The prettiest end of Europe—that could be the most accurate description of Portugal. Remnant’s of this once-enormous empire are scattered throughout, from its decadent dining establishments to haunting historical buildings. One can’t forget the country’s beautiful coastline though, or its peaceful countryside, which is exactly where this journey begins.
In every guidebook about Lisbon it should be stated: wear sunglasses and look high-principled. With these instructions you would avoid the most obtrusive street vendors. Maybe this little pain in the neck just belongs to such a wonderfully anarchistic city, though. Because one thing is for sure, if you haven’t seen Lisbon while in Europe, you have to come back. The mixture of the (formerly) great nation’s architecture and southern European flair, the feeling of being in a foregone century when you enter a heavily gold-plated cafe or rush down the steep hills in one of the trams—it’s a journey back in time.
But the real feeling you get for a country is out in the rural areas, where the interaction with the people is not disturbed by big city stress. Suburban dreariness disappears in the mirror of my Yamaha Super Ténéré as the country starts to shine for the first time on this April day. Sintra is a small community at the foot of the Serra da Sintra. The mountains catch the clouds that arrive from the nearby Atlantic and suddenly everything is green. In between there are a couple of fairytale-like castles. The cool climate here always attracted wealthy people who wanted to escape the summer heat of Lisbon.
At the beach Praia de Porto Novo only one modern castle—in other words, a hotel—is built. Fortunately some off-road paths bring me to empty shorelines out of sight of any building and with stunning views.
The sandy beach is idyllic, but at Cabo Carvoeiro the Atlantic gets much rougher. A steep cliff line is home to a road that leads with continuous wide views around the cape. I arrive in Peniche. Apart from an old city wall, it has little to offer. Óbidos, a few miles farther, does a much better job. If you approach it from the east, a beautiful cityscape unfolds of white houses with red roofs along a hillside.
Wild Nazaré Is Calm Today
In terms of beauty, the former fishing village of Nazaré can’t compete. It had to get famous another way. This happened on November 1, 2011, when Garret McNamara surfed a 78-foot wave in front of the village’s picturesque lighthouse and set a new world record. It wasn’t a coincidence; Nazaré was predestined for such a show. The town sits at the end of a 140-mile-long and 16,000-foot-deep underwater gorge. Westerly winds push the water up and create those monster waves. Full of expectation, I ride toward the village, but am disappointed. The west wind takes a break. Peaceful like a pond, the ocean ripples onto the shore.
Motorcycle & Gear
Peaceful is also a good description for Batalha. Even though, or maybe because, the largest monastery in the country is located here, it is rather quiet. From a lovely cafe I get an unobstructed view across the square of the playful architecture of the monastery’s walls.
Coimbra is much more alive, and the University of Coimbra, the oldest in the country, is responsible. My guidebook marvels about a breathtaking library, Biblioteca Joanina. I have to see it. Coimbra is situated around the slopes of a hill. Right on top of it is the university. To get there through the narrow, convoluted alleys (best done on foot) is an adventure in itself. If you make it all the way up, historical buildings appear like out of a movie set. But everything is real here—like the pretty examination room at the university. Through some tinted windows I’m able to watch an oral examination without disturbing the students. The library lives up to every promise in my guidebook. If I had to go back to school again I would go here. It doesn’t hurt that in the old town espresso costs half a dollar and a glass of good red wine costs only two.