Author’s note: The following post refers to a collection of stops we made in the process of exploring beaches and interesting towns along the central west coastline, north of Lisbon. From two of these stops we cycled or caught a local bus into the main tourist centres of Sintra and Cascais. These town visits, although undertaken in the same timescale, will be covered in a following blog post.
We pulled off the coast road into our targeted aire, to find a scruffy piece of disused land, sandy and litter-strewn, with around twenty other vans hastily parked. Not quite the dream beachfront parking we’d hoped for, but it was close to town and free, so we couldn’t complain too much. We walked a few hundred metres to the main beachfront.
The beach looked wide and clean and the sea quite gentle, until we approached more closely. We found that what we were seeing was the sea much further out from shore and in reality the crashing surf was hidden behind a large dune running the entire length of the beach. When we topped this dune, we found that constant three metre high waves were curling and crashing wildly behind, disappointingly leaving no doubt that this sea was not for swimming in.
We played in the water, then we sat a while and watched the huge breaking waves as they towered and fell, churning up the sand in a frothy surf. We met a fellow Brit who now lives in Nazaré who informed us that for a short time each year, around November, the cove experiences incredible 100ft (30m) high waves that surfers from all over the world arrive to test themselves with, being towed out behind jet skis with the hope of riding the ‘one’.
We walked along the wavy, noisy beach to a small red and white lighthouse built on the stone harbour wall, still mesmerised by the size and sounds of the crashing waves. We had not seen the sea since the eerie, still morning in Boiro, and somewhere deep inside we had missed its clear representation of nature’s raw power.
We saw old, heavily wrinkled fishermen, their skin the colour of leather, standing on the beach casting into the huge curling waves, but saw no one catch anything in the time we were watching. Joggers ran along the shore close to where the water was hitting the land, occasionally veering wildly inland when a larger wave crashed and flowed in further than normal, catching them unawares.
Foz Do Arelho
From Nazaré, we continued south along the coast to find another place to overnight, in Foz Do Arelho. This was a large commercial aire right on the beach. There were lots of other motorhomes already here, maybe 50 or so parked up, all tightly packed along the front edge to claim a sea view. We parked away from the crowds, side on to the sea, on a peaceful end bay that still allowed us commanding sea views. This was not a beautiful aire, but at only €3 per night including services and wifi it was practical and restful and offered great access to the beach. Unfortunately heavy rains and wild storms later hit and made it quite wet underfoot and removed the possibility of any lazy, sunny beach time.
In a short weather break, we walked the length of the long inlet beach in bracing winds, over high dunes to face the Atlantic Ocean rolling in. With the wide bay and flat coast, the waves were not quite as wild as at Nazaré but watching them was still impressively mesmerising. We sat on the damp dune and hypnotically stared at the waves for a time.
We walked up over the hill behind into the local town where we posted some previously-written postcards and bought a few essentials, before holing up to wait out the next barrage of wet weather. It was quite relaxing and invigorating to watch the incoming storms battering the beach and whipping up the sea from the comfort of our motorhome.
After a two day stopover in Foz Do Arelho we planned to move a short distance down the coast to the next large beach at Praia Foz. We pulled into the village only to find this large and popular beachfront aire, surprisingly, entirely empty. We parked up and wandered across a timber walkway into the dunes to look at the rough seas, again enjoying the show of strength and power from the huge crashing waves. Due to the isolation and the lack of other travellers, we decided not to overnight here, so instead moved on to another local aire instead, this time inland to where we hoped to complete a cycle – Turcifal.
We drove on to the small village of Turcifal and parked in the central aire adjacent to a primary school, where the kids were making a loud wall of background noise not dissimilar to the crashing waves on the beaches. The pretty church sat high above the village houses, on a raised platform, commanding decent views over the village. There was precious little to see, but we had hoped to cycle a loop to Torre Vedras and around the local countryside, but soon after our arrival the heavens opened and dissuaded us. Instead of braving the weather we huddled inside and spent the day with the driving rain storms battering us outside whilst we watched movies in bed.
