sintra, portugal

Going through the photos we took in Sintra was so fun, probably because we had an amazing time when we were actually in Sintra.  Seriously, the colors, the bright blue sky, the four unique locations we visited (plus the town itself at the end of the day) - it's maybe one of my favorite places we've ever been.  If you can manage to scroll through all of the photos I've included, I'll be impressed - my self-control was lacking as I chose pictures, just like it was when we were snapping photos left and right and up and down during our visit.  So, you've been warned, and proceed at your own risk (mainly the risk of wanting to get to Sintra ASAP, but whatever).

We took the train (~40 minutes) from the center of Lisbon to Sintra and walked to Quinta da Regaleira to begin the day.  We arrived just as they opened, and headed directly to the Initiatic Well, an underground tower formerly used for secretive initiation ceremonies.  It is frequently photographed (by those with much more skill than ourselves) so feel free to Google those if you please.  There is an elaborate system of tunnels and caves that connect the well to a variety of other places on the grounds, and we had fun exploring hidden entrances and walkways and feeling as though we were the first ones to ever do so ;) 

D - I have a bad habit of comparing a lot of the places we go to Lord of the Rings landscapes and scenery and this place was no different.  I think it's because the world of LOTR (that's how we fans refer to it) is built of such fantastic places which seem to transcend the natural world, so much so that when I come across a fantastic place myself it's immediately what comes to mind.  The two wells on the property, particularly, made me feel like I was going through the Mines of Moria (ahem...nerd alert).  Needless to say, I had a great time.  I've decided that if I ever become an eccentric billionaire, underground tunnels are a must.  

There is also a five story palace on the grounds, which was the summer residence of the Carvalho Monteiro family built in the early 1900s in the Neo-Manueline style.  Only the ground floor was open to us at the time of our visit, which was a shame, because while what we saw was nice, the map of the home indicated a panoramic terrace and turret with views over the property and surrounding area (even all the way to the ocean!) that sounded really great.  

D - The Neo-Manueline style is Portuguese through and through and it's really cool.  The style incorporates nautical symbolism throughout, a reminder that Portugal was once a real nautical and exploration powerhouse.  

Many people (okay, most people) visiting Sintra either use a car or bus services to get around between the different sites.  Well, we didn't have a car, and the bus was irregular and expensive, and I had planned to walk and felt like it was a pretty good plan, so that's what we did.  Between all the walking we did at the actual parks and palaces and the walking to and from each one, it made for quite a tiring day but we did it and somehow saw everything we wanted to before closing time.  

D - Shannon waited to tell me until we got to the first site that we were going to have to do a "fair bit of walking today" (or something cryptic like that).  I think she was worried that I might try to veto the idea if she had told me beforehand.  I was a little concerned (I am known to be a bit adverse to walking long distances) but I think our time in Sintra stands as a testament to the fact that I'm both maturing as a traveller and as a person.  I barely complained at all!

Our next stop was the Park and Palace of Monserrate.  Although a variety of structures have been on the property throughout the years, what we saw on our visit was restored in the 1850's for Sir Francis Cook and his family, and used as the family's summer home for many years.  The style of the home is unique - Romanticism mixed with Moorish Revival and some Neo-Geothic elements.   

D - Shannon's not joking about unique.  We've seen quite a few palaces and grand houses throughout our travels, and Monserrate really stands out.  You'd be surprised how hard it was to convince Shannon to get the picture of me as a statue, but I mean, c'mon.  Those empty pedestals are really just asking for it.  

Surrounding the house are extensive gardens - Japanese gardens, Mexican gardens, a rose garden, as well as a false ruin of a chapel based one built in the same location years prior, a waterfall, and the first lawn planted in Portugal, just off of the main house.  We didn't encounter too many tourists at Monserrate (fine by us!), and we had the nicest time exploring the stunning home and nearly deserted trails winding through the gardens.  The temperatures were pleasant and some of the fondest memories I have of our day in Sintra are of walking through the cool halls of the palace, sitting on the luxurious lawn (still not a common find in Europe over 150 years after its original planting!), and being in awe of some of the crazy plant life we saw.  

D - Crazy plant life indeed.  Some of the plants we saw could literally devour a full grown Okapi!

When we finished at Monserrate, we knew we were quite a distance from our next stop, the Palace of Pena, but since we didn't have data on our phones in Portugal, we didn't know exactly how far or exactly how to go just that we were likely pretty far.  We had seen a sign on our way to Monserrate for a certain "Rampa da Pena" and based on our level zero knowledge of Portuguese, figured that maybe it was a trail leading to Pena?  Best case scenario, it could be a shortcut and lead to less walking and get us to Pena quicker, and worst case scenario, we could have to backtrack, do more walking, and what's a little more walking compared to the miles we'd already done (and were still yet to do)?  

D - This was the bit of walking I was most worried about, because you can basically see the Palace of Pena from the time you arrive in Sintra on the train and it looks like it's on top of a mountain.  Seriously...it kind of looks like one of those temples that the protagonist of a martial arts movie has to climb to in order to receive training from the legendary, emotionally walled-off sensei.  We debated a lot about if we should take this potential shortcut or not but we decided to err on the side of adventure.  

