I have just spent 3 very full-on days in the magnificent town of Sintra, Portugal and it has barely been enough! I stumbled across this gorgeous destination while researching places to visit in Portugal – the photos I found on Lonely Planet alone were enough to tempt me. Most of the travel sites seem to suggest that Sintra is a wonderful day-trip destination, and most people seem to bus or train in from Lisbon for a few hours, get through as much as possible, then hop back on the bus again. INSANITY! Sintra is HUGE! The castles are HUGE. The hills are HUGE. The lines to catch the buses are HUGE.
Don’t let this deter you though. Walking is an extremely viable option, but with one fairly significant warning – you gotta love hills. And I mean CLIMBING. BIG. HILLS. Yes, there are plenty of buses and taxis and tuk tuks if your knees aren’t up to it (mine almost weren’t!). But the walk is half the experience, because you get to experience the most magnificent views. Slowly. Cause I wasn’t going fast up or down.
Sintra Day 1
I arrived at noon (45 min train from Lisbon) on Day 1. After dropping my luggage off at the very hospitable and rather affordable Moonhill Hostel I set off to check out the town. Sintra is IMPRESSIVE. The whole of Sintra is mind-blowing, from the majestic mountain top palaces of Mouros and Pena (photos to follow in the next few days) to the National Palace of Sintra, which is right smack in the middle of town. This was my first stop, as you really can’t miss it. Wandering about, I then followed the main road along (I was actually trying to escape the mass of day-trippers – turns out I arrived on a national holiday, so EVERYONE was in Sintra today) and ended up at the fantastical myth-laden gardens and villa of Quinta da Regaleira. The whole place reminds me of the movie ‘Pan’s Labyrinth’. It was high on my list of places to visit and it did not disappoint. Photos soon!
The gardens and house are not especially big (by Sintra standards) so I was out on the streets again and looking for lunch by 3pm. Happily I came across the superb food at Tascantiga, which replenished my energy reserves. Undecided on what to do next, but certain I was not climbing mountains today, I meandered in the direction of the hostel, before sighting a sign that pointed to a castle. For my future reference: one should not simply assume that an innocuous sign will point to a similarly innocuous castle, and one should also try to memorise the names of important tourists sites when one is visiting new destinations. It will save you a bloody long unintended walk.
I’d already trudged what I thought was a ways up the hill before a map advised me that the ‘innocuous castle’ Mouros, was in fact the immense Mouros/Moorish relic at the top of the very very big hill. The wine I had at lunch probably didn’t help with my common sense. So I decided to continue to climb. And climb. And climb. About 40 mins later I got to the ticket office! Woo hoo! That’s at the bottom of where the castle starts properly — there’s still a good couple hundred vertical metres to go after that! Bugger it. Totally worth it though. 🙂
Sintra Day 2
I awoke with two nearly broken legs. Thankful I brought my trusty Yoga Tune Up balls along on this expedition, as they’re the only reason I’ve been able to walk to breakfast in the mornings, and then out the front door. First stop today was another trip to Quinta da Regaleira — I was really hoping to get some nice light and few tourists. They don’t open the gates until 10.30 though so there’s no real ‘early start’ but there are certainly a lot fewer people there at 10.30 than there were the day before at 2pm. The day trippers are likely still on the buses from Lisbon …
I got my photos, then tried to psych myself up for what was to come. The Palace and Gardens of Pena sit on the other very big hill in Sintra (Mouros is right next door). I knew from the day before that the walk was steep. I started in a different place this time (I was just following the signs for Pena Palace from Quinta Regaleira) and ended up on a fairly vertical ascent up the mountain.
The trail starts at the Parque das Merendas, proceeds past Villa Sassetti, then … up, and up, and up and … omg when will it end. Of course, like with Mouros, all the signs showing you ‘how far’ are only to the ticket office. You still have the climb up to the castle, and around the gardens. Beautiful – yes. Worth it – absolutely. Was I cursing the town of Sintra by the end of it – you bet!
The palace and gardens need a good 45-60 mins to get to the ticket office (for me anyway!) plus an hour for the castle, and then at *least* another hour for the gardens (especially if you make your way to the High Cross and Chalet of the Countess d’Edla like I did). The descent time will vary considerably – it took me forever as my calf muscles had gone on strike and refused to stretch, so getting back down the way I’d come up was a mixture of bemusing (‘oh the shit I get myself into’), outright discomfort (‘please don’t cramp please don’t cramp’) and ‘oh hey that view is awesome’. Photos soon!!
Sintra Day 3
The 4km walk to the Palace and Gardens of Monserrate was sooo easy compared to past days. My legs were badly broken when I awoke this morning, and while the YTU balls helped, down hill and down steps sucked immensely. I’m actually not convinced I can walk back to my hostel room after spending the last couple of hours editing photos and writing up this post, cause they have well and truly seized up again.
Monserrate is a mix of impressive landscape, imaginative architecture and intricate interior design. Actually, the attention to detail in all the palaces and gardens I’ve visited has been phenomenal. It’s not hard to understand how the area got UNESCO World Heritage listing. I’ve managed to edit a few of my photos from today. I had a lot of fun here as the mix of textures and light in the building interior were perfect for practicing HDR techniques. I’ve made full use of Google’s Nik Efex HDR plug-in. I’m very happy with the results.