Portugal’s most beautiful national parks: Buçaco & Sintra

♥ by Eva

It’s been a while since we’ve been to these two stunning places, but they are so amazing that I have to tell you about them.

The Mata Nacional do Buçaco

…is often referred to as a ‘magical forest’. As far as I know that isn’t because of any fairy stories that originate there. Maybe it’s because of the partly tropical flora that’s growing wildly like a jungle. Or the many wells and fountains that are hidden throughout the forest. Let me tell you more about that. In fact, there is a very stately and romantic-looking convent right in the centre of the forest. The nuns who used to reside there built numerous fountains in order to secure the freshwater supply. They also used to travel to exotic lands, and it is said that they would return from each trip with some flowers and trees from the various countries and plant them in the forest. The exotic plants seem to have liked the place, because they are still there nowadays. And while you can find eucalyptus trees basically everywhere in Portugal, the Buçaco forest is said to have some of the largest and biggest. We found one very large specimen which was around 1.50 m in diameter!

The day we arrived in the forest, they had announced rather bad weather. But optimistic as we are we thought that it’s good to hike in the forest when it rains, because you’re somewhat protected by the green roof over your head. What we didn’t pay attention to was that they also announced winds up to 50 km/h! So we arrived there in the evening and it was blowing. We had a hard time finding a place to park which didn’t have any trees overhead. And when we finally thought we’d found it, a huge branch actually broke off a tree nearby and just missed the back of our camper. That scared us so much that we re-parked in the middle of the night…

The next morning, we put our rain clothes on and ventured out into the forest with Carlotta wrapped on my back (no problem with the right gear – there’ll soon be a review about my softshell babywearing jacket for all interested mommy’s and daddy’s out there). The hiking paths are really well-made and criss-cross the whole forest. There are signs that lead you to the various sights. The narrow paths are sometimes rather muddy (well, it was raining), steep or strewn with small rocks. Nevertheless, it’s perfectly suitable for families. You can do a lot of round trips that will last about an hour (or more or less if you want). The sights that I would really recommend are the fountain Fonte Fría, the huge eucalyptus trees, the hermit caves and the convent.

If you’re craving some luxury, you can book yourself into the majestic Palace Hotel right next to the convent and explore the forest from there. Otherwise there are cheaper hotels and a campsite in the next village, Luso. We haven’t checked for any airbnb options, but maybe you’ll find that, too. There’s also a SPA in the village if you feel like pampering yourself a little.

One important thing to point out is that there is usually a fee of 8€ to pay to visit the forest. When we arrived there in the early evening the ticket booths were empty and the barrier was up so we just went in and expected to pay the day after. However, the day after the lady in the booth just let us exit without wanting to see any ticket. Maybe it was because we’re not in high season right now, or because the weather was so gruesome that they were happy that at least a couple of people came to visit 😀

 

The Mata Nacional Sintra

This national forest is larger than Buçaco, and it’s less like a protected park and more like a real forest. It’s also really lush, but wilder, more left to itself. It’s also packed with stunning sights, ruins, castles, really old monasteries, and the more you go South, the more boulder fields you’ll find. Make sure to visit the Palacio de Monserrate – the gardens are said to be breath-taking. You also get a network of really nicely done hiking paths, often round trips of several hours. The gnarly trees look like they could tell you fantastic stories.

While we were in Sintra (make sure to check out the small city of the same name, a lovely place with narrow cobbled streets, cute shops and well-kept parks), we stayed at the praia d’Adraga (have a look here – it’s my fav beach in Portugal) and explored from there. If you’re looking for a spectacular hike, walk the GR from the beach along the cliffs in the direction of the lighthouse Cabo da Roca (also a very interesting sight apparently), either on the main path or on the tiny paths that zig-zag through the knee-high shrubs. And step carefully, you’ll walk right along the edge and it’s a long way down.

The village right next to that beach, Almoçageme, is also well worth a visit. If you can, spend some time on the plaza and have a drink and a pastel de nata, or see the local market with fresh, home-made goods. There is also a veggie hostel there, a great option for plant-lovers!

We spent three days in Sintra; on one of them we hiked the GR, but we also took the opportunity to hike in the forest directly. We started on an official hiking path from the Convento dos Capuchos, but soon took a smaller path on the right and ended up on a downhill dirt track that led us to a ‘miradouro’ (view point) made of some boulders with a great view over the treetops.

But what we had been looking forward to most, was the bouldering. Sintra is THE place in Portugal to climb some rocks. Ideally, you’ll get in touch with the very helpful guys from Boulder Sintra, and buy the topo they made. It’s super useful, it’s got all the routes and how to get there plus the difficulty levels. We decided to try without the topo since we were only trying out for a couple of hours, but regretted that choice a little. Not being quite sure how to proceed (this was our first time bouldering in nature), we just picked a site and then went exploring. It took us quite some time to find the right boulders (there are some all over the place), and then to find some that weren’t too hard for us. In the end we managed, and the experience was awesome, but we were quite exhausted with all the running around with our equipment and Carlotta to find the spot. But we’ll certainly be back for more, and this time with the topo!

Unfortunately, we couldn’t spend more time in Sintra, because the South was calling us. But we’ll be back, that’s certain. I didn’t have the time to take as many pictures as I’d have liked to. But that’s just another reason to go back. I fell in love with this place like with no other place in Portugal. Not even Algarve beats it. It’s just got this very special atmosphere. It’s wild, and tranquil, and enchanting. It just does something to you. Once you’ve been there, it never quite lets you go again. It’s not possible to describe it, you’ve just got to go there and experience the Sintra feeling for yourself.

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