It was pretty much all uphill, but it got us there quicker than walking along the road would have, and it was certainly more pleasant as well.  We had another 30-minute uphill walk through the grounds of Pena before reaching the palace, but at least we felt a bit of victory knowing we were really almost there.  

D - On our way from Monserrat to Pena, I tried to hitchhike whenever we found ourselves walking along the road, which was actually a good portion of the way.  I don't normally do this, but I was slightly desperate (while Shannon was slightly mortified) so I stuck my thumb out and hoped for the best.  I figured that all those driving past were tourists, and tourists are friendly and look out for each other, right?  It's not really like the real world.  Plus, I knew that, being a nice looking young couple, we are ideal hitchhiking candidates for people who may not normally pick up hitchhikers.  And wouldn't you know it, absolutely no one stopped.  It probably didn't help that Shannon was hiding her face every time I tried.   When we (finally) arrived at the Palace of Pena I did the mature thing and got down on my hands and knees and kissed the ground.  For whatever reason, Shannon seemed slightly embarrassed about this too.  

The Palace of Pena was built in the 1800s in the Portuguese Romantic style, and the king and queen of Portugal at the time had quite a bit of influence on it.  For a time, it was also used as a summer home, but this one was for the royal family of Portugal.  It's one of Portugal's most visited attractions, perhaps in part because of the striking bright colors that are so unusual for a castle.  We got to tour a few rooms inside - a kitchen, bedroom, dining room, hall - but to be honest, I think that the unusual exterior really steals the show here.  It's worth going inside if you've made it all the way to Pena, for sure, and we saw some interesting things that drew our attention and even some laughs, but the fantastical outside is what captures most people I think.

D - In a lot of ways, the Palace of Pena looks like something designed by a kid, or at least designed for kids.  It sort of reminds me of something out of Spy Kids or something.  When we were there, we even saw some people flying above in these super high tech, tiny planes.  Carmen?  Juni?  Antonio Banderas?  Is that you?  We also saw a guy using this incredible drone camera and I've been telling Shannon we need one ever since.  Like really, every place we go.  "Hey, you know what would be awesome here?"  "...a drone."  "YES!  How did you know?"

Our final stop in Sintra was the Moorish Castle (or, in Portuguese, the Castelo dos Mouros).  Now, I have to say I would call this more of a wall, like the Moorish Wall, rather than castle, but whatever.  No one asked me when naming the place.  It was still pretty neat, whatever it's called, just take note that there's no actual castle to be seen.  Construction took place in the 8th and 9th centuries by the Moors as a way of protecting their people and throughout the centuries it fell into disrepair and was rebuilt by different rulers, and today many people visit for it's views of the Palace of Pena and the surrounding areas (try to visit on a clear day if possible!).  

And finally, before taking the train back to Lisbon, we walked around Sintra for a little while.  Yes, it's a bit touristy, but it has some charming corners and some really delicious almond pastries (check out Casa Piriquita for their amaaaazing travesseiros - so good there's two locations just a minute or so apart).  

D - The travesseiros were perfect!  I'm the type of person who is always very critical when eating new things (searching for ways they could be improved), but these things were the quintessence of everything that is good about pastries.  Crisp, warm, gooey, and scrumptious in all the right ways.  Seriously, if you go to Sintra, do not leave before trying one of these.  On a somewhat sad note, I'm beginning to learn that sweets are best enjoyed in moderation.  The first bite will always be the best.  The more you eat, the less you enjoy.  It's called the law of diminishing marginal utility or something and it's really depressing.  Also, I've begun to realize that the way that I've built these pastries up in my mind (along with many other foods) probably means that if I ever have one again I'll probably be a little disappointed.  I'm forced to ponder: do I want to be a person who leaves things on a high note, or a person who squeezes the enjoyment out of things to the very last drop (so I get more but I enjoy each taste less and less)?  These are the questions that torment me, and make me wish that I had more Shakespeare memorized so I could wax poetic about all the injustices of life.  

We walked a lot, didn't drink enough (any? haha) water, but had one of the most amazing days in recent memory (at least for me).  Three out of the four places we visited (all except for Pena) were nearly empty, which is a surefire way to get me to love a place, plus we had fantastic weather and blue skies...not to mention that the places themselves were pretty impressive.  I can't recommend a day trip to Sintra from Lisbon enough.  In fact, I think if you have one day in Lisbon, I'd do this before anything else.  A bold statement, I know, but it's just a magical place with such a wide variety of things to see and do (and there's so much we didn't do - a couple of other palaces, a convent, and more gardens and trails - you just can't do it all in one day, but I picked the things that I felt were 'must-sees' for a one day trip).  If my oft-repeated pose throughout this trip (and our days in Lisbon, see more here) didn't give it away, it was one of the happiest, one of the best days, and I wasn't afraid to show it - all smiles, all silly poses, just loving life.  :)