Week 14: Sintra and Alcobaça

This week’s exploits mostly cover climbing and mountain biking in Sintra, but we squeezed in some cultural sights in Sintra and Alcobaça too.


From Lisboa we headed 30 minutes west to Sintra, a mountain ridge that sits along the coast west of Lisboa. Sintra is a magical place and it’s not surprising that throughout history, Portuguese’s royal family and wealthy have built palaces in its hills. Sintra sits on a fault line where volcanic forces created a dramatic granite ridge littered with boulder strewn hills hiding under forests, that plunges to meet the Atlantic Ocean. James describes it as “a little paradise for climbing and mountain biking”. For Aileen, sitting on a boulder under trees with sunlight streaming through the leaves was a happy place to be.

James’ Climbing and Mountain Biking Adventures in Sintra

(We normally write the blog in the third person, but here James will use the first person.)

Climbing and cycling is my thing. Aileen was generous in supporting me, particularly for climbing where being the support crew can be rather boring and cold. Thank you!

Climbing in Sintra

The climbing in Sintra is bouldering on medium and coarse grained granite. The are 11 different areas described in the Sintra Bouldering guide. We visited 3 – Peninha, Val das Acácias and Capuchos. All had a nice selection of boulder problems and a distinct character.

  • Peninha was a nice introduction with boulders scattered in the trees. The highlight was a V5 on a tall boulder by the roadside 666 o Diabo Vive (“666 the Devil lives”), good enough to do twice.
  • Val das Acácias was the crag we spent least time at, partly because it was cold and Zeus seemed vexed with the surroundings. But it looks like there is lot to explore.
  • Capuchos is next to an old convent and features lots of different styles. I would like to return to do the V5 Jumping Jack Flash, the finishing jump referred to in the name was too high for a single crashpad.

The weather in February was great, although possibly a little warm for climbing. We were surprised not to see more people climbing (the wall I visited in Lisbon was busy, and yet excellent boulders 30 minutes away were dead quite) and also slightly disappointed. Being able to hook up with other climbers would have been fun and helpful in attempting some climbs.

Here is my summary of climbing in Sintra:
  • The rock is good quality, with nice holds and features, but can be quite aggressive on the skin
  • There is a nice range of different boulder problem styles, different hold types. In the V7+ range there are some very good looking features that would be fun to try with more crash pads and a crew
  • For the most part landings are very good – helpful if you only have a single crash pad and inexperienced spotter
  • The guide is good – it has clear descriptions on access and crag character, nice photos to get you psyched and well marked photos and topos of the boulders (Note: 27 Crags has some coverage, but is incomplete)
  • Every crag we visited had a short or very short walk in and no issues with parking 🙂
Mountain Biking in Sintra

My friend Jon had shown me the trails of Sintra on a previous visit 6 years ago. That was a great trip so I had a decent idea of what to expect. I did 2 afternoons of riding:

  • For the first ride, we parked at Albufeira do Rio da Muia, a reservoir on the south side of the park. I rode some trails I’d done on my previous trip: Pedra Branca, a long trail in several sections that previously featured some (now rotted or removed) wooden bridge a.k.a north shore sections and now seems to be characterized by rock sections. This was followed by Kamikaze, charaterized by some steep sections and multiple drop offs. And finally, Dimas a relatively easy but fun trail that follows the banks of a stream downhill through eucalyptus trees, crossing several times via little bridges. It’s worth noting the gaps between trees feel very tight with modern wide handlebars.
  • For the second ride we parked by Praia do Abano, on the Atlantic coast with the intention of completing the ride on a trail called Burros (“Donkeys”). I had not ridden it before, the trail descends from the highest part of the park almost 500 metres to the sea. So the ride started with a long climb. After the climb I took a wrong turn and rather than my intended warm up, rode Taca do Mundo into Kamikaze which is definately not a warm up but is a good test of skill and conditioning. That was followed by Monge/17 Pes which exceeded expectations. I thought it wasn’t going to be very good but it turned out to be a trail with great flow and lots of well built corners. Riding back past the Peninha crag and via a nice section called Lucky 1, leads to Burros (yes, there are Donkeys at the top). Part of the draw of doing the trail is the situation heading off the ridge out of forested land, and ending at the sea. It turned out to be great riding too – initial sections linking rock slabs give way to a series of tight bermed corners. After crossing a road the gradient lessens and becomes a fast well sighted singletrack leading to the coast.
Here is my summary of the cycling in Sintra:
  • Most of the riding is in eucalyptus and pine woodland. There are granite rock features in all trails to a greater or lesser extent. Most of the trail surface is nice soil with plenty of support for cornering and braking, although there are some sections of granite gravel
  • The trail builders have done great work – trails are interesting, well maintained and have good variety in their style.
  • Trailforks has good coverage of the network of trails, including connectors and climbs – It’s easy to navigate and figure out a good ride
  • It would likely make a good venue for a mixed ability group – Most trails don’t feature very steep parts, although there are plenty of technical challenges. And the easier trails are still excellent fun.
Is it worth doing a cycling or climbing trip from the UK?

