On a clear day it’s possible to see the mountains of Sintra from Lisbon and make out the brilliantly coloured Pena Palace glowing high on the mountain. While only 24 kilometres from the bustling capital, Sintra feels like a world away. Cool and lush with ferns, mosses and forests, the region has played host as the summer residence of Portuguese kings and their courts for over six centuries. It has also long drawn poets and eccentrics, providing them with artistic inspiration and a place to hone their craft.
Before I left Australia I’d looked into day trips from Lisbon, unwilling to sign up for a standard tour but also knowing an organised trip would be able to cover more ground than I possibly could on public transport. I was pretty excited to stumble across the X-Day Trip to Sintra and the Atlantic coast run by Lisbon outfit, We Hate Tourism. Their website was vague enough about the actual route to convey the promise of an adventure.
I managed to get lost on the way to the meeting place (lost to the point I had to assume I’d be making my own way to Sintra after all) but with directions offered by some helpful Lisboetas, I found the right square with the WHT skull-and-crossbones van and its wrangler João.
Once through the city traffic, our small group sped towards Sintra, passing through outlying towns and their pastel-coloured apartment blocks stacked up the hillsides. Talk turned to the recent devastating wildfires, and then to politics and history. Australia’s eucalypts — now ubiquitous in the Portuguese landscape — bore much of the blame, thanks to their flammability.
It was only as we got closer to Sintra that we saw the 8th century fort perched on top of the mountain. Constructed as a stronghold by the Moors — Berbers and other Arabic peoples from North Africa — it fell into ruins after southern Portugal was recaptured by Christian forces in the 12th century. Given its precarious location, it’s hard to imagine how they managed to build it at all.
Winding through narrow roads and hairpin bends, we bypassed the more popular (i.e. crowded) of the eccentric palaces and estates that hide amongst the forests and instead made our way to the Palácio de Monserrate. Constructed around 1860 from the ruins of a Neo-Gothic palace, the new owner Englishman Sir Francis Cook and his team of workers created an extraordinary palace with references to Indian and Moorish architecture.
The acres of park surrounding the palace are full of nooks and crannies, follies, waterfalls and individual gardens dedicated to plants from other parts of the world. I also met the palace cat, who flung itself down in the gravel at my feet and then followed me all around the palace like a dog, trotting along balustrades and weaving around potted plants to keep up.
We ate lunch in a tasca (tavern), sharing small plates of local delicacies and savouring the fresh bread dipped in olive oil, tomatoes, grilled asparagus, eggs and (for the non-vegetarians) game sausages and fish. We drove to Cabo da Roca, the westernmost point of continental Europe and drank ginjinha (sour cherry liqueur) out of tiny cups. We watched waves crashing onto the rocks below and all along around the Atlantic coast to the resort town of Cascais.
A few days later my onward trip to the dusty Alentejo town of Évora was stymied (that’s another story) and I decided to head back to Sintra under my own steam. I caught the train from the atmospheric Rossio Station in central Lisbon and spent the day exploring the other, more touristy, palaces and sights of Sintra.
I trudged up the mountain from the bus stop to the flamboyant Pena Palace, once the summer home of kings, and stood well away from the edge of the gently sagging balconies while I took photographs. It was windy and I’m not great with edges. I may have mentioned that once or twice before.
And I explored the hidden tunnels and Masonic initiation wells of the esoteric Quinta da Regaleira. I ran out of of steam to see inside the ornate Gothic house and instead sat on a boulder eating an ice cream and watching other visitors take photographs of themselves using selfie sticks, their smiles igniting like flash powder and dissolving to nothing.
After a delicious dinner at the restaurant near my accommodation, I lay on my bed and watched the light change on the National Palace. The October sky a deep purple-blue behind the huge white chimneys. It was stunning.