Bristol Business News Travel: Walking into the unknown on an adventure trip to Portugal

April 18, 2019

Bristol Business News travel editor Anne Gorringe packs her walking boots for a guided tour of Portugal’s wild Atlantic coast and, on the way, also finds some great beer and food in Lisbon …  

I’m in the gardens of the Regaleira Palace in the historic UNESCO city of Sintra when my guide, Frank, leads us towards a collection of standing stones. 

The Regaleira Palace gardens, heading towards the ‘secret’ well

As we approach, I spot a small wooden door snuggled in between two of them. Pushing through the narrow entrance I unexpectedly find myself in a chamber, gazing down into the depths of an ancient well.

The Quinta da Regaleira, as it’s officially known, is a fascinating place with both the palace and gardens full of symbols which relate back to Greek mythology, gothic symbolism and more.

Frank Hopfe is employed by holiday adventure company Explore! to be with us every step of the way on our eight-day guided tour. As we stare down into the well, he explains that the picturesque structure is known as the ‘initiation well’. I must admit to being both fascinated – and slightly spooked. 

The Regaleira Palace and gardens were built by the wealthy Portuguese businessman Antonio Augusto Carvalho Monteiro. He made his money in Brazil, where he had coffee plantations, before returning home in 1871 to build his spectacular home. 

Gazing down in to the ‘Initiation well’

The Regaleira’s unique, dramatic design owes something to the fact that its Italian architect, Luigi Manini, was best known as an opera set designer.

Euphemistically, our guide points out that Monteiro was a ‘bachelor’ and a Freemason – and I can’t help but wonder about the purpose of the well in the garden and why Monteiro chose to include secret tunnels in the design of his home. 

Quinta da Regaleira is one of five fascinating, visitable palaces in Sintra, a picturesque city just north of Lisbon, which is also home to the National Palace of Portugal. 

The Quinta da Regaleira

Touring here with a group which has its own personal guide is a massive advantage as visits and timings are arranged to avoid the main tourist log jams. So by the time the main crowds were queuing at the palace doors, we were already heading for a secluded forest walk and taking in stunning views over the city.

The path to the palaces from Sintra’s historic centre had been up a steep road and, just as I was beginning to find it tiring, Frank factored in a coffee stop and a chance to take photographs.

As well as knowing the history of every building, Frank was also able to steer us to a pretty, out-of-the-way ‘art café’ for a relaxing lunch. It’s a perfect spot away from the crowds.

The mountain location of Sintra means temperatures here are, on average, around eight degrees cooler than back in Portugal’s capital of Lisbon, where our eight-day walking holiday started, another bonus to help me keep my cool – along with the fact that prices for eating out in Portugal are cheaper than in the UK.

Free time is also factored-in on the tour, meaning I could wander around Sintra’s historic narrow streets, discovering its shops and the local delicacy – a cherry liqueur served in an edible chocolate cup for just €1 (87p).

I also managed to fit in a quick visit to the National Palace in the main square, the best-preserved medieval royal residence in Portugal. Visible from miles around thanks to the unusual two giant conical chimneys, its plain white walls fail to do justice to the magical interior.

The National Palace with one chimney just visible 

Each room delights with colourful ceilings which are simply stunning – one is covered in painted swans! Others have walls filled floor to ceiling with amazing tiles. A highlight for me is the kitchen, home to the giant chimneys. I loved gazing up to the very top of the ‘funnel’.

Part of the palace, like other buildings in Sintra, had to be rebuilt after a massive earthquake rocked Lisbon in 1755. In a stroke of bad luck, it happened on the Feast of All Saints, when many homes and churches were burning candles in celebration.

As the vibrations reached Sintra, the buildings began to shake and within just 15 minutes fires had broken out caused by the fallen candles.

Frank is full of fascinating facts – I’m rather excited to hear that Madonna is rumoured to have bought a house here. 

I can’t help looking out for her as we whizz through town on the next part of our journey, a special ‘taxi ride’ in an open-top jeep. This races us towards a stop just in time to catch one of the last vintage trams of the day out to the coast where we sit and enjoy the sun going down over Apple Beach.

The red 1945 tram from Sintra to Apple Beach

The tram ride was magical and I’m so pleased to have Frank with us. He has the train times to hand and, most importantly, knows where to buy tickets. In fact, Frank arranged everything on our tour – from transport to translations, while encouraging us on our daily walks which (I came to realise) increased in difficulty each day.

Explore!’s new Portuguese trip is classed as a ‘beginners/moderate’ walking tour and is centred on the vibrant capital of Lisbon, where the eight-day tour starts and finishes. Along the way, walks are geared to discover the national park around Sintra and the beautiful coastal town of Sesimbra – an hour’s drive south of the capital.

The journey to Sesimbra for the second part of our two-centre holiday, takes us over the River Tagus on the longest suspension bridge in Europe, the 25 de Abril (25th April Bridge).

The Fortress of Santiago overlooking the beach at Sesimbra

Our hotel in Sesimbra is just a few steps from the sea and while the nearby Tap Room Bar at the Fortress of Santiago proves the ideal spot for a post-walk beer and to gaze out over the ocean.

This magical bar also serves up a generous plate mix of cold meets, cheese and fruit that makes an ideal starter for two to four people for a bargain €19.

Next morning we take taxis to the start of our walk in the Arrabida National Park. We stroll along breath-taking coastal paths, past abandoned windmills with dramatic rocky shorelines beneath before finishing at the clifftop Cape Espichel Sanctuary. 

The Memorial Chapel here has been a place of worship since the 15th century at a spot where it’s believed a vision of Our Lady was sighted. 

The dramatic clifftop scenery on our coastal walk

The holiday ends back in Lisbon, where we’d started with a walking tour. I’d been amazed by the pretty yellow trams navigating the steep, fascinating streets and the fact that it’s still possible to get a beer for only €1. 

I also loved the Thai food at the Mercado da Ribeira, home to the Time Out Market. As the name suggests, in 2014 Time Out magazine took over this impressive building (home to Lisbon’s main food market since 1892) turning it into a hip eatery.

The outer part of old market hall has stalls offering every type of food – from Thai to Spanish and traditional Portuguese, including a traditional custard tart you simply can’t leave Lisbon without trying! Diners sit in the central part of the building, which is packed with high tables and chairs – and a friendly vibe.

There’s so much to discover in Lisbon that I’d recommend adding on a few days extra to the eight-day tour to look around its cobbled, historic streets for yourself. 

FACT FILE: Explore! has some great trips to locations all over the world and all are graded according to walking experience. The new eight-day Portuguese trip to Sintra and the Arrabida National Park (ref: WISA) averages around three hours walking a day, gradually building up to the longest of nearly five hours. 

Enjoying a beer in Lisbon – prices start at just 1 – as a tram passes 

It runs several times a year, including April, May, September and October. Prices are from £845 (without flights) or £1,070 (with flights) and include seven nights’ accommodation, breakfast plus a tour guide who organises and takes each day’s tour. More info from Explore! on tel: 01252 883629.

TOP TIP: As easyJet flies direct to Lisbon from Bristol, why not book your own flights and add on extra days for a city break. Getting to Lisbon Airport from the city centre via the subway line is easy and costs less than €2, Or grab a taxi for two for around €18.




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