Yes. For both climbing and cycling similar comments apply:

  • It would be a good winter long weekend for climbing, or winter/spring/autumn long weekend for riding. There’s definitely enough interest for a long weekend and possibly a week, but for climbing you might run into issues with running out of skin on a longer trip.
  • It is a short flight from London (2:45 hours). Lisbon airport is close to Sintra (45 minute drive or 1 hour train ride)
  • The town is close to the crag and a nice place, with good options for eating, plus touristing options for rest days.
  • For climbing you would need a car to access the crags. For cycling it’s possible to do without a car (Jon and I did this on our previous trip). You can ride to the trails from town and you can take public transit from the airport to Sintra and it means no faff with picking up a hire car or trying to fit bikes into a hire car.
Quinta da Regaleira

We did mange to visit something aside from rocks and bike trails in Sintra. Quinta da Regaleira is a house and gardens built in the late 1800s by owner Antonio Augusto de Carvalho Monterio and architect Luigi Manini mostly infuenced by the Manueline style.

The estate’s most striking feature is the Initiation Well, which James likens to an inverse Tower of Pizza heading into the ground rather than rising above. Antonio Augusto de Carvalho Monterio was (possibly?) a member of the Knights Templar / Freemasons and the grounds of Quinta da Regaleira are littered with features or monuments to that reflect Knights Templar symbology.

We found the whole place to be both beautiful and fascinating, but also rather strange in it’s reference to a culture we don’t understand. The Poco Iniciatico (“Initiation Well“) was well worth the visit. It looks like the photos. The experience of descending down a narrow staircase into the gloom is as eerie as you might imagine, and there is a surprise – the bottom of the well leads to a series of underground tunnels connecting to grottos, waterfalls and other chambers, finally exiting lower in the garden where you can see daylight again.

There a lot of other historical buildings to visit in Sintra such as Palacio Nacional da Pena, Castelo dos Mouros and the Palacio Nacional de Sintra, but sadly none are dog-friendly and all are a vigorous walk uphill from town so we prioritised Quinta da Regaleira which we were most interested in seeing.

Exploring Sintra’s coastline

Sintra’s coastline has some pretty stunning features and beautiful beaches. A short drive from Sintra is Azenhas do Mar, a town with a ocean-fed bathing pool. We didn’t go swimming (brr) but the big Atlantic waves crashing into the pool was a dramatic sight. We watched the sunset from a restaurant just above the pool.

We also enjoyed a seafood meal in Nortada, a restaurant in Rodizio, another nearby coastal town. We celebrated the 4th year anniversary of James surviving his brain haemorrhage with some tasty Arroz de Marisco, Portugal’s seafood rice stew, similar to but soupier than Paella.

Aileen and Zeus enjoyed watching surfer’s trying to catch some pretty hairy looking waves on Praia do Guincho, a long beautiful sandy beach, whilst James was pummelling the hills above.

Other Sintra Highlights
  • Berliners – We stayed in a small town called Janas (a short drive from Sintra), which had a bakery called Padaria da Carlotta that sold the best sugar donuts, and also some great bread. You had to buy the donuts before 8:00 in the morning or they’d all be sold. They made for very good crag snacks.
  • DOC Colares – We visited an adega in nearby Colares, and learned that it has its own DOC for wine. The region’s vines grow in sandy soil along the coast and need to be protected from the sea breeze by bamboo panels. The region’s vines have the distinction of being resistant to phylloxera, the blight that wiped out much of Europe’s vineyards in the late 1900s.


Alcobaça lies about an hour and a half north of Lisbon. The reason for visiting is the huge Alcobaça Monastery that sits in the centre of town. It is a UNESCO heritage site and its scale dominates the town today, so imagining its presence when it was populated by monks is hard to get one’s head around. Construction began in 1178 and it was in use until 1834 when there was an extinction/dissolution of religious orders in Portugal shortly after the end of the civil war.

There were two things we really wanted to see in Alcobaça Monastary – the kitchen and the tombs of King Pedro I and Inês de Castro. Two very different features of the monastery but both fascinating.

  • The kitchen – We had read about the kitchen beforehand so expected to see a big kitchen, but the size (and probable expense to build) was still breathtaking to see. It features several huge ovens/fireplaces and accompanying tiled chimneys three stories high. A “special” feature of the kitchen was a pool where part of the local river was re-routed to flow through to provide fresh fish and water directly to the monks. There were also some huge impressive marble slab tables, and a row of carved stone wash basins. We can only imagine the monks not being slim.
  • King Pedro I and Inês de Castro’s tombs – The tombs lie in the adjoining church and are stunning works of Gothic sculpture, that also tell the story of their inhabitants. Pedro and Inês are said to have inspired to story of Romeo and Juliet. When Pedro was prince, his father then King Afonso IV, prohibited their marriage and ordered the assassination of Inês. He considered the relationship between his son and Inês politically dangerous due to her Castilian family ties. In fact, Pedro and Inês had been married in secret for 5 years when she was killed. On becoming king, Pedro commissioned that Inês’ tomb be built to honour her as a queen. It features scenes of The Final Judgement with the couple being held aloft by angels. Pedro’s tomb sits across from Inês‘. He had ordered that they be placed foot to foot so that when the time came they could rise up and see each other straight away.

What’s next?

We’d originally planned to head west back towards Spain via the Alentejo region, but the weather forecast is more positive than we expected so we’re heading north to Porto.

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