If you want to escape the crowds of Lisbon, it’s really not that far you have to go. Even without a car it’s possible to reach wild places, within the hour, seemingly forgotten by all but you and the seagulls wheeling overhead. Cresmina beach, a secret known to those of Cascais, has significantly less towels and pitched parasols per square metre than, say, Costa Caparica to the south of Lisbon.
For the inveterate lone wolf, however, even Cresmina can be too busy on a Saturday afternoon in August. The secret is to keep your nose to the ground. A small sandy track, barely discernible the other side of the car-park chaos, winds through dusty myrtle, heaped rocks and thick-stemmed junipers and stone-roses. This is the local pr4 Guincho route, signed with discreet yellow and red daubing on prominent boulders, it winds up along wild cliffs with views inland to the magical Sintra hills and out west over small sandy coves and the endless ocean.
Leave the jagged rocks of the now abandoned 16th century Guincho fortress to reach the first quieter beach at Abano. North from here the rocks of the Sintra massif erupt into great Jurassic crests veined with ancient cooled lava. Sun-warmed igneous rock scoops to form front-row seats for sunset, facing west with a clear view of the red sun as it slips under the Atlantic horizon.
Your eye might be caught by a mysterious squat building crowning the hill to the east. This is the Santuário da Peninha, a 16th century sanctuary built as a shrine to a local, mute shepherdess whose voice returned in full force having seen Our Lady appear on these rocks. A site of pilgrimage for many years after, those who walked these paths left hundreds of inscriptions on the church pulpit, successive generations of inscribed names and messages. Outside is the Fonte dos Romeiros- peregrines’ fountain- where pilgrims could bathe their feet in cool running water.
Exposed to strong sea-winds these hills are often shrouded in fog but perhaps it’s better understood as place where things are thrown into different perspectives. “Where the land ends and the sea begins..” was how Camões described Cabo da Roca in ‘Os Lusíadas’. Down the ages it came to be a place representing not simply the most western point of Europe- or the edge of the known world- but represented the departure to new lands, new discoveries… the New World.
Pilgrims flocked here, sailors departed and returned but just north are other footprints, much deeper, stamped on these rocks. At Praia Grande, deep prints were left on the earth by a weight-bearing heel. Dinosaur prints in soft mud have lithified over the course of 65 million years. The pilgrims, sailors and now us all would have passed these yawning gaps in the stone.
Slipping away from the crowds reveals how thronged these cliffs are with other travellers. The landscape can be read, and it tells a noisy tale with many narratives crossing ways and clamouring for attention. As you head back towards Cresmina after sunset, the light having thickened and waned, the stars come out. Returning now to an empty beach, the waves crash on in darkness and stars pierce the sky with surprising intensity as there is very little light pollution here. For us, the darkness grew to pitch black as the thin cusp of a new moon, barely there, sunk red below the waves. What better place to watch the stars than the beach, as you listen to the waves, just as Camões’ sailors would have listened as they gazed up to navigate the skies:
The flame ethereal various orbs compose,
In whirling circles, now they fell, now rose;
Yet never rose nor fell, for still the same,
was every movement of the wondrous frame