Portugal | Lost in the Woods

On the final day of our lovely Ericeira mini-break, Tanya,  Felix and I had one last coffee together in a cafe, then the pair of them got a cab back to Lisbon while I hopped on a bus to Sintra.

I’d been meaning to go and see Sintra’s beautiful castle-hilltop bonanza for almost a fortnight by this point, and as I was heading north soon it seemed silly to leave without paying a visit. The bus took an hour or two, and we passed through beautiful countryside. I was dropped in the sunny little town without having any clue where I was, and decided, for reasons I cannot explain, that I would hike up to the palace on foot.

Many people had advised me against this over the preceding fortnight: don’t walk up, they’d said. It’s too hard, and it’s not an interesting walk, and it takes hours. But when I feel uncertain of which direction to take, I always prefer to walk. Slower is better when you’re not sure where you’re headed.

I asked a man in kebab shop where to go, and he pointed me up the road.

“Follow, follow, up, round. Very far. Two, three kilometres.”

I thanked him and set off. Two or three kilometres? Piece of piss. I sang to myself as I hiked, feeling generally optimistic and only slightly concerned that all I’d had for breakfast was two cherry tomatoes and a slice of salami. For one kilometre the road was simple – buses and tuk tuks passed by, which was a bit demoralising, and the path was very narrow at points, but otherwise it was fine.

My problems only started when I reached a small village and the road split in two. I ducked into a bakery to ask the guy the sole phrase I’d picked up on my journey so far.

“Você fala inglês, por favor?” Do you speak English please?

“No, no,” he replied, apologetically.

“Oh. Er, castle? Palace?”

He smiled, understanding, and pointed up the road.

“Up, up, up.”

“Obrigado.”

I had to repeat this every time there was a fork in the road, and the response was always identical:

“Você fala inglês, por favor?”

“No.”

“Palace?”

“Up, up, up.”

And they were right: I followed the road up, up, up, sweating cobs in the sunshine, my singing becoming quieter and eventually ceasing altogether.

It was hard work, but good to be actually using my body for something other than a beer receptacle. After mounting a particularly steep bit of cobbled road, I was confused to find the track levelling out, and eventually turning downhill. Hmm. Nobody had said ‘up, up, down’.

I walked past an old man carrying logs across a quiet road.

“Hello,” he said to me in English.

“Ola,” I replied, to be polite.

“Where you going?” he asked.

“To the castle.”

“Castle? No castle this way.”

“Are you sure?”

“You speak French?” asked the old man.

“Oui, un peu,” I answered, a bit confused.

In broken French he told me that to get to the castle I had to leave the road and simply climb up the mountain through the forest. I asked if he was sure, and he said yes. I asked if there were stairs, and he said no. I asked him one more time if he was sure, and he said he was.

“C’est facile!” he said, with a dismissive wave of his hand. “Tres facile.”

With no other option – I was beginning to flag and hadn’t the energy to ignore him and continue down the road only to find he’d been right all along – I followed his advice. I headed back the way I came, followed the paved road to the highest point I could, and stepped off the beaten track and into the forest.

I found a couple of trails through the undergrowth and followed them. Sometimes the trail was obvious, sometimes it all but vanished and I had to blindly stumble through the branches and weeds until I found it again. After ten minutes I started to feel weird: it was complete silence except for my ragged breathing, and I had no idea which direction I’d come from or whether I was getting close to the castle.

I came upon a series of odd buildings in the forest. There was a crumbling old watch tower, and some caves, and a well, and what looked like a stone sacrificial table outside an ancient dwelling carved into a cliff face in a clearing. It began to feel a little bit Blair Witch, so I hurried on past these unsettling sights, feeling compelled to check over my shoulder every now and then.

I got whipped by branches and thorns sliced at my forearms and legs, and I began to pant and curse the old bastard lunatic who sent me into the forest. This was blatantly not the way. 

“Oui, c’est facile!” I wheezed to myself as the sweat ran into my eyes. “Up, up, fucking up! Stupid leathery knobhead old codger.”

I tried not to think what would happen to me if I sprained my ankle or took a bad fall, and instead carried on, shoving my way through the forest and grunting like a gorilla. Eventually I emerged, bleeding, onto a road beside a giant stone wall stretching into the forest, which I presumed was the castle. Halle-shitting-lujah.

My celebrations were short. At the top of the road, a parting in the trees offered me a glimpse of the adjacent hilltop: the one upon which sat the castle I was trying to reach. I’d climbed the wrong damn mountain.

I sighed. A sign beside the road read ‘for tickets and entrance, this way’, and there was an arrow pointing down a dirt track, back into the same damn forest I’d just struggled through. I debated whether to follow it for a solid five minutes, then gave up and put myself at the mercy of the sign.

It led me down a new, broader forest track, which eventually came to a road. I wound up this road, and finally – after a good two hours – arrived at the Palace of Pena.

I paid in, wandered around a bit, took some pretty photos and left.

It was beautiful but very touristy, and after my woodlands ordeal I was feeling weak with hunger.

I couldn’t be arsed paying for a tuk tuk or taxi back down, so I walked back too – along the road this time. It took around 40 minutes to get back to the kebab shop where I started.

After a quick, life-giving sandwich, I took a train back to Lisbon, where I swung by Tanya’s grandma’s apartment – I’d given my friend my main backpack in the morning to avoid lugging it around Sintra. I chatted to Tanya a while, but didn’t stay long as she was feeling poorly and had been waiting for me to pick up my bag so she could bang a sleeping pill and pass out.

I took the metro into central Lisbon and marched up the steepest hill I’ve ever seen in my life to check into my next hostel. It was a grand place, all chandeliers and high ceilings, but it was seemingly empty. The communal areas were far too large, and it felt a bit like a retirement home for eccentric billionaires where each resident gets their own desperate wing to fester in.

I went over and said hello to a girl smoking by herself. Her name was Camilla, from Sicily, and we’d only been speaking for a minute or two when a German girl called Natalie came over and asked to join. We all swapped numbers, and by the evening our group had swelled to seven or eight. We went out to Bairro Alto and boozed until the wee hours. It was a fun evening, and when I went to bed at 3am I couldn’t believe I’d woken up that morning in an AirBnB in Ericeira. Breakfast with a sea view, lost in a forest at lunch, dinner and drinks in a capital city old town.

Travel, man. It has my heart.

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