Having spent all day on the Friday sight-seeing around Lisbon we were eagerly awaiting Saturday, our second day in Portugal and our only full day.
As there is so much to see in Lisbon I had planned to spend the second day in some of the many museums and galleries but then we thought about visiting Sintra. Sintra is a UNESCO World Heritage site about 30 miles outside of Lisbon. It seemed to be a good idea as it also would allow us to get into the Portugal countryside.
We didn’t realise just how great Sintra would be nor quite how exhausting it could be too. Like several great European cities, the Royals would prefer to get out of the capitals and get a bit of fresh air. As a result I think some of the best places to visit are actually away from the big cities. London has quaint and beautiful Windsor with its castle; 20km out of Berlin and you are in wonderful Potsdam and in the case of Paris, whilst Versaille the town isn’t anything special, the former royal palace certainly is.
Sintra is set high amongst the hills of western Portugal just a short distance from the Atlantic coast and historically the Portuguese Royal Family and several others would flee Lisbon and the summer heat for this oasis of green, fresh air and frequent fog.
It took a while to find the train station in Lisbon, primarily as the building looked too ornate and beautiful to be a train station, plus it was sat on one of Lisbons fantastically steep hills. A little more investigation and with the help of a friendly local we re-traced our steps and entered the train station and up several flights of escalators before we got to the booking hall. There was 6 minutes until the train and with one person in front of us we were hopefully we might just catch it but somehow 3 or 4 others joined this man in front of us, he was like a Tardis of queuing and when at last all of them left us we had less than two minutes left. Yet again we were astounded at the beyond helpful ticket office staff who saw our train about to go and served us in 20 seconds flat. We said our thank-you’s, ran like crazy, worked out how to navigate the ticket barriers and jumped on the train. The whistle went and the doors closed before our feet touched the floor of the train carriage.
The train ride to Sintra took about 45 minutes, we didn’t get to see as much countryside as we imagined as there were miles of tower blocks but eventually we saw the country rushing passed us.
Sintra (or Sinatra as WordPress encourages me to change it to) is a beautiful little place. Old stone houses full of little antique shops, cafes and quite a few china shops. We got ahead of the crowd and walked the mile or so from the train station to the centre, taking the first of a multitude of photos as we did so.
We had little idea of where to go or what to see. one thing that caught our eye was the old castle on top of a mountain. It looked great, or at least what we saw of it in the fog looked great but there is no way at all we would get up there on this trip.
Forgoing the many taxis and shuttle buses we joined a hardy few and decided to walk to the first of the many great houses in Sintra that we could find. After 10 minutes of walking we found a rather vague sign for the Pena Palace, it looked nice on the rather unhelpful map we had so off we walked. We normally walk a lot on our holidays but it is far to say that we probably wouldn’t have walked as far as we did, wearing what we were if we had known just how far away it was. Up and up we went, the forest was beautiful but the signs were few and far between. One thing is for certain, for someone with asthma I sure put many others to shame on the climb though when I say many, I mean anyone else stupid enough to walk here.
We stopped for lunch after an hour or so. The mist of central Sintra had given way to a very English fog/fine drizzle. I was still wearing a t-shirt for though it wasn’t the best of weather, it was still considerably warmer than what I’d been used to but there were many others in raincoat, wooly scarves and hats. I saw them on the tourist taxis as they drove past us up the hill!
After finishing off our home-made picnic we walked the last kilometre to the palace front gates. It was something of a false dawn as we were later to see or rather not see that the Palace was still a good 15-20 minutes climb upwards through the formal and not so formal gardens. The fog was such that everyone was getting lost, no-one could find the house and my only complaint about the whole weekend was that they could have done with more signs or at least staff to tell people the way.
Pena Palace was in retrospect well worth the effort of getting up here. It is perched fantastically on top of the high ground and was magically swathed in fog. Very brightly coloured it seemed rather like it belonged in Kings Landing on Game of Thrones.
The lady at the entrance surmised that due to my clothing, I wasn’t a local. We also received some bitter-sweet news. We had taken the long route up here and that a different part of Sintra had a sign giving a direct route rather than the many foggy hair-pin bends we walked up. It turned out that about 100 metres between these two signs cost us many miles of up hill walking. The good, surprising or mind-blowing news was that after we finished with the place, the castle was just 5 minutes walk up the road. Good heavens, we hadn’t just walked about 6 miles but also climbed 1400 feet / 430 metres all whilst not expecting to do very much more than window-shop.
The history of Pena Palace started in 1493 when King John II and his Queen Leonor made a pilgrimage to a site. A Chapel was soon built which lasted several centuries until it fell into disrepair due to lightning strikes and a severe earthquake. In 1838, the future King Ferdinand II decided to use the spot as a place to build a summer palace to shelter from the heat.
In 1908 the Portuguese King and his successor son were assassinated whilst riding in a carriage through the streets. the murderers were instantly shot dead by royal bodyguards but just two years later a military coup took place and Portugal became a republic with Pena Palace still being used by the President of Portugal on some state occasions.
By and large the palace is quite small in scope and less sumptuously decorated than palaces I’ve seen in other countries but this was no doubt partly due to the restricted space on top of the mountain. It was still a beautiful place to visit and quite a unique and special place.
When we came out of the palace, the fog had got even thicker and it’s no exaggeration to say that there were groups of people wondering around lost in the small paved area outside the palace itself. We didn’t have a problem leaving as I’d memorised the way we came in or perhaps had the torturous route burned into my brain.
We decided as we had come this far that we would walk a little further and reach the castle we had never expected to reach. Some complaints were aired at this point about tired legs and maybe the odd curse word but not from me! It was worth it though as The Castle Of The Moors is one of the most dramatic places that I have ever visited. Built in the 8th and 9th centuries by the Muslim Moors who came from North Africa and occupied Portugal, Spain and even part of France. Centuries later it was voluntarily handed over to Christian forces after the Reconquista had expelled the Moors from Lisbon in 1147. Such an old castle was in perilous condition by the 20th Century but decades of repairs mean the castle is looking better than it has for centuries.
We spent about an hour looking around the castle and in truth could have spent a lot longer if we weren’t so tired. The castle perimeter walls are nearly 500 metres/ 1500 feet in length and has towers that climb up steep rocky promintaries which give the most fantastic views to Sintra below. It’s hard to imagine how the Moors from hot North Africa managed to build such a fortress in such an impregnable area 1300 years ago. It was an entirely breathtaking experience in more ways than one and was even more dramatic with how the fog blowing in and momentarily displaying and then eclipsing various towers. We decided not to climb to the very tallest tower, the steps were very steep, the wind was blowing and the fog was so bad that we could see a few feet in front of us. Instead we visited old churches, secret passageways and other goodies.
I mentioned in my post on Lisbon how seeing the Vasco De Gama bridge reminded me of The Golden Gate Bridge in California, well to me at least the Castle of The Moors looks a lot like The Great Wall of China.
I always like finding a surprised highlight of any trip and this castle was an incredible surprise which kept our spirits high as we negotiated a short cut footpath that quickly descended us through the forest to Sintra below, so much more quickly than the way we had come and then another mile saw us back on the train which by luck again departed just after we got on board. We have to go back to Sintra as there are so many other grand palaces to see there that we never got to visit.
Lisbon and Portugal made a big impact on us both the people and the attractions and I hope to go back there quickly. I crossed off another country from my to-do list and flight number 29 went relatively smoothly too except for an hours delay before take-off. I hope that you enjoyed my brief posts on Lisbon and Sintra and that more people will visit these incredible cities which in my opinion are every bit as rewarding as other perhaps big name European cities.