When we decided to spend five days in Lisbon, we knew we were giving ourselves plenty of time. You can easily visit the city over two, three days; if you have more than that, planning a few day trips further afield is a pretty good idea. In the end, five days proved to be not quite enough to do everything we wanted, and we had to miss out on a highly recommended visit to the seaside town of Cascais. Our priority, though, was visiting Sintra: a small village just outside of Lisbon, offering some of Portugal’s best natural and architectural sights.
Getting to Sintra only takes one hour by train, with direct services from Lisbon’s Rossio station. That’s less than it takes to cross London by tube, and you’d never believe me if I told you the train fare (less than 5€, if you ask). One hour only, and yet you might feel as if you were travelling to another world; Lisbon and Sintra are completely different, and in such interesting ways. Sintra is as orderly as Lisbon is frenzied. As composed as it is lively. Peaceful, soothing, refreshing; a feast for the eyes and a delight for the soul.
Guides advise to avoid visiting Sintra on weekends, and that’s quite right: you can expect every single tourist visiting Lisbon to know it’s so close and cheap to get to. Spend the Sunday in Lisbon instead: if it’s the first Sunday of the month, many museums and attractions are free (including Belém‘s main landmarks). While that’s also true of Sintra, no amount of free tickets can compare with the joy of wandering around without encountering rowdy tourists, screaming children moaning they don’t want to walk (I’ve been one of those, too), and massive coaches blocking the view of anything worth contemplating.
The town centre is a 10-minute walk away from the train station, and while you walk there, you might wonder if you’re in the right place at all. The streets might look empty, the town might look far too sleepy for a celebrated sightseeing gem; the first sign that true wonders lie ahead is the Palácio Nacional de Sintra, bright white and with its distinctive pointed chimney, which you’ll see from afar after a while. Keep it for the end of your visit, if you’re immune to sightseeing fatigue; my advice is to move through the touristy town centre quite quickly, then head straight to Parque da Pena while you’ve got energy to spare.
Located on the outskirts of Sintra, the park hosts some of its most striking sights: the ruins of a Moorish castle, perched on a steep hill, and Palácio da Pena, a former monastery turned royal abode, now one of the Seven Wonders of Portugal. To get there, you can take a hop-on-and-off tourist bus from the town centre – or save 12€ and take a walk. By which I mean one hell of a walk: seemingly long (in reality it’s not even 2km), all uphill, pointed with sporadic signs that hint you’re going in the right direction, but conveniently forget to tell you how much longer you have left.
The walk itself was hardly a feat: the real challenge was enduring the pouring rain and sweeping wind we encountered on that day. Cue knackered legs, trainers slipping on every slippery leaf on the way, and wet heads, clothes, everything. At times, it was hard to believe we were on holiday, and not on a particularly harsh fitness bootcamp. Still, I’m so incredibly glad I didn’t take that bus, for if I had, I’d have missed out on a rare chance to find myself immersed in nature; breathing pure, untainted air, enjoying a calm and silence I hadn’t experienced in ages (pouring rain aside). You don’t get this in a city; you don’t get it in Lisbon, however beautiful it is, and you sure as hell don’t get it in Good Ol’ Blighty.
The main visitor entrance to Parque da Pena is on the South side; however, the footpath we took was on the opposite side, where the Moorish Castle is. When we got there, more stairs awaited: visiting it means walking alongside its walls, looking at the world from above its turrets or behind its narrow loopholes, taking in some of the most breathtaking views of the village and fields below. More than once I thought a gust of wind would sweep me away, or at least send my camera flying down into the abyss; once or twice I shivered in fear, even though I’ve never been afraid of heights. At one point, we could see Palácio da Pena straight in front of us, on an even steeper hill. It looked so beautiful, so inviting, so inaccessible. If you’d told me I was about to walk up there, I’d have laughed in your face!
Built in the late 1400s, the palace was born as a monastery, a quiet place for meditation. Over the centuries, it was struck by lightning, destroyed by an earthquake, and left in disrepair for decades, until King consort Ferdinand II took a liking to it and decided to turn it into a summer residence for royalty. It was 1838; the height of Romanticism, and a golden age for art and design. The palace was completed in 1854, after King Ferdinand’s death, but you can very well say all those years turned it into a mansion fit for a king, akin to a fairytale castle or a dream vision. As I headed there, my legs and feet were in a dire state, but the thought of the beauty in front of me kept me going. I hadn’t seen anything so marvellously decorated and rich in colour since Casa Batlló in Barcelona, and think it’s no coincidence that Gaudì’s flamboyant house is listed among the inspiration sources for Palácio da Pena.
Would I have visited Sintra if I’d known in advance it would feel like climbing a mountain? Not sure (I hate climbing mountains). Am I glad I resisted the impulse to chicken out? Hell yeah. Everything I’ve seen, I’ve loved; and if you’re luckier than me, and go on a bright sunny day, I bet you’ll enjoy Sintra even more.