A Day Trip To Sintra, Portugal

Trip Start Oct 21, 2009
Trip End Jan 12, 2010

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Flag of Portugal  , Estremadura,
Monday, October 26, 2009

10.26.09               Sintra, Portugal

After breakfast and on our quick walk to Estacio Rossio to catch the commuter train to Sintra… we were again offered hash/hashish for the THIRD time since arriving in Portugal just two days ago (much to our amusement)!  Not just from shady characters, either, but also from a guy wearing a very nice business suit!  Each time, it's gone like this: "Hey, you want some hash?", followed by a quick flash of the “goods” contained within the offeror’s palm.  Fortunately, a “no thanks” (or a “no, obligado”) is all the reply needed…

Back to Sintra.  Sintra, Portugal, is about 40km outside of Lisbon and is considered a must-do sea-and-sun destination even for native Lisboetas.  And… it is stunning!  With above-the-clouds fairytale palaces, dewy forests thick with lichen and moss and scattered with huge boulders, pastel-hued villas scattered here and there, and charming cobblestoned streets and narrow back alleys, it was the perfect day trip for us.

We arrived at Sintra around 10:30am, and walked from Estacio Sintra (in Estefania, one part of Sintra) toward Sintra-Vila, the historical center of town.  Our walk was about 2km in distance, around the large subtropical gardens of Museo Anjos Teixeira, and we paused along the way to view the numerous sculpture gardens on exhibit.  After arriving at Sintra-Villa and a quick stop for lattes, cocoa, and a scrumptious, dense coconut pastry, our first real tourist stop was at the Palacio Nacional de Sintra.

The Palacio Nacional de Sintra towers over the old city center, with an expansive cobblestone courtyard, fountains, and huge twin conical chimneys.  The palace has Moorish origins (13th to 14th centuries), and indeed, it reminded me of my trip to Topkapi Palace in Istanbul, Turkey, back in 1998-99.  The palace also was given a “Manueline twist” in the 15th century by Manual I.  The interior of the palace can best be described as whimsical – beautiful hand-painted tiling everywhere, painted cathedral-high ceilings, gorgeous mosaic and wood floors, twisting columns, and low archways

Highlights of the palace included the Swan Room (27 gold-collared painted swans on the ceiling) and the Sala das Pegas, or the Magpie Room (rumor pegs this room to King Joao I’s infidelity with one of the queen’s ladies-in-waiting – my money’s on the rumor being true!).  The final stop in the palace also included a trip to the kitchen to see the inside of those famous twin conical chimneys, which were impressive.  (I told Murray that someday I wanted a kitchen like the one at the Palacio Nacional de Sintra.  He refused to respond to my request…)

After the Palacio Nacional de Sintra, we took a bus about 3km up the steep mountaintop overlooking Sintra (a rather frightening bus ride at times, if truth be told – although nothing like past bus trips I’ve taken in Guatemala and Peru!).  Again, the forests that cover the mountainside are wondrous – like what you’d imagine Robin Hood living in, or where you’d find the Hobbits habitating.  Really neat!  The bus dropped us off at Castelo Dos Mouros, a 9th century Moorish castle perched high above Sintra on the top of a mountain. 

There was some rigorous hiking involved in our visit to this castle – and we definitely broke a sweat doing all this hiking on this 88 degrees+ day!  The path to get to the castle winds up and down the mountainside, over large boulders, and through very dense forest.  Arriving at the castle itself, there are steep steps to climb to get to the walkways at the top of the castle walls.  Of course, once we arrived at the top of the castle, it was well worth the effort.  The views of Sintra – and Portugal and the Atlantic beyond – from the height of Castelo Dos Mouros were just incredible.  The castle could be described as the Great Wall of China in miniature – high walkways atop thick castle walls, the walkways themselves winding up and down flights of stairs and through numerous towers and minarets.  

After Castelo Dos Mouros, we dined at a non-descript place back down in Sintra-Villa and then spent a few hours exploring the narrow back streets and alleyways of Sintra.  We looked in a few shops and finally tried Ginjinha, a syrupy liquor that the Portuguese drink around dusk, clustered in large groups outside of ginjinha bars throughout (presumably) every Portuguese city.  (Our taste of the sweet stuff came with cherries and was served in a small cup made of chocolate, which we ate after drinking the Ginjinha.)  

The Portuguese also love their pastelerias – pastry and bake shops – so before heading back to the train station, we made another contribution to the Portuguese economy and did our part in testing out more pastries.  The pasteis (accent over the “e”) de nata – or eggy custard cups, surrounded by flaky crusts – are particularly edible.  Hah. 

After arriving back in Lisbon and taking a nap back at our Guesthouse, we had a late dinner at a traditional Portuguese restaurant about ten feet from the door of our Guesthouse!  Turned out to be the best Portuguese dinner yet.  We started the meal with bread and olives (and for Murray, a few very interesting pates), went on to flavorful chicken soup, and then had the first nice salad we’d had in days – large and fresh, with beetroot on top.  For our mains, Murray had a seafood dish mixed with herbs and doughy bread (almost like a risotto dish, but with bread instead of risotto), and I had an awesome mixed grill kebab that included the best peppers and spicy chorizo ever.  We also had desserts this time (third sweets of the day, but who’s counting?) – coffee liquor biscuit cake, which contained at least ten layers, and an egg custard cake topped with cinnamon.  And, of course, Murray felt duty-bound to try yet another Portuguese beer, for the good of humanity.

Tomorrow, we’re off to Barcelona, Spain, for four nights.  I can’t wait to get back!  I went to Spain in 2000 with a college friend of mine, Noam, and have been itching to return specifically to Barcelona ever since (of course, this time it will be a slightly different experience now that I’m not as young as I once was!).  Murray has never been to Spain – it will be fun to show him some of the things that I remember!
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