LAURA Millar travels in ’Two Fat Ladies’ style as she samples some of the beauty of Portugal
Be prepared, it’s going to get very windy,” says my driver, Joao Soares, as he prepares to put his vehicle into a higher gear to power along the coastal road which leads from Portugal’s capital city through some of its most charming seaside towns and thence, inland, to the medieval town of Sintra. He’s not joking; as he sputters into fourth, the engine roaring as it strains to do 45mph, I feel like my face has been dipped into a wind tunnel. Opening my mouth to laugh in glee, like a dog hanging out of a car window, I get a sharp intake of glacial sea air, and possibly some flies, so I shut it again promptly.
We’re not doing this popular, 17-mile route by car, however, because that would take only 30 minutes and why would you want do that when you can while away a few hours on the road by…sidecar? I’ve chosen to make the journey ensconced, like one of the Two Fat Ladies, beneath a cosy tarpaulin, natty US army-style helmet atop my head, sunglasses protecting my eyes, next to Joao, who is piloting this eight-year-old Russian motorbike with its (hopefully) sturdy attachment.
His firm, Sidecar Touring Co, has been offering these trips for the past 13 years and was the first in Europe to do so. As a way to take in the scenery, it’s unsurpassable. For a start, you are part of the scenery, and you’ll find that your alternative conveyance for the day draws a mix of admiring glances and photo-taking.
Also, you are largely exposed to the elements (although tours do not run if it’s raining), and on a fine, sunny day, with the air blasting through your hair, and the scent of pine and salt wafting up from the roadside, it feels like a pretty damn fine way to travel.
The scenic route to Sintra – a Unesco World Heritage site famous for the elaborate palaces and summer residences built over the centuries by the Portuguese royal family across the impressive Serra mountain range (Pena Palace, for example, stands at over 1,300 feet above sea level) – is marked out by some lovely places to stop and stroll around. First, we park up at a popular surfers’ beach just outside Estoril, home to dozens of surf schools due to the consistency of the waves, before revving up to the town itself. Joao points out the five-star Hotel Palacio, where navy officer Ian Fleming stayed during the Second World War and mixed with Allied spies; its wedding cake-like exterior was said to be his inspiration for Casino Royale.
Before we turn inland to head up to the mountains, we stop at Cabo da Roca, the most westerly point on the European mainland. Marked by a clifftop monument with a cross on top, and overlooked by a lighthouse, it’s a blustery, misty, desolate-feeling place. In fact, by this point, it’s turned very cloudy; Sintra has its own, unique microclimate. Often, mist and fog hover at the top of the mountain range, so that, while less than 10 miles away you can be sunbathing, heading inland, you’ll definitely need a jacket.
As we start climbing slowly upwards, the bike stays in a lower gear, but Joao tells me it can do up to 75mph, in an emergency. There are 15 bikes in his fleet, all with different names. My macho, camo-painted, 750cc beast is called Ranger, but I could have been driven in the dainty Ava Gardner, or the daisy-covered Woodstock. The tours are suitable for kids aged from seven years old, and Joao’s oldest (repeat) customer was a sprightly 92.
Winding up the narrow streets and lanes, we come to some of the most intricate – and insane – architecture I’ve ever had the pleasure of seeing. The Palace of Monserrate, built by English textile baron Sir Francis Cook in 1856, blends Portuguese, Arabian and Indian styles. In the small town of Sintra itself, where Lord Byron lived for a while, you can visit the National Palace, originally erected in the late 14th century, notable for the two huge, cone-shaped chimneys that stick out of one end.
But the jewel in the region’s crown is the incredible (in all senses) palace of Pena, built by King Fernando II in 1854; looking like a cross between the evil Baron’s residence in Chitty Chitty Bang Bang and all of Disneyland, it’s a yellow and red coloured confection which you can only marvel at. And what could be more surreal after all that than being whisked back to the city in half an hour by your very own Hairy Biker? This Fat Lady loved it.
• A day trip to Sintra with Sidecar Touring Company (http://sidecartouring.co.pt) costs €150/£109 for two people (one riding pillion), €110/£80 for one. Lunch and coffees included; palace entrance tickets extra. Doubles including breakfast at Inspira Santa Marta Hotel, Lisbon (inspirahotels.com) from €130/£95 per night, based on two sharing.