The potent summer sun spent its day doing what Portuguese sun does best. That is, baking castle masonry and tourists alike. There are plenty of both to go around in this beautiful region. Going to Sintra is like visiting the castle museum. A day is barely enough to see a few different architectures originating from various periods of the past millennium. Paths treaded by countless generations before are faithful guides into and through the depths of history.
We arrived in Sintra via train from Lisbon’s Rossio station. We skipped the tourist information bureau because it was gutted by the dozens of people who were faster to exit the platform through the proper ticket-scanning gates. We didn’t notice that the queue we were standing in was for the disabilities gate, which was much slower because it was a double-gate.
Luckily, we had researched about the area beforehand so we knew that we can use public transport to reach our objectives. And when I say public transport I mean the regional Portuguese network that the locals also use, as opposed to the rip-off (double price) “red busses”, which actually have less frequent departures.
We exited the station and jumped on a bus that was preparing to leave. Even though these buses are used by the locals as well, they are quite well equipped to meet touristic needs. The local company realized that it can cater to both groups, so they have special day tickets that come with a map that explains how to reach the various monuments in the region. Everything is payable in the bus, with cash. They were out of English maps and we already had our own, but as it turned out it was useful to have two of them because the transport company’s map also contained the bus schedule.
We arrived in the historical center. The Sintra National Palace^ located there is the best preserved medieval Royal Palace in Portugal. I didn’t find the structure all that impressive. It doesn’t look too different from other medieval palaces we’ve seen in Europe, aside perhaps from its two pointy conical towers. So, because we only had one day here, after shielding our skins with sun lotion we decided to get on the next bus and visit some of the other monuments in the area.
The first stop was the Castle of the Moors^. To reach the complex, we walked upon a cobbled path that snaked through a charming forest. We felt at ease and in tune with nature. Many fancier constructions from the same category feature “royal gardens” where people invest tons of resources into shaping nature to their will. The Castle of the Moors is living proof that any monument is only half of the story. The landscape around it is the other half.
Bits and pieces of forgotten masonry sometimes burst through the lively green of the forest. Here, in the sheltering shadow, dark green moss is slowly but surely consuming rocks, turning them into the soil of tomorrow.
The Castle consists of a series of ancient fortifications whose construction dates from the 8th and 9th centuries. Several improvements were done throughout the structure’s impressive history. Walking upon walls whose origin is more than one thousand years ago can easily turn into an introspective experience. But the day’s weather wouldn’t allow it.
Breathtaking doesn’t quite do justice to the panorama that greets the visitors as they walk along the walls. The forest below barely reaches the foundation. Then, the land quickly drops away and unfolds its forests, plains and villages, all the way to the sea that is visible almost ten kilometers away. The “top of the world” feeling is intoxicating.
Our next destination, the National Palace of Pena, was also visible from here. We heard that the palace is “cute” and already from this far-away glimpse we realized the truth in the saying that it looks like something from fairy tales. And just like a magical place, it was already enthralling us to get there as soon as possible.
Before that, however, we had more walls to climb. And climb we did. Even though the heat was beginning to get to us, we still had the stamina of morning visitors. The view of the villages far below the fortifications tempted us to take countless pictures. We tried to get it all in using our wide lens, but even it was defeated by the wide embrace of this flourishing land. We then played through the streets of the toy-villages below using our zoom lens.
Our next stop was the Pena Palace^. The bus station was crowded and the situation got worse during the 15 minutes it took for the bus to arrive. While we waited, the Sun was in its full mid-day prime. Luckily, we always managed our water supplies well.
The first bus that arrived filled up before we could squeeze in, but the second one came just a couple of minutes later. The locals probably do not enjoy the height of the tourist season when strangers take over some of their bus lines. We did consider walking to the palace, as a cleaning lady told me it should be only about 15 minutes. I’m glad we didn’t because the winding road was quite steep. Saving energy is important during such a day of voracious exploration.
We spent about half an hour walking through the garden at the entrance of the complex. Not for the first time today I noticed the great care invested in getting the place in tune with the aesthetics of the surrounding vegetation. Following the path that nature has taken is not only beautiful, but also cost effective. Here, there was also a small botanical garden where various species of plants had been labeled.
