In the mountains just 25km west of the Portuguese capital of Lisbon, magical, medieval Sintra is welcoming a new breed of digital nomads, as MaryLou Costa discovers
It’s a Wednesday – a work day – when I find myself sipping lapsang souchong tea on the terrace of the Tivoli Palacio Seteais, in Portugal’s castle heartland of Sintra. I’m savouring not just the smoky flavour but the story of how, in 1662, Catherine of Braganza – the Portuguese wife of King Charles II – introduced the art of tea drinking to the English courts with a chest of this very variety. It’s an ideal way for a freelance writer to take a break while living and working as a digital nomad in Sintra, a historic town that day trippers from nearby Lisbon often consume in whirlwind fashion.
Overlooking a mist-soaked garden that climbs into the neighbouring hilltop, my cultured tea break is just one example of why Sintra is a better workplace than the usual for writers, entrepreneurs, consultants and small business owners alike. This small town is encouraging freelancers and remote workers to forgo Portugal’s established digital nomad hubs, like the Algarve and Madeira, and swap sun and sand for atmospheric fog and mountains.
Sintra has been inspiring creativity for centuries. Lord Byron dubbed it a “glorious Eden” during his visit in the 1800s, while it was described by a previous king as “where winter comes to spend the summer”. The town’s cooler climate has long provided an escape from the capital for nobility, hence its legacy of castles that the streets here spiral around.
This is one of the reasons travel startup Boundless Life set up its first location in Sintra. The mix of nature and culture suits its aim of creating a “village within a village” concept, specifically aimed at digital nomads travelling with children – people like my husband and me. There are central apartments and co-working spaces, plus an education and childcare facility for children aged one to 12, which means I can bring my three-year-old along and still spend an afternoon decadently drinking tea.
I chat to Marcos Carvalho, one of Boundless Life’s co-founders, about how working parents have so far been excluded from the digital nomad trend, and how his new venture aims to change that. He hopes to entice young families to take a “workcation” of at least one month to mix some travel and culture with the nine-to-five, with the possibility of doing it for a year or more.
“We want to show it’s possible to live this way. It’s not as hard as you may think, or as ‘alternative’ or ‘hippyish’,” says Carvalho, a Brazilian entrepreneur who first developed the venture in the US and Canada. He’s now going where Boundless Life takes him as the company expands. His next stop is Syros, Greece, where 12 families are currently embarking on the Boundless Life experience.
Sure, you could book your own Airbnb and attempt to find local, temporary childcare for your stay. But that’s difficult to put a price on, not to mention the instant community feel to joining an existing project like this. “People in our cohorts develop lasting relationships and can meet their friends in other Boundless Life communities around the globe,” says Carvalho.
“It’s only been six months since we launched and this is already happening – families are planning their next stays with us based on the relationships they’ve built and going to places with other families.”
The Sintra co-working space – a bright, airy former restaurant – is just minutes from the city centre. It quickly becomes an addictive hub of energy, with people sharing not only what they’re working on, but what led them to seek an alternative to the daily grind – and, most importantly, plans for the weekend.
Joining our new work friends, we spend our Saturday ushering the kids down the inverted tower of the Quinta da Regaleira palace and chasing them around the steep but vibrant gardens of the Monserrate Palace. We squeeze in for selfies at the continent’s most western point, the Cabo da Roca, taking in the seemingly never-ending Atlantic that stretches all the way to the US.
On Sunday, we meet for brunch at Moinho Dom Quixote, a renovated windmill just outside the nearby village of Colares whose deck – intertwined with yet another garden – has views of the sandy Praia do Guincho beach. A quick and cheap Uber ride later, we’re down on the shore, parents chatting to the sound of their kids splashing and shrieking.
During the week, local bar Raiz becomes our after-school hangout. The space to wander around the greenery, combined with its snacky menu featuring beef or tuna pica pau (succulent meat nestled over homemade chips that absorb all the juices) and grilled cheese (a literal bowl of melted cheese with bread to dip) make it a hit with the kids. With free wifi and an all-day menu, we make a mental note that we could get some work done here, too.
What’s refreshing about the Boundless Life experience is that you won’t find yourself cafe-hopping or jostling for space with hundreds of other Macbook users, but you will be energised after your morning hike up to Sintra’s Moorish Castle, which we can see from our apartment. Coffee breaks come with a hit of pasteis de nata from the Fabrica da Nata bakery in town, or the local specialty, queijadas de Sintra, a small, round coconut cake with a filo pastry base. Being six months pregnant, I give the hike a miss, but gladly scoff down the pastries – reassured that my little one is having a brilliant time with his new friends and teachers at the Education Centre, tucking into a hot lunch and enjoying outings like mini golf and pony rides.
While downing beach cocktails with fellow digital nomads in the Algarve sounds tempting, Boundless Life has hit on something special with Sintra. “Ate breve”, as the Portuguese say – “until we return”, with our soon-to-be four-year-old and his new little brother.
Trying to fly less?
You can get all the way to Sintra by train and bus. Take the Eurostar to Paris, followed by a train from Paris Montparnasse 1 Et 2 to Poitiers, and a Flixbus from Poitiers all the way to Sintra.
Fine with flying?
Ryanair, easyJet, TAP Portugal and British Airways all fly direct from London to Lisbon. Trains to Sintra go regularly from the central Rossio railway station, or a taxi from the airport takes around 35 minutes with a fare of around €35.
Boundless Life Sintra’s digital nomad packages include return airport transfers, self-contained accommodation in the city centre, weekly cleaning service, full-time childcare, 24/7 access to the co-working space, free activities including talks, wine tasting, yoga and boat cruise, plus a community manager at your disposal. One-month packages start at €7,020 (around £5,943), with the price going down considerably the longer you stay.