After a wild weather night in Turcifal, we decided the planned cycle ride wasn’t viable. So we moved on to visit the town of Mafra, to visit the much lauded Palácio Nacional de Mafra. We parked on a very small, gated aire on the outskirts of town, and walked into the centre along a busy road. From here we soon arrived at the National Palace – impossible to miss.
The Palácio Nacional building dominates the entire town, being visible from a long way out. We approached the centre and explored a little of the streets opposite, lined with small shops and neatly cobbled squares, before crossing the main road to the National Palace.
Previously a Franciscan Monastery, construction of this Royal Palace was began in 1717, as a gift from King John V to his Queen for bearing his first child. It is one of the largest palaces in Portugal, extending to over 40,000 sq M and housing over 1200 rooms.
We had a quick look inside, although there were no other tourists and it was difficult to see an entrance that was obviously for public use. We opened a few large timber unmarked doors but were reticent to proceed within, so had to be content with a quick view. Many of the spaces behind the large doors were cathedralesque, in both size and grandeur, so at least we captured a small glimpse of the monumental Baroque interior.
Externally, we got suitably chastised and turned around by an Armed Forces guard for walking along the right-hand side of the building, although there were no signs posted that it was restricted to military access only. We didn’t linger much after this, so we had a final look around then returned to Benny by the same path, completed a shop at the nearby supermarket to stock up, and got ourselves back towards the west coast.
We treated ourselves to a reasonably well-provisioned campsite aire, as it was the only place around with services, and being only 12km north also provided an ideal base for visiting one of the most renowned tourist towns in Portugal; the historic town of Sintra.
There was a small, walled off swimming pool at the end of the campsite aire, where between walks and wild weather, we managed to have a few relaxing moments and a good catch up on reading on their plastic loungers. The weather was against us, but Nicky still enjoyed doing some pilates on the grass surround, and then completed a few lengths in the cold water. We had a reasonable weather window the following morning, so we caught the local bus south into Sintra (as noted in a separate blog) for a fantastic day of exploring.
The village of Odrinhas had one small shop and very little else, other than lots of nasty, local dogs, with their hateful barking and chasing, so was not too pleasant for short walks.
Cabo da Roca
After Odrinhas, we headed to beaches a little further south to see if we could shake our continued misfortune with poor weather. But firstly, as it was nearby and we were passing, we felt compelled to call in and visit Cabo da Roca.
This is a headland with a lighthouse and a short coastal walk that has the honour of being the most westerly point in Portugal, and by default also that of mainland Europe. This arbitrary geographic quality* would appear to be the only thing going for it, but from a trip conclusion or achievement perspective, it still felt like an important stopover point, as we’ll soon enough be visiting the most southern and northern; why not the most western?
* To steal a line from ‘Black Books’ – “It was everything I expected; and less“.
Praia do Guincho & Praia da Crismina
A short drive further on we arrived at a cliff top parking area with absolutely fantastic sea views. We parked up at the very end of the western edge of the available parking, so no other motorhomes could impede our view, and smugly sat back and enjoyed the first of several sunsets over the Atlantic and our local beach. Quite the spot for a few days.
Just a few metres from our door, there were steps leading down to a small coved beach, with beautiful white sands and wild, crashing surf. At low tide this small local beach tripled in size, with the central rock formations forming the left hand side of the cove being passable and providing access to a much larger area of beach beyond. Again, the ocean was simply too rough to properly swim any distance, but was absolutely great for splashing around and getting soaked by the powerful waves and foamy surf; a childish delight to spend time just fooling around in. Plus, the sun had finally found us again.
On another day we walked through an elaborately built timber walkway, threading itself through sand dunes on the opposite side of the coast road. Much of the area was protected for conservation due to erosion and being over walked, so the walkway made a perfect vantage point from which to both observe the lands and allow for their protection.
From here one day we cycled into the popular resort town of Cascais (covered in a separate blog), which was only 9km along the easy coast road from us.