal

If there was one thing I wanted to do above everything else while visiting Portugal, it was to go hiking along the country’s rugged Atlantic coast. I wanted to stand on top of a dizzying clifftop, look down at crashing waves far below, and then climb down that cliff until my feet finally hit soft sand. Lucky for me, the Sintra area, less than an hour’s drive away from Lisbon, has some amazing hiking trails. I was able to pick out the perfect hike to fill the free day in our itinerary, and Vince and I rented a car so we could get to the trail as early as possible.

Our day started at Cabo da Roca, a prominent cliff that marks the westernmost point of the European continent. We arrived early in the morning, decked out in rain jackets, only to find that the weather forecast we’d read earlier that morning had been wrong. Instead of cloudy skies, we stepped out of the car and into glorious morning sunshine. So, we shed our jackets, and I fished my sunhat out of the trunk. The weather couldn’t have picked a more perfect day to be, well, perfect. Now instead of the soggy day Vince and I had been counting on, we had beach weather, which was great because we’d be visiting several beaches before our hike was done.

A sea breeze threatened to carry my hat away as we approached our first view of the ocean, only meters away from where we’d parked the car. On top of a sheer cliff, sat a little red and white lighthouse that we would be able to use as a beacon to track our progress for the rest of the day. Beyond the lighthouse, we could see sea stacks jutting out into the water. These stacks marked the portion of the hike that I was most looking forward to, and a jolt of excitement rushed through me when I realized how close they already were.

Just passed the lighthouse, we found the trailhead and got started, walking through a landscape that was somehow both vibrant green, but also mostly barren. It seemed the only plants that could survive on the clifftop were a carpet of succulents and occasional scraggly shrubs. When viewed as a whole, the plant life gave the environment a feeling of whimsy. The bright green blanket had a smoothing effect on the swooping hills, which conjured up comparisons in my mind to illustrations from Dr. Seuss books.

It wasn’t long at all before we found ourselves overlooking the main reason I’d chosen this particular hike, Praia da Ursa. In English, this means Bear Beach, a name derived from the shape of one of the beach’s iconic sea stacks. When viewed from the right direction, Rocha da Ursa is said to look like a giant bear with a cub sitting on its lap. Having now viewed the rock from multiple directions, I’d say that’s a stretch of the imagination, but maybe that’s why nobody’s ever asked me to name a rock.

Accuracy of its name aside, Praia da Ursa was every bit as beautiful as I’d hoped. The sea stacks, which I knew were huge, were still dwarfed by the cliff we were presently standing on top of. Turquoise waves pummeled the shoreline which was shockingly empty of beachgoers. I couldn’t wait to get down to the sand, so we started hiking down a steep trail that led to the beach.

Starting out early had turned out to be a good call because there was only one other hiker on Praia da Ursa by the time we reached the base of the cliff. I couldn’t believe that we had the popular beach all to ourselves. We kicked off our shoes, and went to put our feet in the cold waves, avoiding a few dead jellyfish that had washed onto shore. The water was too cold for me to be interested in a swim, but Vince debated it for a while before deciding against it.

Instead, we explored around the beach’s rock formations, spending the rest of the morning there because of how peaceful it was. Vince even found some sketchy looking rope ladders on some of the sea stacks. He was brave enough to give one of them a try, but quickly backed down after climbing up it a few rungs.

More people were starting to arrive by the time we decided we should probably keep moving. We hiked back up the way we’d come down, and then had to go down and back up a couple more hills before the terrain evened out a bit. I was glad to be back on top of the cliff because it meant that we had even more incredible views to look forward to. We could still see the Cabo da Roca lighthouse back in the direction we’d come from, and it looked much closer than the distant town of Praia das Maçãs, where we were headed.

There were a few more beaches along the trail. We didn’t stop at all of them because we’d spent so much time at Praia da Ursa, but we really enjoyed a view of Praia do Cavalo from the top of the cliffs. In fact, there were stunning views in every direction in this spot. We could see huge waves crashing into rocks, the beautiful sea cliffs leading down to the beach, and in the distance we could just barely make out the famous Pena Palace on top of a mountain. If we’d had more time I would have loved to go down and explore this area more, but we saved the stop for the upcoming Praia da Adraga which has a beachside cafe. I got some fresh squeezed lemonade and Vince got a cold beer, and we both felt refreshed as we set off to tackle the rest of the walk to Praia das Maçãs.

The terrain changed abruptly after Praia da Adraga. The trail led us up a sand dune and into a forest. This was the first time we’d seen any trees on the trail, and they provided a welcome bit of shade from the harsh afternoon sunlight. Somehow our trip through the forest caused us to lose track of the trail though, and we were surprised when the trees gave way to a city street. We were supposed to be at Praia Grande. We could see it, but we couldn’t find a way to actually access it, so we followed the streets until we reached the town of Praia das Maçãs. By that time, we had both worked up an appetite, but Vince wanted to go for a swim before we got dinner.

I still thought the water was too cold for swimming, but I was happy to stand onshore and take pictures of the monster waves that were turning into perfect tubes when they broke. I could definitely see why Portugal is such a major destination for surfers.

Once Vince had his fill of body surfing and dried off, we picked a nearby restaurant where we ordered toasts (basically a grilled cheese sandwich but with way more ingredients), which tasted amazing after our eight mile hike. Then we took an Uber back to where we’d parked at Cabo da Roca just in time to catch the sunset. A crowd had gathered for the event, making the lookout much more lively than it had been that morning. I realized as the sun slipped below the horizon, that this was my first time seeing a sunset over the Atlantic instead of a sunrise. After sunset, we drove back to Lisbon in the dark. It had been a wonderful day, and the landscape had been every bit as beautiful as I’d imagined.


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