|Cabo da Roca - the most western point in Europe|
The large bus wound through the tiny narrow, twisting roads with expert skill (well, most of the time). After a short half hour, we stepped off the bus into into a spectacular landscape of majestic rocky cliffs, fields of wildflowers, and the wild blue of the Atlantic ocean. It reminded me strongly of the majestic beautiful of Cape Reinga, New Zealand's northern tip. It just wasn't as wild - throngs of loudly chattering tourists will do that to a place.
But we know how to be patient and wait them out, so we slowly meandered through the various viewpoints alongside the cliffs, savouring the scenery and realizing that we were the closest to home we could possibly be while in Portugal. I closed my eyes and reached out at the horizon in my mind. The Portuguese were explorers, navigators - looking out at that vast blue, untamed sea, I could easily feel a little of what they felt. How could you not set out and explore what lay beyond that horizon?
The heat called for slow walking and many breaks, so we took one of them on the hillside, looking out over the rocky cliffs and the sea, while unwrapping the package of traditional Sintra deserts we had purchased that morning at their very famous and historic bakery, A Piriquita.
The queijadas were little delightful round bites of dense pastry of fresh cheese and cinnamon; the traveseiras were soft, rectangular pillows of fluffy pastry filled with a smooth, pale yellow almond cream. Ah, Portugal... sea air, pastries, stunning scenery... what more could we ask for?
After that leisurely morning, our afternoon was about to get a whole lot more exciting, but we didn't know it yet.
We had heard about Praia da Ursa (Ursa Beach) from our hostel, but didn't know much about it besides that there were "easy, medium, and hard" trails to access them. As we had only brought flip-flops for the day, we decided that easy was the way to go. We went to the visitor's centre at Cabo da Roca and asked for directions to this beach. The man behind the counter happily pulled out a map and drew the "easy" and "medium" trails on it for us, with some verbal directions and estimates of 15-20 minutes to access the beach.
We happily set off down the "medium" trail, reveling in the peace and quiet out here on the hillsides. The trail wasn't too bad. Then we hit a fork in the road. Hmm. Now what? We tried one way - it proved quite a bit challenging (some rockier parts) so we figured it must be the other. Quickly, though, our optimism at finding this beach turned to concern - the trail was getting rockier and steeper, and we just seemed to be lost in the cliffs, rather than getting anywhere closer to DOWN the cliffs, where presumably the beach would be.
|Cabo da Roca - most western point in Europe|
After an hour or so of trying to find our way, the strap on one of my flip flops broke. I quickly rummaged through my bag until I found the pink cord from a little velvet pouch belonging to a friend who had lent it to me. Seeing as how it was the only thing I had available to attempt a repair, I quickly used it to tie the broken flip-flop strap to another part of the flip flop, and off we went. "Are you sure you want to keep going?" J asked me. But we didn't really have a choice. It was either keep attempting to find the beach, or head back up the difficult, unmarked trails we had just come down.
If you've been following along with all our travels, you know us quite well by now, and know which option we chose.
|Hiking the "medium" trail|
Across the steep hills on the other side, we noticed dots of people heading down different trails that seemed to be heading closer to a place where a beach could possibly be. We decided we would try and figure out how to get to where they were, but there seemed to be no access between our trails and theirs. Nevertheless, down we went... the trail continued to get steeper, narrower, and rockier, but we were determined. Finally, we seemed to be at a point where we could access the other trail.
|Praia da Ursa - we made it!|
|Looking down at how much we still |
had to hike to reach the secluded beach...
Still determined (yet hot and exhausted), we met up with the other trail and wondered where on earth we were, as the terrain didn't seem to be getting any easier. In fact, the further down we went, the more impossible the terrain seemed. Is this actually a real trail, we wondered? Where on earth are we? We were convinced we were far away from our intended target beach... but nevertheless we DID finally see a beach down there - so very far away and tiny still! - so we decided to keep going.
The trail was so rugged at one point that I had to remove my backpack to keep my balance, and just kept throwing it ahead of me down the trail as I essentially rock-climbed down as gingerly as I could. The insanity of what we were doing was not lost on us, but we were committed. All we wanted was that beach at this point! The promise of the cool water was enough to keep us motivated.
One boulder, rock, slippery step at a time, we made our way down those last bits of cliff until finally! We were at the spectacular beach.
|Pedra da Ursa (Ursa Rock) - with me for scale|
And what a beach it was - set amidst giant cliffs and rocks on three sides, and the ocean on the fourth, it really was a special place. The people there were mostly locals, lounging around on the sand and playing in the ocean waves. We wasted no time in heading to the water - it was amazingly refreshing. The cold waters were welcome, and we splashed around for a whlie, simply enjoing the moment. We would find out later that we had found it after all - Ursa Beach. The most western beach in all of Europe.
The giant striped rock (Pedra da Ursa) coming straight out of the ocean seemed to watch over and protect this beach as we lay in the sun and rested from our journey. We spent a good two hours there, simply enjoying the breathtaking beauty.
They call Portugal small, and it may be so - but it here, on this small patch of remote beach at the end of Europe, with cliffs towering over us on all sides, it seems infinitely big.
|See those tiny dots of people that are on the cliff?|
That's the trail we took.
After we had soaked in what we could of Praia da Ursa, we began the ascent back up the rocky cliffs. This time, at least, we knew where we were going, and hoped it'd be a shorted journey. The way up was slightly easier, at least, and I didn't have to throw my backpack ahead of me this time. We were doing quite well until suddenly my flip-flop got jammed in between two rocks. I pulled. My foot came - the flip-flop didn't. When I reached down to retrieve it, I saw that now all three sides of the straps had completely broken off the flip flop. There was literally no way to attach it to my foot any more. I grabbed it and clambered barefoot up a few more feet until I was at a clearing, and showed J my predicament. We tried several things to attach it to my foot using the little pink cord, and they would work for a couple of feet or so, but then everything would fall apart again. At one point I gave up and tried to just go up barefoot, but the ground was scorching hot, so that didn't last very long.
I finally ended up finding a discarded bit of shoelace that I could use to attach to the pink cord and thus make a longer string to tie the flip flop around my foot in an unstable yet barely functional manner. I made my way slowly and awkwardly up the rest of the cliff, stopping every once in a while to turn around and look at the stunning beauty below me. That made it all worth it.