Sintra – Castles, palaces, a lighthouse and more…

The famous town of Sintra sits between pretty hills and the Atlantic Ocean about 40 minutes outside of Lisbon. As much as it checks all the flags on the tourist town checklist, most of the city is quite pretty with some nice stores and restaurants. The view of the ocean over a series of green mountains lined with some historic structures is quite a sight. Lets just say, a traveller will not be disappointed.

The hill of Sintra is has a fort wall at the top, a stunning palace a little below it, and a wonderful town center where you can view it all from somewhere halfway up the hill. The most famous of the sites is the Pena Palace that sits a little above the town on the hill and accounts for some amazing architecture, fancy pastel-colored facade, a gleaming red clock tower, and beautifully curated gardens and crazy crowds. By 11 am there could be an hour wait in a long winding line just to get in. Even earlier, while the wait might be shorter, you walk single file into the palace and follow a predetermined route till you come out over a courtyard. The courtyard is crowded too, though you will have the freedom to move around. Inside the palace, photography was not allowed since that would slow down the flow of people and cause human traffic jams. So just see, appreciate, and walk!

The palace was the residence of a king and actually for most of the time his queen. So most of what you see is like the bedroom, the study, the dining room, or the toilet. Some of the rooms had nice ornate decor and the ceramics usually were the standout pieces. The most memorable room for me was the room of the ‘coats of arms’ which had a ceiling full of the symbols of the royalty and the nobility. Once done with the tour, there is a nice deck with some got spots to get yourself clicked, a small restaurant, and a bookshop. I would say the outside of the palace is more fun than the inside tour. There is a short bus ride available to the main entrance gate. The bus is charged extra and not probably needed on the way down but it was a blessing on the way up – just remember to buy a separate ticket when you buy for the rest of the palace.

A short drive downhill led to a very crowded bus stop of a very crowded town. The steep roads that led to most restaurants were not as crowded and carried some shoes, some souvenirs, ceramic and other local decors, some amazing port, and local packaged food. Quite a few retail stores stocked shoes, bags, and wallets made of cork, one of the unique products of Portugal (50% of global share). It was claimed that these products are very durable and last many years. The ceramics were beautiful and came in many different designs that could be mixed and matched. A lunch fare at one of the local places was made of soup, salad, main dish, dessert, and even a complimentary snack. The wine wasn’t free but quite reasonable and very good.

Streets of Sintra

Just across the road, another palace awaited – the Sintra National Palace. Not as colorful as the Pena Palace and probably not even as grand in its setting but the interior of this one seemed more interesting. The banquet room was fascinating, as were several other rooms that contained some historic furniture and cool wall art. I guess the smaller crowds, the freedom to move at your own pace and the time to absorb the stories behind the history helped make this more interesting.

There is a lot more in Sintra, the Moorish castle walls on top of the hill, Quinta da Regaleira, and even more palaces and chalets. For the paucity of time, we moved on to see the one site that is a little bit outside the city but has a cool superlative associated with it – Cape Roca. It is the westernmost point of continental Europe. It is designated by a beautiful lighthouse and jokes about how you could just swim in a straight line to get to New York. It is quite a sight with the blue ocean down below for just as far as you can see. There are some facilities here, including paid washrooms and a small cafe.

I was keen to see Azenhas do Mar but it was in the opposite direction as Lisbon and it had been a long day. The drive back from Cape Roca to Lisbon is best done through this stunningly beautiful road that hugs the coastline and passes by some small villages, a luxurious golf course, and this artistic town called Cascais, where we took a short break. Not much that stood out, but it just seemed to be a collection of shops next to a beach with a marina – usually a good thing.

The drive back to Lisbon also took us past this 18th-century Aqueduct which was fascinating to watch. Somehow, I have always been amazed by these elaborate structures, build so extensively, just to carry water – a task we take so much for granted today. This fascination may be because of playing too many video games about historic civilizations. We got dropped off near the Monumento aos Restauradores and since it was a reasonable walk to the hotel and we were desperately hungry, we decided to take a break from local restaurant hunting, and eat at one of the most boisterous symbols of tourism and American Rock culture – the Hard Rock Cafe. Traveler 7 – Tourist 1.

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