Travels Through Portugal – Sintra

Sintra was near the top of my wish-list when I planned my recent trip to Portugal.  All of the photos I had seen of the Palace made it seem like a setting straight out of a fairy tale.

We took the early morning  commuter train to Sintra from Lisbon, getting a chance to see more of the residential side of the capital city as we shared the train with regular commuters on their way to and from work.  It took about an hour and only cost us 2,50 euros.

We were a little worried about the weather, that the rain in the forecast would ruin our day of sightseeing in Sintra.  When we got on the train it started raining off and on, but at times it was a heavy downpour.  Luckily by the time we arrived, the rain had let up to light showers.

From the Sintra train station we walked about 2 blocks to our hotel, dodging the growing number of tourists who were also arriving.

We stayed in a boutique hotel that was a former estate called Quinta Holstein.  As you walk through the gate. you enter beautiful well-kept grounds with a spectacular view of the surrounding countryside.  We dropped off our bags and began our day long self-guided tour.

About a block from the hotel is the Sintra Municipal Building – Camara Municipal Sintra – that gave us a preview of the magical architecture that we would be experiencing.

We made our way back to the train station to catch the city bus, which is really the best and cheapest way to tour the sites in Sintra.  There are 2 routes, Bus 434 (circuito da Pena) stops at the National Palace, the Moors Castle, and Pena Palace before returning to the train station.  The first bus departs at 9.30 am and the last one departs at 6.20 pm and runs every 15 minutes. Cost is €6,90 and you can use it like a hop on hop off bus but only if you are travelling in one direction.  Bus 435  (Villa Express & 4 Palacios) stops at Quinta da Regaleira, the Seteais Palace and the Monserrate Palace. The 435 also departs from and returns to the train station from 9:40am to 6:15pm and runs every 25 minutes. Cost is €5.

We didn’t have a lot of time so we decided on the two main highlights, Pena Palace and Quinta da Regaleira.

Pena palace is the most famous attraction in Sintra. It was built in 1842 by King Ferdinand ll who wanted it to look like a scene from an opera with brightly coloured walls and mixed architectural styles. There is a large statue of him, about half a kilometer from the palace which overlooks the estate.

It is a long uphill climb from the get where the bus drops you off, although you can take a shuttle to the palace, which is helpful for people who have mobility issues. Pena Palace opens every day at 9:30am and it’s a good idea to get there early since this is the number one tourist attraction in Sintra.  If you just want to visit the park it costs €7.50, but the palace is really what you want to see and the palace and park visit will cost you €14.

As you get closer the palace comes into view and it is spectacular.  Like a castle from a fairy tale with its brightly painted walls in primary colours which only add to its magic.  When you pass through the main gate the castle comes alive with its intricate and elaborately designed walls.

We joined the crowd  that was wandering around the exterior of the palace, snapping photos and selfies, trying to capture the beauty of the structure.  It was very windy so it was a little scary at times (for people like me who are afraid of heights), walking along the outer perimeter with a huge drop to the ground below.  But the amazing view of the surrounding countryside makes it worth the anxiety.   You can even see some of the other famous attractions, like the Moors castle, which is close by.

The highlight of Pena Palace is the exterior, the architecture and even the tile work on some of the walls.  It is very ornate and something you would expect for royalty.   Inside you get a snapshot of how the residents lived with their equally ornate furnishings.  Make sure to check out the “stag room” where aside from the hunting trophies on the walls there is a perfectly scaled model of the Palace.

After a few hours of touring around the palace, we stopped in the gift shop, browsing among the overpriced souvenirs and then had a nice lunch in the restaurant.  We had a choice of 3 dishes; bacalhau (cod) and potatoes, turkey stroganoff or vegetable pasta.

We decided to walk off some of the calories with a hike through the extensive grounds surrounding the palace.  The Parque de la Pena surrounds the Palacio Nacional and is a heavily forested area along the mountainside with a maze of secret paths featuring caves, bridges and fountains.  It is beautifully laid out with stone pathways, a lot of uphill climbing, and huge rocks covered in moss and lichen and the towering trees covered in ivy.  You will likely come upon a secluded area with a hidden cave known as the Grotto of the Monk where monks used to come to meditate. If you are able to make it to the highest point, Cruz Alta, a large stone cross sits at the top, 529 meters above sea level.  It is definitely worth the time to stroll through the grounds and explore the natural treasures.

From the fairy tale castle we next headed to a mansion that looks like a haunted house from a set in a horror movie. Quinta da Regaleira is a 19th-century Gothic mansion that is surrounded by 4 hectares of extensive gardens featuring grottoes, gargoyles, hidden passageways and caves and waterfalls. It has been declared a World Heritage Site by UNESCO.

It has had numerous owners but it was Antonio Augusto Carvalho Monteiro who hired an architect to makeover the grounds full of the symbols of the ideologies he believed in.  The mansion is also known as “The Palace of Monteiro the Millionaire.”

One of the highlights is the famous Initiation well that has a spiral staircase that leads to a series of secret tunnels.  The owner had it built to be used for Tarot initiation rites. Be careful when making your way down the stairs and through the caves and passageways.  It can be slippery but the experience is well worth the ticket price of €6.

There is also a beautiful Baroque style chapel on the grounds, which adds to the mystery of the estate that marries pagan symbols with traditional catholic iconography.

After our day of touring, we headed back to town where we did a quick change and headed out to dinner.  We went to Incomum on the advice of the staff at the hotel (it was also on my list of places to eat). While we were told we needed reservations, we managed to get in (probably because of the intermittent rain and the fact that it was the low tourist season.) It was delicious, I had duck with roasted figs on carrot puree and my friend had aged veal with roasted vegetables.  We also had an appetizer of bread and olives and pickled pig’s ear (it tasted good but had an awful texture – it crunched when you bit into it, and not something I will likely ever eat again.)

We would have liked to tour around a little more but the rainy weather put a damper on our plans.  People we spoke with at the hotel said we had seen the top two highlights anyway.  Still it might be nice to come back and visit again some day when we can expect better weather (although the summer crowds are said to be a nightmare).

As we waited at the train station for our next journey north to Aveiro, we discovered that there was a sudden railway strike (welcome to Europe!) and no trains were running. We were told we could still take a commuter train back to Lisbon and either wait until the trains were running again or we could try our luck with a bus.  That turned out to be an adventure all its own, and we ended up cancelling our trip to Aveiro and our hotel reservation (thank you Aveiro Palace Hotel for being so understanding and refunding our full prepaid hotel rate – we will definitely be staying there when we come back to Portugal and can get to Aveiro.) Because of the huge demand for buses we ended up arriving in Porto around midnight. But despite the stress and the inconvenience, it has not soured my opinion of Portugal and I can’t wait to return.

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