A small shuttle bus was available to drive people up to the palace. A brisk walk would probably have taken less than 10 minutes, so the 3 Euro trip and return ticket was a blatant rip-off. Still, adhering to the “time vs energy vs money” principles, we gladly subjected ourselves to said rip-off, especially since we wanted to cram as much Sintra as possible within one day. Besides, Crina was already two months into growing a baby and it’s better to err on the side of caution when it comes to energy reserves.
The Pena Palace looks like what you’d get after a convention of architects specializing in fairytale castles spends a three-day weekend collating the best ideas and then decides to implement all of the designs into the same structure. Bursting from the emerald forest, a collage of different colors and shapes greets the visitor with a mood of optimism and innocence.
We decided to purchase a ticket and get inside the palace against my better judgment, which whispered: “once you’ve been in one palace, you’ve seen them all”. Partially, my inner voice was right. What we found were various stuffses of royal character but of little interest to us as seasoned tourists. However, after going through the usual “palace visiting routine” consisting of going through rooms alongside a route defined by the owners, we found ourselves surrounded by the same flavor of coziness that seems to abound in this p(a)lace (couldn’t help it).
According to the encyclopedia, the architecture is an “intentional mixture of eclectic styles including Neo-Gothic, Neo-Manueline, Neo-Islamic and Neo-Renaissance”. I think it’s much more than a sum of labels. Not even a wide lens does it justice. I’ll call it “the four Cs of the Pena Palace”: cute, charming, cozy, childish. It is one of the most original constructions I’ve ever seen (it’s a top ten thing).
It was time to replenish ourselves so we grabbed a bus back to the city center. I have to give kudos to Trip Advisor for helping us steer clear of several tourist trap restaurants during the past couple of years. This time, it failed. We got ripped off by a restaurant that had a decent rating. The setting was nice, but the food was expensive and of poor quality. The shops also had the same tourist trap flavor, so we got outta there fast.
The final stop on our blitz tour of Sintra was Quinta da Regaleira^. We arrived by bus from the city center, one station later realizing that the property is walking distance from there. The evening was approaching fast and we wanted to visit a fourth location in Sintra, so our plan was to have a quick peek at what we thought is just one building and then jump onto the next bus.
I think it’s safe to say that the architecture of this sprawling estate has been an inspiration for artists that went on to design charming buildings in movies such as The Lord of the Rings. This place is Rivendell in real life.
The chapel is a short walk from the estate. Despite its diminutive size, the structure inspires a sense of awe. It is not only the intricate Romantic architecture that is responsible for this, but also chapel’s excellent positioning within the estate’s large complex of gardens, walls, grottos and waterfalls. It is situated close to a walled rock face that is partially covered with vegetation and from certain angles it looks like they are one single construction.
Time flew past us and we missed one of the last busses back to the train station. The more we were walking around, the more routes and things to see popped up. We couldn’t explore the grottos and tunnels as much as we would have wanted. Actually, looking over the encyclopedia entry, I realize that we’ve barely scratched the surface of what the property has to offer. We didn’t get to see any of the (two) awesome Initiation Wells^.
Our plan to visit a fourth location during the day proved itself too ambitious. Alas, Quinta da Regaleira was too amazing not to spend all our remaining time there. We had to leave around 18:00 because we had to catch the last bus towards the train station.
In the half hour until our train was going to depart we sat on a staircase between two houses. As the day’s heat was subduing a large bottle of water was life’s royal gift. For weary legs, the steps we were sitting on were like a throne. We were tired but thankful. Feeling so fulfilled in such simple setting made me wonder if all tourists are aware of how lucky they are. We get the chance to complain about ticket prices while in other parts of the world people are starving and ration their dirty water.
A day is only enough to taste, in a rush, some of Sintra’s most prized treasures. One would need at least three days to thoroughly explore the area. Visit, and become part of the fairy tale.
Most pictures made by Crina^.
You can access the full album here^.
My proposed soundtrack for reading this text:
The reason this soundtrack is here at the bottom (supposedly after the reader finished the text) is because one can’t really focus on music anyway while reading a new text. Hopefully the story was entertaining enough to ask for a second read, this time with some music in the background.