Driving Through Iberia: Sintra to Porto
For the next two days the ocean was to our left, dust lands and mountains to our right. A journey north along the coast of Portugal is dotted with lazy towns, twists and turns through valleys, and views over the gem-studded ocean. The sunshine had gone to our heads; we drove through a daze of unfettered bliss to which this part of Portugal ideally lends itself. This section was the least planned part of our Iberia road trip route for that reason, and it was a simple, care-free curiosity that mapped out Sintra to Porto.
Cabo da Roca is the most western point of mainland Europe, and a short drive west of Sintra. This minuscule settlement once stood as a key defence point for the Portuguese coast, but all that remains of Cabo da Roca’s masterful position now is a lighthouse, which is still in use to keep Atlantic traffic off the rocks. The cliff towers at 150m tall, and its shoulders even out onto flat scenery before dropping back down inland into hills. Landscape set back from the cliffs is lush with green succulents, oddly-shaped plants that feel rubbery to touch and turgid with water, survivors in the Portuguese heat.
Bucket-listers come to Cabo da Roca to feed their intrigue. There is a permanent cluster of travellers milling around the top of the cliff, taking pictures to fill their photo albums with hair-swept portraits. The more adventurous in the crowd walk further down the path to reach the very end of the trail, the daredevil’s route. I gawped as sprightly teenagers hopped over the rocks despite the deathly drop to their right, but not all of the hikers were so confident.
A young girl in a long dress teetered her way along the path, unsure of the trail her boyfriend was ushering her down as he stood at the end of the viewpoint. On a few occasions I sharply inhaled and winced when she lost balance – like a baby trying to walk, she rooted her feet to the ground and tilted all the way forwards to walk her hands across anything that would steady her. It was a few minutes later that I was battling my crippling fear of heights and Cara was coaxing me along the cliff edge in a similar manner. Fortunately, my stubborn determination conquered and before I knew it I too was standing on the tip of the lookout point, so overwhelmed by the scene before me that I forget all about my fears for just a few moments.
Another hazy drive along the coast followed, through white-washed towns and past dozens of rickety windmills that stood on hills overlooking their domain. We passed pumpkin patches and dried-up rivers, got lost in villages with no sign posts and didn’t mind the detour. Numerous camping spots line the coast in this part of Portugal, and it was the surf town of Ericeira that caught our eye for the evening’s rest. A relatively small cluster of homes, a boardwalk, and some of the best waves on the continent are what make up this laid-back settlement. There might not be a supermarket in the centre of town, but there is a Quicksilver outlet.
That night we pitched our tent in the wooded area of a campsite not far from the ocean. String hung between the trees and over these lines rows of wetsuits were draped. Sun-kissed pony-tailed Europeans set up camp stoves and huddled around fires for warmth, taking drags of communal cigarettes and retelling stories of recent surf wounds – one Spaniard had just come back from having his head stitched up, a story he cheerily laughed off.
Having scraped together a hoard of food from the small campsite shop, Cara and I feasted on bacon, sausages, mushrooms filled with cream cheese, and cool beers. The sun slipped beneath the horizon while tiled back in our camp seats. Putting a new layer of clothing on every 15 minutes, we did our own spot of retelling as we looked back on the handful of days behind us; the kind of campfire chatter that pulls you into an accomplished sense of sleep.
Porto feels like a forgotten city – great in theory, poor in execution. On every street you’ll find rows of skinny, bean-pole buildings plastered with decorative tiles. The unfortunate thing is that these no doubt looked fabulous 40 years ago, but the maintenance hasn’t been carried out to keep them gleaming. Many blocks stand in a state of disrepair, their exteriors chipped away and eroded, sealed with a dull coat of dust. Once a booming trade city, Porto has suffered under the weight of the economic crisis in Portugal that hit its peak a few years ago, and as a result has been in steady decline ever since.
Nevertheless, for many (myself included) that’s what makes Porto so loveable. We tore up the motorway the morning we left Ericeira, hungry for the sight of Portugal’s second largest city, and were not left disappointed when we arrived. Porto might not be one of the shiniest cities in Europe – it’s got a lot of competition, after all – but its run-down, unassuming demeanour is just the refreshing hit that a well-versed European traveller needs.
It might be the result of a tragic plunge in economy, but Porto is real, honest, and gritty, charming and shabby both at the same time. While I obviously wish the best for Porto and hope for revival, it’s doing a pretty good job of embracing its struggles. Die-hard locals love their city regardless; the host at our hostel clutched her heart as she described how much she cherishes home. They adore Porto in the face of its run-down façade – in fact, some people have actually made good business out of the depleted side of Porto.
Despite the rough exterior, its Porto’s people and their creativity that make it so captivating. Having chatted to our host about places to visit during our one evening in Porto, she suggested two streets on which to find dinner and drinks. Rua Galeria Paris and Rua Candido dos Reis run parallel to each other in the centre of town, and notoriously thrive after dark. Bars and restaurant tables flow out onto the streets, and even at the conservative hour of 7pm the more popular spots were buzzing with locals eating and drinking. Cara and I pulled up chairs at an al fresco table at Xico Queijo on Rua Galeria Paris for a selection of platters, the restaurant’s speciality.
With the hum of talk as our soundtrack, wooden boards of meats and cheeses and plates of salad were laid in front of us, and our glasses filled with Portuguese wines. Young couples and friends sat on tables less than a metre away, enthusiastically gesturing to their companions and speaking in rapid Portuguese with red wine-tinged lips. The night grew dark, but each table seemed content with only the tiny flicker of a single candle, much more consumed with cigarettes and conversation than the dwindling light. Porto’s shabby exterior was no longer its downfall, but a fitting backdrop for the eccentric, passionate bohemians that call this city home.
Vowing to return and spend more time in Porto at the first available moment, Cara and I packed up the car the next morning with regret at the little time we had spent there. Buying ourselves a rainbow of macarons to cheer us up (naturally), we fired up the car and headed east, back into Spain.
But not before we made one final stop in Portugal…
Have you been to any of these spots, or would you want to go?
Share your thoughts and experiences in the comments.